Richard Hawley on 20 years as a solo artist: ‘I don’t care about having hits – if you’re writing for the love of it, you can hear the beauty’
It's all action in Richard Hawley's household. The builders are in, he's releasing a new album – and his dogs are going berserk.
“One barks his head off as if he’s going to murder you, and the other one brings you a shoe,” he says, good-naturedly but with a hint of frustration.
The Sheffield-born guitarist and singer-songwriter’s eighth studio LP, Further, is a departure. It’s the first of his albums not to feature a title inspired by his home city – after Lowedges, Coles Corner, Hollow Meadows et al – and contains 11 concise songs, prioritising loud rock numbers over his signature ballads.
“It feels fresh to me,” says Hawley, once his pets are back under control. He made a decision to take a break from concerts and recording – “There’s a danger you can stagnate” – in favour of writing film scores and creating the hit musical Standing At The Sky’s Edge.
“It’s good to leave things you love alone for a while so you can see it in a completely new light. I didn’t have a Sheffield-based title because it didn’t feel like it.”
Still, a large part of Further was laid down at his house in the city’s south western suburbs.
“Things have certainly changed. Now I record the vocals and most of the guitars in my garden. It’s great. You’re near a kettle aren’t you, then? If people listen very carefully to this album and the last one, you can hear kids and dogs in the background on certain things. I quite like that. Like a Little Mester – the last of.”
He returns at the same time as his friend Jarvis Cocker, who he joined as Pulp’s touring guitarist after his Britpop band Longpigs broke up in 1999. Hawley says the message of Cocker’s latest track ‘Must I Evolve?’ mirrors his reason for not naming his new album after a local place.
“In a way it feels oddly inappropriate to be so colloquial when there’s all these issues around us. To look outwards and be inclusive and kind – I think that’s what’s missing, and there’s so much hateful stuff out there at the moment. Good, decent people have been turned into unpleasant folk because of the way things operate.”
Hawley speaks as he sings – a deep, mellow voice – but a harsh note of anger creeps in when he considers the state of Britain in 2019.
“Everyone is collectively unhappy but everyone feels like they’re alone,” he says.
“Our sense of union and purpose is gone. Too many horrible things have become ‘the new normal’, that awful expression. Homelessness, mental health issues – my wife’s a mental health worker, and all those things seem to be ‘Oh it’s OK’. It isn’t. The B word has taken over so much of our daily thoughts that a lot of other things that are far more important are just getting swept under the carpet. That’s really tragic for us as a country.”
His former Longpigs bandmate, the group’s singer Crispin Hunt – who now has a very different career as chair of the Ivors Academy for songwriters – ran as a prospective MEP for the south west region in last week’s European elections.
Did Hawley speak to the anti-Brexit candidate about his political bid?
“The last time I spoke to him was 1999,” he responds.
Is it something he could envisage doing?
“No, no. He’s... It’s a very simple answer. No.”
He has ‘no flag-waving political agenda’. “There never has been with me.”
Instead he takes a more personal approach – the grungey Is There A Pill, a highlight of the new album, deals with the experience of a ‘very close friend’. “There’s suicide involved. We take pills to make us not feel strange any more – I used to take pills to deliberately make myself feel strange. Relying on prescription medication to sort out our problems is just wrong.”
Another new song, My Little Treasures, is about an encounter that happened after his father Dave, a steelworker who moonlighted as a guitarist in clubs, died of cancer in 2007.
“It was a couple of years after dad had gone,” he remembers. “I was getting on alright, making music, and some of dad’s old friends called me up and said ‘Do you fancy a pint?’”
Initially there was a mix-up over the time of their meeting. They said 7.30, which Hawley took to be in the evening rather than the actual suggestion of 7.30am.
“That was a new one on me. Lots of septuagenarians just go out at half seven and get drunk in the Heeley Palace Wetherspoon’s. I went out at half seven and waited for about an hour and a half, there was no-one there.”
It was rearranged the next day and, over drinks, his father’s friend Pete showed him a photo from his wallet.
“It was a picture of him and dad from Parson Cross when they were kids. They were sat on his uncle’s motorbike and sidecar – the wallet split the picture in half, because it had worn so much. He said ‘This is one of my little treasures’. It had been in his wallet since the 50s. It was so beautiful and it hit me like a train, that somebody could be so loving and devoted to a friend, and keep this memento. I just think it deserved preserving as a thought, maybe to pass on to someone else so they could get some strength from it.”
The song took Hawley a decade to record, ‘to get it exactly right’.
“I have songs that kick around for quite a long time. Just Like The Rain, on Coles Corner, I wrote on my 16th birthday. It was in my mind for years. I like that, because it means they’ve got some sense of permanence. It’s not just ‘I’m trying to have a hit’. I don’t care less about any of that, it’s transient.”
Writer’s block has never troubled him. “These melodies and tunes, it’s a tap that’s never run dry. If you’re writing for the love of it, you have to accept the consequences - you’re not going to be Madonna, or whatever. But it keeps your synapses open and you can hear the beauty of it all, clearly. That’s how it’s worked for me.”
Hawley counts 2019 as the 20th anniversary of his solo career. His first, self-titled mini album was released in 2001, but was actually recorded in 1999. “In my mind, the concept of me being apart from other things started then. I guess strictly speaking I should look at the release date.”
He isn’t, he stresses, in any sort of hurry. “That’s the opposite of me. I’m so not in a rush. I was all my life, rushing around the world like a blue-arsed fly. I realised you don’t need to do that.”
Hawley is referring to his time touring the US with Longpigs, when they opened for U2 on their huge PopMart jaunt. “Driving yourself crazy for ‘it’, whatever ‘it’ is,” he says.
Nevertheless it was a leap of faith to strike out alone aged 32.
“Even then, by the rules of the pop world, they said it was over for me by some considerable years. It’s one of the bravest things I’ve ever done. I’ve been given a certain ability, shall we say. To have not taken that step would not have been good for my mental health. Regret is a terrible thing to have.”
He’d always set his sights on being a musician, taping a session for John Peel’s Radio 1 show with his first band Treebound Story as a teenager. “That was an achievement in itself, being from Firth Park. We sent a tape off, an old cassette, that we’d recorded in the music room at school and got a session off the back of that.”
Peel, he says, telephoned the family home – a call answered by his mother, an auxiliary nurse who worked nights at the Jessop maternity hospital.
“I was sitting at the top of the stairs just cringing. She ended up nattering with John for about an hour and a half. They were talking about nursing. Looking back now I just think that was the coolest thing ever.”
Hawley, now aged 52, considers himself ‘fortunate and lucky’. “My biggest fear is poverty. I was brought up in quite dire poverty and I fear it more than death.
“The lack of choice – you don’t have any, at all. There’s so many folks out there that are in that position. To have the choice to do, or not to do, is the biggest luxury in life.”
Further is released on Friday, May 31 via BMG. Richard Hawley plays Sheffield University's Octagon Centre on October 11 and 12. Tickets £27.50, visit https://performancevenues.group.shef.ac.uk/events/richard-hawley/ to book.
‘I’ll take musical’s success to my grave’
Richard Hawley hopes audiences will get another chance to see Standing At The Sky's Edge, the musical he wrote with Sheffield dramatist Chris Bush that sold out its run at the Crucible Theatre in March and April.
The show told the stories of residents at the city's Park Hill estate from 1961, when the flats were built, to the present day as the listed Brutalist building is being revamped."I was really proud of it," he said. "It had my name over the door, but there were a lot of other people involved. Working with Sheffield People's Theatre was lovely – people that speak my tongue. It was like untrodden snow for me. It was all new."
Will it be revived?
"I hope so. I really do. They're talking about touring it. Loads of producer people from the West End, and Broadway, and film people from Hollywood came to see it and stuff. I take it all with a pinch of salt, to be honest. The fact it happened, and it exists, is the most important thing. Twenty-six thousand tickets went on sale and 26,000 were sold. That is something I'll take to my grave. We did it, man. And we did it for the city. It wasn't about me."