Richard Hawley: Late developer

After 20 years as a guitarist Richard Hawley began recording his own poignant and poetic songs - and was soon hailed as one of the great singer-songwriters. Fiona Sturges meets Sheffield's native balladeer and Mercury Prize nominee
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The Independent Culture

Patience isn't a virtue one would necessarily associate with pop musicians, especially in today's cut-throat climate, but Richard Hawley, jobbing guitarist-turned-celebrated torch singer, clearly has it in spades. Despite starting preternaturally early in music - he knew his way around a guitar at the age of six - it took a further three decades for him to step into the spotlight and release a record of his own. In between he's had frequent glimpses of the big time, playing guitar with Britpop also-rans Longpigs, touring with Pulp and turning down a lucrative songwriting partnership with Robbie Williams.

Now, at 39, Hawley is master of his own destiny and the plaudits have been rolling in. The revered balladeer Scott Walker was moved to describe him as "being up there with the all-time greats" while Nancy Sinatra, on whose eponymous 2004 album Hawley played, was so enamoured with him that last Christmas she made his children a giant snowman full of sweets. As if that isn't enough, last month his third solo LP Coles Corner (inset) was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize, one of the record industry's most prestigious accolades.

It's not hard to hear why Hawley incites such adulation. Named after a spot outside a now-demolished department store in Sheffield where courting couples used to meet, Coles Corner is a profoundly nostalgic and romantic work that pays tribute to the echoing Fifties productions of Sun Studios without resorting to pastiche. The songs, sung in Hawley's languorous baritone, brim with sweetness and poetry. Next to the rambunctious offerings of fellow Mercury nominees such as the Editors and Arctic Monkeys, the album might have come from another planet.

"Up until now, all I set out to do was make the music that I wanted to hear, music that was gentle without being pedestrian," Hawley reflects in his soft Yorkshire tones. "This job is pretty selfish in that respect. You have to plough your own furrow and be a belligerent bugger. It is like a fish swimming upstream, doing what I do in the modern world, but I've always wanted my music to endure. I want it to be timeless. I want people to be playing it when I'm dead and gone."

If Hawley's music is a homage to an era when Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison ruled the radio, so is his appearance. Nursing a pint of Guinness in a hotel bar in his native Sheffield, I find him done up to the nines in a dapper navy suit, scrupulously shined shoes and dark glasses. "Well, you have to make an effort when you're having your picture taken," he smiles, adding, "but the glasses are prescription. Put them on if you don't believe me. I'm not that much of a prat."

No one could be more surprised than Hawley to find that his unapologetically old-fashioned music has found an audience. "When I set off with this thing I got as much armour and chainmail on as I could, and it turns out I didn't need it after all. That did my head in at first. When I got my silver disc earlier this year, I was dumbstruck because my vision of the universe was turned upside down."

Along with the Mercury nomination, Hawley was also given a South Bank Show Music Award earlier this year, seeing off rivals including Kate Bush and Gorillaz. "Awards are great, really fantastic" he beams. "I just hope I'm not going to turn into a big-head. Not that my wife would ever let that happen. The funniest time was when I was made Arena magazine's Man of the Year. She kept leaving messages on my phone going, 'Now then, Man o' Year. Get off your arse and pick kids up from school.'"

Apart a brief stint at a high street record shop and nine days working behind a bar ("I was fired for being pissed. Imagine that."), Hawley has never done anything but play music. It's a talent that clearly runs in the family. His grandfather used to play in the music halls in between shifts at the steelworks. His father similarly split his time between the factory and the stage, playing in the house band at Sheffield's Esquire Club in the Sixties, and backing such luminaries as Eddie Cochran and John Lee Hooker. "He would work 14-hour shifts at the steelworks for a pittance and then go out and play gigs," says Hawley. "I don't know how he did that. He worked himself to the bone for fuck all, and he still managed to hold on to his sense of humour. There was a lot of loyalty there, which you can't buy. In the Eighties the companies saw fit to throw that loyalty away like dust, which still astounds me today. People didn't matter then, money did. Like Bob Dylan says, money doesn't talk, it swears."

It's little wonder Hawley's family warned him off the steelworks, and encouraged him to hone his musical talents instead. "Music was a surer bet to a happier life than the steelworks. You can always turn money over, being a musician, though of course it depends what kind of musician you are. You can work on cruise ships and make a packet. There've been moments when that's looked pretty tempting, I can tell you."

By the time he was 14, Hawley was spending his school holidays touring Europe with his uncle's band playing rockabilly and R&B covers. In a fit of rebellion in the mid-Eighties he and some friends formed Treebound Story, an indie band that found brief favour with John Peel, and often played with another Sheffield guitar band waiting for their big break - Pulp. There were gigs at local working men's clubs too, which left Hawley as "the repository for some of the most brutal jokes ever told by human beings. I always love it on stage when people heckle me because I've got a stack of one-liners to throw back at them."

Work was fitful, however, and he had been on the dole for several years when he was hired as guitarist for Longpigs in the early Nineties. For six years, the band worked a fierce schedule, spending most of their time on the road. Hawley was devastated when, within hours of his first child being born, their manager turned up at the hospital and packed him off for a nine-month world tour.

"By the time I came back she was practically walking," he says. "Looking back, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong with that band. It was a combination of terrible management decisions and drugs. Nothing good ever came out of cocaine. I made some dreadful mistakes. I recently read that Frank Zappa told his son that drugs were just an excuse that people use to behave like arseholes, and that sums it up for me. I stopped doing drugs six years ago. Since then, the moth hasn't revisited the flame. It's fluttered in the shadows, so to speak, but it's never been tempted to land on the light bulb."

In 1997 Longpigs' record label folded and the band were no more. Luckily Jarvis Cocker chose that moment to call Hawley up and invite him on tour with Pulp; naturally he jumped at the chance. With his drug problems in control and his career back on track, Hawley also began a successful sideline as a session musician, guesting on singles by Finley Quaye, Robbie Williams and the All Saints' cover of Red Hot Chilli Peppers' "Under The Bridge" (he plays the opening riff). After one such session five years ago he found himself with some extra studio time and decided to record a few of his own songs. When he played them later to Cocker and Pulp bass player Steve Mackey, they were astonished. "They said 'You've got to do something with this. You've got a great voice. How come we've never heard it?'" recalls Hawley.

Well, it's a fair question, I say. Why did you take so long?

"Because I was frightened," he replies simply. "I didn't have the confidence to go that extra mile. I was born with a hair lip and a cleft palate and I thought the prerequisite for being a singer was to be devastatingly handsome and debonair. I'd all these feelings inside me that I wanted to express but didn't feel that I could because I wouldn't be taken seriously. But I learned something very profound with Pulp. You've got to feel the fear and do it anyway. So in the end I thought, 'OK, let's do this'. The beauty about getting older is that you give less of a shit what anyone else thinks."

Hawley maintains that in all his years as a guitarist he never yearned to move centre stage. He loves the camaraderie of being in a band and has always relished the opportunity to work with as many different people as possible. Besides, he says, part of him still believes that to be a singer "you have to be a bit of a knob-head."

Even now, as a committed solo performer, Hawley's collaborative services are in demand. He plays guitar on Jarvis Cocker's long-awaited solo record, due out in November. Not long ago Robbie Williams, on the hunt for a new songwriter, called him and offered him a job. Hawley turned him down. "It's a different world, all that," he says. "It would have been like winning the lottery. But it would also have been taking whatever scant wisdom I've developed in this short life and throwing it all away. I don't belong in that world. It's not for me."

Going on the evidence of Coles Corner, Hawley's songs have clearly benefited from their lengthy gestation period. Certainly, he's happy with the pace at which his career has unfolded. Had he made a solo album when he was 22, he says, he would have been too influenced by fashion - "I would've just been another idiot making dodgy indie-rock records."

Another benefit to being older, Hawley reveals proudly, is his dwindling ambition. "I've got a wife and three fantastic kids," he says. "If I don't turn into a dickhead, then I can keep my Sheffield passport and stay here for the rest of my life, which is what I want. Most people like to reinvent themselves and move on. I tried that in my youth and have spent the rest of my life trying to get back. I'm not a careerist, I've just been lucky with who I've worked with. My only ambition now is to get a new kitchen because ours is falling to bits. I've told our lass that if I win the Mercury Prize, she can finally get in touch with the bloke at MFI."

'Coles Corner' is out now on Mute. The single "Hotel Room" is released on 4 Sept. Richard Hawley plays Dublin Electric Picnic Festival on 3 Sept and Dorset, End of the Road on 17 Sept. The winner of the Mercury Music Prize will be announced on 5 Sept