After 30 years of toil, Richard Hawley has punctured the musical mainstream. But, as Jimi Famurewa finds, he’s not leaving his beloved Sheffield any time soon
Richard Hawley, a musician long associated with stoic rock star cool, is laughing his head off like a kid. We’d love to say it’s the result of a well-crafted ShortList zinger. Instead, it’s a comically misheard question about his friend, and former bandmate, Jarvis Cocker’s recent health kick that’s prompted this uncharacteristic fit of infectious giggles.
“When you said ‘hitting the gym’ I thought you said ‘hitting the gin’,” he says. “That’s why I said, ‘Maybe he’s avoiding the beer.’ F*cking hell.” We say spin class, he hears spirit level. Popping on our Sigmund Freud specs for a moment, it’s the sort of misunderstanding you might expect from the hard-living 45-year-old. “The gym isn’t for me. No f*cking chance,” he admits regaining his composure. “Your health is like a seesaw, so whatever you take out you’ve got to remember to put back in. But I still smoke like a chimney and drink like a fish.”
Recently there’s been cause to swap his Guinness for champagne. After years of cult acclaim and critical adoration, the former Longpigs and Pulp guitarist-turned-crooner has broken through in a big way. His seventh solo album, the psychedelic Standing At The Sky’s Edge, charted at No3 and a London Forum gig on Friday will cap off a sold-out mini tour. Bar the unlikely moment in 2009 when one of his songs soundtracked a Häagen-Dazs advert (“I couldn’t get arrested with that record. Nobody would play it until the ad, so I don’t regret it,” he says), his profile hasn’t been higher. Has he noticed this leap in his celebrity?
“Well, the chart thing is f*cking mental so I presume people are digging what I do,” he drawls. “But I can’t really feel [anything else] yet. I live in a bubble anyway and that’s for a good reason. It keeps you real and keeps you sane. I’ve never, ever been interested in fashion or being fashionable. I would have been content just playing the music I loved in clubs and pubs. My only real ambition was to avoid flipping burgers or ending up in the steelworks.”
MARS BARS & GROLSCH
He escaped any manual labour at an early age. It’s hard to believe now, with his rockabilly quiff and amiably gruff demeanour, but Hawley was something of a Bieber-style child prodigy. Having impressed with his guitar playing as a scrawny 14-year-old, he was recruited to his Uncle Chuck’s band (“His real name was Brian,” he says dryly) and whisked off to play the grubbier corners of Europe.
“I started when I was an amoeba,” laughs Hawley. “We went to some interesting venues. My uncle told my mum that we were playing lovely theatres and all that. They weren’t – they were just strip bars.” It must have been an, um, eye-opening experience. “My f*cking eyes were wide open, I’ll tell you that. I came back a lot older.
I had a great time but I came back off that, at 14 years old, and I’d basically lived off Mars bars and Grolsch,” he continues. “My mum was in tears when I returned. I’d lost so much weight, and she could tell that I’d definitely got some hairs on my chin.”
So, while other kids were occupying themselves with paper rounds, Hawley was getting an early introduction to the rock‘n’roll excesses of the road. As he prepares for another tour this September, it’s clear that those youthful experiences helped to keep him grounded.
“Working with older people made me very respectful of musicians on all levels,” he says. “I mean, Sheffield at that time was destroyed by the Thatcher years. There weren’t really options. So I was one of the lucky ones because my parents had put the tools of a trade in my hands and I didn’t even realise it. I just thought guitar playing was something to immerse yourself in that wasn’t robbing cars.”
Hawley’s skilful fretwork – which, fact fans, can be heard on All Saints’ version of Under The Bridge – led to a smattering of success with Britpop upstarts Longpigs. Does he look back on the Nineties indie boom fondly? “It was interesting. Suddenly people who played guitars were presented with something that looked successful and sustainable. For a while it replaced the facile b*llocks,” he says ruefully. “But the power of meaningless facile b*llocks is rather strong and it’s regained the high ground.” However, any nostalgia is tempered by the fact this drug-addled period nearly destroyed him.
“The Longpigs were severely abused by label and management,” he says sombrely. “We just seemed to be on tour forever, and that inevitably gets dark because it’s just a white-knuckle ride you’re all trying to get through. There was no, ‘Oh we’ll have a day off now.’ We went for it every single day and I’m just glad that no one died in that situation, because it was a worry for a while. There are no drugs now. That’s it, the end. My grandad used to say to me, ‘You start off as a musician who drinks a bit, but if you’re not careful you’re a drinker that plays a bit of music.’”
Does he think that’s what’s happened to some artists such as Pete Doherty? He pauses and selects his words carefully. “I think it’s quite obvious that there are certain people who won’t make it,” he notes finally. “It’s like Amy Winehouse, bless her. It was obvious to all the older [musicians] who had been around for a long time what would happen if that [situation] didn’t change. It breaks my heart to see that great talent destroy itself.”
This idea of Hawley as a kind of rock guardian angel has been boosted by his relationship with acts including Sheffield compatriots Arctic Monkeys. The band celebrated their 2006 Mercury Music Prize win with a cheeky name check to their fellow nominee (Alex Turner: “Someone call 999, Richard Hawley’s been robbed”) and Hawley collaborated on Monkeys B-side You And I this year.
Did Turner ask him for tips before cultivating his Fifties hairdo? “No, but he’s not the first young man who’s fallen for the allure of a quiff and leather jacket, and he won’t be the last,” says Hawley. “They do things I don’t. They’re out there riding motorbikes while I just fantasise about it.”
Don’t expect to see him straddling a Harley on Route 66 any time soon or heading east to plunder more of the sitar plucking influences on Standing At The Sky’s Edge. Hawley is stubbornly committed to his hometown.
“Well, I never say never,” he says. “But from what I’ve done up to now, it’s clear I’ve got my mojo here. My talisman is definitely the city. But the cheery chappie thing will only get you so far. I’m a fairly sensitive guy, I hope, and I react to things that I see around me and turn them into songs.”
Then, just as we’re entering familiar ‘the artist and his muse’ territory, that smoke-ravaged chuckle cuts through it all. “I don’t know – you don’t try to analyse the genie too much, man,” he says, “because he might just f*ck off.”
Standing At The Sky’s Edge is on sale now. Richard Hawley tours the UK from 16 September; richardhawley.co.uk