Two of Canada’s most celebrated and unique musical voices are joining forces.
Celebrated singer-songwriters Sarah Slean and Hawksley Workman will be touring together in the coming months and coming to Markham on February 27.
“We’re keen to celebrate each other,” Workman says. “It’s quite hard to have a 20-year career in music, and we’ve both managed that.”
Of course, it has become commonplace in the music industry to see team-up or package tours. From Billy Joel and Elton John, Sting and Paul Simon, all the way to last year’s Trans-Canada Highwaymen, these tours have offered varying degrees of creative success. The shows generally offer a truncated set from all artists involved and an inevitable duet or two in the encore.
Of course, from a business perspective, it’s nothing but upside. In addition to selling tickets for a single show to two fanbases, it also offers a chance for each artist to broaden their own fanbase. It’s easy to see why managers and promoters love these events, while audiences sometimes don’t.
Slean and Workman don’t see their team-up in these terms at all, however.
“We’ll actually be accompanying each other,” says Workman. “It’s not going to be my show or her show.”
When they perform at the Flato Markham Theatre on February 27, it won’t be as two separate artists using the same stage in succession; it will be as one brand new band, assembled from their shared history.
“We definitely didn’t want something that was going to feel phoned in,” Workman says. “We both are people who don’t mind a bit of extra work.”
“Please, these are the things that make life worth living,” Slean says. “The pursuit of something beautiful is a gift!”
Leave it to two artists who’ve built their careers on eschewing the commercial for the authentic to make something better simply by doing it authentically and as promised.
Slean began her career as a pop ingenue. Her early work landed her an international record deal and the promise of stardom. Instead, she found herself unable to ignore her true musical and artistic self for long and has built a diverse career that mixes her songwriting with orchestral scoring and theatrical composition.
“I just became totally disinterested with pop music, to be honest,” explains Slean. “It just wasn’t fertile creative ground for me anymore.”
Workman on the other hand, has not strayed too far from his singer-songwriter beginnings. Instead, he has built a reputation on fiercely honest and passionate music that has led him to many awards, accolades, and to performing more than a thousand shows all over the world.
“I actually saw him play 20 years ago,” says Slean of Workman, “and I remember going like, ‘Oh my God! This is a long lost spirit…there’s some kind of link here.’ So I told my manager that I wanted to work with him.”
They got together to write a bit, and it was lightning in a bottle. On the first meeting, they finished two songs in two hours. This led Slean to hire Workman as a producer on her 2002 major label release Night Bugs.
“What I love about the music we produced at that time,” says Slean, “is the excitement of it. The carefree passion; the excitement of pop music.”
In the ensuing decades, their musical interests have seemingly diverged, but their friendship and respect for each other have not.
“When Slean and I get in a room, we tend to talk each other’s ears off,” says Workman. “We’re going to kinda rekindle the connection we have musically as well.”
The obvious question becomes about why they would choose now to collaborate in this fashion when their music is arguably at its furthest apart.
“I haven’t performed with a band since–I don’t know when,” says Slean “So, this is a chance for me to perform this music again; to go to a place of musical innocence.”
In addition to Slean and Workman, the band will feature two of Slean and Workman’s favourite songwriters, Coleen Brown and Marcus Paquin. The intent is to build a group of talented musicians, uniquely skilled at bringing out the best in a song, without much concern for preconceived expectations.
“It’s going to be a whole band of people who have a mind for songwriting,” says Workman. “I may actually be doing a lot of drumming as well as singing in the show!”
In addition to the music that the group will be making, the evening promises to make room for Slean and Workman’s notable personalities too.
“I just want people to walk out and think, ‘man, that was a high-quality event!’” Workman says. “You know, Slean is a big-brained person and I hope we get a chance to chat about stuff onstage that our audience doesn’t usually get to hear too.”
“We’ve always had a special kind of chemistry, and I think we still do,” Slean says. “We’ll probably be friends for ever.”
Perhaps its the prospect of working together again after so many years of friendship, but both artists speak quite introspectively about work and their future.
“I feel like, as a creative, you have to get accustomed to a state of chronic dissatisfaction,” Slean said with a laugh. “You’re always thinking about the next thing.”
For her, the next thing is writing the music for a musical based on the life of folk artist Maud Lewis, who painted in Nova Scotia.
For Workman, who spent most of the last two decades chasing the next thing, his hope for the next year is a bit less grand.
“It’s only in the last few years that I’ve realized what’s been built in my career and how grateful I am for it,” he explains. “My audience is starting to bring their kids out to my shows and I’m interested in indulging that energy. Maybe I’m just looking for a bit of peace in my heart.”
It seems like this tour finds both Slean and Workman still looking for ways to be successful while honouring who they are, honestly. And, because they’re artists, they want to inspire their audience to do the same. Perhaps the most creative idea yet is to just be comfortable living in your own skin.
“How heavy is that?” asks Workman with a laugh.
A Musical Evening with Hawksley Workman & Sarah Slean is at the Flato Markham Theatre on February 27 at 8pm.