Interview | Kat Goldman talks about how being an outsider in America led to The Workingman’s Blues

On her new album The Workingman’s Blues, Toronto-based singer/songwriter Kat Goldman has crafted a powerful statement on the reality so many of us face today. Essentially a song cycle based on her recent real-life experiences living in Boston, the 12-track collection explores the dark side of American society through the eyes of a character, the “workingman,” told by a female narrator.

As a chronicle of a blue-collar Boston kid’s fight to overcome his hardscrabble upbringing, The Workingman’s Blues presents themes rarely given this much focus in song. In doing so, the album follows in the tradition of artists such as Joni Mitchell and Lucinda Williams by striking a balance between raw emotion and empathy, as displayed on songs such as ‘Take It Down The Line’ and ‘The One To Dream’.

Since releasing her debut album, The Great Disappearing Act in 2002, Goldman has had her songs covered by an array of international artists, including Grammy nominees The Duhks, and prolific American singer-songwriter Dar Williams who has long been one of Kat’s strongest supporters. Goldman’s 2007 sophomore album Sing Your Song came after she survived nearly being killed by a car crashing through a store window, and the record’s inspirational tone earned widespread acclaim, including being named one of CBC Radio’s Top 10 albums of that year. In 2009, Goldman began studying English Literature at Boston University, providing inspiration for her next album, 2013’s Gypsy Girl, and ultimately The Workingman’s Blues.

How did you come up with the concept for The Workingman’s Blues?

I began writing the songs for this album while I was still living in Boston, and after my relationship ended with the man who became the basis for the “workingman” character. While the initial songs were angry due to the break-up, as the process unfolded, I realized I was telling his story—the story of his life and his struggles as a young, blue-collar man in America. A narrative appeared soon after, and I tried to include as many details as I could about his life, his upbringing, his hardships and his hopes. I treated the writing of these songs as fiction, using a male character and a female narrator. I’d never approached songwriting in this way before, and it was an exciting experiment.

What was the recording process like?

I started making this album five different times, beginning with going into a studio when I was still living in Boston. I was questioning whether I should record these songs completely solo, but the results just weren’t cutting it for me. Three years into the process, after I had moved back to Toronto, I was introduced to Bill Bell [Jason Mraz, Tom Cochrane], which felt totally serendipitous; he was absolutely the right producer for this album. We recorded mainly at Bill’s home studio. He played guitar on the album as well, brought in some other great players including Davide Direnzo [drums], Marc Rogers [bass], Lou Pomanti [organ] and Kevin Fox [cello].

The album captures some of the current tension in America as well, but you’d obviously started writing these songs long before Trump’s election.

Yes, while living in Boston I encountered what you might say was the underbelly of American society. I got a much different perspective on how people struggle with inadequate pay cheques, bosses who mistreat them, the economic rage and resentment they feel, and how this all manifested itself in domestic violence and addiction. These are the people who largely voted for Trump, and yet are still trying to be heard.

Is there a particular song that you feel perhaps sums up the album’s theme better than others?

In the song “The Courthouse” I tried to tell the story of Harry, a dear friend who was an elderly black man who grew up in racist Roxbury in the 1950s, fought in Viet Nam, battled heroin addiction, faced two years of incarceration for domestic violence, and yet as an older person, he continued to discover himself, acknowledge his flaws, and atone for his past mistakes. He genuinely wanted to become a better person and share the wisdom he’d earned from his experiences as a black man in America.

How would you describe your artistic evolution to this point?

I feel this is the best work I’ve done yet, mostly because I challenged myself to not write in the first person. Musically, I also wanted to break out a bit from my folk comfort zone and explore some of the sounds of the music I grew up loving from the 1970s, like Jackson Browne and Fleetwood Mac. I was conscious of stretching my voice and my melodies in similar ways, and in a sense, The Workingman’s Blues is my attempt to make an album that could stand alongside those great records.

Words by: Jason Schneider