ThisSmallPlanet is a blog about life and culture. "New Music Today" is the indie rock music section, featuring links to new music downloads, selected music articles from our favorite sites, and original writing, photos, and videos about music by mikedx1 (Michael Donnelly)
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
Guardian Interview with Richard Hawley
Richard Hawley: 'The gloves are off. This is my angry record'
Sheffield's gentle troubadour turns tough with an impassioned state-of-the-nation album
Local hero: Richard Hawley, in person and on the wall of Fagin’s in Sheffield. Photograph: Gary Calton
We meet in a bustling cafe at Forge Dam in Fulwood, where the western suburbs of Sheffield give way to woods and rolling hills that are still white from a recent fall of snow. This is where Richard Hawley begins many of his regular walks with his dog, a mischievous collie called Fred which has tagged along today and keeps me busy throwing a slobbery stick while his owner poses for the Observer photographer in a nearby park.
"Fred should get a share of the royalties from the new album," quips Hawley, as the photo session ends and he sits on a bench, lighting the first of a succession of cigarettes. "I'm serious. Having a dog legitimises walking, doesn't it? And if it weren't for the walking, the songs wouldn't have come out the way they did. The album was more or less written on those walks. I'd come back with whole songs, melodies and all, on my mobile phone."
The album in question, Hawley's seventh solo outing, is called Standing at the Sky's Edge. It is, he says, "an angry record", and as such may surprise the loyal fanbase he has built steadily through his defiantly old-fashioned approach: the deep voice, the gorgeous melodies and the bittersweet songs, often accentuated with strings, that recall an older time when pop stars relied on both songwriters and arrangers to fashion their three-minute vignettes of love and loss.
The determinedly untrendy Hawley is defiantly out of step with today's fragmented fast-forward pop landscape, in both his craft-based approach to the pop song and his persona, which tends towards the unapologetically retro. Today he looks like a rockabilly rebel from head to toe: greased-back quiff, tinted Buddy Holly-style glasses, workwear jacket, vintage Levis with massive turn-ups and scuffed black brogues. "If it's good enough for Billy Lee Riley or Charlie Feathers, it's good enough for me," he says when I remark on his sartorial style.
Hawley's love for, and encyclopaedic knowledge of, vintage roots music, whether rockabilly, blues or English folk, is well-documented and matched only by his loyalty to his hometown, which he has hymned on several songs. Standing at the Sky's Edge continues a run of albums that reference parts of the Sheffield in their titles: Lowedges, Coles Corner; Lady's Bridge and Truelove's Gutter. In this case, the title refers obliquely to Sky Edge, a hilly and now rundown area of the city where a row of 60s tower blocks used to stand. But the album marks a distinct shift in musical style; gone are the strings and sweeping melodies, replaced by the pared-down but often richly layered sounds of guitar, bass and drums.
"I wanted the music to suit the mood of the songs," explains Hawley when we've relocated to the snug of his favourite pub, Fagin's, a cosy Irish boozer near the town centre where Hawley's face stares down from a framed gig poster on the wall of the lounge.
"It's an angry album. The gloves are off. I don't really write political songs but like most right-minded people I'm angry at what's happening here in Britain. It's to do with having kids, to a degree, and watching them grow and wondering what sort of mess we're going to leave them with."
I ask him about the title song, which describes the blighted lives of three characters all laid low by circumstance, defeated by a system that has no place, or need, for them.
"I can't be the only one who's thinking that the present government are using the recession to push through policies that sew it all up for the privileged few. It's like they're kettling the rest of us in every way, closing us in and closing us down – shutting down libraries, restricting access to further education, hacking away at the NHS. I'm not a soapbox merchant but what defines a civilised society for me is that we look after the sick and the elderly, educate our kids, nourish and cherish the next generation and give them ideals that are worth sticking to."
In a British pop culture that seems to be becoming ever more gentrified, Hawley is solidly and unapologetically working class, both in his political outlook and his distaste for the culture of celebrity worship that shows no sign of fading, even as austerity bites.
"I do feel very much an outsider in many ways," he says, sipping on a pint of Guinness. "Musically, I walk my own line, which means never veering too far from the source – crafted songs sung with meaning, with sincerity. I know that's unfashionable but fuck it, that's who I am. It's where I come from. And when I look around me at our wider culture, I feel even more alienated. The whole point-and-laugh culture of humiliation. It just makes my skin crawl. I loathe it."
He falls silent for a moment, then continues. "My granddad used to say, just because you're working class doesn't mean you have to be thick. Read a book. Educate yourself. Get organised. Our sense of togetherness, that belief that together we can achieve things and stop these bastards, that's gone for the time being and it makes me sad. We live in one of the richest countries in the world and we have an underclass. What's going on? There's a bit of that in the new record too."
During our afternoon together, Hawley refers to his family almost as much as he refers to the Sheffield he grew up in. You sense they're the twin fulcrums of his life and neither fame nor his fierce commitment to his music could ever shake his belief in either. He lives in a western suburb of the city with his wife and three children. One of his sons, he tells me proudly, "is learning the piano to my Memphis Slim and Smiley Lewis records".
What is it about Sheffield that makes him so proud? "The people, mainly," he says without hesitation, "There's a resilience here and a pitch-black humour that I love. Plus, it throws up mavericks. You only have to look at the history of pop music in this city, from the Human League and Cabaret Voltaire to Pulp and Arctic Monkeys. It's like we're proud to be out of step."
Would he ever consider living anywhere else? "No. I'm not a little Englander, I'm a widely travelled man, but I like coming home. If I moved away I think it would definitely affect my mind and my creativity. It enriches me, this town, and the deeper I dig, the more I find. I get nourished by it."
As if to prove this point, there's a song on the new album called "The Wood Collier's Grave" which refers to a 17th-century headstone Hawley discovered on one of his country walks. "It's about George Yardley, a charcoal-burner and solitary man who's buried there. It's tapping into that deep folk tradition, the wood spirits and all that."
Recently, Hawley tells me, he met Norma Waterson, the great English folk singer, who knocked him sideways by telling him that the music he made was also folk music. "I've always thought that was the case but kept it to myself. Now I carry what she said as a badge of honour."
Richard Willis Hawley was born in 1967 and grew up on "the other side of the city" in working-class Pitsmoor. His father was a steel worker by day and played guitar in bars and clubs at night, often backing the likes of John Lee Hooker when the Delta bluesman passed though Sheffield on UK tours. His father died in 2006 while Hawley was recording Lady's Bridge.
"He led a brutal life, really, but they were a different class of man back then. Strong and gentle. He worked 15 hours a day, beating the shit out of pig iron in hellish temperatures. Then he'd come home and always give me an hour every day just to talk about music, pulling great records out of his collection. It was an education of sorts: Elvis, Howlin' Wolf, Bo Diddley, Lead Belly. It all went in and stayed there. Though my own music is different, I've never left that stuff behind – it would be like leaving my heart behind."
One of his most treasured memories from childhood is going with his father to Bradleys record shop in Sheffield city centre. "I was 10 and I remember it vividly because it was one of his rare afternoons off, where we had time to do something together. There was a sale in the basement and I pulled out this Little Walter record on the Chess Masters series, and my dad went: 'Shit, how did you find that? It's awesome.' He was well pleased. We took it home and played it straight away and I haven't stopped playing it since. It was like I was hit by a cosmic star when I heard that music. That's where it all started for me."
At school, Hawley formed a band called Treebound Story and covered his exercise books with the names of musicians from an older time. "Other lads would have Sabbath and Iron Maiden on their schoolbooks and I would have Hasil Adkins and Big Bill Broonzy." His physics teacher, seeing Blind Boy Fuller's name, lent him a rare record by the great blues guitarist which he took home and played constantly, memorising the words of every song. "I learned so much from that record about what a song can hold." He breaks into song. "'Two old ladies sitting in the sand, each one wishing that the other was a man.' That's pure poetry," he says, cracking up with laughter.
Like his heroes, Hawley spent an inordinate amount of time – an eternity by today's standards – paying his dues. While many of his friends gave up music to pursue more lucrative careers, he doggedly stuck at it, often playing blues and rock'n'roll standards in local bars in his uncle's band. In his time, Hawley has played session guitar for the 90s girl group All Saints on their hit "Under the Bridge" and auditioned for Morrissey's backing band. (Legend has it that he was rejected after a raucous performance of Elvis's "One Night".)
I first crossed paths with Hawley, fleetingly, when he played guitar withLongpigs, an early 90s group who were supporting U2 and dying a slow death nightly before the vast uninterested hordes in Giants Stadium, New York. He didn't seem happy. "No, I wasn't," Hawley says curtly, refusing to be drawn on the specifics. It was around this time that he had his brief flirtation with rock'n'roll excess. "It was bad for a time. Booze, mainly, and a fair bit of coke. Instant arsehole powder – and I speak from bitter experience. I'm not Mr Sensible now, but that was proper madness."
What precipitated it? "It was a rite of passage, in a way. I'd spent 10 years on the dole and getting nowhere with my first band. Then I just went for it with Longpigs, but at least I got it out of the way before I went solo. That is one thing I am thankful about. If I'd had any sort of success back then, I'd probably be dead now or a basket case."
A stint in Pulp followed before both Jarvis Cocker and Steve Mackey, the group's bass player and a former school friend of Hawley's, encouraged him to record his own songs as a solo artist. Lowedges (2003) was released on the small Setanta label and heralded by the pop press. The follow-up, Coles Corner (2005), made the Mercury prize shortlist but lost by a hair's breadth to Arctic Monkeys, another maverick Sheffield band. (On receiving the award, the group's singer, Alex Turner, quipped: "Someone call 999, Richard Hawley's been robbed!")
Hawley's moral victory at the Mercury prize was a turning point in his fortunes, and he now has a large and loyal following that has steadily grown to the point where he can fill large indoor venues such as Brixton Academy. It is one of life's great mysteries that his great sweeping anthem of a song, "Tonight the Streets Are Ours", didn't become a global hit in 2007. It's certainly a song of hope and defiance for our troubled time.
I put it to him that many of his slower songs are often filled with echoes of earlier songs from the pre-Beatles pop era: songs by the likes of Bobby Bare, Lee Hazlewood and even Johnny Cash which often feature romantic loners unlucky in love and at odds with the world.
"Well, at least you didn't mention Roy Orbison," he responds, grimacing. "I just don't get the comparisons to Roy Orbison. I'm several octaves lower, for a start, and I don't really look that much like him, apart from the shades. But, yeah, there is a certain truth in that. I love those kinds of songs. There's a truth to them that I don't think is old-fashioned at all – in fact it's timeless. But I have my take on the tradition. I'm not a revivalist, I'm a contemporary songwriter whose songs are rooted in the here and now.''
Recently, Hawley tells me, he's had "the feeling that time is running away from me", and it's that sense of mortality that underlines both the last record, Truelove's Gutter, and the new one. "There is really no time to fuck about," he says, growing serious as another pint arrives. "I found that a few years ago when my good friend Tim McCall died suddenly. We went way back, shared a house just down the road, where we used to sit at the table and try and figure out the chords to Jimi Hendrix songs. Tim was a great guitar player and a beautiful human being. Then, bam! He's gone. It was like somebody tore my arm off. It was thinking about Tim that got me playing guitar again on this record. I'd been sort of neglecting it and missing it. It's a way to communicate without words – not that I'd ever stop writing words though."
On the new record, there's a spare and beautiful song called "Seek It". When I mention how much I like it he disappears for a few minutes, returns with a borrowed guitar and sings it for me, the press officer and the barman. Like many of Hawley's songs, it feels like it's directed at someone specific.
"Yeah, they tend to have a name and an address, my songs. That's part of my character too. It's that sincerity thing again. It could be mawkish and sentimental in the wrong hands, and I've been called those things in my time, but if you're direct and convey some kind of truth, you avoid that and people get it. I am sincere, I do mean it and that's not currently fashionable, but that's who I am. I'm out of place but I don't care. I've carved out my own little piece of the sky."