Richard Hawley tells John Earls how dog walking, shunning social media and the brevity of the 7″ have contributed to his sharpest work yet…
Richard Hawley has turned 50 since his previous album, and he celebrates his 20th anniversary as a solo artist this year. Hawley may not be fussed by milestones, but his brilliant new album Further feels like a fresh start.
When he co-produced Duane Eddy’s 2011 album Road Trip, Hawley also played guitar on the rock ’n’ roll great’s tour. Backstage at The 100 Club, Eddy told Hawley of how he and Willie Nelson had recently been talking about old times. “Getting old is really crappy, isn’t it?” Nelson opined. To which Eddy replied: “Don’t worry, Willie. It won’t last long.” Hawley explodes into a delighted, high laugh after the punchline. “Now, that is dark as fuck,” he admits. “But it’s so beautifully wise.”
Sat in a high-end London office at Hawley’s new record label BMG, overlooking a canal, the singer looks in excellent nick. We’re in A&R director Jamie Nelson’s office because it has a balcony, and Hawley needs a cigarette outside to start the interview in order to calm down: he’s 75 minutes late, thanks to bad traffic. The resultant stress means he also nurses a pint, as he wryly admits: “Getting someone to fetch me a beer is the one time I’ll act the pop star. But I’ve been up since 5am, and it’s another couple of hours before I can drive back up to the beautiful north.”
Those temporary hassles aside, Hawley is slim, jokey and generally seems to have his shit together ahead of his UK tour in September and October. “The things that age a man are baldness and weight,” he reasons. “I’ve been lucky to hold on to my barnet and, because I owe a great debt to walking the dogs, I’ve not clapped that much timber on.”
We’ll come back to Hawley’s dogs later: they’ve influenced his new album Further in all sorts of ways.
Hawley’s previous album Hollow Meadows was released in 2015. Now 52, he turned 50 in the interim. “I’m surprised 50 didn’t feel more significant,” he admits. “Turning 40 was much bigger. That was a big, heavy one, like waving goodbye to any vestige of youth.”
The new decade may not be an influence, but Hawley has been busy exploring fresh territories since Hollow Meadows. He’s written the soundtrack to two films: acclaimed Maxine Peake drama Funny Cow and forthcoming road movie Denmark, both directed by Adrian Shergold. Based on his 2012 album, the first Hawley musical Standing At The Sky’s Edge ran at Sheffield Crucible.
“You’ve got to try new stuff,” Hawley insists. “If you keep looking back over your shoulder, you’ll just rot. I’d feel bad if I didn’t take these opportunities, as I’d be betraying the people who put their trust in me. If I didn’t keep myself fresh, what else would I do? I’m probably unemployable now, so I can’t take up a career at B&Q.”
Hawley has felt “washed out and emotionally tired” in the past, but that was at the end of being guitarist in Britpop-era mainstays Longpigs. Hawley’s heroin addiction at the time has been well-documented. He got clean in 1998 and joined Pulp on guitar. A year later, he played his first solo shows. “Being solo for 20 years is an achievement for still being around after so long,” he smiles.
‘I throw myself into things, whether it be drug addiction or dog walking.’
“But I’m not impressed with it. Paul Weller told me, ‘Don’t get impressed with awards. If you hang around long enough, they’ll give you one anyway’. I’m in no rush, and I never have been. When I was younger, I’d sit around with an acoustic guitar, dreaming: ‘If I’m really lucky, I might one day end up on a tourbus going to Belgium!’ As you get older and wiser, you get a bit reticent about playing songs to people – because you might end up on a fucking tourbus to Belgium. Age and experience flips that coin.”
As part of staying fresh, Hawley’s eighth album Further is his shortest, at 36 minutes. “I had a very specific agenda,” he explains. “I wasn’t going to allow anything to drift or slip out of control.” Lead single Off My
Mind is a raucous holler, as is the fiery Alone, while Galley Girl is a bluesy riot. “With so much hideous shit happening in the world, I was trying to keep things upbeat,” says Hawley. “I was determined to make something positive for myself. I didn’t want to be sat in a studio recording dirges, as they suck the life out of me at the moment. I know it sounds cheesy, but if you’ve got a light in your heart, it’s easy to be positive.”
Walking the Dog
For Hawley, it helps that he avoids social media. He recently got his first smartphone, eulogising the clarity of his iPhone’s Voice Memo app for recording song ideas and Notes for writing lyrics, but admits later he’s thinking of ditching it and going back to recording ideas on a tape-driven dictaphone.
“Social media is quite isolating,” he ponders. “There are loads of positive aspects, but it seems to create unpleasantness. And I ain’t got the time for it, as I’m an addictive personality anyway. I throw myself into things, whether it be drug addiction or dog walking. A smartphone takes up so much of your time even without social media. Addiction is 21 years in my wake, so t’s not an issue for me, but I’m wary of how smartphones get their hooks in you. Constantly being connected to a digital umbilical cord, the darkness of that can weigh you down.” He laughs as he tells of how his management sometimes phone him because he hasn’t responded to emails. “You fucking mad bastards!” yells Hawley in exasperation. “Just call me. Don’t bother with the fucking emails! It’s so funny, and you need to see the funny side.”
‘If you see me in tears when I sing My Little Treasures, it’s either because it’s shit or it’s really upset me.’
With brevity the watchword on Further, only the psychedelic Time Is lasts over four minutes: it’s 4min 1sec. Asked if he was tempted to chop two seconds off to keep the whole album in check, Hawley responds: “No. It’s one second over because it’s the prog track! I nearly didn’t include Time Is, as it seemed like it didn’t fit, but once Clive Mellor played harmonica on it, it absolutely worked. So I’ve allowed that one track of indulgence.”
One reason he wanted to compress all the album’s songs into “the old classic idea of the three-minute tune” was because of his love of 7″ singles and their B-Sides. “I’m obsessed with 7″ singles,” he enthuses. “I love DJ-ing with 7″s, stuff people can dance to that isn’t shit… obviously that’s personal taste. A 7″ can only contain a specific amount of information, and that was the guide for Further.”
Getting the energy to make such upbeat music has been helped by the Hawley family’s dogs, a 10-year-old collie and five-year-old springer. “The more you’re on the sofa, the more you get mentally flabby,” Hawley smiles. “I’m not the only one who walks the dogs, and I do get time to lie on the sofa. But the dogs get me out of the house, and song ideas come to me when my head is clear, walking them. It’s shifted my writing, because I’m outside, not sat on the sofa for hours with a guitar.”
Although most of Further’s songs were written after Hollow Meadows, Hawley has had the elegant beauty of My Little Treasures for 12 years. As well as being a steelworker, Hawley’s father Dave was himself an accomplished musician: Richard’s most-treasured vinyl is four blues acetates his dad cut in January 1963. A year after his dad’s death, two musician friends of Dave, brothers Roger and Pete Jackson, took Hawley out for a drink. “Pete said, ‘I’ve got something to show you’,” Hawley recalls. “There was a photo of my dad and Pete, on Pete’s uncle’s BSA motorbike, from when they were kids in the 50s. The photo was creased down the middle; it had been in Pete’s wallet for years. Pete said: ‘It’s my little treasure’. That phrase really stuck in my head. It took a long time to get over the emotional side to be able to sing the fucker without bursting into tears.” Hawley admits it could be an emotionally tough song to play live: “I try to put truth into my songs, so they are sometimes hard to sing. If you see me in tears when I sing My Little Treasures, it’s either because it’s shit or it’s really upset me.”
My Little Treasures isn’t the only song that’s taken its time to find the right setting. He wrote Just Like The Rain on his Mercury-nominated album Coles Corner on his 16th birthday. “I’ve written every day since I was nine years old,” he states, matter-of-factly. “I don’t know if it’s maybe some form of mental illness. I don’t really want to analyse it too much.” Hawley has “loads” of other songs in reserve, biding their time.
To explain why they sometimes need slight adjustments, he reaches for his guitar. He never keeps his guitars in his car, as he’s had too many lost or stolen over the years. His acoustic guitar by the BMG office sofa is a 1953 Gibson 185, previously owned for a year by The Everly Brothers’ dad Ike Everly. It’s so light it could be made from balsawood, but it plays beautifully. Or it does when Richard Hawley is less than a foot away, gently singing along as he strums the riff to his 2002 breakthrough single Baby, You’re My Light.
‘Being a songwriter and performer means you’re in your own little psychodrama, as it’s your vision of the world.’
“I have what I call ‘comfort riffs’,” he explains. “They’re cyclic riffs I play sat on the sofa, going into a psychic zen state while I play them over and over. When I resolve what to do with them, a song arrives. Baby, You’re
My Light was like that.” It should be pointed out that it’s only when LLV plays the interview back that this rationale makes sense. Having him play so elegantly so close is transfixing. He plays again, to explain how his theme song for Funny Cow is in three distinct sections “as it was written on three different dog walks.”
If the guitar is a tactic to hypnotise interviewers away from asking difficult questions, it works a charm: professionalism be damned if Richard Hawley is going to play you a private gig. Hawley’s other playing is to demonstrate Galley Girl, written on a 1963 Fender Jaguar in Lake Placid Blue, which Hawley bought when he was in Longpigs. He played it on some of his favourite Longpigs songs (Far, The Frank Sonata), but kept it in storage because of how drained he was at the end of the band. “It was such a joy to play again,” Hawley beams. “It had always been winking in the back of my head to use it. As my dad used to say, ‘It plays itself’. But it doesn’t matter how brilliant or how shit a guitar is, there’s always a song in it.”
It’s this joy for music and the absurdities of life that means Hawley is only briefly willing to discuss “the mess we’re in” over politics. He says: “I hope I try to see the other side of the argument, as it’s the only way we’re going to move forward. There’s no consideration for any opposite opinion, or even an attempt to understand it. It’s ridiculous. Everyone is shouting, and it’s not even a case of ‘Who shouts loudest wins’ anymore, because everyone is at the same volume. Can we talk about something else?”
It’s the only time Hawley looks upset, which is slightly devastating from someone so optimistic. Instead, we discuss his determination to avoid touring his albums in full (“It gets raised whenever there’s an anniversary, but to me there’s something quite sad about it”), and future collaborations.
Hawley is working with another musician he can’t name, but he says: “It stops you disappearing up your own arse. Being a songwriter and performer means you’re in your own little psychodrama, as it’s your vision of the world. It’s nice to have a peek into someone else’s psychodrama every now and again. It stops you thinking yours is the most important. Because it fucking isn’t.”
After 20 years, Hawley is unlikely to ever stop learning, or seeking to go several steps further on.