Richard Hawley: Real Steel

Christopher Barrett interviews the Sheffield legend to find out what makes him tick.

Kyle Fisher
  • By Kyle Fisher
  • 24 Dec 2012
  • min read
Richard Hawley’s solo output has long resonated romance and realism in equal measure. But his Mercury Music Prize-nominated album, Standing At Sky’s Edge (published by Universal Music Publishing), saw the velvet voiced singer-songwriter make a stylistic volte-face - his career has soared in a whole new trajectory ever since.

‘Being an older musician with a past doesn’t give me the excuse to sit on my comfy arse, that’s deadly for a writer. I wanted to push myself into a new mental space and widen the ground I stood on; you can’t do that by staying the same. It was time to move on,’ says Richard.

With guitars and emotions turned up to 10, Standing At Sky’s Edge mixes everything from psychedelia to politics and raw rock riffs to rustic references. Richard’s muse was, as usual, his native Sheffield and with echoes of The Stooges and Spiritualized in the mix, the results are an album that is both euphoric and entrancing.

Following its May release, Standing At Sky’s Edge received widespread critical acclaim and debuted at number three, a new chart high for the Steel City songsmith.

Now in his mid-forties, Richard has been wielding his guitar on stage since he was 14. There have been stints with bands Treebound Story, the Longpigs, Pulp and rockabilly act The Feral Cats. He has seven solo studio albums under his belt alongside collaborations with an array of artists ranging from Lisa-Marie Presley to All Saints. He has also stepped up to the production desk for albums by the likes of Duane Eddy and Tony Christie.

There is no doubt Richard’s career has had its fair share of highs and lows, but 2012 is proving to be something of a vintage year. As it draws to a close, so does Richard’s most successful European tour to date. It has seen him sell out shows across the continent including, for the first time, London’s 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy.

Then of course there was the Mercury Music Prize. From 12 September, when the nominations were announced, to the moment the doors opened on the ceremony nearly two months later, Richard remained firmly among the favourites with odds never straying far from 4-1.

Of course, Richard had been there and not done it before. He was denied a Mercury victory in 2006 when his album Coles Corner was overlooked in favour of Arctic Monkeys’ debut set Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not. ‘Someone call 999, Richard Hawley’s been robbed!’ quipped Alex Turner when collecting the award. It was a gracious nod to his Sheffield brethren that Richard remains grateful for to this day.

Coles Corner got nominated and that was more than enough for me - somebody has got to win it and it was the Monkeys’ time. I was really glad for them. Alex said what he said in his speech and that didn’t exactly do me any harm,’ he says.

When it comes to missing out on the Mercury prize for a second time, Richard says he was more than happy simply to ‘turn up for the buffet’. But it has meant him abandoning a plan to invest the winnings in a new shed. It was a suitably unpretentious intention for a man whose outlook and songwriting remain firmly focused on the nuts and bolts of reality.

As with all Richard’s album titles, Standing At Sky’s Edge references his beloved Sheffield. Sky Edge is a hillside area, with views over the city, once blighted by crime-ridden council estates.

When he was a boy Richard used to play at Sky Edge and the title track tells of desperation, prostitution, robbery and murder. Non-too happy with the current political situation, he says the song is a ‘metaphor for where we’re at as a society’ and that the album was heavily influenced by a fear of the things he loves being lost forever.

‘Things are being set in train by greedy politicians and irresponsible businessmen that will seriously fuck us up. These people are an evil cancer in our world; they are nearly as bad as arms dealers. A civilised society, by definition, cares for its sick and elderly, nourishes and cherishes the young but this isn’t happening on any level that I can see.

The riots are the tip of the iceberg. If you don’t educate folks and give them a purpose they revert to pre-civilised behaviour. I see it everywhere I look; the petrol bombs are being lit all over the country,’ he explains.

As for the album’s rockier sound, to the fore on singles Leave Your Body Behind You and Down In The Woods, Richard explains that it was driven by a desire to use his guitar playing as the main focus of the album.

‘Once that door was opened, the influence of a zillion guitar players I’d absorbed over the years came into being. It was really liberating and a shit load of fun to do,’ he says.

The result is a far cry from the genteel charm of much of Richard’s back catalogue. But, amid the howling guitar solos and heaving riffs are lyrics laced with references amorous and arboreal, most apparent on The Wood Collier’s Grave and Down In The Woods.

‘I’ve always been a nature boy at heart as well as an inner-city dweller. My grandfather passed on a deep love of the Peak District and nature in general to me. You are never far away from the ancient greenwood in Sheffield,’ he enthuses.

Richard admits that he often finds songwriting inspiration while taking his dog Fred for a stroll amongst the local flora and fauna. ‘Walking shuts off the pragmatic side of my mind and I drift off into a kind of dreaming. I don’t want to try and explain it further; don’t mess with the song genie, she might go away,’ he says.

While Richard enthusiastically experimented with a new guitar-fueled sound on Standing At Sky’s Edge, lyrically it appears nothing will deter him from staying true to his native Sheffield and working class upbringing.
I was very lucky; I stand on the shoulders of giants

Born into a musical family, Richard first picked up the guitar at a young age - by 14 he was already gigging overseas with the Chuck Fowlers Band.

Richard’s father, Dave, was a steelworker who played guitar in local bands including The Black Cats and touring acts such as Little Walter and John Lee Hooker. Meanwhile, Uncle Frank was firmly established as one of Sheffield’s great guitarist while his grandfather was a music hall violinist. ‘I was very lucky; I stand on the shoulders of giants,’ says Richard.

In 2007 Richard recorded the album Lady’s Bridge. At the time his father’s health was deteriorating and Dave Richard’s eventual death influenced the sombre mood of his son’s follow-up set Truelove’s Gutter. One of Richard’s most treasured possessions is his father’s ‘65 Gretsch Tennessean guitar which he keeps by his side on tour.

‘That’s a beautiful guitar. I can feel dad’s hands on that instrument. It’s pretty much all I’ve got left of him so I treasure it and look after it so my kids can play it too one day. Maybe they’ll feel my hands on it,’ says Richard.

Whatever new sounds Richard chooses to embrace, his love of rockabilly remains as firmly in place as his trademark quiff. Ongoing endeavours with rockabilly act The Feral Cats appear to be a welcome distraction from the day job. ‘I do for its own sake, just for the fun and love of it, without any pressure,’ he says.

Richard’s love of sharing time and ideas with other artists has led to some interesting collaborations - this year alone he has worked with the BBC Philharmonic, Arctic Monkeys and Lisa-Marie Presley.
I’m not exactly mainstream material and I don’t intend to change that, ever

‘I just love fooling around with songs and guitars. It’s a real pleasure for me to see something appear out of nothing. I think it’s why the arts are so undervalued; they can’t be measured,’ he enthuses.

More than three decades have passed since Richard first started on a career path that has seen him move from session musician and band member to star of the show.

He certainly appears to be enjoying the spotlight. On stage at Brixton in October, Richard told the audience that prior to that gig he had always been ‘the bridesmaid, never the bride’.

‘It was just a bit of a laugh I had with the audience but it was true in a way. I never thought I’d sell that gig out. I’m not exactly mainstream material and I don’t intend to change that, ever,’ he says.

Proud, pragmatic and not a little charismatic, Richard has produced an impressive body of work with a near timeless quality. He has had a lengthy and uncompromising musical career and as 2012 draws to a close it’s one that has never looked in better health.

Does he have any tips for aspiring young songwriters? Perhaps unsurprisingly, Richard suggests they keep their feet firmly on the ground and do not stray from their chosen path.

‘Decide where you want to go musically, stick to the plan and never compromise, because if you make it by compromise you’ll never be happy with your success; it won’t have any joy or meaning.’

Listen to our Richard Hawley inspired playlist here

Words: Christopher Barrett