Richard Hawley: songs and steel

Though Richard Hawley remains firmly rooted in Sheffield, where his music has been forged throughout his 20-year career, he says new album attempts to look further afield 

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“I didn’t have an agenda to become successful,” says Richard Hawley, reflecting on his 20 years as a solo artist. “It wasn’t about that. It was about the songs and the idea for ‘that sound’ that I’d kept in my heart for many years.

“I was about 32 when I made my first little record. For most musicians, the idea of any level of success is over by then. By that point, many have burnt out in the rock ‘n’ roll world.”

Born in Pitsmoor, Sheffield, Hawley’s career originated at home where he was brought up in a musical environment alongside his two sisters. His mother, Lynne, was a singer and his father, David, played guitar part-time on the circuit in between long shifts as a steelworker.

“I thought that was normal until I went round to my mates houses and they wouldn’t even have a radio on, so I realised that we were a bit different,” says the 52-year-old guitarist and vocalist ahead of his UK tour. “Everybody sang and there were always records on. Mum and Dad had a really big record collection and I just used to sit and listen to them and absorb the music – it was like food and it still is.”

He picked up his first guitar aged seven. His first band, Treebound Story, formed at high school and released several EPs before parting ways. In the 1990s, he was a guitarist with Longpigs, who prospered during the Britpop era before splitting in 2000. He then joined fellow Sheffield favourites Pulp as a touring guitarist whilst side-lining as a session musician. During this time, he developed his songwriting skills and perfected “that sound”, which was influenced by the 50s and 60s records – including Chuck Berry and The Everly Brothers – he had devoured as a child. He required some gentle persuasion before embarking on a solo career however.

“My dad was encouraging in a kind of bleak way,” says the former Mercury Prize and Brit Award nominee. “He said to me, ‘You don’t want to get to 60 with a voice like yours then look back and think, shit, I didn’t even try’. But the idea of it horrified me for so long – I guess I’d not got the prerequisite ego to be a singer. At first it was daunting – and I still find it quite weird – but I’m glad I did it because I’ve had 20 years extra creativity that I probably shouldn’t have had.”

In 2007, David Hawley sadly passed away after a long illness at the age of 63. He was described as one of Sheffield’s musical pioneers, playing in several bands before forming the Dave Hawley Combo. Twelve years later, Hawley found the moment to commemorate his father with the song Little Treasures. It features on Further, his eighth album, which was released in May. Hawley recalls the encounter which led him to belatedly write the song. It was brief, yet poignant.

“I met Pete and Rodge, my Dad’s old bass player and drummer,” he says. “Pete showed me a picture in his wallet – this battered old wallet – of himself and Dad on the estate they grew up on. It was the two of them on Pete’s uncle’s motorbike and sidecar. Pete had had it in his wallet for all that time, since being a kid and throughout his life into old age. He loved my dad and he was heartbroken. It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever seen – the beauty of him treasuring this friendship all his life – but the moment was over in a flash.”

Further is the first of Hawley’s albums not to directly reference Sheffield in its title. This holds significance as he celebrates two decades making music on his terms. “I guess I asked myself the question ‘Have you got owt left?’ and the answer was ‘Yes’,” he admits, having considered the future of his career.

“I don’t know if people will still want to listen to records made by a 60-year-old bloke but I’ve got no intention of stopping yet. I don’t see that because a human being gets older, they’ve got to stop thinking. Time can be quite a cruel thing and I accept that. I’ve had a lot of years playing and a lot of fun too. It’s been hard work, but I enjoy it and if ever I feel like it’s becoming too much I remind myself of my dad who worked 14 hours a day in the steelworks.”

Hawley’s roots have remained firmly in Sheffield, where he lives with his wife, Helen and their two canine companions. The reason for his adoration of the city is simple and homely. “I walk the dogs every day and when you set out, in pretty much any direction, you’ll soon bump into a green space. There are hundreds of parks, woodlands and municipal spaces in the city environment alone and that’s discounting the Peak District.”

Did Hawley ever consider living elsewhere? “A lot of my mates moved to London, thinking it would be the cliché of roads paved with gold, but it didn’t work out like that for a lot of them,” he says. “I don’t know whether it was blind stupidity, loyalty – or just the fact that I probably didn’t get the opportunity to move anywhere else – but I just love Sheffield. It’s such a big part of me, the way I think and am. It’d break my heart to leave, it really would. I’m not a little Englander or a stick in the mud – I’ve travelled the world widely, you know – but I’m always glad when I get home.”

In March this year, The Crucible Theatre, Sheffield commenced a sold-out run of Standing at the Sky’s Edge, the musical which shares its name with Hawley’s 2012 album. It featured songs from Further and reworked versions of his past work. It told the story of post-war Britain whilst chronicling the lives of three families, spanning three generations, residing on the city’s Park Hill estate. The Brutalist development described as streets in the sky opened in 1961 and has been subject to much debate to this day.

“The story isn’t over yet by a long way,” notes Hawley, a former member of the Crucible’s youth theatre. “The land that Park Hill was built on was the old Duke Street tenements where my grandparents, Albert and Elizabeth, were born. The country was on its knees because we’d resisted Hitler and there was no money, but there was a massive housing crisis. The solution was to build these blocks of flats because at the time people were living in slums. My nan and grandad queued for keys to Park Hill but didn’t get a flat. At first, they were wonderful places to live and then the slow decline came.”

The 1980s witnessed the estate’s neglect and eventual demise, with blame focussing on Margaret Thatcher’s industrial and housing policy. Park Hill became notorious for crime and drug use and never recovered. Eventually, the estate became Grade II listed in 1998, saving it from demolition, and the last remaining tenants were evicted in 2003. It was subsequently purchased by developers the following year and phase one of redevelopment was completed in 2013. Phase two currently remains incomplete, leaving a juxtaposed image of the past and the present for passers-by.

Sheffield is synonymous with a plethora of established musicians including Hawley himself, his former bandmates Pulp and Arctic Monkeys. Each act is unique in both its sound and style, which Hawley attributes to reasons dating back centuries. “The old cutlery makers in Sheffield were called Little Mesters and they fiercely guarded their way of doing things very closely,” he explains. “I think that somehow the spirit of those little old blokes has kind of bled into a lot of things in the city. We’re not afraid to be individual.”

Hawley considers the biggest lesson he has learnt over the past 20 years. “Don’t compromise,” he advises, without hesitation. “It’s a filthy word. For an artist or a songwriter, if you compromise, by the time you get to where you believe you want to be, you won’t be happy with what you’ve got. But if you get there, off your own steam and ideas, then you’ve got some chance of being happy with it. Music’s not something
that can be forced.”

Richard Hawley plays Warehouse 23, Wakefield, 27 Sept; Albert Hall, Manchester, 7 Oct; Liverpool University Guild of Students, 8 Oct; and Sheffield Octagon, 11-12 Oct (richardhawley.co.uk)

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