Sheffield singer steeled for battle

Richard Hawley stood on picket lines with his dad. His new album is a protest against callous government, says Nicki ffrench Davis

RICHARD HAWLEY, Sheffield’s prince of gritty melancholia, is angry. After the ten years of his solo career, and eight critically acclaimed albums, he feels the victories of the working class struggle have been eroded. His ire, forged in the political fires of the 1980s, is boiling, and shows in the songs on his 2012 release, Standing on the Sky’s Edge.

On this collection, Hawley has dispensed with the orchestral richness of his previous releases, opting for a tight rock line-up and spacey, grinding electronic sounds. It is a different world to the moody yet gentle True Love’s Gutter, his previous album.

“When I finished the tour of True Love’s Gutter, I decided to take quite a lot of time off. I’d been on the road for 30 years and needed to spend more time with my family, in normal life. I have a collie dog and I took loads of walks in the woods in Sheffield, so I thought the new album would be a pastoral affair. But then, things in life, personal and politics, happened.

“The Tory government took over and the first bill they passed was to sell the woodland our forefathers fought for back to the toffs. It outraged me,” he says.

While the UK government has since relented, following public outcry, the peace the Sheffield woods brought Hawley had been shattered and a stormy album ensued.

Hawley’s songs are vivid and superbly arranged. The title track to Standing on the Sky’s Edge casts a stormy light on three characters. Joseph kills his wife and children; young Mary steals to eat, and turns to prostitution, before being jailed; and misguided Jacob stabs someone. All are ‘sliding down the razor’s edge.’

“When the Thatcher era began, everything changed. I began to see history repeating itself. A civilised society, by definition, has to look after its sick and elderly, and it has to nourish and cherish and inspire the young. Now, we are seeing all these things being withdrawn and the horrors of uncivilisation,” he says.

The album’s title is also a metaphor for society, standing at the edge of climactic and economic mayhem. “I’m just back from touring a Spain at the edge of riots, and when I was in Greece, much earlier, there were people living in pop-up tents. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of sense to stop this irresponsible capitalism. But, as a musician, I deal more with the emotional fallout of political decisions,” he says.

Hawley has a passion for his hometown of Sheffield, where he still lives. “There used to be just three places to play and I was doing this endless circuit [with his band, Longpigs] of the three of them. It was really hard for bands. Sheffield was completely bypassed, it was like we were a lost city.”

Both Longpigs and Pulp, with whom he also toured, played the council’s Dolebusters festivals in Weston Park. “Yeah. I have mixed feeling about Dolebusters,” says Hawley. “I’d been on picket lines with my dad, who was a steel worker. We used to busk together for miners and steel workers, and we just gave the money we collected direct to them. We probably did a lot more for them.

“Red Wedge, now I think that did something,” he adds.

A collective of radical musicians, comedians, writers and filmmakers, Red Wedge was fronted by Billy Bragg. The movement engaged young people in politics and nudged them towards Labour policy, in the hope of breaking the Thatcher regime.

Hawley’s last visit to Cork was to whale-watch with guide, Colin Barnes, for a BBC Radio 4 programme.

“It wasn’t exactly Cork, it was West Cork,” he says. “Around Baltimore. A minke whale broke right beside the boat, it was incredible. And Colin has this way of calling dolphins by banging a stick. At one stage, there were 150 of them all swimming together and the ones at the front kept looking back as if to lead us on. I had a smile from one ear to the other.”

Hawley is touring Ireland and plays the Savoy Theatre, Cork, tomorrow. “I’ve always enjoyed coming to Ireland,” he says. “Right from the first acoustic gigs, and on to playing Whelan’s in Dublin, and the Roisin Dubh in Galway, through to Vicar Street. The audiences have been nothing but kind and really up for it. Playing music in Ireland is like selling fridges to eskimos. You don’t really need it. But it’s nice to be part of it.”

* Richard Hawley plays the Savoy Theatre, Cork, tomorrow.

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