From playing with Treebound Story and Longpigs in the eighties and nineties to a stint with Pulp and a string of acclaimed solo albums since 2001, it seems that anything touched by the hand of Hawley turns to gold.

He’s now turned his attention to the theatre, with The Crucible playing host to his first musical, Standing at the Sky’s Edge, a collaboration with director Robert Hastie and playwright Michael Wynne. Using a mixture of old and new songs written by Hawley, the show explores the lives of people living in Park Hill over half a century. In other words, it’s Sheffield through and through, which will come as no surprise to anyone who’s listened to his music, which regularly namechecks places in the city.

I sat down with Hawley at The Greystones to ask what inspired him to write a musical.

How did Standing at the Sky’s Edge come about?

I just got approached with this idea: Would I like to do a musical? I pissed myself laughing to be honest. I thought about musicals and I thought, ‘No fucking way!’ And then the idea developed sitting around over a few pints. The basic idea is that Park Hill is just the apogee, the eye. It’s not about Park Hill specifically. It’s about that really small subject: the history of post-war Britain right through to the modern day [laughs].

It’s a very visible symbol of those post-war ideas because it looms over the city.

Yeah, and because it’s lasted. When those flats were built, they were the perfect solution to a chronic housing shortage, so it’s about birth and decay and about rebirth. I didn’t live on Park Hill, but the drummer from Treebound Story did. I’ve had a few friends and girlfriends live there, and other flats like Kelvin and Hyde Park. I’ve got personal experience of that. I thought, ‘Well, this could work.’

I was involved in these theatre workshops, which was a first for me. It was quite surreal in a way. It wasn’t like being in a band. I had a very musical director, who took my songs apart and made them into things with dance routines. I was pissing myself laughing. Not at him  ̶  I just never in my wildest dreams thought that would work. I don’t get involved in things unless I can feel the earth in them.

I can’t really think of your songs with a dance routine. They’re quite slow, or psychedelic.

Well, there’s a few fast ones. It’s a work in progress. The thing that’s beautiful about it is working with The Crucible. You’re talking about a massive engine that is committed to the ideas that we’ve got. Both myself and Michael Wynne have said it has to be a thing that’s in flux, almost until the last moment. It’s being brave and experimenting with something, I think, from my point of view, because I’ve got no experience and as such I’ve got no fear. The naivety on my part is what I hope contributes towards it being a bit different.

Do you get out to gigs in Sheffield?

In The Greystones, mostly. I’ve been to see a few things at arenas and that. It’s not a conscious decision not to  ̶  it’s time. I’ve reached half a century now, so the clock is ticking ever quicker. I have to make sure I do my own shit and do it well.

I tend to deliberately isolate myself. It’s not like I don’t have new experiences, because I do. But when you spent the best part of 35 years in a sweaty pub, as B.B. King says, the thrill is gone. I need to feed the meter and the inspiration comes from other places than watching lots of bands. I don’t like to be influenced. I like to look through the other end of the telescope. I like to spend time in pubs, especially after a long dog walk. I’m interested in people and conversations you overhear. That influences you.

I love musical notes and words, and the assembly of those things to make a song by any means necessary. The older I get, the more I realise the process becomes much more subtle. It comes from other places now for me. It doesn’t come from listening to records. When I was younger it came from, ‘I want to sound like that’. You become an amalgam of 20 or 30 things you’ve listened to and then hopefully out of that you create something new.

I find myself listening to city noise that was always there, the juxtaposition between industry and noise. You used to take for granted hearing the hammer beat in the night. I used to fall asleep to that. I knew that that was my Uncle Eric. He was one of the hammer droppers. They talk about it like a mythical thing, this heartbeat of the city, but it was there, and I remember the day the fucker stopped, like someone had died.

The Greystones is your local, right?

Yeah, I’m not too far away. I’m not gonna give my home address away, y’know. My dad used to play here in the late fifties and sixties, when it was called The Highcliffe. That was the only thing I was pissed off about when the brewery took it over, that they didn’t keep the original name. What I was really glad about is that they’d reinvented it and actually gone back to the roots of the venue.

This was one of the biggest folk clubs in the north of England. I met Billy Connolly and I said, “Do you know The Highcliffe?” and he was talking forever about it. The stage used to be on the other side. I’ve got pictures of my dad playing here from ‘59 right through to about ‘65. Without this you wouldn’t get to see a lot of artists at a reasonable price, and since The Boardwalk sadly went there isn’t that many places to see a lot of these artists. I mean seminal legends, like Martin Carthy. For me to pop down the road and see a great band. It’s fucking mint.

It seems like Sheffield punches above its weight in terms of the pop bands it produces.

I’m certain that right now, there’s a couple of lasses and lads in a bedroom in Manor Top or Firth Park who are going to blow the roof off. The music out of this city will always be on the edge. It can’t help but be. If you want to know your future, all you need to do is look at your past. History does repeat itself, but it keeps re-energising.

I’ve learned many things over the years, and often weaknesses or limitations can actually become your greatest asset. I remember talking to Don Letts, and my dad said similar things about rock ‘n’ roll, even though they never met: the fact that you can only play three chords is not a limitation, it’s an asset. You can kick the fucking door down with two chords, and with a third chord you can take it off its fucking hinges. It’s a weapon, a guitar chord.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge runs at the Crucible Theatre from 14 March to 6 April 2019.

richardhawley.co.uk
sheffieldtheatres.co.uk

Sam Gregory