Richard Hawley talks his musical opening in London, Pulp, Arctic Monkeys and The Leadmill

The artist told us about his ode to Sheffield with 'Standing At The Sky's Edge', as well as working with Self Esteem and plans for new music

Ahead of the musical Standing At The Sky’s Edge opening in London this weekend, Richard Hawley has spoken to NME about what went into the show, the current government, new material and working with Arctic Monkeys, Pulp and Self Esteem.

Standing at the Sky’s Edge features classic songs by Hawley to portray “a love letter to Sheffield and ode to the iconic Park Hill Estate” (a brutalist housing area that has gone through various eras of dilapidation and regeneration) as it “charts the hopes and dreams of three generations over the course of six tumultuous decades”.

Directed by Sheffield Theatres’ artistic director Robert Hastie and with book by Chris Bush, the show has completed a successful run in the Steel City’s Crucible Theatre and moves to London’s National Theatre this week.


“It’s fucking exciting stuff,” Hawley told NME. “The great test will be how well it travels. Like Henderson’s Relish and local beer, it might not make it that far south! I hope it does, and it’s great that The National Theatre have given it the chance.

“There’s always been the drive for me to do it, and it isn’t money or success, but to make sure that those people’s voices are heard. The people that lived on Park Hill were basically forgotten. They were left to rot and then forced out.”

The Mercury-nominated singer-songwriter said that the success of the show in Sheffield saw new and old residents of the Park Hill estate meeting up. “There seemed to be a lot more understanding of the situation because of the show, and that was a good thing,” said Hawley. “My grandparents were actually born in the area that were the slums that were demolished to build Park Hill. My grandparents queued up to get keys to the flat, but didn’t get one.

“It adds quite a deep resonance. It just intrigued me because I thought it was such a fucking daft idea to make a musical about it that I at least had to engage with it. The further I got into it, I realised it was a great idea so just threw myself into it. This is the result.”

After at first finding the idea of a musical of his songs to be “ludicrous”, Hawley then came around and handed his songs over to “the real geniuses” of Hastie and Bush.


“I wasn’t very precious about anything and I thought it would be interesting to see what another creative team would do with the songs,” he said. “I was involved, but Chris and others’ contribution was far bigger than mine.”

He continued: “There are certain rules I laid down. I said, ‘No fucking jazz hands and no fucking wafting about’. I also said, ‘If you pull a punch with the story and try to soften the story from what it really is, I’ll walk’. To their credit, the creative team haven’t done that. There hasn’t been any cowardice and the story is really raw and true.

“I didn’t want to make it political band standing or finger-wagging. You get to the morality just by telling the story.”

Hawley was even allowed to work “some gags” and some local humour into the script too to give it “a unique flavour”.

“It was basically just some funny shit I’d heard over the years on the street of Sheffield, in pubs, bars and at bus stops,” he said. “If I hear people saying anything interesting, I always write it down. Chris put a few of those in, along with her own genius. It’s very real, if you can say that about a fucking musical! The thing is, I actually fucking hate musicals. I never thought that I’d actually be in this position, but it works.”

When NME last spoke to Hawley, he teased that there had been some interest in turning Standing At The Sky’s Edge into a movie. Is that something that’s still on the cards?

“Yeah, there’s a lot of that stuff,” he replied. “It’s what I’ve been doing a lot of during the lockdown. I’ve been asked to do a lot of film work and I’ve really enjoyed it. I can’t tell you what I’ve been working on because I’ve had to sign non-disclosure documents and stuff, which is a shame, but it’s exciting.”

With him leaving the on-stage work of the musical to the cast, could we see him making a cameo in an eventual film?

“We shall see…” he replied.

Richard Hawley, 2019

Speaking of hometown pride, Hawley has also been a vocal supporter in the battle to save iconic Sheffield venue The Leadmill – having played a number of gigs there to help raise money and awareness.

Opposing the new owners and arguing that the staff who’ve built up the venue over the years should be allowed to continue running it under the same name, Hawley told NME: “It doesn’t take a genius to work it out – it’s our Cavern or Hacienda. It’s as important as those places. It’s not just a Sheffield thing because it’s on the circuit for bands to play and it’s such a great venue. It’s run so well.

“The upsetting thing is that if it was a failing business, I’d understand that someone would take it over. What angers me is that it doesn’t surprise me that greedy fuckers buy the land from underneath them. If they threw [the venue staff] out and turned it into flats, it would be an absolute tragedy but slightly easier to accept. The fact that what they’ve basically done is bought the land from underneath them, issued them with an eviction notice, and are going to steal their business. That to me is wildly immoral.

“If I was running a venue, or even a chip shop, I’d think, ‘Hold on a sec, if they get away with it with these, then who’s next?’ It’s just wrong.”

He continued: “It’s a fantastic venue and unique in the UK. There’s nowhere like it, and I think it’s wrong that we’re going to lose it in its current form. There’s no way that some big corporate London company can possibly run it in the way it’s being run now. I think they’ve fucked up because they’ve underestimated the strength of Sheffield people and a lot of people won’t go again.”

Hailing The Leadmill for “providing me personally with a platform to learn my shit”, Hawley noted that he’s “the musician that’s played there the most by a considerable margin” – having been performing there under various guises since he was a teen.

Reflecting the mood of the rest of the team at The Leadmill, Hawley said that he was “not giving in” in his quest to save it.

“I’m a terrier, me,” he said. “I’m a steelworker’s son and we’re hard as fuck. I’m not a person who backs down when I believe I’m right, but it’s not a question of believing if I’m right or wrong. Anyone with a heart or brain can see that this is fucked up.”

“It’s taken over 40 years to make it what it is. At many points it looked like it would close when they fell on leaner times but they worked to survive and it’s now a thriving business. It employs over 100 people, all very lovely people, and it provides. I hope to God that the last time I played in December isn’t the last time I step foot over the threshold.”

Hawley’s gigs at The Leadmill in December saw him joined on stage by fellow Sheffield artists Jarvis Cocker, and Rebecca Taylor (aka Self Esteem). Having previously invited Taylor to be a special guest on his 2015 album ‘Hollow Meadows‘, and said that he’d be open to a future collaboration.

“Rebecca is amazing,” Hawley told NME. “You can throw anything at her and she’ll just perform it so well – like she’s been singing it for years.

“We keep talking about doing something together. I’d like it; I think we would be interesting. We get on great and she’s a right laugh. I admire her guts to take on the mantle that she does. To do it so fearlessly is quite a rare thing these days. I admire her very much.”

Richard Hawley and Jarvis Cocker onstage at the Leadmill in Sheffield
Richard Hawley and Jarvis Cocker onstage at the Leadmill in Sheffield on August 9. Credit: Tom Sunderland

As for Cocker, Hawley’s next scheduled live dates are supporting Pulp at their summer reunion shows in Sheffield and Dublin.

Asked if he’d be likely to join them on stage again, he replied: “We shall have to wait and see. There’s no point in me giving the game away now!

“I’ve been part of the whole Pulp family for decades. My first band Treebound Story did a gig with Pulp in a little church when I was still a teenager – which was a fucking long time ago – and I’ve known Jarvis, Candida [Doyle, keys], Nick [Banks, drums] and Steve [Mackey, bass] all my adult life. Steve’s not involved this time, but that’s not to say he won’t be in the future. Steve and I went to infant school together and met way back then.

“Our paths have interwoven all our lives, so it feels right for me to open for them.”

And does he sense that Pulp might record more new material this time around?

“I have to be very careful because I’m not a spokesman for the band and technically I was never in the group, I was a live guitarist who played on a few tracks on ‘We Love Life’,” he said. “It would be inappropriate for me to speak for them, I’m sorry.”

Richard Hawley, 2019

Hawley also said that he had “no plans as of yet” to join Arctic Monkeys on stage again at their upcoming Sheffield dates, but heaped praise upon their 2021 album ‘The Car‘.

“I love what they do, because they do what bands should do which is stretch out and explore,” he said. “You can’t make the same record over and over again. I really like what they do and they’re mates.”

Having previously worked together on Arctic Monkeys’ 2012 b-side ‘You And I’, Hawley had doubts over whether they’d be likely to collaborate again. “It might not happen,” he said. “I’m happy with what we did. Lightning might not strike twice and it might be pointless to go back, but if it happens again I’m sure it would be interesting.”

Meanwhile, Hawley said that he was “itching” to get back into the studio to work on the follow-up to 2019 album ‘Further‘ this year.

“I need to stop playing live for a while and record some of these songs that I’ve got,” he revealed. “I don’t know [what it will sound like] yet and won’t until I’m there. I don’t want to put any limits on it by saying, ‘Oh, it’s going to be this’.

He continued: “I’ve got melodies and chords. I deliberately avoided writing lyrics during lockdown because I didn’t want to write a lockdown record. We still have to live with COVID but I was hopeful the world would be OK, and in many circumstances we are. I don’t know what I fear the most; I don’t know whether I fear COVID more than the fucking Tories. Given a choice, which one would you have? That’s a difficult one. I’m sure those fuckers are doing more damage to the country long-term.

“It just does my head in – how people can be so fucking county, and get away with it. Politicians, they just don’t seem to be accountable to anyone these days. I just find it a bit distressing, and I’m sure everyone does. They’re very clever people, the Tories. That’s why they’re the oldest political party in the world. They’re very resourceful and horrible.”

Hawley added: “There’s usually some [anger] on my records, so we shall see.”

Standing at the Sky’s Edge will at London’s National Theatre from February 9 until March 25. Visit here for tickets and more information. 

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