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Richard Hawley: Kindness as an Act of Resistance

Monday, 10 June 2024 Written by Jeremy Blackmore

Photo: Dean Chalkley

Sheffield is in Richard Hawley’s DNA, his albums infused with the indefatigable spirit of the proud northern industrial city even as he plays music inspired by American rock and roll, country, bluegrass and gospel. While many of his albums have borne the names of its landmarks, it is from the camaraderie and resolve of the place’s people that the songwriter draws the most inspiration.

His latest release, 'In This City They Call You Love', takes its name from a familiar
term of endearment, so commonplace in Sheffield, but something that nevertheless gives Hawley hope. He expands on the sentiment during People, effectively the title track on an album of beautifully crafted songs reminiscent of his early solo work. It serves as a love letter to fellow Sheffielders, an acoustic ballad built around a phrase he overheard walking past people sitting outside a bar.

“No matter what's been thrown at the city, which is a hell of a lot of shit over the last 40, 50 years, it’s the humour, the indefatigability and the resilience of people to whatever comes our way, to still maintain a sense of identity,” he observes. “It’s something I think is rare.”

“It was an observation of someone else's, in a way,” he continues. “But I have thought about it a lot in the past, that in South Yorkshire, people on a daily basis refer to each other as ‘love’. If you're in the veg shop or the Co-op, somebody will say, ‘that'll be £6.50, love’. It's a full stop, but there's something about the word that's quite disarming and charming.”

“The news now is so unbearably depressing. The abject stupidity and carelessness of our politicians alone, let alone worldwide,  is so depressing that I get a lot of sustenance from the city. People will say, ‘thanks, love’. It seems to be something so throwaway, but the concept of anything loving and kind these days seems to be an act of fucking resistance.”

It’s the reason Hawley has never left Sheffield, or recorded much outside its environs, even as his star rose after his breakthrough solo album — 2005’s lushly orchestrated ‘Coles Corner’ — received a Mercury nomination, or when the psychedelic rock of 2012’s ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’ earned him his first top five record.

“I don't need to buy somebody else's mojo,” says Hawley. “I've got my own here. They come to me. I get people like Duane Eddy and Nancy Sinatra and Lisa Marie Presley. Fontaines D.C., they borrowed some of my guitars for their last record. This city's got a fantastic mojo; you just need to tune into it. Everywhere I go in this city, I can hear the voices of the dead and they're loud and clear to me. The voices of the living as well. I can hear them clearly. I don't need to go anywhere else.”

Like much of his solo work, ‘In This City They Call You Love’ was recorded at Yellow Arch studios in Neepsend. A factory complex at the turn of the 20th century, for Hawley, the building’s industrial heritage gives it a special magic. “You can just feel it. It's an energy and if you tune into it, you're there,” he says. “It’s blindingly obvious to me. It's more amazing to me that I seem to be the only one. Why are people not tuning into where they live?” 

Inevitably, when Hawley writes political songs, he gravitates towards telling the stories of real people affected by the actions of politicians. “I'm pretty sure it's not out of any kind of predatory, creative weirdness, it’s because I lived through it and I know what it was to live through it, from personal experience,” he says. “Particularly, the song Standing At The Sky’s Edge. That had a deeply personal resonance.”

Perhaps the only political track – with a small p – on the new album is Deep Space, also its only rocker with a blistering guitar solo made using a Poltava, an old Soviet era fuzz/wah pedal. Designed to replicate the sounds coming out of American psychedelia, but without access to the same technology, it has a unique tone. “It’s bonkers,” declares Hawley. “It does things probably a Hoover should, or a dishwasher, rather than an effects pedal.” 

Again, the track highlights the plight of ordinary people buffeted by forces outside their control. “It’s this modern, horrific situation we find ourselves in where we have epidemic levels of homelessness and people with severe addiction problems on the streets,” Hawley says. 

“We’ve got the grotesque situation where Elon Musk and Branson from Virgin are taking people into the very beginnings of space for inordinate amounts of money. On the other side, life for a huge swathe of our population is so terrible, but they don't have the option to disappear to another planet. So, they go inside [themselves].”

Deep Space aside, Hawley’s manifesto for ‘In This City They Call You Love’ was to focus on the voice and turn the volume down. Indeed, there are only a handful of guitar solos and much of the album was recorded live with few overdubs. This minimalist approach was, in part, because of the music Hawley has been listening to: doo-wop, old gospel groups and bluegrass. “A decent song you can take anywhere,” he says. “You can do anything with it. But I wanted to retain the raw elements, which is basically just a guitar and a voice and a couple of harmonies.”

Hawley’s appreciation for harmony runs deep, from The Harmonizing Four (formed in 1920s Virginia) to The Everly Brothers. Harmony singing was all around him growing up in a family steeped in the local music scene, while these days he counts himself blessed by having bandmates he calls fabulous harmonists. “The concept of harmony, not only harmonies in voices singing together, but the word harmony, some kind of peace,” he says. “I wouldn't say contentment, that’s definitely not part of my psyche…I haven’t got there yet. I'll give you a bell when we're 80, maybe. The concept of voices I really, really enjoy.”

This approach is most apparent on People and the gospel-flavoured Deep Waters, perfectly captured as first takes in the garden shed Hawley calls ‘Disgracelands’. His band refused to embellish these tracks further, insisting they were perfect as they were. And, if the songs lent themselves to singing harmony, the instruments he used, with their precious links to family, friends and collaborators, some now departed, also guided the music.

Among these instruments were his late father Dave’s Gibson 335, a guitar belonging to his friend, the late Sheffield musician Tim McCall, an acoustic given to him by Lisa Marie Presley that belonged to her father, Elvis, and other models gifted by Duane Eddy and Jarvis Cocker. Meanwhile, the “really wig-out” solo on Deep Space was played on an old Fender Telecaster left to him by Scott Walker.

Hawley mines his full range of influences across the 12 tracks. Lead single Two For His Heels, for example, evokes the twangy guitar sound he grew up hearing heard on his father’s 78s, first developed by Duane Eddy and Lee Hazlewood. He laughs, recalling the time Eddy first made contact, seeking to collaborate.

“Duane heard me driving around in Nancy Sinatra’s Cadillac,” Hawley recalls. “That was fucking weird. Nancy had been told about me by Lee Hazlewood. When I was trying to join the dots, that was just too surreal. Because how the fuck did they hear of me? I'm nothing in anywhere, but particularly nothing in America.”

Prism in Jeans tunes into the early ‘60s between the initial rock and roll explosion, and Beatlemania. It’s an era Hawley has long sought inspiration from — from Joe Meek’s experimental recordings in Holloway Road, to instrumental duo Santo and Johnny and the period’s evocative film soundtracks, as well as those stars who made it out of the ‘50s with their reputations intact like the Everlys, Roy Orbison, Fats Domino and Johnny Cash.

An Orbison-esque feel extends to the vocal performance on I'll Never Get Over You, although Hawley’s long-serving guitarist Shez Sheridan notes a distinct Velvet Underground vibe about the music. Country is another genre Hawley grew up with and one he has played with before, such as Wading Through The Waters Of My Time on ‘Coles Corner’, and most recently on a tour with John Grant, playing the songs of Patsy Cline. He revisits this territory on Heavy Rain and Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow.

Great means of expression travel, he insists, noting he has always recognised something very familiar in country and western. “I don't think it’s particularly cultural theft, especially the psychogeography of country music about trains and mountains, like the blues singing about John Henry, the steel driving man — that was my dad,” he says.

“From being very young, the lyrical content of a lot of folk music, whether it be UK or Europe or particularly American, I recognised the language as being similar to here. Sheffield's built on seven hills and five rivers — a lot of the grandiose nature of folk music I saw in South Yorkshire, in miniature compared to the grand landscape of America. It just didn't seem too alien to me.”

After a quarter of a century as a solo artist, he tours this month with a band of “phenomenal musicians”, completely comfortable in his skin. “It's a funny thing now, man,” he reflects. “I feel more relaxed on stage playing with a band than anywhere physically, and anywhere in time, I've ever been. But then that's how it should be because if you're not going to be chilled out now, when are you going to be?”

There is talk of European dates to follow — with an enormous hometown show at Don Valley Bowl already in the diary for August — but Hawley is adamant he can no longer be a long flight away from Sheffield. “I’ve circumnavigated planet Earth 25, 30 times now, but it took that perspective to see the real beauty of what you've been trying to escape,” he says. “I spent half me life trying to get away from Sheffield. I spent the other half trying to get back.”

‘In This City They Call You Love’ is out now through BMG.

Richard Hawley Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows"

Tue June 11 2024 - WOLVERHAMPTON Wulfrun Hall
Wed June 12 2024 - MANCHESTER O2 Apollo
Thu June 13 2024 - GATESHEAD Glasshouse 
Sat June 15 2024 - LIVERPOOL Olympia
Sun June 16 2024 - NORWICH UEA
Tue June 18 2024 - PORTSMOUTH Portsmouth Guildhall
Thu June 20 2024 - SCARBOROUGH Spa
Thu August 29 2024 - SHEFFIELD Don Valley Bowl

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