Being told he might never walk again gave Richard Hawley a new level of emotional intensity for his latest album, writes Ed Power
RICHARD HAWLEY has no regrets. “Maybe heroin,” chuckles the Sheffield singer, voice heavy with flu. “Perhaps that is a bit of a thing to regret.”
Hawley is referring to brief period, many years ago, when he embraced the life of a hard-charging rock star. It did not agree and today he is far happier as a suburban dad who just happens to sing deeply moving blues songs for a living. He’d take an afternoon pottering around the garden over a champagne-splashed pool party any day.
“It would drive me mad, living like that,” he says. “You can dip in and out of the rock thing when you have to. And then you melt into the shadows. There’s a reason the output of a lot of musicians turns to dog-shit the moment they become famous. You go from being an observer to the observed. That’s an unnatural perspective for anyone who writes music. It’s a natural perspective for anyone who wants to be a dickhead. That isn’t one of my ambitions.”
Hawley is a flinty interviewee, a garrulous conversationalist who revels in the part of grumpy outsider. He’s come to his elder statesman status the hard way, serving his apprenticeship as a guitarist in Jarvis Cocker’s Pulp and the quickly forgotten Longpigs before, at the age of 34, taking the plunge as a solo artist.
The trauma surrounding his latest album, Hollow Meadows, was especially challenging. It was written as Hawley was rested up with a back condition. Halfway through the process, doctors explained he might never walk again.
“I had hurt my leg ahead of a big tour. As a result I weakened my back because I was using crutches all the time — getting on and off airplanes, on stage…what have you. With Hollow Meadows, I was laid-up for pretty much all of the writing. They told me I won’t walk again — that is pretty fucking terrifying for anyone to hear.”
Hawley was determined not to wallow. Instead, he tried to find the positive in his situation. He’s not sure if he quite did in the end. However, the tumult of emotion that was poured into Hollow Meadows ensured the experience did not go to waste.
“The best kind of music is definitely melancholic,” he says. “Even if a song is upbeat, there is still something sad in there. Happy songs are shit.”
Soon to turn 50 and with his eldest daughter recently departed for college, Hawley is arguably at a personal crossroads. The singer shrugs. He isn’t one for looking back. Quite the opposite, in fact. With age, he has access to a wider emotional palette. That is something to be embraced, not shied away from.
“Loss is a fact of life that everyone understands,” he says, referring to Hollow Meadows’ keening closer, ‘What Love Means’, wherein he addresses his daughter as she leaves home for the first time.
“It’s the natural order. You only really experience these things later in life. We all experience loss at some period. Yeah, there are songs there that an older person wrote. I’m not ashamed of that. I WOULD be ashamed if I was trying to write like a 20-year-old. I’m going to be 50 next year. The record is definitely a reflection of where I’m at rather than where I’m dreaming I want to be. I don’t yearn to be 20 years younger. What I yearn for right now is to not have the flu.
Hawley grew up in the working class Pitsmoor area of Sheffield. His father played in local bands, his mother was a singer. He was already an experienced songwriter in school, where he shared a desk with future pulp guitarist Steve Mackey Later, he would take a job at HMV before embarking on a life in music as a busker and session player.
Location is a huge influence on Hawley. The post-industrial Sheffield of his youth, the gloomily gorgeous Yorkshire of today… you can hear it all, absorbed and reflected, in his music. In the case of Hawley’s latest project, Hollow Meadows refers to a settlement on the outskirts of Sheffield once home to an asylum. The contradiction between the beautiful surroundings and the dark past appeals to his melodramatic side.
“It provides you with an umbrella, or a canopy under which you can write. Songs either pop into your head or it’s like holding onto lightning. Either it’s done and dusted and you’re thinking, ‘God, where did that come from?’ Or you’re sitting there for months on end. I write constantly — I never really stop. You keep at it until you’ve got songs that fit together, have some kind of harmony. And then you ditch the other stuff and, presto, you’ve got an album. It makes it sound so simple, doesn’t it?”
Fifteen years from his debut album, Late Night Final, one gets the sense Hawley is still pinching himself. He has released a further six LPs and received a Brit and two Mercury Award nominations. Still, at a certain level, the fact he even has a solo career appears to be source of ongoing disbelief.
“In a lot of ways I recorded my first album to shut people up,” he says. “I’d been nagged by so many people. Without their support, and nagging, I probably never would have. Whether that be my father or Jarvis or my wife. Loads of people saying ‘you’ve gotta do this’.
“My dad gave me some good advice — ‘look son, you don’t want to get to 60 and look back and go fuck, I didn’t do it’. It’s that classic thing — feel the fear, do it anyway. I had always really really wanted to make an album. For a long time, I didn’t quite have the balls. I’m glad I did, in the end.”
Hollow Meadows is out now. Hawley plays Cork Opera House Feb 25; Black Box, Galway, Feb 26; and Iveagh Gardens, Dublin, July 22.
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