An interview with the legendary Richard Hawley inevitably means meeting at his long time favourite watering hole Fagans, just far enough from off the hustle and bustle of Sheffield city centre to make it an oasis of calmness and hospitality.
On my arrival Mr H is just winding up his previous interview, having been hard at it with the press from 9am and I am the last at 6pm. He later confides he has been doing the treadmill of interviews for the last week but still comes over as welcoming and friendly though he undoubtedly isn’t one to suffer fools.
Just as we are ready to commence American accents can heard from across the room and Richard’s face lights up with genuine affection as he gives Duane Eddy a hug and his good lady a kiss. It’s a surreal moment, being in the presence of a 74 year old US guitar legend in a back street Sheffield boozer but Duane is soon smiling and shaking my hand. Fagans has had many notable musicians through its doors including Jools Holland more than once and the common denominator is the charismatic Mr Hawley.
As we retire to the snug landlord Tom pulls us both a pint of the black stuff, Guinness has long been a favourite tipple of Richard’s, and Tom apologises for it being ‘only absolutely marvellous today’.
The reason for the current buzz around Mr Hawley and the endless interviews is the release of his 7th solo album Standing at the Sky’s Edge, again name checking his home city as all his previous album titles have.
Richard’s new release was vying with Keane for number 1 in the album charts, he laughs “ I don’t think it’ll end up anywhere near there but yeah that’s amazing” (it eventually entered the charts at No. 3).
I’ll keep writing as long as I keep breathing and I’m just glad I’ve earned the right to make another record, it’s just bonkers and I’m just a specky mong off Pitsmoor
Sky’s Edge is another change of musical direction. His first 5 solo albums were of a similar laid back style and became more and more successful both critically and commercially with the excellent Coles Corner selling over 140,000 and being nominated for the Mercury Prize and follow up Ladys Bridge peaking at number 6 in the album charts, then Richard changed direction and brought out the wonderful Trueloves Gutter featuring many weird and wonderful sounds from rarely used instruments, but why change?
He answers without pausing to think “that’s your answer 5 albums of similar styles, Lady’s Bridge sold a shitload of records but I’d explored all the possibilities that direction could take me and there were a lot of ideas I’d got for albums and things gradually got more widescreen with rockabilly stuff and big pop numbers like Tonight The Streets Are Ours” he smiles as he explains “the well is very deep and there’s lots more to come. I wanted to experiment and sometimes those kinds of records are the most successful. The amount of artists that came up to me and said Trueloves Gutter influenced them, like Kasabian told me it chilled them out and kept them sane on their American tour, to Michael Stipe or whoever. That’s what mattered to me, what the folks think about it.”
Was there no pressure from the label to continue with the tried and trusted formula? he laughs “ do you think they can pressure a 45 year old guy with a 30 year musical history, I won’t be told what to do by any fucker. “
He expands “I came from a family of steelworkers who loyally worked hard for 25 years for that (click his fingers) at the end of it”, he adds with feeling “You need to be able to look at yourself in the mirror every morning and have self respect, that’s important to me”.
We moved onto his new album, another phase shift where Richard gets his electric guitar and effects pedal out again and maybe produces the type of music most expected him to make after the Longpigs folded.
He nods “it just took me a while to get to that point but there were things that compelled me to make it.” He adds slowly “ and Tim (former Jarvis Cocker band member and personal friend Tim McCall) dying was one but the Tories getting in was the thing that pushed me over the edge, it made me so fucking angry at the things they were doing. “
There was a 3 year break from Trueloves Gutter to Sky’s Edge why so long?
The answer comes instantly, no doubt a sign that the weeks press interrogations had primed him for most questions “after Trueloves I realised I’d been touring for 30 years and needed to stop and see what normal was like again. I didn’t stop working but I said whatever comes my way has to come to Sheffield, if it doesn’t then fuck em, I’m not travelling around anymore, I’d had enough. I worked with Lisa Marie (Presley) and Duane (Eddy) but also got chance to walk the dog, take kids to school, put socks on the washing line and fall asleep in my wife’s arms. All the normal things people do that I couldn’t” he then adds ironically “even though I sang about them every night.”
“Then the Tories got in and the first things those cunts wanted to do was sell the very woodland that I was walking and chilling out in, one of the beautiful things about this city and one of the ancient parts of the world. It’s not their land, or mine, it’s ours, everyone’s.”
He then educates me about the Enclosures Act of 1815, Richard adds emotively “I sniffed out that under the umbrella of austerity measures they are imposing a set of ideals that doesn’t include me and you and our friends and our city and our country, it was about reversing history on land ownership and the like and it made my blood boil.”
We talked of how even inner city dwellers can be in the countryside within 10 minutes and in his words “ find some strange and beautiful places that are accessible to everybody”. He pauses with anger still showing in his face then relaxes a little and adds “what was beautiful is that people from all walks of like said fuck you, we’re not having it “and adds “that alone almost put the fuzz pedal and guitar in my hand, the first thing I wrote was Down In The Woods which has an aggressive riff but it’s a love song to the woods about things you feel but can’t quite see”.
Is he picking up the baton of political and social commentary from Jon McClure, of Reverend and the Makers fame, who has moved away from contentious politicising of issues is his lyrics, after a few moments thought Richard says “ it’s not a political song or maybe with a small p if you like, it has political implications, but it’s a love song to the woods if you listen to the words ‘before the day these woods are sold I would like you to know I love you’. “
Obviously something close to his heart he adds “It can be magical, like in Ecclesall Woods, it took me months to find the wood cutters grave which Julian (J.P.) Bean had told me about, and walking round finding the Neolithic cup and stone caveman graffiti sort of thing, while walking the dog, I just love it. “
“I just hope the people who liked my stuff before will like this but if not, I totally understand and I apologise if they feel I have let them down in some way but I have to follow the arrow I fired 30 years ago, it has to be done. I know where it ends” then he bursts out laughing” though not for another 40 years I hope “.
I make the point that there seems to be no demographic pattern to the people who like Hawley albums, different ages, genres, backgrounds. As an example Nicky Smith from the mighty rock band Exit Calm confided the previous evening he loves Trueloves Gutter and Richard explained “if you have got a brain it needs stimulus, you are not defined by what you listen to or what type of band you play in.”
“I learnt my lesson as a kid when I went to a place called St Cuthberts social club on Barnsley Rd, it wasn’t religious, it was a wide church where everyone was welcome and people from all ages used to come from little kids to elderly folk and it wasn’t polarised at all, unlike nowadays where you get teenagers who won’t hang about with people a year or two younger than them as it’s not cool.”
Casting his mind back several decades again he smiles “On Sunday afternoon at St Cuthberts there was an old guy Billy who died at 98, and what he didn’t know about gardening wasn’t worth knowing, everyone used to go to him, the oracle, for advice. There was George Grimmer a self taught oil painter and Derek who worked at refuse place who’d always have a story to tell. I’d rather stand the rest of my life with people like that than 9milliseconds in the company of pop stars and celebrities it makes my skin crawl.”
“My grandfather said to me’ just because you’re working class doesn’t mean you have to be thick, read a book, be creative’. I sure my granddad would be proud of me making a living playing guitar and singing my heart out. I haven’t let him down.”
He laughs and curses when I ask if he’s writing the next album already then admits “I’ve written 5 or 6 songs which may be on the next album but they may well not. I wrote 12 or 13 songs for something I thought was going to be this album but it ended up not being. I’ll keep writing as long as I keep breathing and I’m just glad I’ve earned the right to make another record, it’s just bonkers and I’m just a specky mong off Pitsmoor.”
Referring to the high crime level on inner city estates when he was born Richard with some pride “there was little hope for people like me; thankfully my Dad gave me a guitar instead of a crowbar. They gave me awareness about my family history and what we were about, history and love.
My Grandfather was a cool guy who taught me so much. I remember when I played the Albert Hall and got my Mother to sing with me, while we were there she found a picture in a corner from 1927 of the Sheffield Orpheus Choir and there was a picture of my Grandad aged 17, it made me shiver. It makes me think of the phrase ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, how do you define giants? Dignity, hard work and not taking the easy option and turning to crime, those were the kind of things that really kept me straight. Even when I strayed later on (during the Longpigs era) with drugs and that it was unavoidable as there was no-one steering the ship. Now I like my beer and cigs, I like my friends, love, guitar, when is enough enough? “He asks then answers himself “that’s enough.”
Richard closes saying “ I’ve lived a charmed life and don’t think I deserve to be here, we live in a horribly airbrushed world and I was born half blind, with a hair lip and cleft palet at 101 Scott Road, Pitsmoor, next to a taxidermist and a butchers, opposite the cemetery gates, its wasn’t the best start in the world but maybe that’s looking through an Etonian’s eyes, if you met my Mum, Dad and Grandad, just like hundreds of other brilliant working class people in this awesome place called Sheffield maybe it actually was the best start in life” !