From his first solo record 14 years ago, that featured a song mentioning the former mining village of Pitsmoor, through to the present day, Richard Hawley’s records have been steeped in his home city of Sheffield.
The title of latest album, Hollow Meadows, commemorates an area of the neighbouring Peak District which, the singer songwriter discovered, had ancestral connections to the Hawley family dating back to the 14th century.
“Well, you see I’ve never thought about it,” he says in rich South Yorkshire tones when asked why Sheffield continues to provide such a rich source of inspiration for his song writing. “I didn’t need to question it until people started asking me why.”
His “stock answer”, he goes on, is that while British cities may have lost their “sense of otherness... you used to really get a distinct sense that you were somewhere else. I think that is going if not already gone.” He says he always felt that Sheffield “was very different”.
“I’ve looked into this so I can give you the Sheffield Hawley Tourist Board kind of special, which is what’s unique about it is until recently it had 100 per cent green belt,” he explains. “The developers seem to be encroaching on that a bit but there’s still a lot of resistance to that. There are 2.6 million trees in this city, there are 250 municipal parks and public spaces and woodlands, a third of the city is in the Peak District – and that’s not just the posh bit – and it’s a by-product of the steel works. In the past, with slightly older methods of creating steel, to keep ingots of the conversion of iron to steel it had to be at white heat levels from the outside right through to the molten core and the way that they used to do that was to throw trees and logs on the edges to keep the slag from forming, so basically we needed more trees than most cities.
“Also the founding fathers and mothers of the city were very generous with public spaces for the workforces. We haven’t got a steelworks as such, although they still make steel at Deepcar and Stocksbridge in Rotherham just – it’s hanging on by a nail – but a by-product of that means we’ve ended up with way more trees than anywhere, it’s the greenest city in the EU by a country mile, which you wouldn’t think, really, but I’m looking out the window now and it’s like an urban forest, and it’s not just certain parts of it, the public spaces are everywhere and I do get that sense of otherness.
“The city centre is just like anywhere else, it’s got your Next, your Costa Coffee, blah de blah, and that kind of blurs into nothingness, the corporate greed heads have kind of taken over our world, but here I still feel that sense of otherness. I hadn’t realised why until, I guess, recently.”
In the three years between Hollow Meadows and its predecessor Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which was nominated for the Mercury Prize, the former Pulp and Longpigs guitarist spent much time immobile after first breaking his leg then slipping a disc in his back. Despite that, his new songs sound less angry than his previous collection. He was, he admits, trying to draw some positives from life’s circumstances in a bid to stave off tedium.
“People go in search of nature in a lot of other cities, here it’s the opposite, it’s really hard to avoid it and when I was immobile and incarcerated, shall we say, for a lengthy period of time, when the day breaks I would see the crows fly from one side of the house to this other woodland at the bottom and at the close of day they’d fly back and it got to the point where I lay there for so many months that they were the most interesting events of the day. I guess being a creative person, one of your best assets if you’re a writer of any description is boredom and I have a natural aversion to boredom which I fill by playing my guitar and writing songs.”
He’s less sanguine about the strong painkillers he was prescribed to help him cope with his injuries. “They were horrendous. They seem to hand those things out like Smarties and I’ve questioned the logic behind that. To put a human being on factory-created heroin doesn’t seem to be a good way of solving a problem.”
At one stage, when unable to pick up a guitar, Hawley began to form songs in his head. The knack of writing without an instrument is one that he’s developed over the years.
“Because you create in your head. It starts there for me, an idea,” he says. “It’s like Jurassic Park in there, the survival of the fittest. If you can remember a melody in the morning it’s a good one.”
It’s an ability he first became conscious of as a boy. “I remember the first time that I was aware that you could create something of your own was when I was about eight or nine and my dad came upstairs p***ed off that I was still awake with the light on playing my guitar and he said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’ve got this song and I don’t know whose it is’ and he said, ‘Well, play it then’ and I played it him and he said, ‘It’s yours’ and he took my guitar off me and gently put me to bed and turned the light off. I just lay there thinking ‘What does he mean, it’s mine?’ and I thought about it and realised it wasn’t anyone else’s because I’d just made this thing up and it’s never really stopped. I don’t know what writer’s block is, that seems to be a curious thing to me, I guess it only happens when people create things for money because it puts you under pressure for a whole different reason.
“The music business,” he says with evident disdain, “those two words are the greatest oxymoron going – with the emphasis on moron.”
One of his news songs, Heart of Oak, was inspired by the Hull-born folk singer Norma Waterson. Says 48-year-old Hawley: “I was blissfully ignorant of English folk music, or folk music in general, because I was too busy listening to Hendrix and the Velvet Underground but as I got older I became slowly aware of its importance.
“I met Norma when I did a Radio 2 series called The Ocean which was about all about on this island of ours what the sea has brought us and taken away and I met [her brother] Mike when he was alive, bless his soul, and Norma at their home in Robin Hood’s Bay and Norma sang Bay of Biscay to me a capella and literally reduced me to a puddle.
“At that point in time, seven years ago, I’d just lost my dad. My dad was a powerful and very positive force in my life and I thought I’d lost this connection to people who were older than me that made music and to kind of connect with Norma and Mike and eventually Martin Carthy and their wonderful daughter Eliza it just did something to my head that was very positive. The song is about Norma but it’s also about mentors. The greatest gift that you can give somebody else is your time ultimately.”
Hawley’s autumn tour includes several Yorkshire dates, including Sheffield Arena, his largest show in his home city to date, but he’s unlikely to be wracked with nerves beforehand.
“No one’s out there to kill me, they’re all on my side and I know that I’m on theirs so I think it will be a joyful occasion.”
He adds: “It’s only the gossamer thin membrane between people’s trust in the audience and the fact that we’ve rehearsed a bit and we sort of know what we’re doing that keeps it going. At any minute it could go wrong and that’s what makes it exciting.”
He’s also looking forward his Scarborough Spa gig. “Let’s face it, I’m on the same stage as the Krankies,” he notes. “I’ve cracked it!”
• Hollow Meadows is out now. Richard Hawley plays at Scarborough Spa on October 28, O2 Academy Leeds on November 1 and Sheffield Arena Steel Hall on November 6. For details visit www.richardhawley.co.uk.