Richard Hawley: Rock'n'roll troubadour | Alexis Petrdis

Richard Hawley has been called a modern-day Roy Orbison. The Sheffield crooner talks about fame, Pulp, his dad's death – and kicking a gargantuan drug habit.

It has, Richard Hawley concedes, been an extraordinary few years. Actually, what he says is: "I haven't had a leg-up – I've been fucking catapulted into the castle and luckily landed on a bale of hay." Hawley says things like that a lot: odd, funny metaphors peppered with examples of what his friend Jarvis Cocker once called his "incredible command of colourful Anglo-Saxon", delivered in the kind of mordant Yorkshire accent that always sounds as if it's delivering bad news.

Anyway, you get his drift. It all started at the 2006 Mercury music prize ceremony; Hawley's fourth solo album, Coles Corner, had been nominated. He wasn't sure how he felt about that: "I find awards odd. I don't feel comfortable with them, and I knew what would come if I won: too much attention." But then he thought how proud his dad, grandad and uncle – professional musicians all – would have been to be in that position, so he went along.

Hawley didn't win, but his friends Arctic Monkeys did. When their frontman, Alex Turner, reached the podium to make a speech, the first words he said were: "Call 999, Richard Hawley's been robbed." It became the most reported remark of the night: it was almost as if Coles Corner had won. Hawley laughs: "It changed things for me. I started selling fucking records. Also, by the time they announced the winner, I was that pissed I'd never have come up with anything half as witty as that."

It wasn't just a post-awards sales blip, either. Once people discover Hawley's records (filled with big ballads that echo great tragedians like Scott Walker and Roy Orbison, and with beautifully drawn lyrics full of wry, human, very northern observations), they have a tendency to fall head over heels for them. So his next album, 2007's Lady's Bridge, was an even bigger hit, even though it was made under trying circumstances: Hawley's father died two-thirds of the way through its recording. Hawley wonders if he would ever have finished it had it not been for the gruff advice emanating from his dad's hospital bed. "One of the last things he said to me – apart from, 'Don't forget my fucking beer and fags when you come tomorrow' – was, 'You'd better finish that bloody record. Don't get crippled by grief.'"

Greased quiff and velvet collar

Hawley did finish it and it rocketed into the top 10, somewhere Hawley had only ever been before as a hired hand: he famously played guitar on All Saints' cover of Under the Bridge. Then he had a cameo role on last year's Mercury winner, Elbow's The Seldom Seen Kid – singing a lovely duet with Guy Garvey on a song called The Fix. He had just turned 40 and found himself in the improbable position of being something like a pop star: an impossibly charming, funny, self-deprecating pop star, who occasionally gives the impression of having hailed from another era. His conversation veers from talking about the "absolute mind-fuck genius" of Alex Turner to a pensioner he once met at his father's social club: "What old Bill didn't know about gardening weren't worth knowing." Invariably, it comes spiked with a hefty dose of what you might call no-nonsense philosophy: "If you get a solid gold Cadillac for nowt," he says at one juncture, "it's worth nowt."

Today, smoking furiously in a recording studio in Sheffield, he is immaculately turned out: his quiff is slick with grease, the collar of his drape jacket is velvet. "We now live in a country that appears to be the most sporting nation on earth," he says. "Everybody wears a tracksuit. It looks like everyone's going to the gym. They're really going to Pizza Hut and getting 24 cans of lager on their way back. A nation fascinated with dressing like sportsmen – I find that quite odd."

He finds the notion of being famous improbable: "I never expected it to reach where it had. It's not like we've gone supernova or anything, but I didn't think it would even go supermarket." He laughs. "I thought it might end up in fucking Lidl."

'My hare lip hindered me'

Hawley never intended to become a solo artist. He served the kind of apprenticeship that was de rigueur for aspirant rock stars 40 years ago: playing the bars and clubs of Germany and the Netherlands with his uncle's rock'n'roll band when he was 14. "It taught me not to be a pain in the arse," he says. "You don't just learn about your craft, you learn that playing in a band is only 40% of the gig. The other 60% is: don't be a pain in the arse. You learn how to travel, be one of the lads, fit into a social group of varying ages, don't take up too much room emotionally. That's why it took me years to become a lead singer, because every one of them were a pain in the arse."

There were other reasons as well: "I can't shy away from the fact that I was born with a hare lip and a cleft palate. It hindered me in that I was never confident enough to stand at the front. It took me long enough to get on the fucking stage without a paper bag over me head."

Instead, Hawley became a sideman, first with a band called Treebound Story, then with the Longpigs, a 1990s quartet who were groomed by U2's label, Mother, for success that never came. They had one top 20 hit, She Said, but it was all a bit dark and angst-ridden for those Britpop times, which doesn't seem to square with Hawley's personality at all.

Drug advice from Jarvis

But then, as he's keen to point out, he was a different character then, not least because of his gargantuan drug intake: "It just got to a ridiculous point. It was out of control. Not just cocaine, other chemicals as well. You think it's alluring at first, you think it improves you. But it's like Jarvis said, brilliantly as always, you never hear anyone say, 'Ooh, you know our Darren? Since he's been on that smack, he's really come out of himself.'"

He says he stopped when his wife threatened to leave him, and he joined Cocker in Pulp: "They were just a right fucking laugh, Pulp. When you're with people all the time that are just permanently getting hammered, it's difficult to be anything other than really serious. But Pulp got drunk in a different way: it was a joyful thing, not as brutal. It reminded me that you can still stick to your guns; it brought back the singleminded little fucker that I was when I was a kid." So much so that he overcame his fear of the limelight and made an eponymous solo album in 2000. "It took me to a point where I was too old to care what people say. I mean, I still do care what people say, because I'm a soft fucker, an emotional person. But I was old enough to be brave enough."

Now there's another album, Truelove's Gutter (named, like Coles Corner and Lady's Bridge, after an area of Sheffield), which people are calling the record of his career. The songs on it are remarkable: sad, serpentine ruminations on cocaine addiction, dawn breaking and trying to be a good husband, decorated with weird instruments such as musical saws and something called the megabass waterphone. Some stretch over 10 minutes, but never seem to outstay their welcome.

Hawley thinks they may be a delayed reaction to his dad's death. "On Lady's Bridge, I'd tried to write about it as it was happening, but it was too difficult. I felt a bit like a praying mantis feeding on it. I didn't want to be a grief thief, you know, to feed my creative muse. And he was listening to that album as it progressed. I didn't want to play him a bunch of really depressing music. Also, I didn't want to go" – he gives a big, false smile by way of explanation – "because that would have been even worse. Listening to The Birdie Song in a cancer ward would have been even more depressing than listening to Leonard Cohen."

'Bob's yer Marley'

Despite the praise being lavished on the album, Hawley is self-deprecating about its chances of success: "If I was a careerist in any way, I would have made another album of pop songs, got loads of radio play and Bob's yer Marley. But I just think it's not the time to have creative cowardice. I fully accept that this record isn't going to get played on the radio, and probably won't sell many copies because it's not very commercial. There were certain things I needed to dispense with in order to make it, and" – he pauses and laughs – "the idea of success was one of them."

Not, he adds, that commercial success or failure will make much difference to him. After all, the extraordinary few years came after decades of commercial disappointment. He considered becoming a carpenter at one point, "but I'd probably be the only carpenter with a roadie. It's probably why I'm still bloody doing it at 42. I've never found anything else I was as passionate about. My resolve was seriously tested from all those years on the dole. A lot of my peers gave it up because they couldn't handle the poverty. I never gave it up."

Sing a song of Sheffield

It is a city peppered with architectural horrors – not an obvious place to write a song about. But look closely and you'll find real beauty: from the old pubs full of characters, to the many parks. Richard Hawley is just one songwriter to recognise the poetry in the "cold city lights glowing" and "traffic of life". But Sheffield's writers also recognise that their hometown can be unforgiving. In Coles Corner, Hawley heads downtown "where there's music" and "voices fill the air". However, he ends up alone.

All this loneliness leads us, inevitably, to prostitution, rife in the city. Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys, who used to rehearse in the red-light district, documented this in When the Sun Goes Down. Meanwhile, Jarvis Cocker documented the thrill of "knickers down" on a "pink-quilted eiderdown" in Acrylic Afternoons.

Cocker has since departed for the more conventionally romantic Paris. Perhaps he should heed the sentiment of Fake Tales of San Francisco, in which Arctic Monkeys take a very northern pop at such airs and graces: "You're not from New York City, you're from Rotherham." Dave Simpson


Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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