Steel City musician Richard Hawley’s solo career blossomed late after years playing in other people’s bands.
Over the course of seven albums, the 45-year-old has turned overwhelming critical acclaim into commercial success, crafting lush, orchestrated soundscapes and drawing a rich seam of inspiration from his home city of Sheffield.
He spoke to Mail reporter TIM FLETCHER about his universally praised new album, how his past as a session musician aided his glittering present and the muse provided by his pet collie — just don’t mention his audition for Morrissey.
IF glamorising the unglamorous is the essence of British rock ‘n’ roll, Richard Hawley is a master of his craft.
In a glittering, decade-long solo career, Hawley has drawn inspiration from his native Sheffield, where he grew up as the son of a steelworker.
The city’s post-industrial environs have supplied a string of album titles from 2003’s Lowedges via the 2005 Mercury Prize-nominated Coles Corner to his latest release, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, referencing an insalubrious area famed for its now-demolished tower blocks and high crime rate.
Imagine, as a parallel, a musician from Burton producing a series of records entitled Horninglow, Bond End and Under The Ferry Bridge.
So is Sheffield an inherently glamorous place or is Hawley simply someone who sees glamour where others might simply see well-trodden pavement, rain-washed concrete and crumbling, post-industrial ruin?
“Sigh.” A long, deafening, pause — tumbleweed blows across the newsroom and the sound of the squeaky CCTV camera in the car park cuts through the icy silence.
“Mmmm, I dunno. It’s a rhetorical question, innit? After seven albums, what do you think?” That was our best question so things are not looking too promising, but fortunately Hawley deigns to take the conversation beyond the realms of the monosyllabic.
“I’m only surprised more people don’t do it,” he says. “It’s not like imagining what it’s like to live in LA, or even Cleethorpes. Writing about the things you know on a deeper level gives the songs a certain truth.”
Hawley’s musical education began as a child when his father, fresh (or possibly not) from a 15-hour stint in the steelworks, would play him records by such blues and rock luminaries as Elvis Presley, Howlin’ Wolf and Leadbelly.
He took his first tentative steps as a musician when he formed his own band, Treebound Story, while still at school, but would go on to make a living at various stages as a member of 90s Sheffield indie band Longpigs, a brief spell with Pulp and as a full-time session guitarist, a role often derided by the cooler-than-thow music press.
“I don’t understand the mockery of that because I learned so much doing it and worked with such a wide variety of artists across the board,” says Hawley. “It was a very valuable process and I learned a lot about production — and also what not to do.”
In response to a query about memorable artists he’d done session work for, Hawley tells the Mail to ‘look it up on Wikipedia’, that website informing us that he has played with among others, REM, Nancy Sinatra, Elbow, Hank Marvin and Jarvis Cocker.
He also, the invaluable online encyclopaedia tells us, once interviewed for the role of guitarist in Morrissey’s live band, but was rejected after his rendition of Elvis Presley’s One Night failed to meet with the approval of the Mancunian music legend. Right?
“Sigh.” An even longer, even icier, silence than before, as the CCTV camera twists and turns, hunting for ne’er-dowells lurking amid the afternoon shoppers, and a phone rings in a distant part of the Mail office.
“I get asked that in every interview. I’m sick of hearing about it. It was a very minor event in a 30-year career.”
At the risk of posing another obvious question — why did it take Hawley, a musician of such obvious talent, so long to produce his first solo album, recorded as the 20th century gave way to the 21st?
“I just didn’t feel it was necessary until then,” he says. “I’ve always written since I was a kid and it’s something I learned to do parallel to having another career — well actually I became a musician to avoid having a career.
“It’s like when you put a bun in the oven or bake a cake. There’s a time when it’s ready and a time when it ain’t. It took me a lot longer than others, I guess.”
Hawley’s solo career has been a tale of a steadily-rising trajectory which has seen him progress from a kind of ‘musician’s musician’ status (Arctic Monkey Alex Turner famously cried Hawley had been ‘robbed’ when his own band beat him to the Mercury Music Prize in 2005) to a genuine chart-botherer, his latest album reaching number three in the UK chart.
The record sees him ditch the string-laden, orchestral approach of previous releases for a more pared-down approach, swirling psychedelic swathes of guitar underpinned by driving drum and bass (the instruments, rather than the urban dance music genre).
“You can do anything with a song — play it with a banjo or a 90-piece orchestra — it doesn’t matter if it’s a decent song,” says Hawley.
“It just felt like the time was right to dispense with that (the orchestral approach) and that this group of songs needed something a bit more raw.
“The last two records were not even written on an instrument — they were just written in my head.
“I spend a lot of time walking with my collie dog and that process of putting one foot in front of the other helps to switch off the tactical part of your mind.
“You just drift off into a reverie and often you don’t realise you’re doing it, you just think about a song and at the end of the walk you jot down what you’ve got.
“It’s not something you can make happen — either it does or it doesn’t.”
The new album received near-universal critical acclaim, and while on this evidence Hawley might be weary of talking to journalists, unlike some artists he admits to caring about what is written about his music.
“Anyone who’s a writer or singer who says it doesn’t matter to them is a liar,” he says. “It does, and when people write negative things about something you’ve put your heart and soul into writing it’s gonna annoy you — so to get across-theboard positive reaction was great.”
So, approaching his commercial, and arguably his critical, peak after 30 years in the game, does Hawley appreciate his success all the more for the length of time it’s taken to arrive?
“Definitely,” he says. “In all honesty, if the level of success I’m at now happened when I was younger, I don’t think I would be here now. The drugs or the drink would have got me.”
Richard Hawley appears at Derby Assembly Rooms on Monday, October 1.