Richard Hawley: ‘I’m never going to write a finger-wagging, soapbox song’

The Sheffield singer-songwriter on soundtracks, the virtues of solitude, and not ‘disappearing up your arse’

Born, bred and still living in Sheffield, Richard Hawley played in indie bands Treebound Story and the Longpigs, and live with Pulp, before becoming a solo artist 20 years ago. His new album, Further, is his first since 2015 and is due on 7 June on BMG. A new musical, Standing at the Sky’s Edge, for which he wrote the music and lyrics, runs at Sheffield’s Crucible theatre until 6 April.

You’ve had a career shift in recent years, making music for films (for 2017’s Funny Cow and the forthcoming Denmark, both directed by Adrian Shergold). Why?
I hit 50, a proper milestone. I needed to break the cycle of album, tour, album, tour that I’d been on since I was 14. I’m not knocking albums and touring as a career – or as a life, I should say, as anyone who does that is avoiding a career. I wanted to do something more creative, and wanted to spend more time with my kids, who are growing up. Doing the films was really great. Adrian even got me playing a working-class bloke, auditioning in a working men’s club [in Funny Cow]. That idea must have taken him hours.

Faith Omole as Joy in Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the Crucible.
Faith Omole as Joy in Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the Crucible. Photograph: Johan Persson

Standing at the Sky’s Edge tells the story of three families living in Sheffield’s Park Hill estate. What does the estate mean to you?
A lot. My grandparents, Albert and Elizabeth, lived in the slums that were cleared for them. They were in the queue for a flat, but didn’t get one. My first drummer lived there, and I went out with a girl who lived on the top landing. Park Hill was a desperate solution when it was built. Sheffield’s working class had a terrible time with housing after the war. No one really sits on the fence about Park Hill in Sheffield. People love it or hate it. Although I do have mixed feelings about it, which the musical explores. I built the fence!

What was it like working in theatre?
Everyone was deferential when I turned up. I was all, “Please take these songs to pieces”, and they breathed a sigh of relief! The musical is political in its way, but I’m never going to write a finger-wagging, soapbox song. They don’t work. I write about how socioeconomic bollocks affects ordinary lives. I write songs about people.

Do you shy away from politics personally?
I’m compelled to keep abreast of it. Almost nothing really shocks me now – you know, I’ve lived a life – but I’m horrified by the divisions I see between people today. It feels like civil war. The B-word will not give anyone what they want. My fear is that it’s part of an agenda to start economic meltdown. Then they’ll axe the BBC, privatise the NHS, and everyone’s fucked. That’s the good news!

Further is a cheering record, though – but your first album in 16 years not to be named after part of Sheffield. Why?
Doing something different, again. I wanted to see if I could still write pop songs without 19-minute guitar solos – a real challenge, as you can disappear up your arse quickly as you get older. I’m an obsessive collector of seven-inches, and like getting something nailed in that amount of time. We do have one track with a harmonica solo that encroaches on four minutes, though – that’s our prog track [laughs].

You also cover personal subjects. My Little Treasures is about two of your dad’s oldest friends, who you went drinking with after he died. Not Lonely was inspired by your kids gradually leaving home, and about being alone. Were they hard to write?
My Little Treasures took 12 years. People think I’m as soft as a bag of tits, but to sing songs like that every night, you’ve got to be hard. Not Lonely is about being able to live on your own, which is becoming this mythical thing for some kids, because they can’t afford to move out. Everyone needs their own space where they can stand in their pants and fry an egg. Being alone anywhere, without anything distracting, is really important. I’m taking the dog out soon, turning my phone off. That’s when I get my best ideas. We can come up with the most beautiful things on our own.

Watch the video for Richard Hawley’s Off My Mind.

Contributor

Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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