Step into Sheffield’s Yellow Arch Studios and it’s business as usual for local hero Richard Hawley. Here, where he’s recorded all his solo albums, you’ll find the 48-year-old singer-songwriter analysing the guitars in an old photo of The Byrds, and spitting feathers over the Tories’ latest political evildoings.
During the last 15 years, the studio has become Hawley’s second home. But the songs on his upcoming eighth LP ‘Hollow Meadows’ come from a far less comfortable place. “I broke my leg and I fucked my back up,” he shrugs. “I actually spent months and months not being able to move and it made me think about things a lot.”
“That kind of confinement, it could make you quite negative and I’ve been concentrating on trying to think about good things,” he continues. “Balance your inner being with the outer world and make an equilibrium between the two. That sounds like real complicated bullshit but trust me, when you’re laying on your back, not being able to move for four-and-a-half months, the weird shit that runs through your head is quite odd.”
Understandably, Hawley made the most of it once he got back on his feet, and new songs took shape over long walks through Sheffield’s parks. “Putting one foot in front of the other, I reckon it turns off the rational side of your brain,” he says. “It’s easy to lose yourself and escape into your own thoughts in this city if you choose to.”
Hawley recorded demos in his shed-turned-home studio, dubbed Disgraceland, before taking them to Yellow Arch for re-recording and additional parts. In the end though, around half the album is made up of shed takes: “On a lot of the tracks, at the end you can hear birds and dogs and the kids playing football.”
Hawley’s sons aren’t the only guests on the album. The so-called Hicks Street Chip Shop Singers (named after the chippy near Yellow Arch) can be heard on the waltzing expanse of ‘Sometimes I Feel’ and feature, amongst others, folk musician Nancy Kerr and Slow Club’s Rebecca Taylor. Hawley’s former Pulp bandmate Jarvis Cocker popped in to play a 1960s bass synth on the decidedly mellow ‘Nothing Like A Friend’.
There are nods to 2012’s amped up ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’, which shocked fans of Hawley’s crooner tendencies with its sheer ferocity. New track ‘Heart Of Oak’ has a warm fuzz connecting its clanging piano intro to a screeching solo, and ‘Which Way’ has all the stompy drama of Echo And The Bunnymen’s ‘The Killing Moon’.
But fundamentally, ‘Hollow Meadows’ is a return to the striking simplicity of Hawley’s earlier work. “All I did [on ‘…Sky’s Edge] was turn the volume up,” he says. “But this album is definitely about being back to songwriting.”
Like most of Hawley’s records, the title references Sheffield, Hollow Meadows being a hamlet a couple of miles outside town. He’s evasive on its precise significance though. “During my incarceration, through the inability to put one foot in front of the other, I did quite a lot of research into the Hawley family name,” he says. “I found out a shitload of stuff that really blew my mind, which will be revealed at some later date.”
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Hawley’s back, but he’s letting the music to do the talking.