Richard Hawley - Interviews - Soundblab

Richard Hawley

by Ian Johnston Rating: Release Date:

Richard Hawley is one of the UK's leading singer/songwriter/producers working today. A passionate fan of rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, blues, folk, country and all manner of 'roots' music, 43-year-old guitarist Richard Hawley has produced three stunning albums for Mute records - Cole's Corner (2005), Lady's Bridge (2007) and Truelove's Gutter (2009), arguably his best to date, all recorded in and heavily influenced by his Sheffield hometown. Each album is even named after a location in the city.

Eulogized by an eclectic range of performers, from the Arctic Monkeys to veteran singer Tony Christie (who collboratedn with Hawley made his 2008 Made In Sheffield LP) and Dame Shirley Bassey, Hawley's rich, confessional ballads and sardonic yet honest songs of love, loss, despair and possible redemption are simply timeless classics, far beyond the mere vagaries of current fad or fashion. In Hawley's hands, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Hawley is one of the few performers who could both support Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at their most feral and play and record with Nancy Sinatra, both of which he has done in the past five years. None other than Scott Walker has effusively praised Hawley's voice, which is all you really need to know. Recuperating from a 'heavy' night mid tour, Richard Hawley granted an exclusive interview to Soundblab down the line from his hotel bed in Paris, one sunny day in May at noon.

Ian Johnston: Your new EP False Lights from the Land, featuring two of your own compositions ('Remorse Code' from Truelove's Gutter and 'There's A Storm A Comin'') and two folk song covers ('Shallow Brown' and 'The Ellan Vannin Tragedy', with guest vocals by Smoke Fairies, Jessica Davis and Katherine Blamire), developed from your recent critically acclaimed BBC Radio 2 series, The Ocean. In that show you explored how the sea and seafaring culture has influenced many different strands of cultural life in the British Isles. How did The Ocean (the title of a track from Cole's Corner) radio series come about?

Richard Hawley: It was just something I wanted to do. I was talking about it to friends, not about a series. I was just spouting on about it in a pub one night, pissed up. I was just saying how much British culture had been affected by the sea, the fact that we were an island, the sea had brought us so much and has taken away so much as well, literally, like a tide over the centuries, whether it be the Vikings or the Norman invasion, Napoleon trying to invade us or whatever, vast emigration and immigration, it's has always fascinated me. I read a lot of books about history. I didn't do so good at school, you know, but since leaving school I've become an obsessive reader.

My grandfather used to talk about where we'd come from, our family and stuff. As you know, I have very strong roots in Sheffield, and that is about as inland as you can get in Britain, but Sheffield was still affected by the sea - immigration and emigration. So, I was just going off on this, pissed up in the pub and my friend Elizabeth Alker was there. Elizabeth does shows for radio and said, "That would make a great fucking show and you should do it". And I said, drunk, "Alright, let's do it". (Laughs). She made it happen, really, her and my manager. I was right chuffed to be able to do it. It was a right mad ride, that series, because it was just me and Lizzy in a car. We drove from Cornwall, taking in as much coast as we could. We only had five days to do it in. We got as far north as Aberdeen. I would have liked to have gone as far north as the Orkneys and everything, but we just ran out of time. We crammed as much as we could into the time that we'd got.

Ian Johnston: The series was very well received, which must have been gratifying, considering the amount of effort and passion that you'd put into the project….

Richard Hawley: Yeah. I just hope it turned some people on to this frame of mind, you know. Pass on a spark of knowledge about it. Inspired them to read a book about it or think about it. There where certain things about it that fucked my head up, in a good way, that just turned the whole tour upside down. One was when we where in South Zeal in Devon. I was walking home and it was a magical night, the wind was coming in, it was really fucking cold, you could see all the stars and I walked to the King's Arms in South Zeal, which was owned at one time by the Oxenham family who where all fucking pirates who sailed with Drake. They where posh pirates, basically. They gave Henry VIII and Elizabeth I the idea to form the Royal Navy, and all that, you know.

I was thinking about these things and I saw these 24 guys just singing outside this pub and the hair on my neck just stood up. They were singing various songs, which I would eventually record, including 'Shallow Brown'. I just went to bits because my dad used to sing that song. I rang me mum and said, 'Shallow Brown' and she said, "Oh yeah, that Big Bill Broonzy song that your dad used to sing". "What?" (laughs). Then she said, "He used to sing you to sleep to that". It's a song about fucking slavery! (Laughs) Just the melody and everything, it was obviously lodged in my head. It was if someone had thrown a stone in my mind. When I heard them singing it I knew that I want to sing that song and I formulated what I wanted to do; I wanted to do it a cappella, I didn't want to do it with any instrumentation.

The other thing, that was life changing for me, was meeting folk singer Norma Waterson. She so kindly let us visit her in her in her home. She was sitting in a chair, he brother Michael brought in a big brown pot of tea and biscuits and that. We just sat there talking and she sang 'The Bay of Biscay' to me and she reduced me to tears. And I don't mean in any negative way, it was just so amazingly beautiful. It just did me head in, in a great way. It reaffirmed everything I believe in, which is you've just got to make music for it's own sake, rather than for any other issue, you know what I'm saying?

Ian Johnston: Yeah, absolutely.

Richard Hawley: The kind of stuff we love.

Ian Johnston: It wasn't made by people thinking about their bank balance…

Richard Hawley: Or X Factor. They made it because they where driven to do it. Music is basically a part of life. And those songs were sung because it was a means of release.

Ian Johnston: Also it was a way of conveying news, like on some of those very old blues songs. The other cover version on False Lights from the Land EP, 'The Ellan Vannin Tragedy', which relates the story of a ship that sank in 1909, off Liverpool bay, killing 36 people, was written by….

Richard Hawley: Hughie, Hughie Jones of The Spinners. One of the biggest folk groups, at their time. It's very…. I'm not interested in 'cool', I don't give a fuck what is or isn't 'cool', I couldn't give a shit. It's shallow, meaningless and transparent…..

Ian Johnston: And it isn't cool.

Richard Hawley: Yeah (Laughs uproariously). It's as deep as an After Mint wrapper. At the time, The Spinners, like you say they brought the news but to an ignorant nation, on the whole. I love The Spinners version. I stumbled across the song by accident, as is often the case in my life. I can't remember exactly where I found it, the usual thing in my life is forces that converge, you know what I'm saying. I heard the song, found out where it had come from and I couldn't add the two together. The Spinners? You're fucking joking. And then I realized that Hughie was just this master songwriter and The Spinners where out to present themselves in a certain way at the time. It's hard to take it in. I don't like judging people or situations, so I thought, The Spinners, fair enough. Hughie played that song, first, live. He'd never played it to the band or anything. When you listen to the live version the whole audience join in by the end and it's hairs up on the back of the neck time. And it's a true story, you know, it happened.

Ian Johnston: Your song, 'There's a Storm A-Comin'', was that written specifically for the False Lights from the Land EP or had you been working on it during the radio series?

Richard Hawley: Yeah, it was around, you know. I'd had it for a long time and it was, again, forces converging. It just seemed the right time for that song. At any given moment, I'll have six songs going round in my head. It's like plates spinning (laughs). They work there way out. I very rarely write songs holding a guitar, if ever; they go off in my head. The 'Remorse Code' track from the Truelove's Gutter album seemed to fit in along side it, because I'm a belligerent cunt. I thought it was a really good idea to release a 10 minute single because even if I release a three minute single they still won't fucking play it. I just want to get as far away as I can from the X Factor generation and that's a great way to do it, play a 10 minute psychedelic fucking song about drowning (laughs). It's a metaphor; it's about drowning in alcohol and drugs.

Ian Johnston: But can also have one foot in the False Lights from the Land imagery because of the title…

Richard Hawley: And False Lights from the Land is also in the lyrics of 'Remorse Code'.

Ian Johnston: Yes. Does False Lights from the Land refer to The Wreakers, who supposedly used to lure ships on to the rocks to plunder them for booty?

Richard Hawley: Now, that was the thing that started me off. There is a book called The Wreakers: A Story of Killing Seas, False light and Plundered Shipwrecks by Bella Bathurst (2005). It was basically her PHD. I wanted to interview her for the radio program but she's got a really serious illness. I read that book and that just kick started the series and everything. I went back reading books; I even went back to reading Treasure Island, which was a great journey because it's one of my favourite books. I read all these history books, got me thinking about maps and the history of cartography and all sorts of stuff. Just from reading that one book.

Ian Johnston: It's good that you are reviving the EP format, it a great medium on which you can work out ideas….

Richard Hawley: How many EPs have we got between us?

Ian Johnston: Err, quite a few, I'd say.

Richard Hawley: Ricky Nelson, Gene Vincent or Fats Domino, all those things. I suppose they where the sound bites of their time, you known.

Ian Johnston: Yeah, which leads me to ask if this EP is leading to a full-length album covering this sort of subject matter?

Richard Hawley: It could do, but I haven't thought about it, to tell you the truth, at this stage. See, the thing is I have to be very careful with the folk world. I don't want to hijack that sort of thing. I got into that situation, and I got into that world and I love it. But it's a bit like being a mod and then making a rockabilly record. You have to do what you are. I took the things out of it that I loved, there was a meaning behind it, 'Shallow Brown' for example, I heard my daddy sing it. The thing about that song, and the whole genre if you like, is that it's the definition of infinity, if you want to get deep about it. Time stretches both ways, man. The folk song is our oral history. If you want to look into it, it's there for you. It's the history, not of the victors; it's the history of the fucking losers. Which is, basically, poor people. You can find out what it was like to be on the battlefield of Waterloo, if you want. It's all there. It's not on the Internet, it's in people's minds and it's beautiful that you can find out all these things by studying for a little bit of your time all these songs.

Ian Johnston: And obviously folk songs are also part of the foundation of what became known as blues, country, rock 'n' roll….

Richard Hawley: It's the basis of it all, you know. So is the history of modern music, straight back to Africa. Listen to a John Lee Hooker record; you aren't far from a fucking African village, mate. You're just not. I really urge anyone who is interested at all in what I'm saying to listen, not to me, listen to Norma Waterson and Mike Waterson and Martin Carthy because they are the source of the river. They live in North Yorkshire and you will hear the foundation of British culture in what they are talking about. They hold the key. They are mind blowing. I recently went with my mate J.P. Bean who wrote The Sheffield Gang Wars to see Norma and Martin play and it just blew my mind. It was amazing. If you went to see them, you'd hear so much in there. Something from a Marvin Rainwater track, you know, stuff like that.

Ian Johnston: Some younger people seem to think that music was invented twenty years ago or something.

Richard Hawley: Well, that's in the nature of youth and that's OK. But the older I get, life becomes more serious because you are coming to the end of it, of your own existence. But I'm not that selfish, so I realize, when I go, I'm making room for some else. Like, for example, for the rest of this year, I don't want to publically do very much, just teach my children. I want to be around to kind of watch and spend some time showing them the way, you know.

Ian Johnston: I notice that one thing that is happening, featuring you as the headline act, is the amusingly titled The Teddy Boy's Picnic, at Bushey Heath Farm, Derbyshire, on Saturday, June 5 2010.

Richard Hawley: It had to be done, our kid. There's not a lot to do with it that's rock 'n' roll but I am a bit of an old rocker, as you know. Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy are playing at that and I just can't wait to see them. I'm not really interested in me anymore; I just want to see them. Just to be able to create a situation, to be able to do that. They exist without me, but it's good to bring them to another audience…. I don't want to play myself; I just want to watch them. Smoke Fairies are playing too. It's nail your colours to the mast time, man, generally in our country, in a lot of ways - politically, emotionally, whatever. Because if you don't (laughs) - also, on a lighter note, it will be a fucking laugh.

Festivals have become so corporate, so distant from the basic ideals of co-mingling and sharing ideas. It's not about paying to be trapped in a field to be marketed too, man. (Laughs). That's why I refuse to play them. Two years ago I did the V Festival and I just hated it. It was a horrible experience. It wasn't like anything I remembered, you know? I just kind of thought, well why not do something nice for us all, for anybody? OK, you've got to pay to get in, that's a given, because I have to charge people because I have to pay the musicians. I think, if you do sing a song, you should get a bowl of soup at the end of the day (Laughs). You sing for your supper, don't you? And all the musicians that are there, I think they've got real value and they need to be heard. Hopefully, people will come along and turn them on to different thought processes, I don't know, if not, they'll come along and have a picnic with their families. I suppose its nail my colours to the mast time, I'm a bit of an old teddy boy and I'm not ashamed of it. I just hope it will be a nice time for folks.

Ian Johnston: The Smoke Fairies sound fantastic on the EP. How did you get involved with the record?

Richard Hawley: A friend of mine, Craig, he runs a little kind of night. There must be hundreds of these people secreted all over Britain. I know they're there because the thing is that Ocean documentary reaffirmed for me was what I want to find is does this stuff still exist or is it in a museum? Is it real or is it just….. Is it alive, you know what I mean? I found that it's very much alive, mate.

Ian Johnston: It's like when people say jazz is a dead music, which is absolute nonsense. It's alive, but maybe not well, because of the music industry being what it is.

Richard Hawley: That's the point though, isn't it, Ian? Music Industry - those two words together are an oxymoron. They need us more than we need them, motherfucker (laughs). That's the fucking point. It might not sustain a 'career' but it will sustain you - it's like food. It's a necessary part of life. You have to have it. You have to separate money from music. They are different issues. Like you say, you meet a 20-year-old kid and they have no connection to The Velvet Underground - but they have, it's one step removed, that's all. (Laughs). When I got into Echo and the Bunnymen, I read an interview with them and they turned me on to The Electric Prunes, The Chocolate Watch Band, The 13th Floor Elevators and many more bands. You just…. Free your mind and your ass will definitely follow! (Laughs) It's all there. The thing about music is as long as you can pick up an instrument ,and take the time and skill to play the fucker, it's always going to be there.

Ian Johnston: I suppose a benefit of contemporary life is that it's much easier to find out about different kinds of music, than when we where teenagers, through the Internet.

Richard Hawley: Well, then you come down to the issue of value, you see. My granddad used to say, "Listen son, naught for free is worth fuck all, apart from love". Sometimes you kind of have to dig for stuff, you know what I mean. The happiest moments of my sad arse life are finding that original Johnny Burnette 10 inch record, you know. It is the Holy Grail when you find those things or you hear a certain piece of music because it changes the course of your life. The Internet is a beautiful thing in a lot of ways because you can find things out straight away. They have that Shazam on IPhone where you can put it next to a speaker in a pub or anywhere and it just comes back with what it is. That's really great but it's the hunt … We are hunters. IPods are nothing compared to human beings. Our capacity for storing information is vast.

Ian Johnston: When can we expect your next LP, Richard? Eighteen months or so?

Richard Hawley: Yeah, I want to do other things for a while. I think Truelove's Gutter is my best album. The ideas behind it are very pure. That's kind of what I liked, really. There are so many options on the dartboard that I could do next. I could make a rockabilly record; I could make a folk record, whatever I want to do. That's a lovely thing to be able to do. I'm going to go away and think about it for a bit, but whatever it's going to be it won't be what you think I'm going to do (laughs). Keep wriggling, man, as my daddy used to say to me.

Ian Johnston: Long may you wriggle, Richard.


Richard Hawley's The Teddy Boy's Picnic is at Bushey Heath Farm, Tideswell Moor, Derbyshire, on Saturday 5th June, 2010.

Richard Hawley - False Lights From The Land EP (Mute) Out on June 7th. 2010.

Photos courtesy of Steve Gullick

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