Ron Hawkins was one of the driving forces behind Lowest Of The Low, one of the most influential bands in Canadian Rock in the 1990's. While Lowest Of The Low has been on-again, off-again in recent years, Hawkins has continued to create amazing songs as a solo performer (both on his own and with Ron Hawkins & The Rusty Nails). Ron Hawkins is Wildy's World's Artist Of The Month for August, 2009. The following interview was conducted via e-mail and is perhaps one of the more revealing ones he's given in a long time.
What inspired you to write a country album?
I heard a simple story based on hearsay.
I mentioned to someone that my family has a cottage outside a small picturesque town in Ontario and that we go in during the day to get videos, groceries and booze - that it looks quaint and nostalgic. She happened to grow up in that same town and referred to it as a shit-hole and claimed that after dark it was a hellscape of crystal-meth addicted teenagers. A friend from another small town said, “Oh yeah, that’s my town too.” So the idea sat with me - that small towns were the devil’s workshop. Bored kids, dead ends… Then I started writing The Devil Went Down – a song about a small town that sort of falls into chaos and darkness almost by accident. I also used the perspective of someone in the town to try to make the whole thing connect, to almost anthropomorphize (if that’s a verb) the town. I adopted a Steve Earle voice and I liked the fact that the title sounded like the Charley Daniels Band tune. So at first it was almost a satire of a country song, but the more I sang it, the more at home I felt and eventually I just couldn’t send up the genre with a straight face. Then every new idea I got was tinged with a country feel and the whole thing came washing over me in about 5 weeks of writing.
I've been following your career for some time now, and there's always been a world-weary sense at the heart of your music, but 10 Kinds Of Lonely almost seems to suggest a coming to terms. Put together with the country style on most of the songs, does this reflect an artist turning the page or is just another step down the road as an artist (expound if you care to).
I’m sure it’s a combination of having been a musician for almost 25 years and the fact that I’m co-raising a three and a half year old girl. There’s actually a similar lesson to be learned. You start out in the music business trying to write great songs because you want to conquer this beast. You want to be greater than the Clash, the Beatles, The Velvet Underground… well, at least I did. I think I have a perspective problem. But anyhow the more you write, and the more you record and tour, the more you realize that the true reward is that you get to make this your life. Don’t get me wrong, most days it’s easy to say “F#CK THIS!” and throw your guitar down the stairs, but when it all gels you realize that the process is the actual goal and that when you look back you have this legacy, this catalogue of songs that helped you work yourself out as a person, that hopefully meant something to someone else and that are a testament that you were here.
Raising a little girl is terrifying and challenging and rewarding in ways that are impossible to express. No abstractions or poetics can come near it. It’s the hardest thing I’ll ever do, and it’s the greatest thing I’ll ever do. And it’s profoundly humbling, because it’s not loud. It’s small and quiet. My job isn’t to get her into UTS with flash cards and mnemonics or to be super-dad in some abstract way. My job is to be HER dad in the best way I can. That means taking things slowly and being present and hopefully making her happy an hour at a time. So, basically I guess everything in my life has gotten smaller… but much more important.
Your songs over the years have reflected people living difficult lives or in difficult situations. How much of your writing is auto-biographical and how much is pure creation?
Nothing is really purely autobiographical because people who write autobiographies like to make themselves look good in the end, so there is usually a lot of creative recollection going on. At the same time there is no purely fictional writing either. If you’re writing anything that seems even half way persuasive it’s usually informed by your own life or at least stories you’ve heard in close enough proximity to lend them some veracity. As for me, I used to think I wrote journalistically about my life (Shakespeare My Butt days). Which is to say I pissed a lot of people off by using their proper names and talking about experiences that were often very sensitive. But it made for some good songs and lent them an easy feel of intimacy that I think struck a chord with a lot of people.
Later on I adopted more characters and fictional situations but I feel the scenarios and the stories are still based in my life, or things that are very close to my experience. I horrified an interviewer at the C.B.C. who had hoped the song 1994 wasn’t autobiographical and when I told him it was and it wasn’t, there was an audible sigh and I could almost hear his shoulders dropping and the sadness come over him. I think he wanted to feed me soup.
Do you have any influences from the country music world?
My influences usually come from all over and they cross-pollinate. I get lyric ideas from paintings and I get painting ideas from film and architecture and conversations. Usually there’s no clear through line between inspiration and finished product.
In general, what music is moving you these days?
I come back to some of the same stuff that was moving me ten years ago. I’m so focused on lyrics when I write that when I finally get to listen to music I tend to listen to a lot of stuff that’s ambient and cinematic and doesn’t have a lot of lyrics. Do Make Say Think and Sigur Ros and people like that who make challenging sounds and music that I can digest somewhere lower than my head.
Describe, if you would, the creative process for Ron Hawkins (music, but also painting, sculpture, etc.)
It’s similar in different media. I guess I’d say it’s a flash of an idea, that is always brilliant of course (until I start executing it); Then a long grappling period where I rough something in and carve away at it. And usually when it’s good it winds up miles away from what I started with and intended but involves some things I discovered, or that surprised me, along the way. The excitement of that mystery is what keeps people doing it I think. And what makes up for a lot of bullshit and self doubt you have to wade through.
What's harder for you? Writing music or writing lyrics?
Writing music comes from a more mysterious place for me. I’m not trained AT ALL so it’s really about playing and just finding sounds I think are cool or pleasing. The music side of it really does surprise me when it all starts to come together. On the lyrical end I feel like I have more of a grasp of my process. I tend to babble gibberish while I’m making up chord parts, but somehow sub-consciously things come out that sometimes wind up anchoring the song. Once that happens you have a sort of theme or a conceit to work with, and often times the song starts telling you what it’s becoming.
For instance with the song 10 Kinds of Lonely – the minute I stumbled onto the “1 kinda man when I started, with 2 kinds of problems in my life…” I had a template and then the work just became about how to get to ten in a half-ways graceful manner. Also, with Don’t Be Long – I liked playing with the Don’t be long / You don’t belong juxtaposition and it helped me organize the way the verses went. Once I had that, I had something to anchor the rest of the song and something to return to. Basically once you stumble on what that thing in the song will be that leads it, it becomes a search for ways to restate it.
I've commented previously on Wildy's World about your talents as a lyricist. Do lyrics come easy to you?
I don’t really know, because I feel I have a knack for them, but it still always seems to be a struggle. But perhaps other people struggle more than I do, I don’t know. That said, this disc is full of songs that were written in literally twenty minutes or a half hour. I’d always heard of these “gift” songs but had never experienced it much. I usually agonized over a lot of what I wrote. This of course ran up against my Protestant work-ethic, which assured me that if they were written in twenty minutes they couldn’t be any good… no struggle. This is apparently not true, as I’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback on the lyrics on this one. As much as I ever have.
Several years ago you started a website called Victimless Capitalism (www.victimlesscapitalism.com). Care to tell our readers about it?
It was started as an e-commerce site that would have very little if no commission against the artist’s profit. We just wanted it to keeping running and be a showcase for artists and a conduit to sell their works to an audience with no middle man. Mike G at Teg media (who also does the Ron Hawkins site) was instrumental in building it and maintaining it. He’s been awesome. Our initial intent was that Victimless Capitalism would be massively interdisciplinary with visual artists, writers, musicians etc. Whatever needed a showcase.
To date we do have music and some visual artists but the publishing industry has been very reluctant and I think quite myopic about the power of a multimedia, community based e-commerce site. The people who buy my records and Fembots records and Weakerthans records are all people who are likely to read quite a bit and probably buy more books then the average person so to me it’s a no brainer that selling your books on a site like this would encourage more sales. Successful book sales figures are much lower than what’s consider successful in the music biz so I naturally assumed bringing a novel to a wider audience of music fan/readers was a good thing.
You have a pretty rabid community of fans on your web page. Any of your fans over the years go completely overboard?
I have to say that no one on the current site has ever stepped over the line. It’s a very supportive and interactive community on the RH site. Of course in the day I’ve been proposed to, given death threats, had “three-way” propositions, been black-balled, blackmailed and blacklisted but that kinda comes with the territory.
If you could spend one day with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why?
Well, I don’t much subscribe to the deceased dinner party thing but I would love to have had a chin-wag with Joe Strummer, David Foster Wallace, Leon Trotsky… you know, the usual.
What would you ask them?
Strummer – why did you fire Jones?!
Foster Wallace – why didn’t you ask for a hug?!!!
Trotsky – why did the revolution take hold in an agrarian based economy with no significantly developed proletariat, and with Lenin’s clear approval and tacit support why was it so easy for a small time bureaucrat to rest control of the Third International from you and rise to power as Joseph Stalin???!!!!!
You’ve been in the public eye now for a number of years. What is one thing that your fans don't know about you?
I’m a terrible water-skier and I can’t roll my rrrrr-s
What’s your favorite song that you’ve written?
DFW is one of my current favourites – it seemed effortless and feels honest and when I found that David Foster Wallace reference (writer of Infinite Jest who took his own life in Sept. ’08) to finish the song off I almost couldn’t sing it without choking up. I also love 1994, Alta Loma Hotel, Peace and Quiet, Rumours and Whispers, Small Victories… apparently I’m my biggest fan.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
There are some lyrics in the song Pistol that I’m less than proud of.
In my defense I was on A LOT of medication.
You had a pretty successful run with The Lowest Of The Low over the years, with several breaks and reunions along the way. Any plans to revisit that path in the future?
Well, there are no plans as of writing this but what I’ve learned about The Lowest of the Low is that the minute I say we’re never doing that again someone inducts us into the Hall of Fame or gives us an award and then it’d be rude not to play a show or two to say thanks, right?
What do you see for yourself long term?
Since we’ve ruled out professional water-skiing or cameo roles with intense rrrr rolling Scottish accents, I think it’s pretty much to take the art thing to it’s logical conclusion.
By that I mean a rich life of self-exploration and at least moderate economic success and not to die penniless and syphilitic in a garret apartment.
Okay, last chance. The last question is whatever you want to say to the world, to your fans, to a public figure, anything. Tabula Rasa and all that.
Good night… and good luck.
Make sure to check out our reviews of 10 Kinds Of Lonely and Chemical Sounds, both of which are Wildy's World Certified Desert Island Discs. You can learn more about Ron Hawkins at http://www.ronhawkins.com/; The Lowest Of The Low at http://www.thelowestofthelow.com/. Please be sure to check out Victimless Capitalism, whether you're looking for recordings from Ron Hawkins, The Lowest Of The Low, Too Many Sisters, Alun Piggins or any one of a number of great Indie Artists. It might even be a great place to sell your music if you're an Indie artist.