Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Richard Hawley “I just keep writing and keep writing, because I love doing it”

We spoke to Sheffield’s rock’n’roll troubadour about his debut compilation album Now Then, performing at The Grapes and his commitment to moving forwards.

Hawley DSC 9128

“No, this is not a full stop. I think they're already talking about volume two.”

There’s always a misconception that when an artist releases a compilation album full of their best hits and deep cuts, it signals some sort of end. But this couldn’t be further from the truth for Sheffield’s finest, Richard Hawley. Yes, it marks more than 20 years of musicianship, artistry and mesmerising songwriting, but Now Then (no relation) is more a celebration of this expansive chapter than any definitive ending.

Acting as an entry point into Hawley’s career-spanning back catalogue for new fans, this new compilation has the seal of approval from the man himself. For long-time listeners, it’s the perfect round-up of Hawley’s rock’n’roll mastery in all its baritone glory.

On the eve of the compilation’s release, we spoke to the musician at The Grapes, a boozer adored by its regulars for being one-third of the ‘Irish Triangle’ and the birthplace of the Arctic Monkeys. Each time you step in is like the first time all over again, so it seemed like a fitting spot for Hawley to play an intimate gig for friends, family and a select few fans ahead of the new album’s release.

When did you first decide to do this album and begin the process of choosing the songs?

The idea for it actually came from my manager and the label. They basically said we've never done a best of. And it’s been more than 20 years since I first went solo, so it was a big thing to mark. I got married 25 years ago, I gave up drugs that year, and I made my first solo record, so a lot happened. I was playing with Pulp in that period and Longpigs, as well as being a session player. There was a lot of juggling going on.

I mean, it wasn't something I wanted to do. I rarely if ever listen to my own music, because I'm always moving forward. The only time I ever really do is if we're going to put an old song in the set and I’ll work out what it is and listen back. Most of the time I listen and think, ‘It’s not bad, that’.

I think it's like a staging post in someone's life. But I wouldn’t call it a career. I became a musician to avoid having a career, you know? It just seemed to be a good time to do it and also I got into a lot of bands because of compilations. The Doors in particular, Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine, which is an awesome compilation, but that got me to buy the other six studio albums. So if someone wants just a couple of tunes, instead of buying all the back catalogue, it seems to tick that box.

Do you have a favourite greatest hits or one you gravitate toward?

It’s not a greatest hits, it’s more like a comprehensive compilation, but there are a lot of Velvet Underground compilations that are great. Andy Warhol's Velvet Underground Featuring Nico, with red lips and Warhol's paintings of Coca-Cola bottles on the cover.

There’s been a few reworked albums recently like McCartney III Imagined, featuring remixes and covers of his songs by other artists. Would you ever do something similar?

No, I don't think I would. Although we did rework and redo my song ‘The Only Road’ for [the TV series of] The Full Monty. But in general, I think it would probably be too weird.

I also re-did that song originally for Jeremy Hardy. He was a dear friend of mine and comedian who passed away, and his wife Katie told me that it was Jeremy's favourite song. We were friends for a decade at least, and he never told me. So, we did a very quick rehearsal version on a tape recorder and sent it to play at Jeremy’s funeral. And then when I got approached by The Full Monty, they showed me the footage that they wanted me to write something for and I said, ‘I've got it already. I know what that is’. So I put that song in, which was a nice little nod towards Jeremy.

You recently played the songs of Patsy Cline with John Grant. Do you ever imagine someone doing a tour of your songs?

I’m not sure, but my favourite singer at the moment that I really love is Hannah Hu. She's great. She was singing with The Specials before [lead singer] Terry [Hall] left us. She's played a few concerts with me, opening up for us and her voice is phenomenal. I played lap steel and she sang on a song called ‘My Hats On Fire’ by Acid Klaus, which is Adrian Flanagan’s thing from The Moonlandingz. So we did that together and I just sat in a room listening to her sing, and she blew my mind.

But I'm terrible at listening to modern music. As a writer, I personally find it bad to listen to other people's music because you tend to get influenced. So I live in a bubble sometimes with it. I just keep listening to old rock’n’roll. But that said, now and again I'll escape the bubble and encounter something by incidental or accidental means.

You’re playing a special acoustic gig here tonight at The Grapes. Why have you chosen this venue? Have you played here before?

I have played upstairs – that’s now been converted into Ann’s living quarters. But I did play here and I saw Arctic Monkeys play. I actually saw a few people play here. I discovered the Smoke Fairies and saw them because they were put on by a friend of mine, Craig, and he called me and said there’s this great duo on here. I went in and I don't think there were more than four people in the room but they were amazing.

But for tonight, I suggested The Grapes because I've been coming here a long time and I used to live on Hawley Street. All of Treebound Story lived on Townhead Street, just opposite it, and my son lived there till really recently.

I was Richard Hawley of Hawley Street which is quite funny. ‘Hawley’ is a really old Sheffield name and it goes back at least a thousand years. Me and my wife also used to come drinking here when we were courting. Ann Flynn who runs it is a dear friend. I’ve known them all my adult life. So squeezing like a hundred or so people in here should be good.

R Hnowthencover

Has the lead-up to this gig made you reflect on the past?

You can have things that have meaning that are a continuum, so you don't have to do something just to look back. I suppose there's a certain degree of melancholy in my music and some level of sentiment. I tend to mourn the loss of places, because we're losing so much and so quickly, like all the great pubs.

When I was younger, I used to be able to go out and not phone anybody. You’d just go out and meet them. Because I lived in town, you’d just go to The Grapes, Fagans (which has now changed but they’ve done a really good job with it), and there were loads of pubs on West Street. And that's just kind of gone.

I really worry about the city centre. It's awful. But I know there's lots of redevelopment going on. It's all corporate with the big shiny buildings. It feels like a lot of the possibility for Sheffield's natural sense of independence seems to be eroded, so that you can only rent office space in these big shiny buildings. But it’s that ubiquitous thing which is happening nationwide – changing lovely old buildings into flats. And often, they just remain empty.

We’ve lost gems like Rare & Racy but recently seen the revival of venues like Hallamshire Hotel.

Hallamshire Hotel is where we all used to play, upstairs. We must have played there a hundred times because there was nowhere else. When I walked in after the Pulp show in the summer, when we played the arena, it was weird. Me and Jarvis went for the after-show party and both our joint psychic geography of the interior of the pub evaporated in a puff of smoke the minute we walked through the doors because they’d stripped it all back to the brick. When it comes to it though, you just have to accept change. And I do come to accept it. But I do get concerned that we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

People often confuse compilations as the end of something. But you’re constantly creating new music. How has that dynamic been, having new and old side-by-side?

No, this is not a full stop. I think they're already talking about volume two because there’s a lot of music. I write all the time. My problem is that I've got too many songs, because I just keep going. People say, ‘Oh, it's a talent’, but I don't know if it's a talent or a mental illness.

I don't want to analyse it. It's just a kind of acceptance to keep moving forward. I find it easy. A lot of people find it really difficult, but I’ve never had writer's block because if you write for a specific reason – to become famous or to become successful, which obviously has its merits – that well can dry out quite quickly. There's only a narrow band of creativity that works for that specific purpose. So I just write whatever and then have to sit with these songs and go, ‘Bugger, how am I gonna fit all these together?’ A bit like making Lego stick together.

This new record I’m making is going to be the most disparate one yet, it goes all over the place. I've got some tracks finished and have been in the studio for the last two weeks. I don't mind saying it, but I’ve not said it to anyone yet, so you're the first. It’s good because all the hard work, if I can call it that, has been done already. With the last album, Further, I had 70% of the lyrics finished, but on this album, it’s 100% and I've done it all.

I went through this process in the eighties and the nineties where you get a producer in and they do pre-production. Then you go in the studio and you've got it all sorted out. You copy that verbatim, drums first, bass, keyboard... There's this process and I've got so sick of it – the falseness of it. It doesn't feel real because it's a holographic way of creating music, and music is such a visceral thing.

I used to go in with so much bullshit. I would have loads of songs, but then I'd end up writing new ones in the studio and drive everyone around the bend because they'd all be shitting themselves thinking, ‘What is he doing?! We've spent two weeks doing all these songs and I'm gonna write new ones instead’.

But there’s a specific reason for winging it. It’s not to be an arsehole or to be difficult, it's that I want to elicit a response and a performance from people where it's immediate. And of course, our band are such accomplished musicians, they can do that. They play jazz and classical music, which is far more complex than mine. And they find it easy, but if I keep them on the edge of their seats, you're gonna get something really good.

Hawley 185 A3282

So you have the opposite of writer’s block?

It can happen, but it’s more a case that there’s periods where I'll ignore the voices in my head instead of writing, and just go, ‘I need to do something normal’. But then they keep knocking on the inside of my skull with these ideas and it gets like a cacophony in there. You have to let them out, otherwise you will go mad. So I just go out with the dog.

The creative processes are assisted greatly by doing mundane or repetitive things, and repetitive doesn't have to be boring, like going for a walk. There’s something that happens to the human mind when you do that, especially in Sheffield, because there are so many beautiful parks and green spaces to go to. Your brain just switches into this state like falling asleep. You don't really know how it happens but there's this blurred area between sleep and being awake.

What happens if you have an idea while walking the dog?

Basically if you can remember it by the time you get home, it's not shit. So it'll go round in a loop. There are lots of processes in my mind where I can remember things. I can't remember people's names or birthdays – I drive my wife insane because it's not an age thing. I've been doing it for years because I just don't absorb it and it must be really irritating. But I just think about songs pretty much all the time.

Do you reckon there’ll be a second volume to Now Then?

Possibly, yeah. I'm a collector as well – I've collected thousands of records. 7” singles are what I love. I did that compilation, 28 Little Bangers From Richard Hawley's Jukebox. That’s all the stuff that was on my jukebox and it took me ten seconds to compile because I've got, like, 7,000 rare singles. It was down to a pile of records that were in a box. I pulled them out and said that’s it.

Was that a similar method to selecting tracks for your debut compilation?

Well, [producer and long-time collaborator] Colin Elliot mainly helped with compiling it, and I think I suggested two changes. But my original idea, which is what I want to eventually do, is a thing called Broken Biscuits.

Because when I was a kid going to the Castle Market with my mum they used to have a biscuit stall, where they’d have a bag of broken biscuits that they sold and charged very little for kids. If I’d been good, my mum would say you can have a bag of broken biscuits. I remember once Carol, who used to run the stall goes, ‘I'm sorry love we haven’t got any broken biscuits left’. I was about five and my mum was now with a crying child, having been shopping for hours. It was all a bit of a mare. So Carol did such a Sheffield thing. She got this box of biscuits and cobbed it on the floor and went, ‘Here you go love’. Because I wasn't happy with perfectly formed biscuits – they had to be broken. To stop me crying she just cobbed a box of bourbons or something on the floor.

My idea was to put together an album with all the b-sides and stuff I've done on radio as my Broken Biscuits. It’s something I'd really, really like to do. There's so much of it – b-sides, out-takes, unreleased tracks, radio work, covers and whatnot – especially live stuff, great performances of particular songs. It's like catching lightning and getting something right. Sometimes it doesn't happen in the studio – it will happen live, which is a great feeling. The recorded versions are static in time, like an insect caught in aspic. But live, they develop and change, so it makes it relevant to record that.

It’s like that really good documentary about the Rolling Stones making ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ The process of where the song goes is great, and any band does this. It’s like a dartboard. You go all the way around. Sometimes it’s obvious where a song should be, but sometimes the development of it can be quite painstaking.

Thank you so much for your time, Richard. Can we expect new music soon?

Next year, definitely. I want the album finished by Christmas. Even before that, because if you know what you're doing – once you've got the direction of where it's going – you have to trust in the fact that you're going to bounce off a few trees along the way. And it won't be quite the same as when you started. There's a process you have to go through where change is beautiful. I'm hoping to get it done as quickly as possible, but I’m not in a rush.

by Sahar Ghadirian (she/her)
Filed under: 

More Music

More Music