Toronto singer/songwriter Ron Hawkins hasn’t taken much time away from the spotlight lately. Late last year, he released a pair of tunes with a reunited Lowest of the Low, and last year’s Garden Songs, a disc with his other band the Do Good Assassins, is still in high rotation on your iPhone. But that isn’t stopping Hawkins, 50, from releasing a new solo disc. Spit Sputter and Sparkle finds the musician releasing 11 home recorded tracks, fleshed out with the help of Juno-winning producer Joe Dunphy, that sound like anything but demos. It’s a disc that Hawkins believes is one of the few true representations of how it all sounds in his head, perhaps second only to Crackstatic, his 2000 release with then backing band the Rusty Nails.
“It’s funny because I’ve heard this recently and it’s a bit of a stereotype, but for songwriters in general, there’s always a sense of disapproval or dissatisfaction. I don’t know too many people who have a record or more than one record they’re totally satisfied with,” Hawkins says over the phone from his home in Toronto on the day of the record’s release. “This new record, and it sounds like me saying it because it’s the new record, but it feels like that to me, too. I feel proud of it and I feel like years from now it will hold up sonically. I feel like that’s part of the problem for me with (Lowest of the Low’s 1991 debut) Shakespeare My Butt – it’s by far the most popular record I’ve ever released, but I can’t listen to it sonically because I think it sounds crappy.”
Recorded as a collection of demos in a foley booth meant for movie sound effects, Shakespeare My Butt was released as was independently after labels turned it down. The record went on to become a classic (at the time of its release, it was the biggest selling indie release in Canadian history) and quickly lead to major label interest upon its grassroots success.
“We were on that early cusp of indie bands being able to make their own CDs,” Hawkins notes. “We started selling them from the stage and it was so successful that we started getting phone calls because capitalists didn’t want to miss their opportunity to change their mind and pick us up.”
Shakespeare, which turns 25 this year, was followed by 1994’s Hallucigenia, an electric shock to the system and the band’s final studio record until 2004’s Sordid Fiction.
“As far as labels went in like, ’91, they weren’t the same as they were in the ’70s or ’80s, they were already stripping back a bit, but they still resembled the old school labels more than they do now,” he says. “They had money and they had reach and there were bricks and mortar buildings that sold CDs. You didn’t necessarily need them but if you played the game you could avail yourself of what you had to offer, and the whole time not being naive, we knew we had to give up certain things for that. It was always a dance for us. How much do you want to give up to get some more people? Do you wanna give up a certain amount of freedom to do that? That watermark is different for everybody. For us it was a big part of why the band broke up. At a certain point we just realized we didn’t recognize ourselves anymore or had lost touch with why we were doing it. Unfortunately it’s a pretty stereotypical reason for a band to break up.”
Another pressure Hawkins has come under throughout his career is to keep records short. With the first two Low records hosting a mammoth 31 tracks between them, Hawkins has always attempted to give the record-buying public a little more bang for their buck while taking them on a journey.
“In 2012, when I started the Do Good Assassins, we released a double disc (Rome) which is 20 songs, so we always had that kind of thing that comes from the Clash, where they had London Calling (19 songs) and then Sandinista! (36 songs), I always respected that a 10 song record is barely giving the music consumer something,” he says. “My manager said on this one that it should be a 10 song record and I said it should be a 20 song record. Somehow we compromised to 11. 11 is okay with me but my bottom base always feels like 12, it’s the least I want to give anyone on a record, to take them on a little journey or whatever. People say no one listens to records like that anymore, anyways.
“Just because the culture is leaning more towards singles and saying there aren’t people out there who listen to albums, I’m making the records for people who want to invest.”
The songs on Spit Sputter and Sparkle are diverse and candid, both fleshed out and intimately sparse, and feature some of Hawkins’ most intriguing lyrical compositions to date. He’s a songwriter that has fans in such artists as John K. Samson and Susanna Kavee, both known for performing stripped down and with accompaniment. Hawkins is definitely a proponent of being able to perform a tune with just an acoustic guitar, and usually tests out new compositions this way in a live setting.
“I like the idea of expecting a song to stand by on its own with just an acoustic guitar and vocal,” he says. “I’m also a producer and an engineer so the whole sonic journey is fun as well, but I want what’s under all that dressing to be solid as well, too.”
Spit Sputter and Sparkle started out in his home studio, and even features a vocal cameo from his partner, filmmaker and actress Jill Riley, on “Sweet Simple Life.”
“I love stuff like that, where I can say, ‘Hey Jill, I’ve got this song that I wanna do this duet thing on, you wanna sing it?'” he says. “I love having the ability to have her come down and we spend the afternoon doing some vocals.”
Hawkins says that he hasn’t fallen too far down the rabbit hole with home recording, as he affirms he’s someone who knows when to say the song is “done.”
“I can see how (home recording) could be a problem for somebody who just gets lost and just tweaks and tweaks and never lets go of it, but for me it’s been a pretty big boon,” he says. “I used to write songs in my bedroom, but since I got this studio, the scenario in which you get the germ of the idea, you’ve got all the excitement that comes with the very idea and you can lay it down right away. You can maintain that kind of cool, early energy and flesh it out and make it sound professionally recorded, so it’s encouraging in that way as well. I think it’s made me more prolific because I can lay down a pretty sophisticated version of something.”
Heading in to Revolution Recording with Dunphy to add to the mix meant also bringing in drummers Pat Steward (Odds) and Jody Brumell (Bella Clava) to re-track the drums. Hawkins has worked with Dunphy many times before and trusts his friend to do what will serve the song.
“He’s worked through 4-track cassette recorders and then tape and then 16-24 track analogue tape and now he’s in the digital world like everyone else is,” Hawkins says. “I just trust his chops and his ears. We just speak the same language and I have the same desires as Joe sonically.”
But what is right for the song? Can a record just be a record with guitar and vocals? It’s an argument Hawkins has had many times – even with himself, noting that it’s difficult to listen to his own work like a music fan and not an engineer or songwriter. To others, he often cites his onetime touring mate Billy Bragg as an example of less being more.
“Our old drummer in the Rusty Nails couldn’t get his head around Billy Bragg. I’d say, ‘You know, if he was a better guitar player or a better singer or if those records were recorded better they wouldn’t be better Billy Bragg records.’ So I can apply that kind of music fan sense to his records but when I listen to my own there are marks not quite being hit. I guess that’s just people being vulnerable with themselves or finding faults within themselves. I feel much prouder of Spit Sputter and Sparkle because I think the songs are stronger and I feel like I’ve come a long way as an engineer and a person who hears things. But I do lament the odd time, like I’ve said before, I wish I could listen to records the way I listened when I was 16, which is to just let the song wash over you and not hear that the shaker comes in in the second verse.”
He’s also quick to shake off the “mulit-instrumentalist” tag, noting he’s just a singer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist out to get the tune just right.
“Technically it’s true because I played all the instruments,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t feel like my CD says ‘bass player/piano player.’ Certainly I feel like I’m a rhythm guitar player and I’m quite confident in my vocals and I know I can do all those other things because I’ve done them on numerous occasions, but if I write bass lines the way I sing it’s because I’m writing it all as a songwriter. It tends to work because it serves the songs. If I had better chops on some of those instruments I might be showing off more than I do, but that sometimes doesn’t serve the song.
“The way I made this record has sort of maximized everything I love about music, which is all the play and all the fun and all the experimentation. It’s minimized all the bullshit.”