In Conversation: Hamish Hawk

Free from doubt, and embracing creativity...

Hamish Hawk is living the dream. The last 18 months of his decade-long musical career have been his most fruitful yet. His music is reaching more ears than ever before and he’s also bagged critical acclaim and awards nominations along the way, including last year’s SAY (Scottish Album of the Year) Awards. 

This purple patch came off the back of his engrossing album ‘Heavy Elevator’. His craftsmanship with his lyrical pen sat him apart from contemporaries, lacing wittily dark character portraits in rich imagery and indie rock fuelled soundscapes. Hamish unveiled his follow up album ‘Angel Numbers’ a few hours ago, but has the expectation of delivering another successful album helped or hindered his artistic cause? 

We check in with Hamish from his Edinburgh home and talk about how defying doubt and peculiar dreams have provided guidance from above for his new album ‘Angel Numbers’. 

Hey, Hamish! How has the start of 2023 treated you so far? Have you had the chance to reflect on your success across the last 18 months?

I had a lovely festive period, though I must admit I’ve been out for the count not feeling very well for most of it! I have had plenty of time to reflect on the last year and a bit though, and it’s really just been a runaway train. We’ve said it within the band that 2022 will go down as one of the best years of our lives. Everything changed. To live through it was mad, but I’m incredibly grateful for all of the opportunities that have come my way and long may it continue.

What would you say that you’ve learned most about yourself artistically and personally during this time?

‘Heavy Elevator’ was the product of quite a few years’ worth of songwriting. We didn’t know exactly the nature of what we were sitting on, but we knew it was certainly different than anything we had before. I was quite nervous because it was a bold new direction for me. I also felt that it revealed more of myself, as well as putting my lyrics out on a limb in a vulnerable position. But when it was so well received and garnered praise from lots of places I felt wouldn’t take notice, I never could have expected it. Then backing it up with tour after tour and seeing people singing the songs back to us, it was just incredible. 

What this has all taught be about myself is that where I was nervous, it’s not necessarily bad that that was the case. It’s given me more reason to stand steadfastly behind myself and have confidence in my work. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s the best that I can do. That’s how I always aim to attack albums. So, with my new album ‘Angel Numbers’, ‘Heavy Elevator’ has taught me to allow myself more freedom from doubt and nerves. The band and I are really happy with the new album and here’s hoping listeners will be as well. 

You’ve called your new album ‘Angel Numbers’ a “sister record” to your previous album. In what ways do they both differ from one another?

Where ‘Heavy Elevator’ was the product of quite a few years’ worth of songwriting, ‘Angel Numbers’ was written in a relatively short period of time. Where many people thought that ‘Heavy Elevator’ was quite a fitting lockdown album, it was actually written before lockdown, whereas ‘Angel Numbers’ was very much written under those constraints. I’d also say that where ‘Heavy Elevator’ is quite bombastic and truest indie rock, I think ‘Angel Numbers’ drifts into different territory in terms of genre, as well as instrumentation. There are things like horns, pedal steel and strings. The studio experience was also different in that ‘Heavy Elevator’ was all done in one big session whereas ‘Angel Numbers’ was a few various sessions combined together. It felt like the whole attitude was different between the two albums.

Did you feel you had a sense of expectation to live up to with ‘Angel Numbers’ off the back of the success of ‘Heavy Elevator’?

‘Heavy Elevator’ was the first record that I released to gain even moderate success. So, there is a certain sense that the thing you record next will be affected by that. We certainly had that in our minds that we were recording a follow up record as opposed to a debut or statement of intent. It’s tough for me to say… The success of ‘Heavy Elevator’ wasn’t something that we felt was weighing down on us all the time. We weren’t going into the new album thinking ‘this song needs to be as good as this one’ or anything like that. But it would be short-sighted of me to say that it had absolutely no effect. Some symptoms of [the expectation] may be obvious, others might reveal themselves in a few years’ time, or other listeners might mention them when they listen.

What are some of the main themes that encompass your new album?

‘Angel Numbers’ talks about music, the music industry, success, ambition and fame. There are many songs on the album which deal with these ideas, whether it’s ‘Think of Us Kissing’ which talks about how one might deal with the music industry or ‘Elvis Lookalike Shadows’ which projects the idea of one’s own fame into the future. Then where there are songs that don’t deal with these themes, the absence of those things can be a presence in itself. 

I’m a fan of the catchy choruses and straight-talking verses on the track ‘Money’. Is it true that some of the favourite lyrics you’ve ever written feature in this track?

Yeah, that’s right. Sometimes with songs, I can spend weeks putting together fragments which come together to form this song. Others just happen to land on your plate fully formed and ‘Money’ was exactly like that. But the reason I’d say the lyrics are some of my favourites are because they’re just bursting with possibility. A lot of them involved new images that I’d never used before, showcasing a new thinking and voice, perhaps, with as you say the straight-talking verses and the sarcastic, cynical choruses. I was really happy with the lyrics because it was clear to me that not only did they have promise in themselves, but that they promised a new wealth of images to pull from in the future. It felt like a new beast completely.

I’m also curious to hear about the rather bizarre dream that inspired the track ‘Bill’. Can you share the story?

It’s a bit of an embarrassing thing really! During lockdown, I tried my hand at a new hobby like most other people did. I didn’t start making sourdough, but I started writing down my dreams. However, there was one very memorable dream I had which featured Bill Callahan, an incredible songwriter and one of the greatest currently living in my reckoning. Essentially, the dream turned into something of a visitation from Bill Callahan in mystical dream form. He said this phrase to me which was, “When you hate the song, come and find me / When you’ve spent too long staring at money”. As soon as I woke up and wrote it down, I felt like I knew what it meant. It was very surreal. “Staring at money” actually comes from looking at the lyrics of my track ‘Money’ because I was so taken with them. This suddenly made me nervous about following something like that up with a track just as image rich. But hearing “when you hate the song, come and find me” from Bill Callahan in the dream turned into a promise to myself that I shouldn’t be too hard on myself about anything. The song on the album stands as a reminder to me to just keep going… every song matters. I don’t know how this will come across in print – I suspect a few people will be thinking ‘who the f*** is this guy!’

Do you feel that your new album forms the next step of what you’ve talked about in previous interviews as your “artistic pursuit of originality”?

Yeah, certainly. It’s something that I’m always in pursuit of, but I’d say that personal is a term that I need my own music to be and what I’m on the biggest musical quest for. I need my music to be personal to me. I like for my music to stand as a representation of me, my worldview, my background… everything. And I think the best way to communicate with other people on an emotional level is to be as true to yourself in your art as you possibly can be. 

You’ve also mentioned in previous interviews that you prefer to avoid being coined as a “definitive Scottish artist”. Is this still the case? And if so, why?

Honestly, I reckon I probably think about it less than what I did previously. I think I’ve performed enough now that my name is a little more out there than it was before – without over-inflating that, of course. But I used to worry about being pigeon-holed a lot. The Scottish artistic scenes (even when they try not to be) can often be inward looking at times or worry that they’re parochial. But Scotland has such a diverse, colourful array of artistic scenes and I think we should be more outward looking. I think the people who are aware of my music are aware that it’s its own thing. It makes me very proud to think that people out there would think that I am an artist doing my own thing and achieving something unique. That’s a real compliment for me. 

Being a perfectionist with your pen, are there any Scottish literary or musical figures who have perhaps influenced your writing?

It’s probably a go-to for people to think that Hamish Hawk has a very literary worldview, but it’s a very musical worldview. One of my heroes to this day is the poet and musician Ivor Cutler. When I was around 18, I had job where I often sat around. One day, I was sitting around and a colleague of mine gave me his iPod Classic (very retro, I know) and I remember scrolling down and finding the name Ivor Cutler. I was greeted by this incredible Scots brogue, the likes of which I’d never heard of before. There were all these bizarre, surrealistic odd songs on the harmonium and I went on to buy everything that I could find of Ivor Cutler’s repertoire. He inspires me to this day with his absurdist, but very poignant worldview that could make you laugh and laugh, then question your whole life and sit there with tears in your eyes. He was one of the Scottish artists who made me so proud to come from the same place as him.

How much have you relished performing to ever-growing live audiences over the last few years?

It’s been brilliant. I’ve always loved live performance, right back to when it was just me playing solo with my guitar and microphone. But I must admit, I feel like I’ve struck gold with the current band format. I think I always wanted to be the person standing in the middle of the stage holding the microphone, and this format has allowed me to do that. I feel like I’ve still got a lot to learn and am getting better at it, but it feels natural to me. I love it. 

We have our next live tour in February and our album coming out on the 3rd of the month. Lizzie Reid will be joining me on the tour, which I’m absolutely delighted about. Her recent work in particular is so incredibly strong, I can’t get any of the words out of my head.

What messages are your ‘Angel Numbers’ giving you for the year ahead?

One of my rules for all of this has always been to not have too many expectations. I am so grateful for what’s happened over the last year and a half. I couldn’t have predicted a single moment of it and I’m so lucky to be living through it. We’ve obviously worked hard as a band and I’ve been doing this in some form or another for more than a decade. It’s just such as gift. I can’t expect anything, but I’m happy to be along for the ride. 

‘Angel Numbers’ is out now.

Words: Jamie Wilde
Photo Credit: Gabriela Silveira

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