Inspired by the Tories and a dog named Fred
He played again with Pulp recently, but Richard Hawley’s solo work just keeps getting stronger. He credits long walks – and anger
It’s only bloody music, nobody should die. You can get wrapped up so much in yourself, because you live in your own little melodrama . . .
IF YOU WERE to take a guess at what inspired much of Richard Hawley’s new album, a border collie named Fred probably wouldn’t cross your mind.
As it turns out, long walks with his newly acquired best friend meant that the process for Standing at the Sky’s Edge, Hawley’s seventh album, took a turn that he wasn’t quite expecting.
“I walk miles with him,” Hawley explains, weary, “slightly hysterical” but nonetheless friendly at the end of a long week. “And I kind of thought initially, ‘Ooh, this is gonna have quite an effect on my mind’, and I thought that I might make quite a pastoral record, as a result.
“But when the Tories took over, that changed that completely; I felt really pissed off at things they’ve done and tried to do. One of the first things that they tried to do was bring in that legislation where they sold off all the woodland. It didn’t go through because the entire country was up in arms and outraged, as was I – and that’s where I wrote that track Down in the Woods. It’s political with a little ‘p’, maybe.” Long strolls with Fred at his side inspired another song on the album.
Hawley has always been fiercely proud of his Sheffield roots, naming all of his albums to date after a city landmark. Stumbling upon a centuries-old gravestone in Ecceshall Woods made for an interesting story told in The Wood Collier’s Grave, a song that Hawley claims is strongly influenced by folk artists such as Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson. Yet to call Standing at the Sky’s Edge folk-influenced would be inaccurate; if anything, these nine songs mark a dramatic curtailment of the stringed orchestration that has informed Hawley’s last few albums. Songs such as the spacey title track, the rocky Leave Your Body Behind You and Time Will Bring You Winter are possibly the most boisterous he’s recorded since his time with 1990s Britpop band Longpigs – but what was the catalyst for such a change? “I didn’t know that it would turn out the way it has,” he says, pausing to spark up a cigarette. “Basically, the only decisions that were definitely made musically were that I didn’t want to use orchestrations or peripheral instruments. I really wanted to channel all my ideas through the guitar, rather than think about it in terms of orchestral stuff. There was a track on the last album where I kind of did that, called Soldier On – but that was kind of just a little glimpse into what was possible. When we toured that album live we upped the ante quite a lot, because things change and develop. So in the end, when I got the first three or four songs written, it seemed really obvious – to me, anyway – that it just had to be [based] on the guitar.” He says that his work with rock’n’roll legend Duane Eddy (Hawley co-produced Eddy’s most recent album Road Trip last year) or his fellow citymen Arctic Monkeys (he guested on recent single You and I) didn’t induce the swing from lush orchestration to rock, but there’s no denying that Hawley is hot property when it comes to collaborations.
Even Lisa-Marie Presley requested his songwriting services for her solo album, although he’s understandably reluctant to discuss his work with her. In fact, he’s reluctant to talk up his success on any level, even though the last few years have been his most commercially lucrative to date. Having broken through with 2007’s Lady’s Bridge, its follow-up Truelove’s Gutter picked up Mojo magazine’s “Album of the Year” accolade and one of its songs, Open Up Your Door, even soundtracked a TV ad for Haagen-Daaz ice-cream. Plus, he recently joined his old band Pulp on stage again. But he doesn’t measure success in awards.
“[With] Lady’s Bridge, a lot of people would think that sort of success would take you to the good places. But me being me, I viewed turning up at the Brits as one of the darkest points in my career,” he says with a hearty chuckle. “It was horrible. I really, really loathed it and I vowed that I’d never engage in that side of things again. And I suppose a component of why I made Truelove’s Gutter was to make sure that I never f***ing did! I thought they’d never ask me back for a record like that, so that was a component . . . just being a belligerent f***er.”
Nonetheless, such free will has served him well to date. From Britpop rocker to rockabilly-edged crooner and back again, Hawley’s body of work is one of undeniable depth and variety. Given the fact that he could have spent his career as a backing guitarist for a big-name band, or as a session musician/songwriter-for-hire, is he happy with the way things have turned out? “When I turned 30, my dad signed a birthday card and he said, ‘30? I never thought you’d make it to f***in’ Thursday’,” he laughs. “So to actually still be at it, musically, at 45 – and to have done what I’ve done – it’s bizarre, really. And now it’s just got to the point where I just want to earn the right to make another record.
“The trick is not to lose yourself in it. It’s only bloody music, nobody should die. You can get wrapped up so much in yourself, because you live your own little melodrama . . . maybe you should just get the dog and go for a walk. It’s alright.”
Standing at the Sky’s Edge is released on May 4th