As the main singer and songwriter of the successful Canadian punk/folk band Lowest of the Low, Ron Hawkins felt restricted by the dynamics of a normal band. Rather than confront the inspiration-constricting chains, he looked the other way until he no longer could.
"I started writing into a bit of a dead end. You get to a point where you go, 'Can I write any more songs that are structured for this person to play lead solo here?' I wrote all the songs in the band and was the lead singer so I had to say, 'Guys, I can't really do this anymore.' It's really a very melancholy thing to do. Things were going really well in that band."
Unfettered, Hawkins released a solo disc, The Secret of My Excess, which was filled with diverse styles and sounds--something totally different from his work with Lowest of the Low. At first, he toured on the album as a trio--acoustic guitar, baritone sax, and Hammond organ. When he came to the realization that he could use a full band without losing creative control, Hawkins enlisted the support of other musicians. While Hawkins originally envisioned his backup band as a revolving door of musicians, this hasn't been the case.
"I started writing some of the songs that are on this new album, Greasing the Star Machine, and everybody was into it. It sort of grew into a steady backing band. If you have a band that respects you and is playing with you because they respect you, then I can make the decisions that I think are right for me and the songs without being a dictator. It's developed into a situation that is not quite a band like my last band was, but they aren't a backup bunch of hired guys."
Starving artists, once they've tasted freedom, often indulge themselves until the reflection in the mirror is in focus. With Lowest of the Low, Hawkins was content with writing "punky, folk, high-energy music." He matured past his youthful influences--the Clash, Stiff Little Fingers--and explored the artistic styles of such artists as Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, and Billy Bragg, and genres such as country, blues, and soul. "I think The Secret of My Excess is similar to Greasing the Star Machine, in that it jumps around from style to style in the writing. But that's because there was no steady band on The Secret of My Excess. I think it's a good record, but it's a little less cohesive."
Hawkins and the Rusty Nails wear snazzy suits onstage, so they've been categorized as a swing band. "Up here [in Toronto] at least, the media seem to use that as some kind of a catchall phrase for a lot of bands that don't really fit the swing thing. It bugs me on a small level. I think it's laziness on the part of people [who] throw that phrase around. It doesn't really bother me in the long run, because I do feel that trend is going to die rather quickly. Especially with this record Greasing the Star Machine and the new one we're going to start working on, the writing is pretty wide-ranging. I don't think we're about to go down with the swing ship."
Hawkins's singing style varies from a nasal Costello to a boisterous Brian Setzer when he was still a Stray Cat. "The mother in you brings out the motherfucker in me" from "Immutable" may be brazen, but the singer/songwriter is quite refined. He says he buys more books in a year than new CDs. Recently, he finished a collection of short stories by Grace Paley and a book on Mexican history. For inspiration, he reads Henry Miller's Quiet Days in Clichy every spring. "I've always been a huge Henry Miller fan. He's kind of a misogynist, which I don't really like, but the thing I find in it that inspires me is this energy to move. He has this energy to travel. Also, he writes really eloquently about surviving on little money, trying to keep your priorities straight, and looking at the good things in life. Try to keep focused on the thought you should try to learn and feel alive."
Ron Hawkins and the Rusty Nails (opening for Chris Duarte). 10 p.m. Saturday, December 16, Wilbert's Bar & Grille, 1360 W. 9th St., $12, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.