Interview: Richard Hawley, singer
Fagan's is one of those defiant pubs, standing alone amid gap sites, and it's Richard Hawley's favourite.
Fagan's is one of those defiant pubs, standing alone amid gap sites, and it's Richard Hawley's favourite. When I enter on a foul, wet Sheffield morning the manager is chatting to his most famous regular and quoting from Shakespeare to describe his relationship with the delivery man who's brought him boxes of crisps every Monday for 25 years: "I have a mind to strike thee ere thou speak'st."
"I knew blokes like that at school," says the troubadour, who's bespectacled, bequiffed and be-winklepickered today, has always cut a dash and occasionally paid a price for it. "Me and Jarvis, looking like we did, could end up being smacked." This is Jarvis Cocker, and for a spell the friends were bandmates in Pulp - but since going solo, recording six acclaimed albums of epic ballads, Hawley has stood out even more.
It's just gone noon and he's on coffee. "No booze through the day, though we'd have a right laugh if I didn't have that rule and you'd have to catch the last train home, pissed. But go on, you have a Guinness - Tom does a great pint." In the snug over the next hour, he'll almost weaken, eyeing my glass enviously, but manages to resist. We still have a right laugh.
Forty-three-year-old Hawley - who gets dubbed Sheffield's Roy Orbison but says what he does is "just cheesy old bloke's music" - searches for individuality and authenticity everywhere, often in vain. "Is there a sadder sight than seeing an Englishman, or a Scotsman, wearing a baseball cap?" he wonders. Like everywhere else, the streets of his beloved city are becoming homogenous. "Just down the road from here used to be Butler's Cafe, the oldest transport cafe in Britain. In the 1950s Picasso came to a communist rally organised by the university and ate there, but he didn't have any English currency so he drew a dove on a serviette which Steve, the last of the Butlers, kept in a sock in a toilet roll. But a few years ago the council knocked down the cafe to widen the road, only to scrap the plan, and now Steve's just died."
Music can be just as disillusioning. "It's a battle," he says, "against mediocrity and dull. I can't believe how awful dance music has become, because it was invented right here in Sheffield - Cabaret Voltaire, 1973, first single." He describes pop radio, as controlled by the BBC, as "kind of like a fascist organisation" which encourages no-one to pen another Hey Jude or Riders On The Storm or "anything over two minutes, 30 seconds". Hawley himself rarely sticks to this length.
But he finds individuality and authenticity in writing with Lisa-Marie Presley, his current gig, and in producing the comeback album for Duane Eddy, a job just completed with the legendary guitar twanger already missing Fagan's."Look," he says flipping open his phone, "he's sent me a photo of the steak pies - and here's my son, Danny Boy, playing Peter Gunn for him."
And Hawley also finds them at the Glenfiddich Distillery. In June he accepted an invitation to visit Dufftown and write songs about the whisky-making process and its workers. "At first I was sceptical. My manager said it was for an artist-in-residence and I was like: 'Don't you mean piss-artist-in-residence - is that why they've asked me?' Stuff I read about the place mentioned a happy workforce. Well, I'm a steelworker's son and you can't bullshit me about things like that.
"But I had a fantastic time. I'd done Highlands tours with Pulp, shows in forests, but didn't know that area very well. I love walking and it's great for that. I loved the local pub, the Royal Oak, and took my guitar down there. And I loved meeting the distillery staff, who have a real pride in their work and are obviously well looked after.
"Two wonderful old guys, Sandy Duncan and Willie McDonald, showed me how whisky was made. Willie was just about to retire after a lifetime's graft and was really cut up about it. They let me sample the produce at a very early stage - it was like acid and almost blew my head off! I wrote three songs: The River, Life In A Barrel and The Opening Of The Bottle. I didn't think Glenfiddich would appreciate one called Let's Get Mashed ... "
Amid all this talk of booze Hawley is again gazing wistfully at my tumbler. He once said, after kicking drugs, that from a musical perspective "nothing good ever came out of cocaine". Does that apply to drink too? "Well, it's an occupational hazard. Anything that heightens the senses can have a positive effect on music, but take too much and your awareness is dulled. I've struggled all my life with addiction. I can't pretend to be, in any shape or form, responsible but I've got a lovely wife, three smashing kids and a nice home and we've managed to keep it all together."
Hawley got the inspiration for one of his finest songs, Coles Corner, from playing with his sons in the park; the motion of the swings suggesting its rhythm. He already had the title from an old department store meeting place for courting couples and, like many in his repertoire, it's steeped in local lore.
I'm soon drunk on Sheffield and suggest to Hawley he writes a book on the city, a musical biography. But he says: "I don't think that's me. Sometimes enough is just enough and I don't want everything because I don't deserve it." v
• Richard Hawley's songs for Glenfiddich can be downloaded at www.glenfiddich.co.uk
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east