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Richard Hawley: “I want a birdbath and a Mini at best” – Interview

Richard Hawley

Richard Hawley

Guitar-wielding, none-more-Sheffield crooner Richard Hawley’s sixth album Truelove’s Gutter arrives amid raised expectations. After 2005’s Mercury-nominated Coles Corner saw the sometime Pulp and Longpigs strummer score his first solo UK album chart success, its follow-up, 2007’s Lady’s Bridge, popped in to the Top 10. Hawley’s latest, replete with such curious instrumentation as a waterphone and cristal baschet, alongside that treacly baritone voice and the ever-present guitars, looks set to cement his reputation in the nation’s consciousness without losing his trademark penchant for intoxicating intimacy.

In speaking form, Hawley’s voice is an unmistakably Yorkshirean rumble, vying on its own terms with the braying hubbub of a London boozer’s post-work besuited clientele. Supping deliberatively from a pint and occasionally de-steaming his thick-framed glasses, he sets about explaining the origins of his latest work, and his home city’s influence on it. “I discovered the title when I wasn’t looking for it,” he recalls, “studying local history in Sheffield, and I’d kind of made my mind up to break away from that whole Sheffield thing; to write songs inspired by people, rather than Sheffield. They weren’t particularly about sense of place, if you know what I mean. I was going through some mid-18th century documents; this author mate of mine, Jamie P Bean, wrote a book called The Sheffield Gang Wars. At the time Sheffield had a really bad gang problem. Anyway, I was round at his house, and he’d got all these documents about old street names, and I saw Truelove’s Gutter. The two words juxtaposed just seemed to sum up the record perfectly. So it’s not particularly about Sheffield, but I’m kinda glad that I got the title.”

As for what the record is about, he’s elliptical in explanation. “I get deliberate ideas that are more of an umbrella when I start out, and they tend to develop as it goes along. But with this record I deliberately made some fundamental decisions that I knew would affect the record. I wanted to make an album, something you could listen to from beginning to end. It is a dying thing, the album, isn’t it really,” he says rhetorically. “I love the idea of the album as a collection of work that you can listen to from beginning to end; especially the great ones, you know. I want to push myself as a writer, play a bit more guitar. And I had to dispense with the three minute pop song. It was fundamental that I did that. I had to remove that thing where ‘that’s the one that’s going on the radio’. Do you know what I mean? You know when you’ve written a pop song that that’s the pop single. I can’t deliberately write things; I’m very bad at writing to order.”

Instead, having reached album number six, Hawley has earned the right to make the music as he sees fit. “It’s album five and a half,” he corrects. “They made the first one into a full length one, a while back. So I suppose technically it’s the sixth; to be pedantic, it’s the five and a halfth.” Whatever the number, Truelove’s Gutter, a distinctly dark-at-the-edges collection, follows in the footsteps of its predecessors by giving up a single or two – or, to give them their defined digital-age term, a “three-track digital download”. Open Up Your Door’s sound will be immediately familiar to anyone who came to Hawley through The Ocean; a sweeping, building, majestic track, it begins sparsely and gradually brings in ever more instrumentation en route to its sweeping, all-encompassing conclusion. For Your Lover Give Some Time, afforded a similar standalone digital treatment, begins as an achingly melancholic duet of Hawley’s wistful lyrics over acoustic guitar before bringing in strings. Both tracks clock in around the six minute mark – singles of a sort maybe, but certainly these are not three-minute throwaway pop fodder.

“Over the years I’ve read up a lot about instruments, whether it be hurdy-gurdy or enchanted lyre, instruments from around the world. I love musical instruments.” – Richard Hawley

Hawley’s choice of instrumentation through Truelove’s Gutter’s voyage, including zither, Ondes Martenot, string organ, wind chimes, celeste, enchanted lyre and glass harmonica, come with their own stories. Take, for instance, the saw. “My grandfather was a steelworker, but he was a concert violinist as well, you know,” he recalls. “He used to play it for fun at parties; he’d just get a saw out of the shed for us kids. I’d always made a mental note when I started writing that at some point along the way I’d use that. I wanted to push all envelopes as much as I could. Now I’ve done this one I might push it further. I like sound, I like how things fit together. Two guitars, bass and drums fit together immensely well, as we know, but there other sounds I heard in my head that I couldn’t get from that simple dynamic. Over the years I’ve read up a lot about instruments, whether it be hurdy-gurdy or enchanted lyre, instruments from around the world. I love musical instruments. The saw I’d wanted to use.”

These instruments, historical oddities in some cases, occasionally appear together on the same tracks. “I’d worked with Alasdair Molloy who played the glass harmonica many years ago,” he remembers, “and I made a note of that, that, at some point, I’d like to use that. I didn’t really think it was appropriate before, simple as that. But this record is a bit more twisted and it seemed to fit. Especially with Don’t You Cry – it was quite a sickly sweet two chord progression that I’d wanted to fuck up. The subject matter of the lyrics is quite dark. The glass harmonica’s so delicate you can’t take it out on the road, either.”

There’s also the intriguing waterphone, another instrument used on album finale Don’t You Cry, which Hawley describes as “quite incredible; on its own it’s almost unbearable. It sounds like somebody doing something unspeakable to a whale. When you add that to something that’s quite sickly, it’s like fingers on a blackboard kind of thing. You just have to use it in small doses.” On the same track and on the sparse opener As The Dawn Breaks, a cristal baschet can be heard. “It’s an amazing, fucking surreal instrument I’ve wanted to use for years,” he enthuses. “It’s like glass rocks that you kind of stroke with wet hands. It was invented in France in the 1920s by the Baschet brothers. It’s an immense thing; you can’t take it out on the road; that’s the only bummer about it.”

Sad news, then, for musicologists hoping for a glimpse of these rarities at his live shows. “I’ve sort of shot myself in the foot,” he agrees. “I did consider that we could have snippets of film of some of these instruments and that would be really nice. The Tibetan singing bowls…” he sups his pint. “In all seriousness I kicked a plant pot in B&Q in Sheffield and it made a ‘DING!’ sound. I looked into how you could get that sound. A lot of the sounds in my head were like the theory of wine glasses. That can be a sweet sound and it can be really fucking horrible.” Safe to say, nothing on Truelove’s Gutter sounds remotely like it could be described as the latter.

“You have to discover the elements that make music yourself. A lot of the theory and technique can be taught, but the drive beyond that has to come from within.” – Richard Hawley

All of this is not to take away the core sound on the album, one that has served Hawley well throughout his career: the guitar. “You make a fundamental choice; synth or guitar,” he recalls, venturing back in time to a childhood decision. “I didn’t have a synth. The choice was fairly easy; my family played guitars. My dad and my uncle showed me loads, but they were quite mean actually. They whet the appetite, show you a bit, and then you have to work out the rest yourself.” But he’s fine with that tough love approach. “That’s cognitive development. You have to discover the elements that make music yourself. A lot of the theory and technique can be taught, but the drive beyond that has to come from within. They understood that. Some of the classical musicians are just the most amazing musicians the world’s ever created, but you get them in a bar and say, ‘Play this, just jam,’ and they’re fucked. They can’t do it. It’s not written in front of them.”

Hawley’s musical heroes were rather closer to home. “My heroes were my family. My dad or my uncle, though they never made it. I first got into playing guitar, which was my first passion, and accidentally discovered I could write songs. I remember this melody, when I was about nine or 10… I was in bed, up quite late, playing guitar, noodling about.  My dad came into my room and said ‘You should be asleep’. I said, ‘I’ve got this song and I don’t know whose it is.’ He said to play it; I played it. He said, ‘It’s dire. No go to fucking bed!’” He laughs. “He left me with this thing that, OK, it wasn’t very good, but it left me with the idea that you didn’t have to just copy people, you could create your own music. That love of creating and writing songs ran in parallel to everything else I did, you know? And along with all the other things I did, this wasn’t necessary; it was just something that I did.”

He’d eventually go on to release two albums with the Longpigs. After the band’s dissolution he spent some time as a touring guitarist on the road with Pulp, at the behest of fellow Sheffielders Jarvis Cocker and Steve Mackey. Pulp released their final, Scott Walker-produced album, 2001’s We Love Life, on which Hawley is credited as a guitarist. Then, a London-based Irishman called Keith Cullen came calling. Boss of the Setanta Records label, Cullen had already helped to propel The Divine Comedy into the charts and enjoyed Top 3 success with sometime Orange Juice front man Edwyn Collins’ A Girl Like You.

“Keith Cullen, for all his faults, believed in me when no-one else did,” Hawley recalls. “At that time when he released the mini album I wasn’t sure I did either. I’d just written those songs and I knew that it was that point in my life I’d got to, when I was 32 years old, and my dad, Jarvis, loads of people around me who cared for me, turned around and said to me, if you don’t do this Rich, you’re going to get to the sixth day and you’re going to regret it. I didn’t expect all this to happen. I’m glad it has and it’s great, but it wasn’t what I set out to… I didn’t think I would be talking to you about a sixth album. I’m really humbled by it.”

That mini album switched on ears and turned heads. It was followed in short order by his debut solo album proper, 2001’s Late Night Final, featuring Hawley on the packshot sat at a Sheffield cafe. It was named after the cry of vendors selling the Sheffield Star evening newspaper on the streets of his home city. Lowedges followed, the first of so far three albums to be named after places in Sheffield. Truelove’s Gutter, like its predecessors, was also recorded in the city. “Lowedges and (its follow-up) Coles Corner are Sheffield albums, but not at the exclusion of people,” he states. “It’s not meant to be about inward-looking colloquialisms, you know. It’s not meant to exclude people who live in Runcorn or Sweden.” He pauses, looking around him. “Or even London.”

“I was a cottage industry in Sheffield and the next minute everybody wanted to know about it.” – Richard Hawley

He is clearly and proudly a product of his city, which is surely why he wants to shine the spotlight on the Steel City. “It’s a recent thing that people have paid attention to Sheffield,” he reasons, at least where its music is concerned. “Presumably because of the Arctic Monkeys. But it’s always been a really creative place. It just got ignored from the great lists. It was always bypassed; people went to Manchester or Liverpool, and that was because of The Beatles. And The Tremolos and all that. But Sheffield had Joe Cocker and Dave Berry. In the ‘60s particularly the musicians were kind of uncompromising, and they still are. They’d much rather play something a bit earthier, uncommercial, rather than do what all the other bands were doing, which was playing pop. It was only really Dave Berry who did that.” Later its rich seam of musical creativity would raise up Cabaret Voltaire, The Human League, Heaven 17, Pulp and Róisín Murphy and now the Arctic Monkeys, not forgetting Hawley himself. All were variously critically and/or commercially acclaimed – not least by the nation’s most talked about music gong, the annual Mercury Music Prize.

Ah yes, the Mercurys. We had to come onto it at some point. “Do we?” grimaces Hawley. No piece about him since Coles Corner’s nomination for the 2006 edition of the awards has been complete without mentioning Arctic Monkeys front man Alex Turner’s exclamation on hearing they’d won the award for their debut album. “Somebody call 999, Richard Hawley’s been robbed!” said Hawley’s fellow Sheffielder. Does he agree? “Not at all. For the Monkeys to get that award…” He breaks off, suddenly having problems with his glasses, before eventually resuming. “Immediately it affected things. That record was doing alright, it had sold about 60,000. But once the Mercurys came in, it affected it hugely. I was a cottage industry in Sheffield and the next minute everybody wanted to know about it. It slightly freaked me out; I like things that are gradual. I’m not wired like that, really. But I can’t moan – it was good. The music getting heard by a wider audience was good. But on the downside you just had to deal with the media circus. That’s possibly something I’m not so good at, really.”

Richard Hawley - Truelove's Gutter

Richard Hawley – Truelove’s Gutter

With Pulp having been being nominated twice and winning the award for their imperial Different Class album, his close friendship with Jarvis Cocker ensured none of this reaction came as a shock. “Oh I’d seen it, I knew what was coming,” he agrees. “I was fully with eyes open. But I had to be tricked into going to the announcement. My manager told me I had an interview to do. I was half pissed and he says, ‘We’ve just got this one interview to do,’ and then we got there, and it was the fucking Mercurys, and he was laughing his head off. I was in the middle of this fucking media nightmare.”

What was the nightmare? “It gets too personal,” he winces “They’re digging too deep. The music should be enough, but it isn’t, so you have to do all that stuff. Jarvis always maintains that he didn’t deal with it very well, but I think he did. He didn’t turn into an arsehole. Even if there was a lot of self-abuse, drugs and, you know… alcohol, like we all did at that period. He still maintained a sense of self. He was a good person. A lot of people don’t in that position. It’s very hard to hold on to yourself.” He stops himself. “It’s getting a bit heavy. The Mercurys were great!  Forget all that other stuff. I had a great time. Woo! Wicked!”

Six albums into a successful solo career, with time served in charting bands, and enjoying comparison with Scott Walker and Roy Orbison as a classic songwriter, Hawley has seen and done much. “I’ve not come up with any better ideas for how to use my time,” he says. “I enjoy it. I like creating music. There’s not been that much pressure on me. You’ll not see me at celeb parties and stuff like that; I’d rather be at the home with the dog and the kids, you know.” What advice does he have for artists starting out, hoping, like him, to take their music to the big bad world? “Stick true to what you want to do, don’t compromise. It’s the worst thing to do, to compromise. If you have to compromise what you want to do to get where you want to go, when you’re there you’ll kick yourself. It’s an age-old dilemma. But it depends what you want to do. If you want a swimming pool and a Ferrari in LA, that’s all you’ll have. I know people who’ve got that and it’s fucking shallow as fuck. I want a birdbath and a Mini at best. In Sheffield, you know. The motivation for what you do has to be the music. Nothing else. If you’re motivated by any other desires, like, you think it’ll solve your career problems, don’t pick up a guitar. It’s not a career.”

This sage advice he carries down the generations like a torch. “My grandad told me this, when he knew that I was going to try to make my living making music, in working men’s clubs or whatever. His first piece of advice to me was, ‘One thing you’ve got to understand before you start is that you might fail.’ At 14 years old I was like, oh, fucking cheers, grandad, you know what I mean? But it’s the best piece of advice I’ve ever received from anybody. It means that when you do something, you consider why you’re doing it, what you’re doing it for. If the answer isn’t the music, then quit, because you’ll be really disappointed. But from small acorns do great oak trees grow.”

Richard Hawley’s Truelove’s Gutter is out now through Mute. Tour dates and further information can be found here.


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