'I want to keep doing this till I drop… I think it’s a bit late for me to retrain and get a job at B&Q' - Richard Hawley
“They were only little shows, compared to what we were doing before, but they were so joyful,” he says.
“I had a laugh with the audience and we made them cry with the music and made them dance.” If it was cathartic for the audience, then it was no less so for Hawley and his band. “Having not been able to do it for so long, to just be able to play in front of people was great, because it’s something I’ve done since I was 14 years old.
“My first ever paid gig was with my uncle Frank White at the Pheasant at Sheffield Lane Top on my 14th birthday and I got a tenner. So it’s 40 years since I’ve been getting paid for playing live and it’s a long time to be in it. But it’s something I want to keep doing till I drop… I think it’s a little bit late for me to retrain and get a job at B&Q.”
Back in 2019, the last time I spoke to Hawley, he was on the crest of a wave. His eighth (and arguably his best) album, Further, had reached number three in the charts and his first foray into the world of musicals, Standing at the Sky’s Edge, a collaboration with playwright Chris Bush, had enjoyed a sell-out run at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre.
“The musical was going to go to the National Theatre and at 54 years old, when the best days of most people in any creative industry are in the rear view mirror, I was still being creative, and not just feeding the meter but pushing myself forward,” he says. “It was really exciting and then it felt like I’d been chucked down a lift shaft.”
The pandemic turned the world on its head, but Hawley says he quickly forgot about his own situation.
“I realised my family did not need a rock star – what they needed was a dad, and a husband, a son, a brother, a dog owner and a friend. Those roles that, because I’d been on the road all these years, I hadn’t properly fulfilled. So it was time to step up to the mark and I hope I did that.”
He describes this time with his family as a “weird gift”, adding: “It was perhaps a dark one because of all the suffering that was going on, but I spent time with my family. We listened to a lot of music. I taught my youngest son how to play chess, though now I’ve got zero chance of beating him.”
There have, though, been hardships to endure. “The worst thing as a family was losing elderly relatives. My auntie Jean and uncle Frank passed away during it all.
"The worst thing, and I’m sure a lot of families and individuals reading this will know how painful losing somebody is at any time, was not being able to attend a funeral to say farewell because of Covid restrictions. That was intensely painful, and that time you don’t get back. But you just had to make the best of it. People in Sheffield are quite stoic and my family are definitely stoic people.”
Hawley grew up in working-class Pitsmoor. His father was a steel worker who played guitar in pubs and clubs at night and music was part of his everyday life for as far back as he can remember. “I’ve been thinking about songs on a daily basis since I was nine years old.”
Life, though, hasn’t always been kind to him. He was born with a hare lip and a cleft palate and as a child he spent a lot of time in and out of hospital.
He later turned to music, as he puts it, to “avoid having a career”, enjoying brief success with the Smiths-influenced Treebound Story, before joining indie band the Longpigs.
“The Longpigs era taught me more what not to do, than what to do. That band was horribly ripped off and I learned so much during those seven years.”
The band’s demise coincided with Hawley going off the rails and it was a chance call from his old friend Jarvis Cocker, who asked him to join Pulp for their final world tour in 1998, that helped pull him away from a self-destructive spiral.
A year later, Hawley recorded his first full-length solo album, Late Night Final, named after the cry of newspaper vendors in Sheffield. This was followed by Lowedges, a reference to a suburb of the city whose name he used to see on the front of buses.
But it was his 2005 album Coles Corner – a tribute to the pavement outside what used to be the Cole Brothers department store and a popular meeting place for generations of young lovers – that brought him both critical and commercial success.
“I hit the bullseye without aiming for it. Often if you aim for stardom you miss the point and you forget to enjoy it along the way. And that’s something that comes with age. When I finish a song, I enjoy the process – it’s a lot less agonising now and I do things at my own pace.”
Which brings us to his gig at the Piece Hall in Halifax next weekend. “I can’t wait to play there because it’s got importance to me,” he says. “I believe some of the cutlers and knife makers had little stalls there and I’m interested in finding out more about that because my dear friend Stan Shaw, Sheffield’s last little mester, passed away earlier this year.”
Age doesn’t necessarily make you wiser, but talking to Hawley you sense a man who understands and appreciates what matters in life.
“It’s such an honour and a privilege to do what I do. I don’t take it for granted. And when it’s been taken away from you and then you go back to it, you realise the real true power of music.”
He is optimistic, too, that better days lie in store for us. “During the pandemic, my wife got involved in a neighbour’s WhatsApp group on the street and one by one everyone joined and started helping each other out.”
He gives me an example. “When the Euros were on, my youngest son missed getting the pullout sheet from one of the newspapers and someone on the street said she’d bought two copies and she walked down the street, and it’s quite a long street, just to drop it off.
“It’s little things like this that make you realise that if we just stick together you see how capable we are of simple acts of kindness, and when we think of humanity’s hopeful progress it’s actually nearer to our doorstep than we think.”
Richard Hawley plays the Piece Hall, Halifax, on September 4. For more details visit www.thepiecehall.co.uk/event/richard-hawley/