Richard Hawley: Underrated national treasure

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Photo: NME

Graves Park, Sheffield, 13th July 2013: a small ‘big top’ style tent is surrounded by stalls selling local food and ales. It’s a warm summer evening in South Yorkshire, and one of my favourite gigs to-date is about to unfold.

On the stage, stood Richard Hawley; an artist who only a month previous  had revealed to ‘Gigwise’ that he turned down “a lot of money” to play Glastonbury because he believed it had become too corporate and had “lost all meaning”. He had selflessly declined the opportunity to play a lucrative set at one of the world’s biggest music festivals in favour of an intimate, non-commercial outdoor gig in his beloved Sheffield. And what a gig it was. Hawley played a nearly two hour set, which was filled with classics and sent the audience back to the ’50s by utilizing Johnny Wood’s double bass for favourites, ‘Serious‘ and ‘Rockabilly Radio‘. As Richard powered through 10 minute long, guitar-dripping snapshots of love, pain and nostalgia, I felt a million miles away from the depressing Radio One, ‘X Factor’ – fuelled monotony of ‘popular’ music.

In my opinion, the Sheffield self-confessed “post-punk neo rockabilly” singer is frustratingly underrated. Despite his latest album, 2012’s wonderful ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ reaching a career-record number three in the UK charts, and receiving favourable reviews, he is scarcely covered in the media. This isn’t helped by the way in which the British music industry chooses to bombard us with manufactured, over-hyped drivel such as The Vaccines (awful copycat posers) and ‘Jake Bugg’ (massively overrated, doesn’t even write his own songs). They then cynically hail acts such as these as ‘saviours of guitar music’; poster boys for an imaginary ‘independent’ music scene which, by its very nature, no longer truly exists in the mainstream (after all, that’d be a huge contradiction, right?)

Will Richard Hawley be played by any of those parasite ‘DJs’ (I use the term very loosely) on Radio One? No. Will he ever win a Brit Award? No, and he knows it too: “They’re not going to give it to some 46-year-old bloke, are they? I reckon I’ve got as much chance of winning as I have of seeing the Queen’s t*ts“. Despite this quip being hilarious, honest and witty (typical of Hawley), it is upsetting, because he is infinitely more talented and worthy of plaudits than any of the aforementioned ‘artists’. You only have to listen to the ear-splitting solo in the middle of Sky’s Edge opener, ‘She Brings the Sunlight’ to realize that Richard is one of the few artists truly flying the flag for guitars, but to a frustratingly restricted audience. If the critics thought it was such a good album (NME described it as “a beautiful storm of brimstone“, and it was nominated for the Mercury Prize and a Brit), why wasn’t ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge’ given the extensive coverage it was so deserving of?

Richard’s music contains many qualities which render it worthy of more recognition and extended airplay. In terms of song writing, Hawley has the unique skill of crafting his world views into mesmerizing pieces of music. The haunting track, ‘Standing at the Sky’s Edge‘ documents, as he states in his track by track interview, his (negative) views on the coalition government, Conservative politics and Sheffield’s knife problem. ‘Down in the Woods‘ is a frustrated retaliation to Conservative plans to sell all of the British woodland, an issue very close to his heart – in 2012, he told an interviewer “The minute those f***wits got in power they tried to sell off the very land I walk on with my dog, Fred.” It’s refreshing to see a musician who cares about his surroundings, and is willing to speak honestly about them in an often non-conforming fashion (at various points during the Graves Park gig he devoted time to denouncing British politicians). For me, the honesty and realism which are so often found in his lyrics characterize his brilliance. He doesn’t need to write about mystical, unachievable scenarios. Rather, he romanticizes real life; his mesmerizing guitar riffs and silky, deep voice giving it a rockabilly quiff, sunglasses and a sepia filter in the process. ‘Seek It‘, a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the pursuit of some sort of unreachable perfection (“it doesn’t exist“), and ‘Don’t Stare at the Sun‘, a song about the simple pleasure of flying a kite with his son are fine examples of this. He patiently waits for songs to come into his head – the beautifully mellow ‘Coles Corner‘, he says, was written whilst pushing his sons on park swings.

Hawley is well-known for his friendship with fellow ‘Sheffielder’ and Arctic Monkeys front man, Alex Turner. It’s difficult to forget Turner’s acceptance speech at the 2006 Mercury Music Prize awards ceremony where, upon receipt of the award, he famously quipped, “Somebody call 999, Richard Hawley’s been robbed” (Richard later humorously pinpointed this as a catalyst for sales of his records). However, despite this well-publicized friendship with a band that have become astronomically big, it’s easy to forget that Hawley has released seven full studio albums of his own, during a solo career that has spanned over a decade. After a turbulent tour of America with his band, ‘Treebound Story’, and a bad time with drugs and alcohol (“I was going mental with drink and drugs”), he accepted Jarvis Cocker’s invitation to join Pulp, before releasing (on the advice of Cocker himself) his first solo album, ‘Late Night Final’ in 2001. Since then, he has gone strength to strength. 2005’s ‘Coles Corner‘, in which Hawley showed versatility in experimenting (successfully) with an orchestra, takes you on a journey of romantic nostalgia (see ‘Coles Corner‘). Lowedges (2003) was another masterpiece; the quintessential late-night record. In 2009, he released the mellow, ‘Truelove’s Gutter‘ – ‘Open Up your Door’  was particularly notable; turning a dark situation into a distinctly romantic one (the song was later used on an advert for ‘Haagen Dazs’ ice cream; an occurrence that seemed contradictory for such an ‘anti-establishment’ artist. However, Richard refuted this, noting the incentive of a free 2 year supply of ice cream as central to his decision).

Despite his success, Hawley could never be accused of forgetting where he comes from, and it’s no secret that his hometown of Sheffield has had a massive influence on his music and personality. Six of his seven studio albums are named after landmarks of the ‘steel city’, a habit he describes as “a nod to the city that nourishes me and inspires me.” He says that he likes leaving the city, but then coming back, which allows him to gain perspective and see how “wonderful” it really is. In a world where so many musicians ‘up sticks’ to the bright lights of America, it’s a testament to Richard that he can find inspiration for such dynamic, influential music in such stereotypically ‘mundane’ surroundings. This, for me, is a prime example of his likeable nature; a characteristic which goes hand-in-hand with his fantastic music.

Above all though, it’s not just the songs which cement him as a true national treasure. Rather, it’s his humility, charisma and dry, self-deprecating northern wit (in 2012, he described himself simply as “a 45-year-old geezer from a council estate with specs, a harelip and shocking teeth”). More often than not, success goes to the heads of musicians, and arrogance ensues. Whilst I don’t necessarily blame them for this, it is certainly not something that has happened to Richard Hawley. During a 2005 interview, when addressed as a ‘rock star’, he strongly refuted the label. (He’d probably be quite embarrassed to read a blog post such as this!) He’s a true rarity; displaying deep thought, honesty and integrity in everything he outputs. Richard even finds the time to post personally in his official forum (not in a patronizing, self-promotional way, but to talk tours and films with a following that he’s never taken for granted). Ever-professional, and committed to his job, Richard has never cancelled a gig. In June 2012, on the second day of a massive tour, he genuinely did ‘break a leg’; his leather-soled shoes no match for a marble staircase in Barcelona (rock ‘n’ roll). Rather than cancel any gigs, he carried on the tour in a wheelchair, thus mirroring the late Curt Cobain, who did the same at Reading 1992 (albeit for different reasons).

By way of a conclusion, I’d like to announce that I’ve come to somewhat of a revelation: maybe all of the award snubs and lack of airplay are a blessing in disguise, maybe our modern society, with its dumbed-down, ‘celebrity’-fuelled culture of instant gratification and chart nonsense simply doesn’t deserve Richard Hawley, maybe I just want his music all to myself. You see, Richard didn’t really mean to become ‘famous’ or remotely commercially successful. In 2012, he told Amy Raphael that he was born with a ‘cleft palate’ which meant he was forced to have over thirty operations on his face. Severe bullying ensued, and he turned to drugs out of boredom. After playing in many bands and not quite ‘making it’, his talent has helped him carve an extremely credible solo career. Despite this success, he’s still just a normal guy who drinks Guinness in his local, walks his Dog and looks after his family. The only difference is, he possesses great musical talent (and a brilliant rockabilly quiff). He’s above all of this ‘popular music’ rubbish, and is doing it for the right reasons: because he loves music and views it as “an emotional necessity that we need as a race of people“. Richard is a rare example of a genuinely gifted, down-to-earth artist, and probably the nicest guy in the music business. I do hope to meet him one day, and that he’ll continue to help restore a little of my (dwindling) faith in humanity. After all though, he’s just a bloke from Sheffield, and that’s the beauty of it all.

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