RICHARD HAWLEY, born and bred in Sheffield and still a proud resident, isn’t one to mince his words.
“I became a musician to avoid having a career,” says the 52-year-old with disarming bluntness.
“And I’m here to talk about music, not what trousers I’m wearing,” he insists when we meet to mull over his bright and breezy new album, Further.
Though Hawley is refusing to comment on his trousers, I can report that he’s dressed in blue jeans (sorry Rich), a black leather jacket and his signature specs with black frames.
The only visual clue to his life less ordinary is the greased rockabilly quiff which is looking fine and dandy today.
The singer/guitarist loathes the trappings of fame and says: “It’s so easy to disappear up your own arse and believe in your own myth.
“I’ve always been extremely wary of the whole, ‘Aren’t I fabulous?’ thing. Actually, I have a physical revulsion to it.”
Despite this assertion, Hawley’s younger self was drawn to the rock star life, with all its excesses, like a moth to a flame.
“Oh God yeah, I was!” he admits. “Luckily for me though, I had the best experience through touring in Pulp and playing with people like Robbie Williams . . . not that I want to talk about Robbie as he gets enough f***ing press!
“But working with artists who are super famous, I’ve seen what it does to them. I’ve learned my path through being the backroom guy who played guitar on hundreds of sessions.”
BUCKETLOADS OF INTEGRITY
The Yorkshireman’s anti-celebrity resolve is as hard as the steel from his beloved city but, as I discover, he’s not one to stick rigidly to the script.
You might think he’s a bit of a curmudgeon but inside is the beating heart of a devoted father and husband who likes to champion the underdog.
He has a strong sense of humour, bucketloads of integrity and knows his place in the world.
And he’s in way better spirits than during our last chat four years ago when I could clearly see he was in physical pain.
“Do you know what that was?” he cries. “It wasn’t a bad back. I slipped a disc but the pain continued for five years because they put me on medication which created nerve spasms throughout my body.”
Now seemingly fighting fit, Hawley likens his work to “a mental illness rather than a profession” and says he’s “jotting down stuff all the time”.
One key aspect of his latest jottings, something which “drew them all together,” is their brevity, explaining why Further’s eleven songs clock in at just 36 minutes.
It begins with a ferocious blast of hard rock, Off Of My Mind, quite a shock to Hawley fans I imagine, but there’s still room for trademark balladry in the shape of Emiliana, Midnight Train and album closer Doors.
So is this concise collection a result of him learning to press the edit button? “Oh, I don’t know,” he replies. “I might do another album with one 27-minute song just to be an awkward f***er.”
In answering my question, he says: “Maybe it’s my pre- Alzheimer’s attention deficit syndrome.”
It is four years since previous album, Hollow Meadows, but Hawley’s been busy, busy, busy . . . working on film soundtracks, a Sheffield-based musical and producing.
He firmly believes diversity is “a move forward because you can easily get sucked into the cycle of album, tour, album, tour.
“I’m 52 and if I was going to get cynical and jaded, it would have happened long ago. For most musicians, it’s over in your mid-twenties.”
That said, Hawley remains positive about the state of British music.
“You just know that in some bedroom or garage or shed or school rehearsal room, there’s someone who will blow us all away, like the Arctic Monkeys did,” he says.
“We’ve got austerity, poverty and a load of s**t happening in the country. Somewhere out there is the next Sex Pistols.”
‘CALL 999. RICHARD HAWLEY’S BEEN ROBBED’
Hawley has long been friends with the four likely lads who formed the Arctic Monkeys, Sheffield’s most celebrated band, and has provided vocals on two of their B-sides, Bad Woman and You And I.
He was famously up against their debut album, Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, for the 2006 Mercury Prize with his own breakthrough effort, Coles Corner.
When the young upstarts triumphed, singer Alex Turner shouted to the assembled throng: “Someone call 999, Richard Hawley’s been robbed!”
He recalls: “Alex used to serve me pints when he worked behind the bar at Boardwalk along with Jon McClure (Reverend & The Makers). They were always nice to me and I was nice to them.
“The Monkeys are one of the bravest bands on the planet and I love them. Not only are they friends, but I admire the way they conduct themselves, the way they’ve not lost their roots yet continue to grow. “
Hawley’s also thankful his own creative juices are still flowing freely, making selections for the new album from a whopping 270 songs, conceived in his garden shed and “either finished, partly finished or fragments.
“There were probably even more but Shez (Sheridan, co-producer and long-time cohort) couldn’t stand it. He was begging me, ‘F***ing hell man, please stop playing me songs. There are too many.’’
“There’s 20 or 30 albums worth of material. Even if I lost my hand in a car accident, God forbid, I could carry on.”
As to the vibe of Further, his first album without a Sheffield reference in the title, he says: “The outlook in terms of tempo and brevity is hopeful and positive but lyrically, there’s still some quite jaded s**t going on in there.”
I ask Hawley how his home city is faring these days. “Well, it’s obviously the city of the gods,” he quips before adopting a more serious tone.
“A lot of it has gentrified but the extremes have widened. Homelessness is the thing I’ve noticed most.”
The singer is visibly moved when he recounts the story of a recent night out in Sheffield city centre.
“I’d not been into town for quite a while because my head was completely in the songwriting bucket,” he begins.
“But one night, me and the wife went to a comedy club run by local comedian and DJ Toby Foster. It was over by about 10pm so we went to meet some friends.
“I was utterly shocked . . . people out of their minds on spice and s**t alcohol, people sleeping in doorways with boneheads taunting them, threatening violence.
“We walked up Division Street, a street I basically lived on for so many years, and I was nearly in tears.
‘CRACKS IN SOCIETY ARE WIDENING DAILY’
“It horrified me and it’s not just a Sheffield problem, it’s worldwide. I don’t blame anyone, myself included, for walking on by because it’s like a tsunami. The cracks in society are widening daily and they’re so wide now that people are falling through them in droves.”
For a man who spent his childhood in the gritty Pitsmoor suburb of Sheffield, those disturbing scenes are like a dagger to his heart.
His affection for the city helps explain why he’s involved in a musical named after his 2012 album Standing At The Sky’s Edge and featuring his evocative songs.
The show, a joint venture with playwright Chris Bush and staged at The Crucible (where else?), charts the lives of people in the controversial Park Hill estate, known for its “brutalist” architecture.
Richard Hawley -Further
1. Off My Mind
3. My Little Treasures
5. Emilina Says
6. Is There A Pill?
7. Galley Girl
8. Not Lonely
9. Time Is
10. Midnight Train
“If you want to talk brutal, come go up to Pitsmoor,” says Hawley. But I identify with Park Hill flats because I knew people who lived in the hideous two up-two downs that were demolished to build them.
“They were like ratholes, a breeding ground for gangs, and my grandparents were born and raised there.”
Hawley says the musical is part of a “burning desire” to push himself into “new areas, to learn new skills”.
It’s strange to think that he started honing his music as a nine-year-old boy, growing up with guitarist dad David, singing mum Lynne and two sisters.
“One of my earliest memories is sitting in bed, playing my guitar with the light on,” he says.
“It was pretty late, probably 10pm, and I had to go to school the next day. Dad came in to the bedroom and said, ‘Why are you still up?’.
“I replied, ‘I’ve got this song. I don’t know who wrote it, who’s is it?’ And he said, ‘Play it mate’. I played it and he said, ‘It’s yours’ and then he gave me a kiss and turned the light off.
“I stayed awake for hours anyway, thinking, ‘What does he mean, mine?’ I’d made up a song but didn’t realise it. Then my grandad gave me a little tape recorder to listen back to stuff I’d done.”
Hawley’s playground was his parents’ cool vinyl collection. “Rock ’n’ roll was their big thing,” he says. “They loved everything from Simon And Garfunkel to show tunes, even country and bluegrass but they tended to avoid the cheese.”
Wind forward to 2019… does Hawley think his children will follow in the family music tradition? “I don’t think so,” he decides. “But some of their friends have taken up the baton because I was around when they were little.
“My kids just want to be themselves, not intimidated by their parents, to carve out their own destiny. That’s fine but the music life will die with me. I’m the last.”
Before he heads off, straight-talking Hawley reveals his abiding wish for the world his children are growing up in.
“We live in a very confusing time but I know we all have a simple f***ing sandwich to order . . . more love, less hate. It’s as basic as that.”
And his parting shot is the piece of advice given to him by both his grandfather and double bass maestro Danny Thompson, which he calls “the secret of life”.
“On separate occasions, there I am waiting for their pearls of wisdom but both said, ‘Don’t be a c**t, Rich’.”
Sun-setting the mood
WHEN it came to his new album cover, Richard Hawley imagined a picture of himself under Cleethorpes pier . . . “a place we went to as kids.”
But when he got there, it was “cold, windy with zero glamour”.
On the spur of the moment, he asked photographer Chris Saunders if they could head to Flamborough Lighthouse. They arrived there to be met by the most spectacular sunset.
Hawley says: “It was a wonderful gift of nature. It felt epic, like being at the Grand Canyon rather than the edge of the North Sea.”