Friday, 4 September 2009
Richard Hawley Interview
There’s a lyric on Truelove’s Gutter that ends: “blundered into the abyss”. Is that where we are, The Abyss? Two and a half million unemployed; our little island lagging behind all the bigger fishes and fatter cats in the semi-recovering global economy; clinging onto other people’s politicians and our own half-remembered glory days. If that’s where we are, then blunder we did.
Only Hawley wasn’t talking about the economy, or politics, or society. He was talking about falling in love. That’s the thing about Richard Hawley. Big things have gone to shit – Britain has forgotten what it is, where it’s going – but there are still voices of reason out there. And Hawley’s one of them. His sixth solo LP doesn’t directly reference the recession. But dashed hopes, damaged dreams and half-forgotten ambitions penetrate every weird sound and subtle lyric of its fifty-one minutes. His songs aren’t about boom and bust, but “the fall out of that, I suppose, and the way that people are affected by it. My family was deeply affected by the last major recession with the closure of the steel works. It cost my parents their marriage.”
That’s what it comes down to. Not statistics and politics, but the people you love and the streets you tread – something that Hawley has never forgotten. “My family has lived [in Sheffield] for 150 years, you know,” he says. “We live in a very transient, migratory age, but I really, really am rooted in Sheffield, and that’s important to me. Not in a stick in the mud kind of way, but because I know why I’m here.”
Hawley’s never made a secret of his love for his hometown. His Mercury-nominated fourth album, Cole’s Corner, told the story of one of the city’s famous meeting places, while Truelove’s Gutter is the ancient name of Sheffield’s Castle Street, so-called after Thomas Truelove, an inn-keeper there. “The juxtaposition of the two names seems to sum the record up perfectly,” he offers by explanation.
Hawley’s father was a steel worker, his step-father a miner, so he’s well-placed to remind people of a time when community still existed and work was anchored to identity. “It’s the people I love more than anything,” he says of the city. “When the steel works were open people lived really hard lives, but they had a right good sense of humour. Very self-deprecating, not taking yourself too seriously. And people would definitely stick together, you know?”
The people Hawley writes about on Truelove’s Gutter came unstuck, they lost themselves in the mire of modernity. They forgot where they came from. In ‘Don’t Get Hung Up In Your Soul’, Hawley recounts the story of a friend who spent a lot of time in institutions for mental problems because she found it safer in there than being out in the world. “You have to know something before you can really sing about it,” he explains. “It’s not about holding onto things for the sake of it, it’s about holding onto things because they mean something. And I think that’s the point. Because once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.”
He speaks of how he takes his children to see the old steel works where their grandfather, the late Dave Hawley, worked, and about the museum in Sheffield dedicated to the industry. “In twenty years’ time or even ten years’ time I can’t imagine there being a call centre museum, can you?” And then, laughing: “‘This is where I plug my modem in, this is where I charge my mobile…’ Do you know what I mean?”
Coming from anyone else, it might seem worthy: a successful rock star championing the working class. But Hawley’s done his time. His career started when he was still at school, in a band called Treebound Story; when they broke up he found success with nineties Britpop act The Longpigs, and then, seven years later, with fellow Sheffield-natives, Pulp. “The ideas for a lot of the solo stuff had kind of been fermenting in my mind for a long time,” he says. “I wasn’t frustrated or anything, I was more than happy sat at the back watching someone else singing, that was great. But it just got to the point where I was 32 years old… And now I’ve been making solo albums for a decade, that’s longer than I was ever with any of my bands…
“I was completely shocked where I ended up and it completely threw me – I never expected that at all. But the music’s mine to be made. I’m sick of music being made for commercial purposes. I think that music can serve a different purpose.” For Hawley, music is his livelihood; it’s his trade, just as much as steel was for his ancestors.
“Music is a craft,” he explains. “If you pick up an instrument to become famous and rich, more than likely you will be very sorely disappointed. But if you pick it up because you love it… I’m very clear about what I set out to do and I’ve never lost that.”
He goes on: “At a time like this it’s not great commercial sense to make an album full of ten minute strung out pieces of music. But I don’t think it’s the time, either, for creative characters just to play it safe and play the game. That’s another thing that’s important for me as well, to make a record where I stretch myself as a writer, musician and producer.”
Truelove’s Gutter still features that same molten vocal that earned Hawley a reputation as ‘the Elvis of the north’, but this time it’s soundtracked by a whole host of instruments so unusual they could almost be made up: the glass harmonica, musical saw, megabass waterphone and crystal baschet. What should sound, from this description, like some kind of hellish modernist racket, actually rumbles and glides with similar classical precision as his previous work – testament to the man’s propensity for integrating innovation and tradition.
Hawley’s a man who’ll remind you just where you came from, and why things went awry. But he’ll also tell you that now, more than ever, is the time to push on with the future. “At the time I decided that I wanted to make music as a way of making a living, things were a bit like they are now. You’re not going to say, ‘don’t do that, get a job,’ because where are the fucking jobs?! You might as well do something that you believe in.” For a working lad from Sheffield, he’s not done too badly, after all.