Big interview: Richard Hawley on his Three Ring Circus gigs

Richard Hawley.
Richard Hawley.
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He’s best known these days as a solo singer, so what’s Richard Hawley doing with James Dean Bradfield and Jane Birkin’s daughter? He tells all to Daniel Dylan Wray.

between drags from a cigarette, singer-songwriter Richard Hawley says: “It’s about doing something that’s a little less predictable. To do something that you’re not sure if it will even work, that could be a shambles.” He’s talking about the Three Ring Circus, a special evening that he has concocted for Sensoria, the Sheffield film and music festival which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

Richard Hawley.

Richard Hawley.

The ambitious event next week will see Hawley bring Manic Street Preachers frontman James Dean Bradfield and the French singer and model Lou Doillon, who also happens to be the daughter of Jane Birkin, to the city to play three gigs in three venues in one night.

The concept was born last year when Hawley lured songwriters John Grant and Bill Ryder-Jones to his home city. It was such a success that it’s now taking place again this year as well as doing a Paris leg.

The premise is that the audience pick one of the three venues (University Drama Studio, Upper Chapel or Trafalgar Warehouse) to buy a ticket for and then the running order of the evening is a surprise. Each artist turns up at a venue and plays a show and then hops in a car and are sped to the next venue, so each artist plays an opening, middle and closing set. The shows are acoustic and intimate, a setup that Hawley has been favouring in the last year or so.

“Mark Kermode (the film critic) started me off down this road,” he says. “He invited me to play an acoustic show on the Shetland Island at this film festival that him and his wife do. I really enjoyed the prospect of bringing it back to basics. When you’re stood on stage with just an acoustic guitar, it’s like a Cool Hand Luke ‘what you got?’ sort of thing. You can’t hide. I really loved this show we did and it took me back to being a kid in a way, playing working men’s clubs with my dad.”

Having turned 50 earlier this year, Hawley is showing no signs of complacency and instead sees these smaller shows as being a creative challenge and a boundary-pushing adventure. “It’s about taking risks and making a performance a bit of an adventure in the hope that the basic essence of what people are about comes through.

“I say adventure in the politest terms because to do it, as we did last year, is actually terrifying. The people mad enough to volunteer to do it were just interested in that very basic thing of singing and playing, no X-Factor s***.”

Last year’s event appeared to run incredibly smoothly, but Hawley suggests the process creates a bit of a smoke and mirrors effect.

“It’s a bit like watching a swan on water, above the water line you have this beautiful graceful creature and then underneath there’s these legs kicking and swimming... panic.”

However, any feeling of panic as he dashes between venues soon subsides once he arrives and sets up.

“Getting on stage and holding a guitar in my hands is a place of infinite calm for me,” he adds calling his dog Alfie, another source of calm, to his side.

Hawley has been finding inner peace with a guitar in his hand for 35 years now. His teenage band was Treebound Story before playing with groups such as the Longpigs and Pulp and then releasing a slew of solo albums, many of which placed high in the charts and led to two Mercury Music Prize nominations, as well as a Brit Award nomination for Best British Male Performer.

However, despite his huge success, Hawley is known for being remarkably grounded; eschewing fame and celebrity for walks in the park and a few pints of Guinness at his local.

“I’ve always backed away from anything to do with the c word... celebrity. I back away from it with aplomb, I find it physically repulsive,” he says.

He feels keeping a true sense of himself has aided the longevity of his career as he shows little sign of slowing down in his fifth decade.

“Most people give it up because music is perceived to be for young people and the industry can be as shallow as an After Eight mint wrapper if you’re not careful.

“Or it can be something that takes up your whole life and has meaning and substance, and that’s what I’ve grafted towards.”

Hawley has dedicated many of his album titles to the city he calls home and it’s something he becomes palpably passionate about when he speaks about it.

He clearly has a deep love for the place.

“I don’t want to lose my roots or my sense of self and it’s really easy to do that because you’re often encouraged in this world to disappear up your own arse. But I don’t want that, I don’t see why you have to compromise. I adore the city very much; I think it’s really very special.

“Whilst I’ve shown the belligerence of staying where I am and living in the same place my entire life, I’ve circumnavigated the globe several times. I’m no little Englander, I just unapologetically adore this city.”

Hawley is also in the middle of writing a memoir. Although, as one might suspect, it’s not going to be a typical music book loaded with celebrity anecdotes and music gossip.

“I don’t want it to be a pop star biography. It’s mainly going to be writing stories about people that formed me, because my voice gets heard loads and I’m sick of hearing it.

“It’s about incredible people that I knew when I was young; it’ll be hysterically funny and sometimes sad. I grew up as a kid around some mental bikers, steelworkers, just beautiful people.”

“I always write, it’s just a daily process. You have to keep focus on what you’re doing, which is making music. You earn the right to make another record. For me, it’s no surrender until the very, very end.”

Also as part of the Sensoria festival, tomorrow Hawley will be giving an introduction to a screening of Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World. The film explores the role of Native American music being wiped out of the history of American rock ‘n’ roll, despite playing a fundamental role in it through artists such as Link Wray. Wray is a big hero of Hawley’s and he managed to see him play and meet him when on tour with the Longpigs, along with about 14 other people in the crowd in a Philadelphia theatre.

“He was monstrous,” Hawley reflects, “it’s an amazing film.”

Then shortly after the screening Hawley will take his Three Ring Circus to Paris before bringing it back to Sheffield. It’s something he could potentially see being taken further afield too.

“There is a bit of a temptation to think we could do one in Berlin or New Guinea or New York. That is a tempting thing but it’s a bit of a relay race and at some point I might drop out of it and leave it to carry on with other people who want to humiliate themselves.”

Asked to pick who his ideal Three Ring Circus of artists, alive or dead, would be and Hawley doesn’t hesitate to answer. “Elvis. Then Jimi Hendrix and James Brown. Then it would be game over, the Three Ring Circus would be set on fire.”

■ Sensoria, which takes place in various venues across Sheffield, begins today and runs to October 7. For the full programme visit sensoria.org.uk.