I’M sitting in Fagan’s, a cosy pub on the edge of Sheffield’s city centre, where I’m waiting to meet one of the city’s best known musical sons, Richard Hawley.
It’s an unapologetically old-fashioned boozer with wood panelling and pictures of World War Two aircraft on the walls, the kind of place where you’re more likely to see a pint of Guinness being supped than a glass of pinot noir. The pub is also well known in these parts for its folk music nights in the back room where Hawley’s face stares down from a framed poster of a past gig in the city.
It’s a fitting place to meet Hawley who, with his gelled-back hair, turn-ups and black leather jacket, has a healthy disregard for trends. “Step into the office,” he says, opening the door to a snug next to the bar.
“You get all walks of life in here. It’s near the courts, it’s near the police station, there’s loads of doctors and nurses because the hospital’s up the road, you get drunks and musicians, which are almost the same, it’s a good mix.”
The Sheffield-born musician and songwriter is here to talk about his latest album, Standing At The Sky’s Edge. It’s his seventh solo outing and while his previous records have been string-drenched love letters to his home town, this is a louder, angrier affair. Given that it’s the highest charting album of his career you might think what’s he got to be angry about? Well, quite a lot as it turns out.
“I didn’t see the point in making Lady’s Bridge, part two, or Coles Corner, part two. It would be easy for me to do that and I’d be criticised, quite deservedly so, for being cynical. So I wanted to come back with something new and fresh,” he says.
“If it was different I’d get criticised for that, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, and the best thing I’ve learnt from 30 years of doing this is it’s more important that you please yourself rather than trying to second guess what anyone is going to like or not like. I don’t have any rules or commercial restraints and I’m in a really lucky position where I don’t have people baying for my blood if I don’t write a pop single.”
The album’s genesis dates back to his previous record, Truelove’s Gutter in 2009. “I realised I’d been touring on and off for 30 years and I felt I needed some time off. I wasn’t going mad or anything dark like that, it was just that I was going to be 45 years old and that seemed a milestone for me. A lot of people get depressed as they get older but I actually raise a glass and thank God that I’ve made it this far.
“When I was 30, I remember my dad sent me a birthday card saying ‘30? I never thought you’d make ******* Thursday.’ And here I am 15 years later, I’ve got my wife, three kids and a collie and I wanted to spend time with them and to see if I still had a life and to my amazement I found that I actually had.”
So when he finally sat down to write what would become Standing At The Sky’s Edge he assumed it would be a quiet affair. “The beauty of living in Sheffield is you have all these green spaces, although developers are slowly coming in like bloody space invaders, and I spent a lot of time walking in the woods near where I live. It’s amazing to live near one of the most beautiful parts of the world, not just England. So I thought perhaps it’s time for the pastoral, acoustic record.”
But events, including the sudden death of one of his closest friends, Tim McCall, led him down a different path. “Being confronted by mortality in such a cruel way, you’d have to have a heart of stone to not be affected by it. He was a father by two weeks and he died carrying a baby blanket and a cup of tea upstairs to his wife and it’s very hard to get your head round that. We were guitar buddies, he took over from me in Jarvis’s [Cocker] band when I couldn’t play, so it was a real shock. I’d lost my dad, my other guitar buddy, and it made me think is there anything you’ve left undone? Yes. What is it? You haven’t kicked ass with guitars.”
The other thing that infuriated him was the Government’s proposed sale of publicly-owned woodlands. “One of the very first pieces of legislation they tried to get through was sell the very woods that I was finding peace in, and not just me but all those other people. I was outraged that they thought they could sell something that doesn’t belong to them. They don’t belong to anyone. We look after them for the next generation to enjoy, that’s the deal,” he says, sipping his Guinness.
“They seriously underestimated the British people’s love of green space and what I thought was particularly beautiful was the people protesting came from every walk of life, and it became apparent to me that under the guise of these austerity measures they were trying to reverse more than nearly 200 years of history since the Enclosures Act of 1815.”
Despite his success Hawley remains solidly working class and has little time for the “toffs” he believes are running the country into the ground. “To me a civilised society by definition is one that cares for its sick, we should give our elderly a dignified end to their lives and we should educate and cherish our kids so that they can live happy, productive lives – I don’t see that happening.”
Instead he says people’s horizons are being lowered. “A student will come out with between £20,000 and £50,000 of debt and they might have a degree in astrophysics but the only gig out there for them is to flip burgers. We live in one of the richest countries in the world and most of us pay our taxes, unless you’re a multinational corporation like Boots, but it’s the lady struggling to bring up three kids who’s left carrying the can and it’s just not right,” he says.
“With all these issues in mind it’s no wonder I turned it up,” he says, getting back to his new album for a moment. “I didn’t think I could orchestrate those ideas. I come from a family of hard drinking, hard rocking musicians and these songs needed to be more direct.”
As with Hawley’s previous albums, Standing At The Sky’s Edge references an area of Sheffield, though this time the title track carries a darker message. “Sky’s Edge is a place in Sheffield and I use it as a ‘thank you’ to the city, but it’s also a metaphor for where we are as a society and a culture. We’re at an edge and we have to decide right now which side of that we stand, because if we don’t try and reverse the negative thinking that’s around then I really don’t know what’s going to be out there for our kids.”
This leads him to last year’s riots. “You saw anger and an anarchic nihilism and lack of respect for life and because people’s horizons have been lowered it wasn’t ‘let’s storm the Bastille’, it was ‘let’s nick the mobile phones and trainers’. But I’m in no way condoning it, because there were no riots in Sheffield and I was proud of that.”
This anger is reflected in his music, but it has its tender moments, too. “There are love songs in there as well,” he points out. “I get a sense everything’s going to be all right when I see a couple holding hands, particularly older people. In that place between the cups of their hands the future of mankind is far safer than in the hands of any politician.”
Hawley grew up in working class Pitsmoor. His father was a steel workerwho played guitar in pubs and clubs at night. It was through his late father and his uncle Frank White, who still plays, that he learned about the musician’s craft. “There was my grandfather as well, he insisted I learned to play chess before I learned music theory. He was adamant about it and he was right because the art of chess is about thinking ahead and if you apply that rule to music you know what note is coming next.”
Hawley picked up a guitar to “avoid having a career,” as he puts it. He flirted with success with Longpigs during the 90s but it wasn’t until 2005 with the release of Coles Corner that his solo career really took off to huge critical acclaim.
“I’ve never called anyone and said ‘can I work with you?’ It’s always been the other way round which has always been to my constant surprise and delight.”
Among those he’s worked with is Duanne Eddy, who approached him to produce an album, and the pair are now firm friends. “Him and his wife flew over and as soon as they got off the plane they came straight to our house. They brought presents for the kids and Duanne gave one of my boys a little guitar lesson and showed my other boy a bit of piano, he’s just an ace guy.”
He’s also one of the original heroes of rock ‘n’ roll – music that still inspires Hawley. “It communicates something that is real to me, it’s folk music that’s been turned up basically,” he says.
“The greatest compliment I ever got paid was by Norma Waterson when she said ‘you’re a folk musician.’ I said ‘what do you mean?’ And she said, ‘you write about things that are colloquial and local.’
“That’s what I’ve always tried to do, I don’t write songs about driving around in limousines in LA, I try and write things that are real.”
Standing At The Sky’s Edge is out now. Richard Hawley plays Sheffield City Hall, September 23 and October 2, and Leeds 02 Academy, September 25.