King Richard: in conversation with Richard Hawley

A deep-and-meaningful with devout northern soul Richard Hawley – on life and death, chess and underdogs, ploughing your own furrow and fraternising with Fontaines D.C. Words by Amanda Nicholls.

Rock ’n’ roll’s silver-tongued Sheffield crooner is running late. It’s not that he’s hungover or apt to prima donna behaviour even before exchanging hellos; his feet are red hot from an epic 7am dog walk that saw two silhouettes swallowed up by the tree-lined landscapes of the UK’s greenest city. Man and beast urgently need biscuits.

This Monday morning finds Hawley ‘in recovery’. He’s one hound down, having recently said goodbye to his ‘little brother’ Freddie the collie. “I found him in a barn 14 years ago – the runt, with blues eyes and porridge on his nose. I always go for the underdog. He licked my nose and that was it.”

Like his human – who appears impervious to music industry pressures and is known for his uncompromising, style-straddling output – Freddie went his own way. “Putting him on a lead was like the hobbits getting Gollum on a rope in Lord of the Rings: ‘It burns us!’”

Hawley’s philosophical. “You’ve got to be. It’s heart-breaking when they go, although it was beautiful in a way.” We’ve swum quickly from the shallow end for what feels like a therapy session between strangers. But Hawley’s “quite happy with heavy and deep, with a cup of tea”. He and his remaining spaniel are lounging on the bed, post-Bonio/chocky bourbon, and looking forward to Bath this summer.

“I used to play Moles a lot, in the Nineties,” Hawley recalls. “And there’s a fantastic guitar shop. I like books, records, second-hand shops – the same stuff I did when I was a kid. I’m a relatively clean-living guy these days but I’ve been to most of the decent pubs in Bath. I like places with history; I’m not one for your shiny new. I’m not very shiny and new. I was always so happy to just find a beautiful pub, sit in the corner and slowly get myself into a lot of trouble. I don’t do that anymore… It’s 22 years since I quit taking drugs and I’ve cut back the booze.”

Above image: Nick Barber

Now, on tour, you’re more likely to see him with a bottle of Henderson’s Relish in hand. “It’s made in Sheffield; great with your pint and chips. I’ve got a flight case made with a bottle in it and a little hammer that says ‘smash in case of emergency’.”

His love affair with his birthplace is habitually publicised. He knows so much about ‘Sheff’, he should be mayor. “We’ve got 4.7 million trees. In most cities you have to make an appointment to engage with nature; in Sheffield you’d have to make an appointment to avoid it.”

As a young man, he inherited prejudices about the south. “But I’ve learned that it’s total bullsht. There are differences, obviously – I’d rather celebrate them.” One similarity makes Hawley very happy. Country-wide, his post-Covid crowds have been cracking. “We played before Christmas and the vibe was insane. We’d left behind any blasé state we might have been in before. There was palpable joy. We listened to each other in a really emotional way.”

The pandemic meant more time living with latest album Further – its flavours developing like wine swilled round the mouth. “That sums up how songs mature. When we play older stuff live, I presume that’s how it is, then I hear a snatch of it in a taxi and it sounds radically different. Down in the Woods – a ferocious jam where we let rip – changes every night.” Hawley’s been gigging since he was 12. “It’s the lifeblood of any musician. If you squirrel yourself away too much in the studio you never really feel the power of music.” And with a guitarist father, vocalist mother and music hall star grandfather, it’s certainly in the veins. “I remember the day, when I was off school, sick, and waiting for the 1pm daily cartoon, that I managed to pull my dad’s guitar case from under the sofa.

“His 1963 Fender Strat looked, to a five-year-old boy, like a space rocket. He wasn’t an angry man but I’d told him I wouldn’t touch his guitar so I thought: I’m going to get told off here. He walked in, his hand bandaged from a steelwork injury, sat down, picked up the guitar and just said: ‘Do you like that?’ “He was a bugger because he’d show me half of something, then make some excuse and leave the room. That was a stroke of genius – while he’d open the door of my understanding of an idea, he wouldn’t take me to the end of the corridor. I had to figure it out.”

Hawley’s old-fashioned in ways; not caring for competition or social media’s ‘adversarial nastiness’. “I make forays into modern culture, then skittle off into the woods”

Hawley’s grandfather, whose party trick was playing the violin behind his back while standing on his head, educated him on music theory once he could beat him at chess. “He taught me to think three or four moves ahead. Chess is good for the cognitive workings of your mind, and [musical] improvising. As you play one note, you’re thinking, at lightning speed, of the next six, seven.” Those were quite the long-game moves if he thought as far ahead as 2022 and his highest charting record to date; a strategy for slow-burning career satisfaction that would see Hawley hit the elusive sweet spot between critical acclaim and commercial success. No, he says. He’s been lucky. Trusted his instincts rather than box-ticking.

“I plough my own furrow. Everything becomes homogenised otherwise. I don’t do willy-measuring.” It speaks of a confidence surely instilled by his stock; entertainment the Hawleys’ native territory, rock ‘n’ roll their bread and butter. He had guidance from his godfather, Sixties singer Joe Cocker. “Joe worked with my mum when she was a telephonist, and my dad – fitting radiators. It was more advice about how to conduct yourself. I’m not saying I’ve got everything right, but I’ve got things right for me. I’m happy being Caractacus Potts, hiding away for as long as it takes to come up with something I believe in.” Hawley’s old-fashioned in ways; not caring for competition or social media’s “adversarial nastiness”. “I make forays into modern culture, then skittle off into the woods again. I wouldn’t describe what I do as a talent, more a mental illness. I do things randomly but it seems to work. I’ve released a steady stream of records.”

Not only that: film scores and sell-out musical Standing at the Sky’s Edge. “The embryonic idea came six, seven years ago. It was a whole new experience, in my fifties. I was fascinated by the lighting, the set.” He liked having a brief. “With Maxine Peake and Tony Pitts on Funny Cow, I said: don’t send a script, just three sentences about what it is. Then I wrote the music on three dog walks. I should probably give t’dog royalties.” The great collaborator teamed up with Shakespears Sister on their last single When She Finds You, with a film noir-style video. “Siobhan [Fahey] rang and said: ‘you’ve got to sing on this’. Same with Manic Street Preachers. They held a gun to my head, basically.” Friday he’s off out with Irish post-punks Fontaines D.C. “I lent Carlos [O’Connell] guitars for the album I was supposed to play on. But if I’d have gone to the studio I’d have stayed for weeks because of Covid. Weeks getting pssed with Fontaines D.C. was tempting…”

There’s no genre he’d write off. “A great song you can make into anything. Take Summertime [Gerschwin] – that’s been done every way imaginable. I’ve never done anything specifically for money – if you chase money, you make bad decisions – but I’ll work with something if I find it interesting. It keeps your brain going.

“You have to look forward, have the word ‘yes’ in your mind. Music’s a great teacher and it’s kept me from growing old. Most of my mates I went to school with, they look like footballs with eyes.”

Hawley’s trademark quiff, meanwhile, has made way for a George Jones flat top. There’s a sharp intake of breath as he lights a cigarette in the “forgotten place” he calls home. Down the telephone, it sounds like a nature reserve; an avian orchestra in the background. “I get up at 4am and follow the river and the wildlife while I write songs in my head. I yearn for it as I get older. But I still love rock ’n’ roll.”

See Richard Hawley play as part of Rivertown at Bath Forum on 6 July, 7.30pm, tickets from £22.50;