words: Jan Webster
pics: Chris Saunders
“It's funny. My wife is a psychiatric nurse and she says people always gravitate to the edges, you find more nutters at the seaside towns than anywhere else. Here [Sheffield] you couldn't get any further from the sea in the UK. It's got everything here and if it all gets too much then you can just get on a train or a bus, or whatever and just fuck off to the edge of the City."
Sheffield, as you'll know, is a town where men call each other 'love', and has fewer arseholes per square mile than anywhere else in the country. It's also home to Richard Hawley.
A brief history: Born Pittsmoor, 37 years ago to musician parents; he picked up the guitar properly at the age of eleven and worked so hard on it he could probably make the bugger sit up and beg, nip to the shops for fags and fill in income tax forms. Teenage years were spent playing in clubs (including Beatle-y enough, a strip joint in Holland). Formed first band, Treebound Story, who John Peel loved, with mates (“We were together from about 15 until our early twenties, we were like brothers”). Met wife eleven years ago and has since become multi-childed.
On the day he was asked to join Longpigs his Dad’s guitar was stolen (“I think someone were trying to tell me something”.) Someone should have died in that band he reckons, they all lost their minds. On December 18th 1997: “I was just back from a nine-month tour of America, sat there weeping in an American airman’s suit, cowboy hat and pit boots not knowing who the fuck I was and Pulp called.”
The next six years were spent playing live with the band. He really loves that lot. They saved his life he reckons. It was also encouragement from Jarvis Cocker and Steve Mackey that led him to becoming a solo, singing artist in 2001.
His new album, Coles Corner, is out this month. It's on Mute and it's majestic. Recently, and amongst other things, he's produced Nancy Sinatra, supported REM on tour and headlined at the 100 Club with his rockabilly pick-up outfit The Feral Cats as well as notching up the odd session with a bewildering amount of popstars.
"I've been playing guitar since I was a kid and I can cover all the colours of the rainbow, whatever you want. Speed metal? I can play it, I just don't choose to," he’ll say.
Funnily enough though, it's his voice that's leading his career now. It just took him a while to bring it to the front.
Oh yes, he is also very, very, very Sheffield.
Sandman hasn't yet got its hands on a copy of Coles Corner when we first meet up at The Washington one greyish afternoon.
"Let's talk about Sheffield," I suggest.
"Good. Cos I don't really want to talk about owt else," says Hawley, cheerfully, as we settle into a Guinness.
In person he looks like he's stepped out of a photograph. Some days it's a wirier Johnny Cash, all denim and country strut. Today it's John Lennon in Hamburg c.1960; dressed in his Dad's old leather jacket, jeans, boots, cowboy shirt (which, apparently his new label Mute despair of) and hair drenched and quiffed in a substance called Black & White.
"Elvis used that," he points out as he shows us a sticky pot, "and it's made in Memphis."
If it's good enough for The King…
The photographs don't take too long, Saunders and Hawley mildly bickering as the subject pulls a few poses, fag smoke drifting out of him like a cheerful rock'n'roll firestick. The look on Saunders' face when Hawley casually mentions, just in passing like, that the last photoshoot he did was with Anton Corbijn is priceless. Our Chris is a bit handy with a camera but Corbijn is the Daddy of iconic rock photography, his shots of Depeche Mode and U2 setting the benchmark.
You don't get snapped by Corbijn because you're a nice guy, which Hawley is. You become Corbijn's subject because you're very, very good.
There's a line in a short story by GK Chesterton where a priest describes the hold his religion has on a thief, he describes it in terms of a fishing rod and a line upon which the thief is hooked. The line is long enough to allow the thief to roam all over the world but strong enough so that, when the rod is pulled, the thief will always return to justice.
Hawley is governed by two distinct and interwoven threads. Music is one, and one that has sent a working class lad from Pittsmoor all around the world. You can see it in the way he sits in the pub later, twitching and attentive as Elvis' early Sun recordings come rattling out of the PA; like HMV's Tinker, with an affection for slap-back bass.
The other thread is made up of home, family, friends, Sheffield and love.
“It’s the only place in the world that I’ve ever been to, and I’ve been all over, that I feel this way about. I get this feeling when I come up the M1 and see them lights. I love it.”
It’s no wonder Hawley’s turned out the way he has. He was tuned in early to this, ‘wonderful absorbing music.’
“Nothing is worth a fucking thing in life unless it is learnt. Have you been to one of those European toll gates where you sit in the car and there’s a big funnel where you throw your coins in? That’s what kid’s minds are like, they collect everything.”
Hawley doesn’t force it but his eldest daughter’s own favourite tune is Cherokee Walk by Bob Landis.
“She picked it herself. She’s learning to play guiar and she cares, it’s great.”
Hawley's own Dad is Dave Hawley, one of Sheffield's best guitarists back in the day, as well as being one of those kids who rock'n'roll hit so hard they never recovered.
"Me Dad says he were in a transport café when he heard Elvis and he said life went all wrong. You can imagine it: Pre that era you'd never have heard anything with any aggression, anything that wasn't pap. Society is always trying to suppress anything with any rage, in whatever form it comes in. Next to Nat King Cole, who I love, Love Me Do sounds like punk but then you'd compare that to Johnny Burnette, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry and that and it's fucking shit."
"He played with loads of bands, Scott William Combo, the Chuck Fowler Four, but he also played with loads of old blues musicians, like John Lee Hooker and Little Walter, at Esquires when they came through Sheffield. He and me Uncle were duly conscientious. They really gave a shit. He worked with the Beatles. He was with a band called the Whirlwinds and they'd be doing covers of the day and he said Beatles turned up started playing and he just went 'Fuck!' He also met Hendrix. He helps this weird looking black bloke carry his amps up the stairs but doesn't notice him, he's just staring at these 4x12 Marshal amps that he's never seen before."
"Me Dad was like he was cos he was abandoned really. His parents split up in the 40s which was a right social no-no. I suppose he was always a bit feral. Still is. I've inherited a lot of his problems I suppose but they're also the things that fuel you, you know, just never being settled or never, ever being at peace."
Run For Me from the last album is about his Dad, a heartbreaking moment when, as he was ill, Dave Hawley took his guitar off the wall and passed it to his son. A literal passing of the baton.
Hawley still isn't one for going gentle though, he's still fuelled. The music he's making now though isn't quite what you'd expect from a firebrand. The songs are mostly ballads, gentle in tempo, relaxed in execution.
"I listen to aggressive 50's rock'n'roll, rockabilly and all that, but I don't play that. Listen. It's there, you'll hear it, but I'm older. I just don't need to scream.”
In a previous conversation we’d had Hawley had talked about the grafting side of learning to play the guitar, the hours spent learning the scales, practicing. The point being that his music is not just the product of sticking his head in the clouds and hoping that inspiration falls on it, it's underpinned by a high level of technical skill. It’s earned and it's that skill level that allows him to both be certain of earning a living but also to be more unconscious in creating music, even if the process disturbs him sometimes.
"Hendrix said 'learn all you can then forget it and just play because the Universe will just sink through your head.' If you're a writer or photographer or anything the less of the 'norm' or 'perfection' you strive for the better."
Are you more comfortable talking about the music you like than the music you make?
"Yeah, cos I don't really know why I make it or where it comes from. It does disturb me when a song just arrives."
"I don't know, but it does unnerve me. They just arrive in my head, and I'm not bullshitting you, so you feel like you're slightly mentally ill. You know it would be so much easier for me, with what I can do if I played the corporate game, Burger King and all that. I'd be a millionaire now. It would be so much easier for me."
His move to Mute suggests the possibility of upheaval. He's a priority artist now and the machine has started working fulltime. He's been doing loads of interviews which have been 'doing me head in'. How does he feel about the industry side of music?
"Look. If you grow bananas or brew beer or make necklaces or whatever…we all live on the same planet and have to make a living. No one gets killed doing what I do. It's not the most important thing in the world, well, actually, it is the most important thing in the world but…this is not work. You can hear those lads blasting rivets into a wall? (Builders are hard at it on the site next door). That's graft. They've got to get up at five or six in the morning forever. We're sat in a beer garden supping ale. How can this possibly be work?"
An interview with Hawley is an absolute pleasure. The dictaphone full to busting and the journalist similar with beer. As we head off to the Kelham Island brewery to sample some of the Hawley beer they've been brewing for the album launch I mumble something about the debilitating effect of a Hawley interview. He grins wolfishly, well practiced.
"Aye. You've been Hawleyed.”
We meet up for a second time at Fagan's to have a chat about the album, which I've now heard. We crack on and chat a little about being the singer and the album.
How's it feel to be singer rather than sideman?
"It's four feet to the right geographically but it's 1000s of miles really. It can be really scary, everyone looking at you. I still can't open my eyes when I sing but I'm definitely more confident, definitely less scared. I always knew I could sing but when I did Coming Home (2001) it was weird hearing this voice coming out of me, it's not an aggressive voice but it's deep. It’s unique, pal!"
The album's great. Packed full of melody and definitely the best thing he's done. Going on from Lowedges it seems to have more light and shade, more forms used, even more upbeat in parts. What's the difference between Coles Corner and Lowedges (his last, 2003, album), more major than minor, I suggest?
"I've never written a song in a minor key! I use a lot of minor chords but all that lot, Coles Corner is in G major 7, are in major keys. It's a progression, I suppose, from the last album and it's probably the best one I've done."
Hawley's songwriting is personal, and means something specific to him, but he's not a detail writer in the sense that Lou Reed can be very graphic in telling a particular story. He uses a classic vocabulary, rain, trains, journeys, lights, rivers etc to convey a mood better than most. The songs are open enough for anyone to take them on though.
A brief run through the track listings is interesting and occasionally hilarious.
"Just Like The Rain, that's a really simple love story. Born Under A Bad Sigh, that's kind of slagging myself off for being pissed. It starts off 'What are you like? / You've had a right life, which is something my Mam would say to me. Tonight, that's having a dig at myself again, for being a miserable scrote. Hotel Room, can be taken in a lot of different ways, it's a very dark tune about addiction."
Specifically or in general?
"I'm not telling you. Wading through the Water is a dream I had about being dead which really freaked me. I wrote it really, really quickly, in about an hour and we got it in one take. Colin [Eliot] and Andy [Cook] were downstairs at Yellow Arch fixing up our room while I was upstairs poncing about on my guitar. So we did the take, the three of us round the microphone and those two have got overalls and goggles on. They looked like Panda's, I couldn't look at them."
"Who's Going To Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet is a ballad me Mam used to sing to me and I recorded for my boys cos they cry while I'm away and they don't cry when they hear it. Last Orders, was written in the taxi between my house and Yellow Arch (the studios in Neepsend where most of Hawley’s material is recorded) as the last song on the album."
"I record and write really fast. I don't fuck about. Songs come to me in the weirdest places, on the bog, or, like Coles Corner, came to me while pushing my kids on the swings in Endcliffe Park. If I'd had only one kid it'd have been 4/4 time. It's 6/8 - obviously I was pushing quite hard. 'Daaaad, stop!'"
Coles Corner is the first track on the album. Hawley's racked up some great songs in the past, Run For Me, Coming Home, Baby, You're My Light, but this will probably end up being his Waterloo Sunset.
Coles Corner is, roughly, where HMV is now, and was the traditional meeting point for lovers, in a time before technology got in the way of people.
"I spoke to a girl in Madrid and there's a place like Coles Corner there, Porta De Sol, but darker, like something out of West Side Story. I think every town must have had one in the days before mobile phones, the clock tower, the village green. I think these places were, are, important. It's an issue of trust, you have to make the agreement to meet somebody and trust each other to be there."
It's a beautiful song and will resonate with people but it's also, perhaps, an emblem of Hawley's philosophy that we're losing something.
"It's hard to work at something and build something nowadays. It's easy to text, it’s easy to e-mail, it’s easy to sit on your arse in front of the TV with your fucking pizza. It was easier in past to find meanings in things, I think. It's harder now for people to focus on something."
Ask Hawley who or what he’s into nowadays and he say, ”you’d be better off asking your Dad what’s going on. Listen. There will always be great music being made.”
Hawley was once described in a magazine article when he was in Longpigs as a 'professional northerner.' It was a dumb caricature, suggesting both a one dimensional quality in Hawley which doesn't exist as well as a glibness and a silly prejudice on the part of the writer.
Hawley is a Northern bloke, a raconteur, funny as fuck. (Hear him describe the horror of his kid being given a Blades top by a relative. "It's like Harry Potter, the sorting hat. I'm Gryffindor and it turns out me son's bastard Slytherin!")
He's also a fluid swearer, a heavy smoker and a drinker of Guiness completely at home in pubs which haven't been turned into neon crèches. Someone who puts a heavy price on loyalty and tells some appalling jokes. (I've lost weight, I've been on the Atkins diet (pause) Chet Atkin's diet!")
He's also very kind - Sandman in this instance is wearing his old specs; after he kept seeing me around town in a pair held together by sticky tape and faith he insisted on passing on his old frames. He didn't have to do that.
He's hard in demeanour but not particularly macho, he talks about things that have affected him - moments like Pulp's last ever gigs or his Dad passing on his guitar when he was ill and he mists up. He's very human, and this is probably why his music connects so strongly with people. It's honest and believable, it's true emotional music, rather than the showbiz version which gets put on like make-up and is wiped off and disappears when the credits roll.
"It is romantic music but it's not schleppy or soft, even though it's gentle. Whether I've achieved anything in my life I don't know, but I do know that Baby, You're My Light has been used at over 100 weddings. That's got to be something in’t it, kid?"