2012 was going to be a make or break year for Richard Hawley as he released his most divisive album to date, Standing At The Sky’s Edge. Inspired by losing his close friend Tim McCall (and ‘this shitty government’), the record left behind the familiar orchestration and melodic warmth of his past releases to delve into the starker themes of love, loss, and disillusionment to reveal a heavier and darker soundtrack.
Rightfully, the record has been embraced by fans and critics alike, gaining Hawley his highest chart entry to date, a second nomination for the Barclaycard Mercury Prize, and a place in Drowned in Sound's Favourite Albums of 2012: 100-51. Not bad for a guy that thought one day he might just be lucky enough to give up busking and play his own gig...
We spoke to Richard at the end of last year, fresh from a dog walk in his hometown of Sheffield, in good spirits and full of expletives about the phenomenal success of Standing At The Sky’s Edge , being wired on tramadol after breaking his leg and why he has no time for "Strictly Comefuckwit".
How’s your year been?
Totally unexpected things like the album going in at number three and other extremes like breaking my leg on tour - that was pretty kind of weird, but on the whole it’s been an exceptional year. 2012 will be something I look back on from a music point as something that was immensely positive. It was almost a paradigm shift in a way in my life to create the music on that record. It was such a shift in gears I didn’t really expect people to go with me. It was something that I had to do and I knew that I’d got to it, so I thought I might lose a lot of folks. I was really pleased that I almost had to redefine what I thought of human beings – they went with me and I didn’t really expect that at all.
The record is more guitar-based and doesn't have the level of orchestration used on your previous albums and lyrically it’s more explorative of the themes you’d previously visited of love, loss and where you fit in life. What prompted you to delve deeper?
Death. Losing people, it forced me to think about where, why, how and all that. I’m not a religious man, I don’t believe in religion, I don’t believe there is a god, so to really think I’m never going to see that person again is really, really hard. Losing Tim McCall was one of the biggest blows to me that I’ve ever suffered. Losing my Dad was one thing, y’know... he was a certain age and he had chosen a certain path in his life that was wild... he was a wild motherfucker! You take that into consideration in that he was lucky he had such a good innings...he was on the edge. Losing Tim at 37 and knowing that you’re never going to see them again and ‘where do we all go?’ All those things definitely prompted me to think about where we all go, which I guess was reflected in the record.
There’s a lot more in there as well. A lot of it was prompted by this shitty government - they’re such reptiles, they’re really unpleasant people and that’s what prompted me. Someone’s got to say something. What astonishes me is that there isn’t anyone else, I can’t think of anyone that’s speaking out in anyway at all. That’s actually more shocking to me and hard to deal with. Where have our politics gone? Where have they gone?
The album was released in spring. How do you feel about things politically and socially now? More positive or pessimistic?
I’ve just come back from a tour in the UK and a tour in Europe and met lots of walks of life with my eyes wide-open; the things I saw in Spain and Portugal were frightening. There were families living in pop-up tents outside houses they used to own on the street, and that’s not going to go in a positive direction. That’s going to end in a lot of pain for a lot of people.
There’s over five and a half million people unemployed in Spain and they’re all under the age of 25 pretty much. If someone is an older person and they get made unemployed they get pissed off, but they would probably think ‘let’s do something else with my life’. If you’re young, the world is just so new to you and the world’s been so shitty. I think there’s going to be a lot of anger. I read some disturbing things as well about Catalonian and Castilian Spain as historicallY, economically Castilian Spain is pretty much fucked, whereas Catalonian Spain isn’t and there’s going to be some issues there.
I don’t feel positive, though. I’m glad Obama got in rather than that other cunt; a deeply, deeply frightening man, a mental case, religious nutter in charge of the most powerful country in the world. It’s good to go into Christmas knowing we haven’t got that guy steering things, and that the French did have the sense to elect a socialist leader. It’s weird... I’m just upset more than anything that our leader is such a fucking arsehole.
When everyone in England was getting excited about Obama it made you wish that we could pay that much attention to our own government.
The issues are that there aren’t any great statesmen or women anymore. They’ve all retired or gone. That comes down to people that we create as a society.Our aims and our goals as a society seem to be fucked up to me. We seem to be just popping in another chicken nugget in between Strictly Come Fuckwit or some other bullshit on TV. Where’s our radar? We don’t seem to have it anymore and I find it really frightening, y’know? I come from a family of deeply political people and people who went on strike for their beliefs. The government are really stupid, they’re so fucking dumb, they think they’re immune from what’s coming, that somehow they won’t be affected by riots, people running around in the street with petrol bombs. They’ve just got rid of a third of the army and a third of the police, which are the two things that actually protect them... those kind of people. I find it strange. I would love to be more positive, I would love to feel hope, I’m actually a positive person on the whole, but I don’t see our leaders leading us anywhere good.
That sort of bedrock of politics with a small ‘p’ being discussed around the house, I’m not sure if it’s discussed anymore, I can’t say that for certain - I’ve not been in other people’s homes - but I know I discuss stuff with my daughter and my sons and they ask my opinion about whatever it is, and I help them and listen to their opinions as well.
Did the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the album help you after exploring such serious themes?
The acid test for that was playing it live and seeing people’s reactions that were so positive. I’ve done things this year that I never thought it was possible for me to do, that I’d never expected to in my wildest dreams: that I’d headline Brixton Academy and sell the fucker out! That was something where I’d always been the bridesmaid, never the bride! I always thought I’d be on the fringes of everything and to actually get amongst it and mix it up a bit that was kind of interesting. It was a little terrorist skirmish. I don’t think it would be something long-term, the next record could be 100 in the charts; that kind of thing doesn’t really matter to me long-term. It’s that it’s a body of work that I’ll be judged on in a holistic sense later down the line. To get amongst is kind of what’s important, especially with that record. That was the one that I thought I’d love people to listen to that and that might actually prompt a discussion.
You also played with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Sheffield. What was that like?
That was like being a molecule of water in a tsunami. Originally they were talking about doing it at the City Hall... a venue like that combined with the Philharmonic Orchestra, I felt would be quite intimidating for people, too grandiose. I said , ‘no, we have to play in a steelworks or somewhere else’. We found the Magna venue where I’d attended things and I’d also played there with other things in the past and my dad used to work there and my uncles. My Uncle Eric came along to that concert and he’d not been into that building since the 80s and the strike and obviously he’d lost my Dad and that was just so powerful. He was in bits.... it was a good thing because his nephew was onstage playing with the Philharmonic Orchestra at a place where he used to bash the shit out of molten pig iron. That was quite emotional for all of us.
They were amazing people, the BBC Philharmonic, so gracious and kind and understanding - they got what I was trying to do. Jo Duddell [conductor] is such a cool bloke - he’s become a friend. It was one of those things where you never think, ‘I’m going to do that one day’. I genuinely thought I’d still be busking and maybe one time I’d do a gig. I just never thought in a million years that my solo stuff would achieve what it has - it astonishes me - I don’t take it for granted it’s not something I’m blase about I’m very, very grateful for all the folks that went with me.
To keep people with you after seven albums is a real achievement in the current environment.
Yeah, Artist Development is a department that has cobwebs all over it these days. There’s so many people that believed in me along the way – it’s not just me, it’s other people too. I don’t intend to stop, I intend to keep going. I’m a lifer; this is not something I’m doing as a career, it’s something I did to avoid having a career. To just keep going and to earn the right to make another album every time is my only goal - I’m not an ambitious man, my only goal is to write.
I’m going into the studio with someone this week and I’m really excited about that. I’m always just excited about making music. I’ve become almost childlike about it, not in a kicking and screaming way, but enthusiastic and excited like you are at Christmas when you’re little. The thought of creating something is one of the most exciting things, because you’re creating from nothing, you see, from literally nothing. It is the void and you pluck something out of it and make something beautiful. Ooh I’m getting shivers!
You launched your Richard Hawley's Singles Club this year. Why did you create it especially at a time when singles are on the way out?
Because I hate the idea of the MP3. I just see it from an older guy’s perspective in that when you pay for an MP3. What exactly are you buying? What you’re buying is exactly fuck all. You’re not buying anything. It’s the biggest con ever that physically you can’t put anything in your hand. You can’t sell it, you can’t swap it, you can’t even give it away. All you can do is delete it. I just dislike the whole nebulous iTunes, shuffle, whatever the fuck it is thing that our relationship with music has become - so very remote, in a physical sense.
My kids play records and when their mates come round to the house they watch me put on a record. My youngest’s mate came round and he was actually so shocked at seeing a vinyl album he actually swore. He said ‘what the fuck is that?’ He didn’t know what it was, he’d never seen a record before. He looked at it going round and round and was so fascinated that he listened to both sides of the album. He said, ‘I like that’. It was an old Skip James record from the twenties and he suddenly developed an interest in old blues records, but it was actually the physical thing that actually attracted him.
When you put on your iPod (and I have one on tour) but I’ve never downloaded a piece of music in my life and I just don’t get what it is, know what I mean? Our relationship seems to be to press bar to start and press the space bar to stop and there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of relationship with music. I don’t believe that music is a luxury; it is an emotional necessity that we need as a race of people. From the caves we created music and we still do today. I think music has been devalued a lot and that’s a terrible shame. I don’t mean financially but emotionally devalued. I worry about that, not just because I’m a musician but I do think that we need music - it’s either delve deeply into the beautiful lake of music or watch Strictly Comefuckwit, the choice is yours.
I’m going to start calling it that!
I can’t bear it. Most of it I have to leave the room.
Not watching XFactor then?
There’s more chance of me eating my own shit than watching that. It’s awful, it’s not music, it’s entertainment. I have a real issue with the whole point and laugh culture that’s developed in our country, which I hate humiliation is not entertainment, maybe it’s because I’m an older guy or maybe because I just give a shit.
It’s when you think is it age or is it just a case of having a good morals.
It’s wrong, it’s fucking wrong, the end. It’s got nothing to do with age it’s to do with point and laugh cheap as chips TV that fuckwits make for fuckwits. If that’s something that engages you, you are a fuckwit and there’s very little hope for you. If you find that entertaining you’re lost. Let’s not discuss it, it’s giving it airtime and it makes me feel like my skin is crawling and it really upsets me.
You did a show at Sheffield City Hall in September, which is now going to be released as a live album. It was a hometown show, what did that mean to you?
It means the world. Sheffield folks are not really impressed by anything. I can travel the highways and byways of our fair city without any hassle at all, people go ‘oh that’s Richard Hawley, next?’ Occasionally, someone will want a picture, but there’s never any truck with stardom and all that bollocks. But, to sell out Sheffield City Hall twice – the first one sold out in 10 minutes- that was just wild. I don’t really know what I think about that. I have to be careful. My Grandad used to say to me ‘good reviews mean that your heads so big you won’t get out the door and bad reviews mean that you won’t get out the fucking bed!’. Neither of which are any good for you, so I always try to find some middle ground if I can. But that was something else. If there is a God he probably broke my leg just to remind me to be humble, haha. But there isn’t a god. We played 15 concerts with me in a fucking wheelchair.
How did you manage that? Was it quite frustrating?
Yeah, I was wheeled on the stage and then I was moved on from the wheelchair onto a drum stool. To be honest, I can’t remember much about them as I was so off my head on fucking tramadol and pills and potions, and those mixed with red wine. It was an interesting cocktail - it took me back to the old days when I used to be interested in pharmaceutical pursuits, but these were legal. It reminded me why I used to like drugs so much, because they’re fucking great but I wouldn’t advise people to take them.
I don’t remember much about them, but I remember folks telling me they were ok and then being dropped at home which felt like being dropped from a great height. As soon as my wife found out I was on these pills she got rid of those fuckers straight away because I was enjoying them too much. So I went back on normal dry land pills.
In all honesty, the thing that I learned from that - because it’s a fool that doesn’t from something if it’s a bad thing - I learned what it was to be a disabled person in Britain today and it wasn’t very good. You become invisible... I learnt that to negotiate yourself around this country and parts of Europe you become invisible, people look at you like you’re a pain in the ar*e and somehow you’re fucking up their day. Some people were immensely kind and couldn’t do enough for you and some people were ignorant wankers - it really shocked me. I didn’t know as I always try to help people if they’re having difficulties, but I just couldn’t believe how ignorant some people were... immensely rude, ignorant and unkind, like I was getting in their way.
I could choose to focus on that negative thing, which I’m not going to, as also on the other side of the coin were people that were so beautiful and helpful because I was in fucking serious pain. I’d really fucked myself up. I’m alright now - I’m back up to my fighting weight and I’m back up to walking ten miles with the dog, so it didn’t fuck me up long-term. For me that kind of experience was temporal, but for people to negotiate their way around this country in a wheelchair they need a fucking medal as big as a bin lid.
What are you doing for Christmas and New Year?
Do what I always do. We have a quiet Christmas; we never spoil the kids really. We get a couple of presents but not masses. I’ve taught them what the real value of it is and it’s not all about greed and ‘how much do I get?’ One of my favourite things is walking the dog on Christmas day. There’s something about it out of all of the other days that just feels different. I’m not in any shape or form a religious man - I don’t believe in mumbo jumbo, hocus pocus - it won’t get us through. It’s the middle of the winter, it’s the darkest day that we have to deal with in our country.
I love chopping wood and I’m a skip rat every time we drive past a skip - ‘is there any wood in there?’ I get a lot out of sawing wood. I know that sounds really dumb, but it’s really good for you and it’s good exercise. The funny thing about sawing wood, there’s an irony to it because when you’ve done half a ton of wood you don’t want to light a fire. You can take from that whatever you will.
Do you know when you’re going to start work on the new album?
I’ve not really thought much about it. I’ve been writing songs - I always write songs for the joy of writing - but I’ve been writing with other people as well. I like writing with other people as it stops you from being so self obsessed. I like to learn and still grow as a man and not think that I know everything.
Standing At The Sky’s Edge is out now.