Interview with Richard Hawley
Recorded among the rolling hills of Sheffield, Richard Hawley's latest album, the Mercury Prize nominated, Standing At The Sky's Edge, combines psychedelic stylings with his innate love of storytelling.
Getintothis got hold of him for a chat about the virtues of Sheffield over London, touring with a broken leg, and, er, wood.
I read recently that you've described Standing at the Sky's Edge as your “angry record”. Why is this?
That was taken a bit out of context. I just meant that after the last record, which was quite sedate and spatial and orchestral and minimalist in parts, this one is angrier. Before I started it I'd been on tour for thirty years, so I was going for a lot of long walks with the dog and just wanted a break. Then the Tory government came in and the first thing they decided to do was to sell the very woodland that me and several other million people were enjoying every single day. The idea of that belonging to somebody horrified me. All of these things began to converge and finally compelled me to think about things in a different way, that wasn't pastoral in any shape or form.
It's a bit like the enclosures act.
Oh, thank you! Someone who knows their history. Yeah, those bastards have tried to revert 200 years by stealing the commonland so that people can't use it any more. It just seems that under the umbrella of these austerity measures – and it's debatable whether they need to be as severe as they are – they're trying to sneak in loads of evil policies. They're modelling themselves on America, with everything run as a business: if you don't ask you don't get it. People fought for their freedom, for institutions like the National Health Service to exist, and all of a sudden the government has a right to dismantle that and turn it into a business. It sickens me. But instead of writing overtly political songs about that, I wrote Standing at the Sky's Edge. The album presents three vignettes of real people I knew growing up during the Thatcher years, and what happened to them. Pretty much every decision or policy the Tories come up with could create another record in me, and that's probably true of each one of us, really.
So do local issues play a large part in your work?
Yeah, because if you know where you're from, and you know your history, and you know where you're at, then it might help you know where you're going. I love Sheffield for its own sake. I've often thought that it's a bit of a lost city in lots of ways, it was always quite insular, often missed out when it came to contributing to a wider history. But I wasn't having that.
And you've never moved away from the city. Do you think that gives your work more insight than somebody who lived their teenage years here, then spent the rest of their time reminiscing about it?
I don't know, because perspective can sometimes make you write good songs, and I wouldn't discount that. Look at Jarvis, he moved to London and spent the next twenty years writing songs about Sheffield, and they were brilliant. I do get your point, because it's always galling when someone moves away then decides to have opinions about a place they don't know any more. I decided to stay in Sheffield because I love it, there was never any question in my mind. I was adamant about not moving to London – all those pop star parties – I can't think of anything I'd like less! Then you get people coming to Sheffield to make their records here, because they liked how ours sounded or whatever. So the city becomes something more than just an emotional investment, it becomes a physical part of the recording.
Do you find that stories come to you as readily when you're in other cities?
The thing about Sheffield is that I was born and raised here, and these stories are mine, I know where all the places are. For example, people like Charlie Peace, who carried out those murders at Banner Cross. It's not a story I find glamorous in any way, because he was a horrible man – but you feel connected to it because it's very close to you geographically, and because it's quite strange to imagine that those stories happened right where somebody's going to go and buy a bag of buns.
Do you take inspiration from any folk singers in particular? People who've responded to their surroundings in a similar sort of way?
It's funny, I never thought about that to begin with. I always felt, and was told, that I don't fit in with any particular scene. Then I became very friendly with Norma Waterson, who is probably the greatest living voice in Britain right now. She's 71 I think, and her knowledge of history – I've never known anything like it. She's totally unique and her voice is something that would mesmerise a cat. Anyway, I was filling out an interview up at theirs and I got stuck on a question.
Norma says, "What is it?" And I said, "Well, it's asking me what kind of singer I am."
"Well," she said, "it's obvious."
I said to her, "Can you tell me, because I really don't know."
"You're a folk singer."
"How do you figure that one out? I don't go around with flowers in my hair and sing hey nonny nonny no."
"No, but you sing about what you see around you, and by definition, that's a folk singer."
Well, that'll do for me, I guess. I'd rather that than the X Factor!
If you weren't a musician, do you think you would still feel the same urge to communicate stories in some form?
Well, I've always been fascinated by wood. I've always liked the idea that you can fashion something out of a tree, I find that quite amazing. And the human beings' fiendish invention of tools to help us manipulate the world around us. If I wasn't a musician, I'd quite like to be a carpenter, but I would definitely be the only one with a roadie.
You recently broke your leg and had to play gigs from a wheelchair. How did you convince yourself to go through with the shows?
That's right, I broke my leg and had to be wheeled out on stage like a character out of Doctor Who, then hop across onto this swivelling drum stool chair thing. It was a weird experience, something I didn't plan. But that is a piece of advice I would pass on to anybody: never wear brand new leather soles and walk on marble. It's not a good idea. What happened was, I went to Barcelona, and on the second day of the tour, I managed to slip on a marble staircase. I would love to say that this was all down to rock and roll excesses, but it just wasn't. I shattered my fibula and came round out of that to do 11 shows in Europe, six or so in Britain, followed by festivals. All the lads in the band said "We wouldn't think any worse of you if you just got on a flight and went home," and I said "Fuck that, we're doing the show." A lot of people these days end up in A&E if they've chipped a nail. It'll be there all over the front of OK Magazine. Brave Melinda Soldiers On. Personally I've not cancelled many gigs, ever, so I don't see a broken leg getting in the way.I had the cast, the pot, whatever you want to call it, they call it a stoogie in Scotland. A stokie, or something, it's called.
I'm not sure I know the word...
Well, the cast, pot, stoogie whatever, it came off on Wednesday and I've had two little walks, so it will get better. I'm optimistic. I got no mercy from the band at all, they took the piss and rightly so. You know Photo-fit? They went on there and stuck my head on top of Davros from Doctor Who, so that was on the dressing room door. But we got through it and it wasn't too much of a big deal. It was a pain in the arse for everyone else but not really for me. We hadn't played live for two years and a lot of people had waited to see us so we were all excited about that. Then Numpty here messed it up so I owed it to them not to wimp out and go home.
Well, it's good your band weren't walking on eggshells about it.
No. You're joking aren't you! Them lot! They'd be throwing eggs at me more like. We've all known each other a long time.
Are there any good Sheffield acts you can recommend for us? Did you go to Tramlines Festival?
I couldn't go to Tramlines, as I'd only just got the pot off my leg. I was supposed to be DJing at the Bowery but I was still on my crutches. I DJd there last year and it was insane, I had to climb over the bar. Great fun, but being in a room full of a thousand pissed-up people probably isn't the best idea if you're on crutches. As for bands, though – I like that band the Crookes, they're dead good. The Cuckoo Clocks, too. I have to say I don't get to hear a lot of new stuff these days. I used to get sent a lot of tapes, but not so much now. Then again, I really don't miss the bad ones. I still get sent some music, but it's more national than local, which is probably a good thing if it means they're doing alright!
I'll let you go in a minute. Just one last thing. What's your favourite pint?
Guinness. End of subject.
Oh, where's even good to get one outside of Ireland? I've been doing a bit of a survey, but can't really get past the 2.5 rating.
Fagan's on Broad Lane, no question. Although The Grapes on Trippet Lane is great as well. Oh, you've got me going now, I haven't been able to drink since I broke my leg. It's awful.
Just think how good that first pint is going to taste.
Yeah, but you've got me going. I really can't stop thinking about it now.
2012. First appeared on Getintothis.