Like A Bullet: Clash Meets Richard Hawley

On theatre work, his new album, and an unexpected encounter with Faye Dunaway...

Coles Corner. Lady’s Bridge. Truelove’s Gutter.

Sheffield’s as tangible a presence in Richard Hawley’s music as his voice itself. His back catalogue is laden with landmarks, monuments that map a sentimental journey through the city where he loves and lives. He has a gift that can sift, separate the gold from the grit, and elevate the mundane into the highest romance.

In a solo career that spans two decades, he’s broadened his focus. ‘Further’, his latest album, looks beyond the city’s limits, but this is more than a geographical gear shift – there’s a change in the internal mechanics too. This record was a nudge to himself, to look beyond, to dig deeper – motivated by reaching his own half-century.

Making a vow to master new skills, he returned to film soundtracks, bringing cinematic scope to the bittersweet, brilliant ‘Funny Cow’ and the upcoming ‘Denmark’, with Rafe Spall. Collaborating with The Crucible theatre, his songs breathed life into ‘Standing on the Sky’s Edge’, a musical which documented life across three generations on Sheffield’s notorious Park Hill estates.

And in helping other people tell their stories, he worked out how to change his own. Or, as he says himself: “I wanted to write songs that came on like a bullet, to see if I still could.”

With tracks that don’t often clock over the four-minute mark, it’s a bulls-eye rollick’n’roll: the sound of a man rediscovering the joy of playing the guitar again, as vital and fresh as he’s always been.

After making himself a cup of tea, he tells us more about filming spoof horror films with Faye Dunaway, his ‘prog track’ and how whenever he needs a song, he’ll just take the dogs out for a walk.

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What is album title reaching towards?

I reached the magical age of 50 years old, which is a miracle in itself. I’d decided that I needed to learn new skills. I’m not talking about becoming a carpenter or a plumber, because I’d be really fucking shit at that. It was more to do with expanding musically, I guess, and being creative in different ways. To stop that cycle of album-tour, album-tour before I started being jaded.

I got offered to work doing film stuff: the ‘Funny Cow’ film with Maxine Peake. And I’ve got another one, Denmark, with Rafe Spall that’s due later in the year. I did a little film called Pond Life and an on-going thing, earlier in the year – a theatre production thing. I had my head in a new and different world.

When I came back to the idea of doing my own stuff, it worked. When I got in a room with the band and started bashing songs around, it felt really fresh. Almost like the first time, in a way.

It occurred to me – there’s no rule that I have to name an album after Sheffield. And here was nothing that seemed to leap out. I’ve been a solo artist for twenty years now and I felt, maybe it’s time to quit that. It just felt like it was time to move further. It’s not complicated, but it still feels good and valid.

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You mentioned the film work you’ve done. What did you take from that period of expanding your musical horizons? What did it give you, to bring back to your own music?

I don’t know if it brought anything to it, but I think I brought stuff to the film in a way. You do learn a shitload. Doing a soundtrack is a very solitary affair. That’s possibly truer than my experience as a ‘solo’ artist, because I work with a certain set of musicians every time.

With a soundtrack, it’s a much more solitary thing and you draft musicians in when you need ‘em. I do enjoy it – I’ve been offered a couple more, and I’m going to work on them during the summer.

I’ve been offered American blockbusters. I really don’t want to go down that direction. I prefer the independent end of things. British films. I would work on American or European independent things. I can’t help it. I grew up an indie kid in Sheffield.

The corporate stuff – I’ve been involved in stuff like that in the past. I did all the guitars on that Baz Luhrmann film, Romeo + Juliet, with Nellee Hooper. I did a full film soundtrack on a spoof horror film, called Flick. And then they got me to act! I just thought, do you know what? I’ll do a bit of acting. And then when I looked at the fucking script, all my scenes were on my own – with Faye Dunaway!

I’m not kidding you, Google it. I fucking shit meself.

What was she like?

She was great. The scene that I played with her, I had to beat her up with a fucking metal crowbar. Now, Faye’s 70 years old. And I’m quite a nice bloke, brought up a certain way, and hitting 70-year-old women over the head with a crowbar was not really part of my upbringing! I didn’t really do it properly, and I think she got really pissed off. We had to do three takes.

And just before the fucking third take, she fuckin’ punched me in t’face! And I reacted, like anybody would, a complete amnesia thing. And they said yep, we’ve got the take!

Do you still talk?

No, we’re not friends anymore. (Laughs)

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I read that you challenged yourself to keep the songs direct – like a bullet. Where did that desire come from?

That feeling of newness. Of me feeling refreshed, after not going near it for quite a long time. That 17-year-old indie kid that I was – when I was writing songs, I sort of looked at them like a piece of bacon. That sounds a bit weird, as an analogy, but stick with it. If you cut all the fat off it, it’s just the meat.

It’s actually quite an art to do that, to not be self-indulgent in that way. It’s occasionally quite tempting to disappear up your own arse as you get older. There’s a track on there that’s four minutes long. We call that the ‘prog track’.

Our harmonica player, he’s an absolute motherfucker of a player. We let him rip on a track called ‘Time is’ and I said, fuck it, just let him blow. And we looked at the length of the song. It’s like four minutes seven seconds. Fuck it!

You’d said you were trying to keep the songs as lean as possible. Did the writing process change?

Not really, no. Because I’ve never really stopped writing. I write for the love of it. If I need a song, I’ll take the dogs out. 'The Funny Cow' song, that’s in three sections. Three dog-walks and I’d got it. There’s something about it. It’s as near as I’ve ever got to meditation, y’know. I’ve never really thought about doing all that hippy stuff. My mind is way too fidgety for that kind of contemplation and stillness, I think.

You don’t have to have a dog, but it legitimises walking. I guess a 50-year-old guy, walking in the woods on his own, it might be misinterpreted. So obvious this, honestly, but there’s something about just putting one foot in front of the other and keeping going.

I don’t know if this is the same for everybody, but my mind kind of flits from the rational and switches into this other state, where you just go off. And my mind just always goes to thinking about music.

I should give the dogs royalties, really, but thank fuck they’re happy with a couple of biscuits.

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Is it true that the track 'My Little Treasures' has been kicking about for about 12 years?

That might be a bit misleading about it, in terms of a song. I have these things that I call ‘comfort riffs’. It’s something that you’ll have kicking around. I have a few things like that, that have been kicking about for a number of years, that you didn’t quite know what to do with it. That was one of them.

I’d keep coming back to it, and keep coming back to it, and really enjoyed playing it, but there was nothing really happening, so I kind of just left it alone. I knew that I needed another tune to fit into this record. But that said, I knew I didn’t mind if these songs ‘fit’ together or not.

The analogy that I used in my head was that I wanted them to be like a bowl of different coloured glass beads, they didn’t all need to be all the same. Not to sound up my own arse but that’s the only way that I can make sense of it. There was a colour missing. And I came back to that riff, and made the song up really quickly. As long as it was to play it, that’s what it took to write.

Would you be able to tell us more about ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ the musical you made about Park Hill estate?

I was approached by the production team. We were on tour in Portugal, and it was the last gig of a very, very long tour, eight years ago. It’s been a very long gestation period. Something as complex as that, you can’t do it in a couple of fucking weeks.

Basically, they came backstage after the concert. We were tucking into the ale, in a very enthusiastic way. They talked about the idea, and I thought it was ridiculous. All the lads in the band were laughing their heads off. A musical?! Up until very recently, I fucking hated musicals.

But then I started thinking about it, and I thought well…most people have seen Oliver, or Fiddler on the Roof. They’ve become part of our consciousness. And I thought, it’s that crazy an idea, it’s that ridiculous, that I’ll have to look into it.

Then I found out the basic ideas – the script hadn’t been written yet, it was really skeletal – they wanted, basically, to do a musical using my songs to talk about the history of Park Hill flats. It was kind of an aperture – a lens, in a way – through which to view post-war Britain. Chris Bush wrote the script – she’s a fucking genius.

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The other side of it, that’s really important – is that it’s not The Richard Hawley show. It’s collaborative affair. It was Chris Bush, who wrote the script, and Lynn Page (who’s an amazing choreographer) and Rob Haste, who’s the director of The Crucible. Tom Deerin, as well. And all the cast, you know?

It was three timelines. A young couple from 1960, among the first people who moved into the flats when they were shiny and brand-new. When it was this ‘marvellous solution’ to the housing problem. And it was very close to my heart as well, because the Duke Street slums that were cleared to build Park Hill flats – that was were my maternal grandparents lived. And both my drummers, from early bands, they were both from Park Hill flats.

The second timeline was a family of Liberian immigrants. During the wars, a lot of Liberian refugees came over, and they put them all in Park Hill flats. That was right during the 80s steel strikes, the mining strikes. And my dad was a striking steel worker, he was a union leader. Because Sheffield was the ‘socialist republic of South Yorkshire’, there was a red flag that used to fly above the town hall.

It is a fucking distant memory; I have to be honest. But the hammer blow fell hardest here, because Thatcher wanted to smash the unions, y’know? And that affected everybody.

The last timeline was a London yuppie, who’d moved up here to buy one of these flats – they’d all been reinvented, reconditioned. All the timelines kind of run into one another. And that’s where Lynn Page and Chris’ genius kind of come into their own. I enjoyed being a part of it. A real learning curve for me, and it was fucking hard work!

Will you ever put it on anywhere else?

They’re talking about it, because a lot of people from the West End, Broadway and the film world came to see it. They’ve talked about it, but I’m not getting over-excited. I’m happy with what it was.

The first night was the most nerve-wracking, because that was what they call a public dress rehearsal – a free performance. It was all for Park Hill residents, old and new. I was shitting myself, because I knew some of them.

The Hill family, the brothers, the eldest – Gary, he was the first baby born in the Park Hill flats. His mum was in tears; she was in absolute bits. It was the first time that the new Park Hill residents – the yuppies and whatnot – had been in the same room as the old residents who got kicked out. That could have been a right fucking car crash, y’know? But it ended up being quite a healing process.

It laid abandoned for decades. It was a listed building – they grade one listed it. And then that company, Urban Splash, they bought it for a pound and turned it into private dwellings.

The story of it, up until this point, had caused a lot of shit in the city. But funnily enough, some amazing things happened. I was stood with Rob Hastings, the director, and Chris in the bar after one of the performances.

An old man came up to me and said, “I’m 82 years old. I’ve been a racist all my life, and watching that has made me realise how wrong I was”. He was on the edge of tears. “I feel like I’ve wasted my life. I’ve just got so much wrong,” he said.

It was obviously quite moving; you know? To be a small part of something like that was a real life-changing thing for me.

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'Further' is out now.

Catch Richard Hawley at the following shows:

2 Bristol O2 Academy
3 Cardiff University Great Hall
4 Norwich UEA
6 Oxford O2 Academy
7 Manchester Albert Hall
8 Liverpool Guild Of Students
10 Birmingham O2 Institute
11 Sheffield Octagon SOLD OUT
12 Sheffield Octagon ADDED TO DUE TO DEMAND
14 Newcastle Northumbria Institute
15 Glasgow Barrowland
17 London Roundhouse
18 Brighton Dome

Words: Marianne Gallagher // @SoLongMarianne
Photography: Eleonora C. Collini

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