Richard Hawley: Talking music, politics, and ‘nobheads in London’ with the Sheffield bard

With his eighth studio album 'Further' currently at Number Two in the midweek charts, the Sheffield songwriter talks to NME about his hometown inspiration, his new work on film, and how the government's Brexit confusion is a distraction from more important battles – particularly mental health and suicide among the young

Your new album ‘Further’ is a lot less sprawling than previous efforts – and your first to not be named after part of Sheffield…

“It’s a deliberate attempt to be brief – in the title, musically, everything. If it was a piece of bacon it would have no fat on it at all. I’m obsessed with the three minute song. It’s like an ideal of perfection in a way. To write something so concise but get so much across is very satisfying.”

Did you discipline yourself a lot as a writer to achieve that?

“Massively, I was really quite savage. There’s one song on the album that clocks in over four minutes called ‘Time Is’. I call it ‘the prog track’. By normal standards, that isn’t very long at all. I wanted to feature a really good friend of mine called Clive Mellor who’s a virtuoso harmonica player. When we got him in the studio and heard him play I just thought ‘Fuck it, let him blow’. He sounded so good that to have a slight loosening of the reigns on that track felt right.”

‘Is There A Pill’ seems to encapsulate a lot of the sounds you’ve covered, and adds to this feeling like this is one of your more personal records.

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“It could have turned out to be a negative song, because it’s about suicide and someone very close to me who we lost. How the fuck do you write about something like that? I wrote it to make myself and his family feel better, and it’s worked because they do love it a lot.”

“If my new album was a piece of bacon, it would have no fat on it at all”
– Richard Hawley

How do you tackle something like that as a songwriter?

“To try and turn it into something positive was almost impossible, but it’s a lesson to us all. You’ve got to have respect for somebody when they make that ultimate decision. It was awful circumstances, but it was to do with the prescription medication that fucked his head up. It’s a comment on our growing reliance on it. I’ve had run-ins with that. When I broke my leg they put me on all of these mad-as-fuck pills. My wife is a mental health nurse and I discussed it with her at length.”

Would you say you’re an advocate for therapy?

“You go to the doctors and it’s almost like they give you a ‘can you just fuck off and take your shit somewhere else’ pill that freezes people in stasis so you can’t move forward. You’re almost like a fly caught in aspic. The mental health system in our country is woefully underfunded. We’re living in a time where we need more investment and should be leaning more towards talking to people about problems rather than just dosing people up to the eyeballs with drugs.”

“The mental health system in our country is woefully underfunded. We’re living in a time where we need more investment and should be leaning more towards talking to people about problems rather than just dosing people up to the eyeballs with drugs”

What can you tell us about your experience with prescription drugs?

“It was when I was on tour in Australia [in 2013]. They put me on Tramadol and a couple of other pills and fucking hell, they were way worse than any other street drug I tried in my life. They were really fucking heavy. If you’ve done your shoulder or your back in then you need physiotherapy or a chiropractor, but they put you on these pills because your insurance bracket can’t afford that therapy. They can give you a big bag of pills every month to suppress the symptoms, and it’s the same for mental health. I’m sure that a lot of the people on these pills don’t need to be; they just need to talk to someone.”

Richard Hawley, 2019

Mental health doesn’t really seem to be the government’s priority right now though…

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“I could talk about this all day. It’s very frustrating watching my wife and her colleagues battle, and it is a battle, everyday to help and save people. There are people slipping through the cracks in droves. It’s distressing because with ‘the B word’ [Brexit], all of the media attention is focussed towards that as well as adding to the hatefulness and near-mindless debate that it becomes this caucus race that goes round and round and round. All the while, we’ve got all of these other issues that are way more important – like homelessness and the state of mental health with young people. It’s just not even being discussed and that is criminal.”

Yet still, you didn’t feel the urge to make more political album?

“In a way, it is. I’ve done songs like that in the past like ‘Tonight The Streets Are Ours’ which was me reacting to local council people on TV on Look North. There were councillors congratulating themselves on how they’d sorted out anti-social behaviour problems by slapping ASBOs on them. It just made me want to kick the fucking telly in because it hasn’t sorted them out. It just imprisons people in their homes. It’s successive government’s cowardice of refusing to deal with why people actually behave like that.”

“All the media attention is focussed on ‘the B word’. All the while, we’ve got all of these other issues that are way more important – like homelessness and the state of mental health with young people. It’s not even being discussed and that’s criminal”

And your music tends to deal with a more personal kind of politics?

“[2012 album] ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’ was political with a small P, but I can’t help myself. Even if I try and write about politics it ends up just talking about how it affects people on a day-to-day basis. I grew up in that environment. I grew up in the Thatcher era. If you were a young kid from the North of England anywhere near Britain’s industrial past then you were fucked. You weren’t part of Thatcher’s plans and you can see it happening again now.”

Do you feel as if we’re nearing a tipping point where something could change?

“I’ve given it a lot of thought. I wanted to make a positive record because it’s easy to get sucked into the depressing diatribe of this appalling set of politicians that are around at the moment. I also read a lot of history. The Roman Empire fell. The British Empire fell. What the Belgians were doing in the Congo came to an end. With all negative evils in this world, the protagonists eventually get punished by their negativity. I believe wholeheartedly in love. I know that is the only thing that is going to save us in the world. Our emotional constipation and seeing people living in bags in doorways has become normal. It’s not fucking normal. It’s fucked up.”

How do you think it became normalised?

“I don’t see these fuckers joining the dots. It’s like the knife crime thing. The average age of someone carrying a knife or being a victim of knife crime is 16. That’s terrifying. But how many years of austerity have we had? It’s basically 16. The numbers add up. It’s all fucked. You’ve got society saying ‘no’ to them all the time, while at the same time advertising expensive trainers and cars and this wonderful life. I’m from that background and I fear poverty more than I do death. Not having choices or manoeuvrability.”

“The average age of someone carrying a knife or being a victim of knife crime is 16. But how many years of austerity have we had? It’s basically 16. The numbers add up. It’s all fucked.”

Do you feel as if Sheffield and The North are being ignored?

“Nationally, I think everybody is. I voted for Remain and I openly say that. But I despise how a certain part of our world dismisses the Leave vote with ‘Oh, they’re just racist fuckers’. The answer to it at the end of the day is that ‘Oh, we should be listening a lot more than we’re fucking talking’. It’s not the first time that we’ve seen nobheads in London whipping people up into a frenzy and it won’t be the last.”

Richard Hawley, 2019

Is it still the same things that keep you in Sheffield?

“The thing I like about Sheffield is I love the trees, I love the parks, I love the Peak District, I love the fact that it’s the greenest city in the EU (while we’re still in it), plus the people’s resilience and sense of humour is what makes me stay. I can’t imagine living in London at all. I’d just disappear.”

I was in Sheffield a few weeks ago down Kelham Island and that area did seem to be a lot posher than it was years ago

“Yeah, when I started working at Yellow Arch in Neepsend, that was just a stone’s throw from where my dad and uncles used to work in a lathe place called Woodhead Components on Alma Street. When I first started working there they didn’t have a security light so you’d either tread on glass or a syringe or on rubber from a contraceptive. You don’t really get that anymore, now it’s more likely to be a croissant or a latte with some bloke a ginger beard serving it to you.”

And that’s the area where Arctic Monkeys wrote ‘When The Sun Goes Down’ about, wasn’t it?

“Yeah, I was there when they made all of that up. I was recording in the same environment.”

And you had some success with your musical ‘Standing At The Sky’s Edge’s about families on the Park Hill estate. How did that come about?

“Well at first when someone said to me ‘Can we use your songs in a musical?’ I pissed myself. I thought it was going to be like the opening of the Olympics with loads of wofting. I just said to him, ‘If there’s any wofting or any of that jazz hands bollocks then I’m out of there quicker than shit off a hot shovel’. They stuck to their word. The most enjoyable process for me was just giving my songs away and them doing what they wanted with them.”

“I voted for Remain and I openly say that. But I despise how a certain part of our world dismisses the Leave vote with ‘Oh, they’re just racist fuckers’. The answer to it at the end of the day is that ‘Oh, we should be listening a lot more than we’re fucking talking’.”

How much of ‘the Sheffield humour’ is in there?

“They asked for some suggestions and I gave some opinions but the greatest fun I had was working with Chris Bush the scriptwriter and putting in lines that I’d heard at bus stops, taxi ranks and pubs that were proper piss your pants funny in ordinary speech. The subject matter itself was like, serious as death, so I wanted to lighten it up. In parts I thought, ‘People in Sheffield wouldn’t talk like that, they’d be more taking the piss’. You’ve got a choice to laugh or cry, and in Sheffield to avoid centuries of tears we’ve had quite a good default and self-effacing take-the-piss mode. It’s good for your survival.”

Will the musical go on tour?

“I don’t know. When it was going on, people kept introducing me to Herberts from the West End and all that. What was achieved, was achieved. If it never went anywhere else then I’d be happy. I thought it would do quite well, but not like it did. They sold 26,000 tickets and that was amazing. It wasn’t ‘The Richard Hawley Show’, there were so many other people involved.”

Maybe they could make it into a gritty Film Four movie?

“Well, that was the other thing. There were loads of American movie people coming over. I just take it all with a pinch of salt. Because me and Chris basically own the script, if they say they’d change it then I’d just refuse to let it go. It would only be possible if it stayed as it is. I wouldn’t compromise to please or appease another market. That would be wrong.”

“In Sheffield to avoid centuries of tears we’ve had quite a good default and self-effacing take-the-piss mode. It’s good for your survival.”

You wouldn’t want it to have a Hollywood spin?

“They did that with Shameless and it’s just fucking garbage. You’re ripping out its soul and its gizzards. It had no reason to exist. If it’s just a story based in the north then so be it. I hope it does get made, but I don’t have any say in if people take it on or not. The only say I have is that it’s staying the same. The end.”

Are you up to any other extracurricular activities away from music?

“A big contributory factor about why this album feels so fresh to me is because at the end of the last cycle of touring I said I would learn some new skills. I did the theatre thing, some film soundtracks and even a tiny bit of acting – the results of which are debatable! But the soundtrack thing I really enjoyed. It was more solo than being a solo artist because it was a very solitary pursuit. I really enjoyed that process. That took my head away from the concept of doing an album for about two and a half years, so when I came back to it, it just felt new. That contributed to the songs being so short and upbeat.”

Have there been any conversations about you getting back with Pulp for more shows?

“I’ve not spoken to the band, so I don’t want to get in trouble! But for me, I’ve got two new films coming out so that will be an ongoing process. I just want to keep being creative man, you know – trying to keep out of the steelworks.”

‘Further’ by Richard Hawley is out now

FOR HELP AND ADVICE ON MENTAL HEALTH:

Richard Hawley’s upcoming UK and Ireland headline tour dates are below:

September
27 – Wakefield Warehouse 23
30 – Dublin Olympia Theatre
October
2 – Bristol O2 Academy
3 – Cardiff University Great Hall
4 – Norwich UEA
6 – Oxford O2 Academy
7 – Manchester Albert Hall
8 – Liverpool Guild Of Students
10 – Birmingham O2 Institute
11 – Sheffield Octagon
12 – Sheffield Octagon
14 – Newcastle Northumbria Institute
15 – Glasgow Barrowlands
17 – London Roundhouse
18 – Brighton Dome

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