Sheffield crooner – and part time Pulp guitarist – Richard Hawley is set to release his seventh album Standing At The Sky’s Edge on 7 May, and he’s angry. Not only has he raised his guitar in anger on the new record – adding a series of incendiary guitar solos to his luxurious sound – but lyrically Hawley is pulling no punches, reacting to his belief that the current Coalition government are “political kettling” the poorer parts of society. In this exclusive Q&a he explains how he’s gone from ice cream-friendly tunes to serious licks (boom, boom).
How the devil are you?
“I’m alright! I’m good, it’s a sunny day! Normally I do interviews in the boozer but I’m trying to kick – well not kick it, but I’m trying to lay off the ale! Interviewers want me to take them to Fagans in Sheffield but if I did that with everybody I’d have to go to fucking rehab!”
To be fair you’re looking a bit like the leader of the biker gang at the moment, what’s with the sharp leathers?
“The biker jacket – which was my dad’s – that I normally wear onstage is being relined at the moment. It’s an old Lewis leather but the lining rotted away after basically being onstage for a thousand nights. I used to wear that all the time in Longpigs and Pulp.”
A new leather for a new musical approach?
“Yeah, what I set out to do was go jib the whole orchestra thing and make something as dynamic and dramatic with just two guitars, bass, drums and keyboards. To deliberately limit myself. Where I could hear a string line or glockenspiel or whatever it, I’d limit myself. It’s not like it’s not been done before once or twice [laughs] but I felt I’d neglected the guitar for a long, long time as a lead instrument or something that I could use on its own without being backed up by a 38 piece orchestra to make a point. It was good fun.”
Was there almost a set of rules for this album then?
“Definitely. I think there’s a cello on there that starts one song and I did try it on other instruments first but I couldn’t really hear it on anything else. Apart from that there isn’t anything else, but the scope you can do on guitars sonically is huge. You know I own quite a couple? [laughs] I just wanted to get them out and dust them down. And there were other reasons as well. Tim McCall [guitarist in Jarvis Cocker’s solo band who died in 2010], my mate, passing away was a catalyst. As a positive, if you can ever get one out of losing someone you love, it just made me think, I’m 45 years old have you done everything you want to do? The answer was No. So it was now or never, that simple.”
Some of your more sedate listeners will be surprised what you’ve managed to get out of those guitars. As you say there’s some scope there…
“Thank you, man. The foot rarely strays towards the monitor [wedge speaker] I’m not doing that [adopts a cock rocking pose]! I supposed it’s one foot on the monitor and one in the grave! [laughs].”
From some of the solos on there, it sounds like you had fun recording this record?
“It was a right laugh, yeah. Doing the guitar on She Brings The Sunlight, it just seemed obvious to me to do that. That was the other good thing, me and the lads were just sat playing live together and not in different booths. We were just playing it live with the guys sat around. Also guitar is my first love… I just wanted to have some fun!”
Lyrically the album title conjures up quite a moody atmosphere…
“The characters in [title track] Standing At The Sky’s Edge I knew them all personally over a period of my life. There’s a district in Sheffield called Skye Edge so there’s the nod to Sheffield, Thank you for nourishing me, which is genuinely meant. But it’s more a reference to… because of successive governments, particularly this lot mopping up what Thatcher started, what they’re putting in place – or is already in place – will reap a such a fucking dark whirlwind. The way I see it, at the moment we’re stood at the edge, politically and socially. Things are going really fucking Pete Tong, I think the riots are just the tip of the iceberg myself. Our sense union as a country – not just unions – our sense of union seems to be… you can feel people’s frustrations. I wrote one track Down In The Woods as a reaction to one of the first things that shower of shit we laughingly call a government tried to do. It’s so transparently Etonian and shallow.”
“The first thing they wanted to do was sell off all the woodland to all their private businessmen, chinless wonder mates. In one fell swoop they tried to reverse 100 years of history and I got so angry about it. That was another reason to turn it up. I’m not forgetting the song and I’m not getting on my political soapbox but they are the things that motivated those tracks.”
You mention Thatcher, so you believe it’s a return to the divisive politics of the 1980s?
“She was a shopkeepers daughter with ideas ‘above her status’, she wanted to be Lady Thatcher and she got it in the end. Whereas the current lot are a little bit, [larky posh voice] Oh fucking hell Tarquin! You know what I mean? It is the chinless landowning idiots who are in power, at last they got what they wanted and they’re finishing the asset stripping job she started and I think as a result of that… look, I’m a father of three kids, there’s fuck all out there for them! It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a degree in astrophysics, you can still be flipping burgers at the end of that. That’s what’s really distressing that all kids’ efforts just seem to be so worthless at the end and that’s so sad. And let’s face it, before you even flip ye burger you’re £50 grand or whatever it is in debt. Who the fuck wants to go to university to be that much in debt? What it’s about is deliberately hemming us in. I see it as political kettling. They’re kettling our future. Even in later life, if you want to self-educate yourself you can’t go to the library now. Call me paranoid, but I see it as systemic. I’ve seen it before and this time it’s more skilled in a way. There was resistance then [in the 1980s], you had a sense of union and that doesn’t exist any more. A lot of it’s online, like 38 Degrees, which I’m proud to put my name to, but it’s a worry and I do feel angry about it. It will erupt. It already has once and I think what’s coming will be far worse.”
There are some softer moments on this record too?
“[laughs] Of course, of course: the soft underbelly I’ve never been afraid to show! I didn’t want to put the pedal to the metal all the way through, it would be boring, that, and you could possibly be guilty of secretly wanting to be a 40 year-old guy in spandex. As always to me, melody has to be king. Yes there are some guitar solos, but there were actually always guitar solos on my stuff they just weren’t quite this loud!”
Talking of your softer side, Aloe Blacc recently suggested that people weren’t writing love songs any more. As a practitioner of the ballad, do you feel increasingly isolated? You’re probably the only person who use “darling” on a record these days without sounding silly…
“I consciously wanted to get Darling and Baby back from the cheese bin, and that was right from the word go. I think it’s being totally and utterly, rib cage-open honest. I’m not hearing too much of that in the mainstream. That was an interesting thing to try to do, it could have completely blown up in my face, but you’ve got to really genuinely mean it for it to work. I’m happy I did that. I’m not afraid of showing emotion.”
Live-wise, you’ve been playing guest spots with Pulp recently, are you ready for a full show?
“I’ve been on halves now I’m going back to full fat! Steve Mackie, the bass player [in Pulp], I’ve known since I was four years old, so playing with the lads and the lass is always a great honour. Our recent show at the Albert Hall there was one of the best we’ve ever done, I think.”
And you must be keen to give these new songs a live airing too?
“Just to see the reaction to see if it works. I’m glad that it exists because I didn’t want to make a fucking record that was treading water. It would be easy to do that and sell blah, blah, blah copies. I think it’s important for me, for myself, to be brave and not hop on the spot. It would be quite easy for me to make Truelove’s Gutter Part 10. I might revisit that world again one day, but I think enough of those record exists and there are a lot of artists, who I love, who serially make the same record. It ends up cheapening the ones before which were really great. And just to save off the Alzheimer’s, I’m still trying to stretch myself.”
For more head to Richardhawley.co.uk, plus look out for our new issue Q311, out on Tuesday (24 April) for a further interview with Hawley.