Richard Hawley: ‘If I stopped what I’m doing the songs would still come’

<span>Richard Hawley photographed in Sheffield by Gary Calton for the Observer New Review.</span><span>Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer</span>
Richard Hawley photographed in Sheffield by Gary Calton for the Observer New Review.Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

On 8 November 2007, the great Pelé visited Sheffield. The occasion was the 150th anniversary of the world’s oldest football club, Sheffield FC, which was celebrated with a match between the hometown team and Inter Milan at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane. Pelé, by then in his late 60s, walked on to the pitch to a rapturous ovation, but then he did something unexpected: he knelt on the turf, took out a tiny pair of scissors, carefully snipped a few blades of grass and popped them in a bag in his pocket. “Without Sheffield FC, there wouldn’t be me,” he declared.

Richard Hawley, the 57-year-old singer, songwriter and longsuffering Sheffield Wednesday season-ticket holder, relates this story with the care and wonder of someone charged with protecting a sacred memory. But his point is a bigger one: Sheffield and football should be synonymous. As, arguably, the birthplace of the world’s most popular sport, the city should be home to museums, statues and tourist walking tours. If Pelé wanted to make a pilgrimage to South Yorkshire, how many others who love the game would follow him?

Except, of course, they don’t. “If cities were cartoon characters, Sheffield would be Homer Simpson,” says Hawley, with a wheezy, nicotine-revved cackle. “It’s like, ‘D’oh!’ We get so close and ahhh, we fuck it up because we get it a bit wrong. But as long as I’ve got a hole in my arse, I’ll love this city. And I love it for its crapness as well. It’s like how I love a three-legged dog. They’ll still run for a ball.”

Not everyone could get away with saying that, but Hawley, who was born, raised and continues to live in Sheffield, has earned the right. And even in a city with dense mycelial musical roots – from Joe Cocker to Def Leppard, the Human League to Heaven 17, and later Pulp and Arctic Monkeys – he stands out for the creative succour that Sheffield gives him. It’s often upfront in his album titles: his 2001 solo debut, Late Night Final, was a throwback to the call of the city’s newspaper vendors; 2005’s Coles Corner, the first of two Hawley albums nominated for the Mercury prize, was taken from a famous meeting point for first dates in Sheffield; then there was Standing at the Sky’s Edge in 2012, also Mercury shortlisted, which nods to the brutalist Park Hill estate that looms over the city, and which – in a development that no one foresaw – became the inspiration for an Olivier-winning hit musical of the same name.

As a steelworker’s son, who watched a generation get thrown on the scrapheap, I was determined never to work for the man

And it’s there again in his new record, Hawley’s 10th solo album, In This City They Call You Love. The title arrived fully formed, even before he had any finished songs to go with it, and refers to the linguistic tic in Sheffield of using the greeting “love”, for everyone. Just hearing this word on a daily basis, from strangers, from “hairy tattooed builders and burly bus drivers”, as he moves round town, never fails to make Hawley’s spirits soar.

“We all read the news – no matter how grim and frightening it is,” says Hawley. “To me at the moment, it feels like what it must have felt for our parents during the Cuban missile crisis. We’re on the cusp of something that could be really fucking terrifying now. But the closer we get to the edge of the abyss, the more reassured I am by the fact that people in the city call me ‘love’.”

There are equivalents elsewhere in the UK: “pet” in the north-east; “duck” in Nottingham; and “my lover” in the West Country. “But growing up, I never heard ‘love’ anywhere else,” counters Hawley. “I thought it was normal.” Then, a smile: “But then I always thought a lot of things about Sheffield were normal.”

* * *

My day in Sheffield with Hawley begins “at the crack of midday” at an electricity substation on the edge of the city, where the Observer’s photoshoot takes place. He arrives camera-ready: his trademark rockabilly quiff, streaked black and silver like a jackdaw’s plumage, his indigo Levis stiff and turned up a good five inches, his black leather boots polished to a military shine. It’s possible that Hawley wears an old band T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms when he’s at home or chopping wood in his garden, but it’s somehow hard to visualise it. He looks well, and says that he has lost a couple of stone with a regimen of long, daily dog walks and following the diet of his father and grandfather. “Never saw them eating a chocolate bar or a packet of crisps,” he says. “Not even on Christmas Day.”

From the substation, we pretzel into his manager’s Mini and head into the city, past the Salvation Army Citadel, where Hawley used to shop for secondhand clothes, on to Marmadukes, a chichi cafe opposite the Catholic cathedral. Hawley likes it well enough there – they have an alcohol licence, for one thing – but does ask them to turn off the muzak. “Thank fuck for that,” he says, as it goes silent. “Background music does my head in. That’s why I’ve always loved drinking in old men’s pubs. It’s not because I’m an old man now… though technically I am.” He cracks a can of IPA and announces triumphantly: “First of the day!”

Hawley was born in 1967 and grew up in the Firth Park district, with two younger sisters. His mother, Lynne, was a nurse and singer; his father, Dave, sang too, and was a talented guitarist who worked at the local steelworks. That was until they closed in the 1980s, a painful downturn that the teenage Hawley watched up-close. “One of my favourite achievements, if you can call it that, is never having a job,” says Hawley. “And as a steelworker’s son, who watched my father’s entire generation get thrown on a scrapheap, I was determined never to work for the man. Never.”

“Ever since I was 12,” he goes on, “I just went, ‘No fucking way!’ Thirty-four years in the steelworks and you get treated like that at the end? But I had the guitar. And I didn’t care if I was playing working men’s clubs and weddings, as long as I wasn’t working in a… well, there were no factories to work in.”

Hawley revisited this turbulent period when he started working on the Standing at the Sky’s Edge musical. The action follows three generations of residents in one Park Hill flat, from the wide-eyed hope of the 1960s, through the economic crash of the 1980s, up to recent years when the Grade II-listed brutalist development has once again become a desirable place to live. Hawley’s music provides the soundtrack – including his classics Tonight the Streets are Ours and Open Up Your Door – and he consulted local playwright Chris Bush and director Robert Hastie on the book. The show, which ingeniously weaves upward mobility, immigration and gentrification, has been a smash: it started life at the Sheffield Crucible in 2019, before being restaged last year at the National Theatre, where it won two Olivier awards (for best new musical and for best original score or new orchestrations). It has now transferred to the Gillian Lynne theatre in London’s West End.

Related: ‘Richard Hawley gets it!’ Park Hill residents praise Sheffield musical

The critical and popular reception of Standing at the Sky’s Edge is not something that Hawley saw coming. When the idea came up, from producer Rupert Lord, more than a decade ago, Hawley had an almost physical revulsion to doing it. “I hate musicals, hate them,” he says. “With a passion. And I knew nothing about theatre. I felt like a cat with the fur rubbed the wrong way. That was actually the reason that made me do it. That it didn’t feel comfortable or right in any way at all. It felt wrong.”

Standing at the Sky’s Edge took years, and several changes in personnel, to come together; this slow genesis has been key, Hawley thinks. “If it had quickly gone on to the stage maybe 10 years ago, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have worked the way it does now,” he says. “After whatever it is, 13, 15 years of austerity, it has reminded the older ones like me: ‘Whoa, this is how it used to be.’ And it’s just hit a nerve, it doesn’t matter what class you’re from. Which tells me that all of us have this sense of loss; that we’ve had something taken away from us. And dare I go a modicum further and say we’ve actually had things stolen from us. A sense of theft.”

In an election year, what does that mean? “We need change,” says Hawley, whose mother, wife and daughter have all worked for the NHS. “The thing is we have to be kicked to fuck, in a corner, in a sack almost, to realise we need change, collectively. Yeah, I’m hopeful. I just hope Starmer doesn’t fuck it up. I really hope he grows at least one bollock.”

Is he not a fan of the Labour leader? “Let’s talk about something else,” Hawley replies. “I’m just a guy with a guitar.”

How about musicals then? Has Hawley become a convert? “I still fucking hate musicals” – a long comic pause – “but I like this one!”

* * *

Hawley remembers feeling a similar gnawing uncertainty when he made another life-changing call: his decision, in the late 1990s, to go solo. After school, he spent a decade playing here and there, on and off the dole, before breaking through in his mid-20s as the guitarist for the Sheffield indie group Longpigs. It was peak Britpop – the band opened for Radiohead and U2 – and Hawley enjoyed himself: he has previously copped to an industrial-sized cocaine habit and use of “other chemicals”. Today, he says of this period: “I was a nutter: rock’n’roll, a guitar player in bands. It was tremendous fun for some time. And then it stopped being fun.”

Part of the reason Hawley pulled back was that he started playing guitar with on Pulp tours. Another was that he had an ultimatum from his wife, Helen, a psychiatric nurse, with whom he has three children. “Me and my wife have held it together for 33 years,” says Hawley, shaking his head in disbelief. “In the music industry that’s unheard of. My missus needs a medal as big as a bin lid.”

Working with Pulp happened organically: he met Steve Mackey, their bassist who died last year, on their first day of nursery school and he started knocking about with Jarvis Cocker when they were teenagers. It was an open secret that Hawley wrote his own material on the side, but what emerged in 2001, when Hawley was 34, was a revelation: velvet-lush vocals that were tender and flecked with melancholy, backed up with timeless guitar-playing that evoked both industrial Sheffield and the wide spaces of middle America. “Country and northern,” the BBC 6 Music DJ Stuart Maconie calls it.

Jarvis called me and said we’d been nominated for an Oscar. I was five deep in my local and said: ‘What for?’

“What came out of that whole period of time [before going solo] was learning what not to do,” says Hawley. “It was a good experience in the long run for me, because I just thought: ‘If ever I get my time…’ And the music industry is so brutal. You basically get one bite of one cherry. I’ve eaten the whole fucking bowl! That was something my mum said actually. If ever I moan about anything, she’ll just remind me: ‘Your dad didn’t have even remotely half the chances you’ve got.’

“When I made my first records, it was quite obvious to me it was the last roll of the dice,” Hawley continues. “The main thing about the solo stuff was: ‘If I fail, it’s going to be on my terms.’ For once, I was going to plant my flag in the fucking ground: this is it and this is what I want to do. But it was terrifying because I knew I was a salmon swimming upstream, because I was older. Then it was: indie guitarist goes solo and comes out with something that’s so startlingly different from what I was thought to be, which was this rock’n’roll fucking monster.”

Hawley drains his second beer and smiles: “To some degree, there’s an element of Mr Monster still there.”

* * *

The cafe is closing up, so we take to the streets on foot, stopping at a newsagents for Hawley to buy cigarettes. We pass a building on a corner where Pulp used to rehearse upstairs and enter the Irish Triangle, which is made up of three pubs: the Grapes, the Dog & Partridge and Fagan’s. Hawley’s destination this afternoon is the Grapes, an historic, 200-year-old drinking den where Arctic Monkeys played their debut gig in 2003. Hawley first came here with his dad more than 40 years ago, and calls the owner Auntie Ann. He hands her a crisp £10 note and brings back two Guinnesses to a wooden table beside an electric fire.

Hawley is loosened up nicely now and the stories are tumbling. We talk about this year’s Oscars: he collaborated with Jarvis Cocker on two songs for the 2023 Wes Anderson film, Asteroid City; one of those, Dear Alien (Who Art in Heaven), was shortlisted for best original song. “Jarv rang me and he says: ‘We’ve been nominated for an Oscar,’” Hawley recalls. “And of course I was in my cups, as they say, I was five deep in my local, pissed, and I just went: ‘What for?’”

Hawley cracks up, his head bobbing. “To this day, Jarvis will ring me or I’ll ring him and say: ‘Look, I’ve got idea for a song and I think this is something you could do…’ We did that back in the 1980s. And he knows that, if there’s a certain thing he needs, it’ll be me that he calls. And when we get together, inevitably the guitars will come out. It’s as normal for us as playing tiddlywinks. That’s just the me-and-him thing.”

Hawley has jotted down lyrics for as long as he can remember, even when he had no idea where they would end up. Just Like the Rain, a love-lorn ballad from Coles Corner, was written on his 16th birthday, two decades earlier. At the end of working on the new album, Hawley calculated that he and his band had amassed an unfathomable 86 finished songs to pick from. “I’ve never described it particularly as a talent,” says Hawley of songwriting, “it’s more a mental illness.

“And it’s never left me,” he goes on. “If I stopped doing what I’m doing, they’d still come, those songs. And it would be torturous. I’ve flirted with the idea of retiring over the years and thinking: ‘Fucking come on, Hawley, you’re too old for this shit!’ But the music draws you in, like a moth to the flame, it’s just a beautiful thing.”

In This City They Call You Love finds Hawley on sublime form. There are the moments of sparse beauty you would expect, but his soulful vocals are perhaps given more room than previous records. His guitar is used more sparingly, but when it does come in, for example on Do I Really Need to Know, it packs a wallop. “The new record represents a braveness, a rawness of spirit that I’m always striving to get to,” says Hawley. “Because I can’t hear it on the radio, so I think: ‘Fuck it, I’ll do it!’ And if I’m in a position where people are kind enough to play my records, at least I can have the decency to actually play something fucking worth playing.”

There’s an emotional background to the album, too. Hawley played nearly all the solos on three guitars: his father’s old Gretsch and two Telecasters, one bequeathed to him by the late Scott Walker, the other a gift from Duane Eddy, who died last month. “They were just the ones that felt the best to play,” says Hawley. “I seem to have a lot of angels on my side.”

Night is drawing in. I have a train to catch; Hawley, somewhat incongruously, is meeting up with snooker great Steve Davis, who is in Sheffield for the world championship at the Crucible and is obsessed with prog rock and alternative music. I make the mistake of suggesting that we should consider Hawley a poet of his home city. “I’m not a poet,” he shoots back. “I’m no fucking poet.”

Still, something about Sheffield has made it a lifelong muse. “I get asked about it a lot,” says Hawley, draining his Guinness. “The answer is, it surprises me that I seem to be the only one – or one of the only ones. Why is not everyone doing that? Talking about what you know, rather than some bullshit that you’ve imagined.”

  • In This City They Call You Love is out on 31 May on BMG