Richard Hawley

Richard Hawley
For the last 28 years or so Richard Hawley has been making music as a touring guitarist for his uncle’s pub band, a co-founder of Britpop favourites Longpigs, a member of Pulp, a session guitarist for the likes of Robbie Williams, Beth Orton and Jarvis Cocker (with whom he also formed the bizarre one-off electro duo Relaxed Muscle), and for the last seven straight years, a celebrated eponymous singer-songwriter. On the eve of a North American tour supporting his fifth studio album, Lady’s Bridge, Hawley took some time to chat about playing strip clubs at the age of 12, his serious working class roots and his devotion to Henderson’s Relish.

So you’re in Toronto at the Horseshoe Tavern on December 5. Do you have any relationship with the city of Canada?
I’ve got Canadian family, though they’re French Canadians from Montreal. I’ve toured all over Canada actually, with my first band the Longpigs, but I played a lot there with Pulp as well. I’m looking forward to it very much. I’m sorry that we’re not doing more. We played a small campus outside of Toronto called London, Ontario. Do you know it?

Yes, I’ve been there a few times.
We’ve played there and Vancouver.

You’ve never actually played Canada on your own before, have you?
No, this is the first time.

Can you tell me a little about the teddy boy band you played in when you were 14? I heard you were playing strip clubs?
When I actually started out it was in my uncle’s band and I was younger than that. We used to play a little pub up the road called the Pheasant, and I was about 12 or 13. He used to let me join in so I could learn my chops. For my first tour I went abroad with one of my father’s band mates in the ’60s and we went all over Europe. He told my father that we were playing really nice places, and really we just played strip bars and tiny dives – it was a pretty funky awakening to touring. The strip bar’s stage was circular with a curtain going across the middle and we’d be behind the curtain playing music for the girls while they took their clothes off. Then after the curtains would open up and the stage would revolve and we’d just play music while the old dirty men looked at their newspapers and ignored us, and then the girl would come on again and take her clothes off… it was pretty mad. It was an interesting start.

I read somewhere that you never intended to be a solo artist. What happened with that?
I never intended for this to happen, ever, but it got to a point in my life where I’d always sang and wrote songs as a little boy and I got to about 32, and the people around me, like my father and Jarvis [Cocker] from Pulp, a few people whose opinions I really expected said, "You really should do this.” I always used to sing my songs in the dressing room or on the bus and kinda laugh about it. I didn’t really take myself seriously. I think maybe because I was shy, to be honest. And to be a lead singer you’ve got to have an enormous ego, and I never had the prerequisite ego to be a "rock star,” and only had these ideas to make this gentle music. But I got to a certain age where it donned on me, and my father said, "You don’t want to get to 60 years old and regret doing this, you should do it son.” So the first record I released was just a seven-track mini-album, and I kinda thought, "Okay I’ve done that now, everyone can get off my case and I can carry on doing what I’m doing.” But then it kinda became quite popular [Laughs]; it wasn’t part of the design.

You seem to pay tribute to your hometown of Sheffield often in your music. What to you makes it so inspiring?
Culturally we’re told to escape from where we are, and I thought I spent the first 20 years of my life trying to escape, and the next 20 years trying to get back, y’know. It’s a very rich working class culture that is quite hard to explain why. Like I’ve said before, it’s a post-industrial shithole, but it’s my favourite post-industrial shit hole. D’ya know what I mean?

Yeah. I come from a post-industrial shit hole too. It’s called Hamilton.
Sadly, a lot of people do these days with all of this globalisation bullshit. It’s an old steel town and people lived really hard lives, but somehow, like my father was a steel worker as well as a musician, I don’t know how they managed to do it, but there’s a deep-rooted sense of humour as well here. It’s quite a self-deprecating sense of humour; people never get to be bigheaded here because people around you will let you know real quick that you’re a bit of an arsehole. D’ya know what I mean? And I kinda like that. Up till now no one’s told me I’m an arsehole here in Sheffield, but I know if I was one they’d let me know pretty fuckin’ quick.

A lot of people point out the working class themes in your music, but when I think of your songs and try to describe them to people I see you as a very smooth, romantic.
Well, you don’t know me.

Okay, then I guess I’m saying your music is romantic…
But I am my music. Listen harder.

[Awkward silence] Umm… is there any attempt on your part to make your music romantic then?
Nah. People describe it as that, but… it is but there are so many different ways of expressing yourself as a human being. If you sit back and try and be calm you can say things that you can actually shout and fight about in a totally different way. If you just use your head a little bit more and listen to things in a different way you can likely hear other things.

Lady’s Bridge incorporates rockabilly into your sound. I know you’re a fan of ‘50s rock’n’roll —
I’m just a fan of good music and when it opens its mouth it means what it says.

Okay, but why did it take you so long to make that so visible in your music, considering you play with a rockabilly band [the Feral Cats] in your spare time?
Well, I just try to have fun with that band. The thing is I try to avoid pastiche. It would be really easy for me to copy and paste into something modern. I understand that I’ve been playing rockabilly since I was a little boy or learning how to play is more like it. It’d be easy for me to piggyback or ghost write a load of rockabilly songs, but it’s just a song I wrote. The song "Serious” I wrote when I was supposed to be doing a film soundtrack, doing something totally different. And that song actually started off as a waltz, believe it or not, and I was messing around with it and it took about 20 minutes to write that song from beginning to end, and probably about 40 minutes to record it – it was really quick. And the longest thing to do was the female backing vocals, which took ten minutes. And the other song on the album, "I'm Looking For Someone To Find Me,” I wrote on a bus on my way to Norway, and it was the only song that I wrote outside of our studio.

I think why your music resonates with me so much is because I don’t find many artists making pop music with this timeless quality your music has.
Oh, you actually like it?

Yes, of course!
All right, it’s nice to hear that because I do quite a few interviews and sometimes you can tell that it’s just work for them. I don’t mind that but if you can connect with a subject you actually like that makes it easier for us both! [Laughs]

I’ve been looking forward to this since Late Night Final.
Wow, okay, well then you should have called! [Laughs]

Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy. What I was getting at was your music is steeped in a classic sound that reminds me of greats like Scott Walker and Lee Hazlewood. Do you feel you have many contemporaries out there?
No, I don’t. I find it easier to talk to the older musicians than I do a lot of the younger ones. Actually, that’s bullshit - there are loads of young musicians that I can talk to. It’s not musicians, it’s what you hear on the radio, which does my brain in completely. I know that there’s great music out there, but it confuses and angers me in a lot of ways why radio has such a stranglehold on the modern sound of Earth, if you like. To me that is not a reflection of what is happening nowadays, d’ya know what I’m saying? There just seems to be a disturbing stranglehold that corporate bullshit has on what we choose and do not choose to listen to. A lot of record companies and corporate folks are terrified of the internet and MySpace, but I kinda like that because it empowers people to choose and listen to what they want. I think it’s really important to do that instead of just being cannon fodder.

You’ve played with a lot those popular mainstream artists on the radio like Robbie Williams, All Saints, and Gwen Stefani —
I never played with Gwen, that’s not true that. Although I can’t really remember doing that but I’ve played on thousands of sessions years ago. A decade back I was doing maybe five sessions a week, y’know. But I’ve never met Gwen and the only way I think that could have happened was through Nellee Hooper, who was a producer I used to work with a lot. I did the Romeo and Juliet soundtrack with him and various things. Maybe he sampled my guitar playing for Gwen; there’s a lot of my guitar playing in his music. That’s the only possible way I think it could have happened. Anyways, continue.

Well, I’m just wondering if it’s a stretch for you to work with music that requires such a different side to you?
No. There are only 12 notes in music, man. The combinations that can come out of that are endless. I quite like working with those people, thinking in ways that you normally might not. It’s like walking a mile in someone else’s musical shoes. I like that. But sometimes it’s not worth stretching at all, it’s kind of a no brainer. I don’t do it so much now, or even at all if I don’t like what I’m hearing. I’m lucky to be in that position, but 10 or 15 years ago I needed a gig! [Laughs]

So I guess it’s not just another gig for you now?
No, because I can’t read music I was never asked to just turn up and play some bullshit they had written. I was always asked to do sessions because of what I’d bring to the table, d’ya know what I mean? I come up with some pretty off the wall stuff that they might not have thought of… Maybe I’m being really vain, maybe I’m just really shit! [Laughs]

I was a big fan of the Longpigs back when The Sun Is Often Out was released. That was a popular record in Toronto —
We always had a great time when we played in Toronto!

Yeah, which is why I’m wondering what happened to the band after that? Why wasn’t your second album ever released here?
Well, on a purely technical side, the week before the record was to come out, the record company was told by Universal that it was gonna close. And that was kind of it. We spent a lot of time on the second record… All things come to an end in life and it was just the right time for that thing to end.

How about Relaxed Muscle? Will we ever hear from you and Jarvis again?
No, the muscle is very, very relaxed now.

Finally, I see you endorse Henderson’s Relish —
Well, I don’t endorse it, I use it! I’ve done since I was a boy.

So it’s a product you enjoy then?
Yeah, it’s made in Sheffield — I sound like a sandwich salesman! It’s something that’s made in Sheffield… it’s a beautiful condiment to use in soups and pies, it goes with a lot of things. Italians use it in Bolognese because I’ve been talking about it so much.

Wow, I had would have guessed that.
Well, there you go.

Richard Hawley "Tonight the Streets Are Ours”