“It’s Chaos, Innit?” Richard Hawley Interviewed

Sheffield troubadour on his fine new album, and the absolute state of the UK...

“We need to get together to affect change. We mustn’t be afraid. They use all the power they have to make us afraid. They make us doubt ourselves, they demonise young people and people who want to make a change to the way we think. The album is a reaction against all that.”

Richard Hawley is not known as a political songwriter. Across a musical career spanning over three decades, the Sheffield singer has turned his hand to many things: film scores and soundtracks, countless collaborations including with Manic Street Preachers and Arctic Monkeys (he even played the guitar on All Saints’ cover of ‘Under The Bridge’) and, most recently, a theatre production inspired by his landmark 2012 album ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’. 

Yet, as he explains to CLASH, Hawley remains characteristically aware of his limitations and acknowledges that – while explicitly political songwriting is beyond him (so he says) – the state of society pervades most of his work: “I’m not a very good political writer. I’ve tried to do it, but I’m not as eloquent as people like Billy Bragg, who I love. His work and him as a man, he’s a great guy. I always end up taking the side of the people who have to deal with the fucking fallout. Which I was, and still am. That’s the point of the record.”

The title says as much: ‘In This City They Call You Love’ is Hawley’s tenth studio album (or ninth full-length effort, depending on how you view his self-titled debut) and, once again, takes inspiration from his home city. It’s a diverse set of songs, varying from the tender (‘I’ll Never Get Over You’) to the brash (‘Have Love’), yet their creator feels they are united by a vibe: “The songs just seemed to have space in them, naturally.”

“When I finished writing the songs in (home studio) Disgraceland…all the songs had a natural sense of space, and then once I’d got a lot of songs gathered together, it was apparent that the thread that ran through them all. They were almost like eggshells, the more you tried to pile on them in the studio, it ruined the song. The focus was on the voices of me and the guys in the band. They’re brilliant singers, Shez (Sheridan) and Col (Elliott) and there’s something really comforting about singing together with people. It’s something I grew up with; everybody in the family all sang together… there’s something about that I don’t want to fuck with by piling loads of instruments and multilayering stuff.”

“There are strings on a couple of tracks, but it’s not over the top. It’s an album of restraint. Even the bigger songs like ‘Two For His Heels’ and ‘Deep Space’, the actual instrumentation that’s on there…there’s fuck all there, really. It’s not multilayered stuff, it’s either me playing with a little bit of accompaniment with voices, or the same but with a band and drums. It’s a very basic record and – I guess – raw.”

The eclectic nature of the record is exemplified by two tracks: ‘Deep Space’ is a boisterous, gloriously uninhibited rocker while the track which follows it (‘Deep Waters’) is intimate and sparse, even if paired together they look odd on the eye. “I didn’t want to split them in the track list so I thought fuck it, let’s just keep them together,” Hawley says. “They’re almost like magnetic opposites, but they fit together well.”

“I accept that it’s quite an odd record,’ he continues, self-effacing as ever, ‘Because it doesn’t have a tempo-related flow, but there’s something about it. We recorded way more tracks but I binned them off because they just didn’t have what I was looking for, which was a depth. These ones just seemed to drag me in. I don’t know whether that makes sense! I follow the feel of stuff, irrespective of tempo or sound, there was just a feeling that was deeper than anything else. I love the magic of that; the songs just seemed to be those where I threw a dart into the dark and hit bullseye without aiming for it. They seem to sit together really well.”

Remarkably for a man known for his proficiency and love of the guitar, only three feature on the album. “That’s an old 50s Silvertone guitar that I picked up in America for $20,” Hawley explains, referring to the cacophonous sound on ‘Have Love’. ‘Even the amps and guitars I use are really basic.”

“The main guitars I use, there’s Dad’s guitar, there’s a guitar that Duane Eddy gave me, one that Lisa Marie Presley gave me… This sounds like a namedrop, but three days into the recording I got a phone call from Kathy, Scott Walker’s manager. She said they’d sorted out his estate and he’d put in it that he wanted me to have one of his guitars, which blew my mind. His daughter Lee said she wanted to send me over a guitar he wanted me to have, his 60s Fender Telecaster. Obviously, I’d rather have Scott than his guitar, but that was great to play that.”

“Incredible instruments that I’m very blessed to own, my father’s included. I record in my cabin so all these guitars I keep at home. They’re very precious to me, so they’re physically around me at all times.”

“It just seemed to be that those instruments gave me a sense of being looked after or watched over. It’s a tangible thing. All they are really is a conglomeration of wood and metal put in a specific order to create a harmonious – or disharmonious – sound, but actually, they are totemic, talismanic tribal-elder spears! I’ve just had a go at chucking them myself, that’s all!”

Meanwhile, the lyrics on ‘In This City They Call You Love’ are an attempt to navigate away from the hellscape that is Britain in 2024 and, referring to the thought process behind his songwriting, it’s a subject about which Hawley is passionate: “Sentiment, as they say, is cheap, but there’s a lot of deep feeling on it, because I experience those things from a different angle. It’s like the musical, it’s not a political, finger-wagging exercise. I’m not pointing the finger, it’s about loss.”

“Things that weren’t just taken from us, they were stolen from us by force. Thatcher used the police like a military unit to destroy our unions and our sense of union. It’s not just loss, it’s about things we’ve lost and the importance of home and place. Basic fucking things, man. I guess I’m just trying to find some sort of stability through writing in the middle of this chaotic country we live in now. It’s chaos, innit? There’s no stability to anything.”

“The idiocy,” he continues, irately, “The absolute, asylum-level lunacy of Liz Truss’s brief period as our Premier, and the fact they’re still there! It’s not political with a big P, but I always talk about the effects of these stupid decisions by idiot politicians have on us as ‘little people’, and that includes me. It’s just trying to find some sense of fucking stability and peace, which is so hard to find.”

“It’s insane. I’m old enough to have lived through this shit at least once. The Thatcher years, and what it did to this region is (happening) now, and I can see it in every industry and every form of people making a living. Whether you’re a butcher or a baker – I know bakers, my sister’s one – and even the basic things in our society are so unstable now. I guess the only people, as always, that have stable jobs are the taxman and the funeral directors.”

“But – this all aside – it’s not a depressing record, I hope. There’s a lot of hope in it, or I hope there’s hope! I tried my best to not make it all raw, either emotionally or musically. It’s very simple. My grandad used to say, ‘One day son, you’ll learn two things: ‘When is enough enough,’ as in, ‘when have you got enough possessions,’ and if life gets complicated, it’s up to you to simplify it.’ These things stick with me.”

“Dare I say it, there’s a loving quality on the album. I meant to put something out there that’s the opposite of the vibes that’s being put out there by our leaders. There’s a lot of amazing, positive, beautiful things out there, but it’s the polarisation which really scares me.”

“I really believe in trade unions and unity. It’s the old stick thing, innit? Many grandfathers will have shown their grandchildren this over the centuries: you get one stick; you break it in half. You get two sticks; you break them in half. You get ten sticks, there’s no fucking way you can break them in half. You get 1000 sticks, no chance. 10,000 sticks, forget it: it’s strong.”

“It’s interesting, I don’t think I’ve seen the word ‘woke’ used by a young person. I’ve got three kids and I’ve never heard them use it as a word they identify with. I’m old enough to recognise that when the right-wing press use a word, it’s because they’re frightened. If they use the word ‘woke’ to beat people over the head or get people in their echo chamber to agree with them, it’s because they’re afraid of that word. They’re way more frightened of us than we are of them.”

The abiding feeling one gets from speaking to Richard Hawley is empathy, and it extends to the team working on the ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’ play, which has recently transferred to the West End. The songwriter cannot speak highly enough of the whole team behind the production: “I’ve got a lot of actor friends, but it’s given me a whole new level of respect for the whole profession or acting and performing. I hate musicals, although I quite like this one! But their work ethic is unbelievable. It makes us musicians look like work-shy fucks in comparison.”

“Before I did this, I was a total theatre virgin, completely naïve, but the naivety ended up being an asset, because I approached things with an open heart and perspective in terms of theatre. I’m a slightly soiled theatre virgin now! It’s changed my minds in terms of what I think about the power of theatre. It’s nearly 13 years ago that the first idea came, so it’s been a long process to get it from where it was to where it is.”

“The other thing that’s really important is that I don’t want to take credit for something I don’t deserve. It’s a collaborative affair, it’s not the Richard Hawley Show, in any way, shape of form. That sounds like something you’d say at a cheesy awards ceremony, but they are fucking amazing people. The work ethic is off the hook. I’ve worked hard in my life, touring and stuff – which is gruelling – and you have to have a certain mindset to survive that, and it’s killed people. But the level of commitment they show is off the hook and massive respect.”

The show runs until August, but if you want to hear his songs delivered by the man himself, then Richard Hawley is touring for most of the summer, including a homecoming show at Don Valley: “That’s the biggest one yet. Who’d have thought a speccy twat from Fir Park would do something like that? I’ve got to not think about it, it’s just another day. Just keep focussed because the enormity of things can swamp you.”

“(The tour) is gonna be fun, I hope people are going to like it. At the end of the day, rock and roll is supposed to be fun. I just want to get out and play with my brothers.”

“When is enough enough? I’ve had more than enough. I haven’t just taken a bite of the cherry, I’ve eaten the whole fucking bowl, and I’m aware of that. I’m a very lucky man and I just want to keep going until I can’t.”

‘In This City They Call You Love’ is out now.

Words: Richard Bowes
Photography: Dean Chalkey

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