Bullied at school, addicted to drugs, washed up by Britpop — Hawley is now one of our most celebrated singer-songwriters

July 14 2012

As the lights go down in the Bouffes du Nord, a dilapidated 18th-century theatre in a bleak, unloved area behind Gare du Nord in Paris, Britain’s most singular pop star appears from the wings in a wheelchair and shades. The shades are his trademark; he has been in a wheelchair since breaking his leg in Barcelona a few days earlier.

He transfers gingerly to a drummer’s stool, balances a guitar on his knee and for almost two hours the packed theatre resonates with soaring ballads soaked in love for his wife of 22 years; melancholic songs about being baffled by the thought of death, and yearning paeans to his hometown of Sheffield. The French, who take their music terribly seriously, adore him.

Richard Hawley is an unlikely pop export. He’s a former drug addict who is now devoted to family life. From one of Sheffield’s roughest areas, he is the antithesis of disposable manufactured pop and what he calls “point-and-laugh” celebrity culture. Jarvis Cocker, the lead singer of Pulp, is a fan, saying, “In a way, Richard exists in his own time”, while Hawley describes himself with typically dark, self-deprecating humour as “a 45-year-old geezer from a council estate with specs, a harelip and shocking teeth”.

I meet Hawley for lunch the next day in his Paris hotel room. He sits in his wheelchair, his broken left leg resting on a chair softened with a pillow. He wears prescription glasses, a black shirt and a pointy black boot on his right foot. The outside seam of his lower left trouser leg has been cut and is held together with a neat line of safety pins. He has, he says proudly, never missed a gig, even during his early days as a performer when he was addicted to drugs.

“I’ve had problems with addiction all my life,” he says. “I guess I drifted into taking them. We all took drugs when we were kids because there was nothing else to do. Mushrooms. Acid. Cheap speed. Dope when we could get hold of it. Heroin was never part of the equation. Cocaine belonged to a different universe. But heroin, when it came, was quick. When the steel industries shut down the dealers moved in. All Sheffield’s satellite towns have serious heroin problems now. It’s scary how heroin has almost become ordinary in a way. “I was lucky; I went cold turkey. I met Amy Winehouse a couple of times and I knew that if she continued on the course she was on, there was nothing anyone could do to change the trajectory of that arrow. I feel awful for saying that, but it’s true. And I say that as someone who went straight into the deep end with drugs.”

Eventually Hawley listened to those around him, and stopped taking drugs just as he started his solo career in 2001. “My dad, my wife, my friends … they were all on at me, saying I should sort myself out and then do my own thing because I’ve got this voice and all these songs.”

It’s nearly three decades since he formed Treebound Story with school friends and landed a Peel session when he was only 19. When they faded away some years later, Hawley joined the Longpigs, who were signed to U2’s Mother Records and destined for Britpop greatness. It never happened. Still, it didn’t put him off; he could think only of writing songs and eventually got a deal as a solo artist.

Hawley has released seven increasingly successful albums in his own name — most memorably the Mercury-nominated Coles Corner, in 2005, its Top Ten successor, Lady’s Bridge and the critically-acclaimed Truelove’s Gutter in 2009. His most recent, Standing at the Sky’s Edge, reached No 3 in the charts, and he is adored by an everincreasing number of fiercely loyal fans. He has collaborated with the Arctic Monkeys, Echo & the Bunnymen and Lisa Marie Presley and, a little bizarrely, co-wrote Clean on Robbie Williams’ first album, Life Thru A Lens. Hawley has known Jarvis Cocker since he was 15; he played guitar for Pulp for a few years before they disbanded in 2002.

Brought up in a musical family in which his grandfather was a music-hall violinist, his father Dave a local musician, and his mother Lyn a club singer, Hawley wrote his first song when he was 8, lying in bed and playing his guitar when he should have been asleep. “My dad came in and was quite p***ed off because it was a school night,” he recalls. “I said I was sorry, but I was trying to work out whose song I was playing. My dad, who was a cool bloke, asked me to play it, and said: ‘It’s yours. Now go to f***ing sleep.’ I was amazed that you could actually create your own music.”

Hawley was, he says, blessed with a loving family who saw him through a childhood spent in and out of hospital.

“I was born with a cleft palate and so, from birth to the age of 16, I had more than 30 operations on my face. The final operation was cosmetic, to get rid of the scarring on my upper lip. I refused it; it was part of me. My mum gave me a massive cuddle and said I’d turned into a good man.

“I was painfully shy. I was bullied at school because of my cleft palate. I became extremely hard. Kids can be evil if anyone is a bit different, if they wear glasses. Thank God for Harry Potter! Being different and being brought up in a really f***king tough working-class area, I learned to divide the world into two halves: the kids who didn’t go on about my cleft palate — I’d climb trees or play guitar with those kids. Music was my escape. The other lot were horrible. I don’t think much has changed.” And he roars, as he often does, with the throaty laugh of a man who smokes a little too much.

Hawley has a sentimental sense of community which he recreates on the road and back home in Sheffield, in the pub with his childhood mates. He has a black and white view of the world: put very simply, he sees corporate greed as bad, nurses as good. He is fiercely proud of his working-class background and of his family who worked in the steel industry or as miners. He is unequivocally old Labour.

“I don’t believe in these austerity measures — it’s about using the financial crisis to sneak in loads of bollocks policies,” he says. “The minute those f***wits got in power they tried to sell off the very land I walk on with my dog, Fred. They want to sell everything under our feet. Next they’ll be taxing the sky. A civilised society cares for its sick and elderly. As for the bankers, they should be strung from lamp posts like Mussolini. The NHS is an awesome institution and those bastards are dismantling it when it doesn’t even belong to them! It makes me want to weep. I know this sounds naive, but it doesn’t take much to be decent. Perhaps that’s how I should define myself politically: decent.”

Hawley’s anti-corporate feelings do not preclude the occasional brush with commercialism: he wrote songs for Glenfiddich and let Häagen-Dazs use one of his tracks for an advert. “The ice cream ad came along when I couldn’t get arrested,” he says. True Love’s Gutter had just come out “and nobody would play it on the radio.”

Hawley has called Standing at the Sky’s Edge his “angry record” but he’s no Billy Bragg. He could never, he says, write an album with a title along the lines of “F*** Off, Tories!” Although Hawley is politically forthright in person — he has what Cocker once described as an “incredible command of colourful Anglo-Saxon” — his lyrics are not an overt call to arms. Standing at the Sky’s Edge was inspired, in part, by the unexpected dea
th of musician and childhood friend, Tim McCall.

“We have to look out for each other,” h says. “There is no God. Just now. Living in the now. It also made me hold on to my family like a drowning man. My wife and three kids mean everything to me.”

He recalls the day he met his wife. “I saw Helen at a party in Hawley Street — I grew up in Hawley Street, can you bloody imagine? It was immediate. I thought, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to make her mine.’… She’s amazing. F***ing ace. Her humanity. Her humour. Twenty two years later she still makes me want to applaud when she enters the room.”

Given that his lyrics are more about romantic love than anything else, perhaps the anger he feels at the modern world is illustrated by the wild electric guitar on Standing at the Sky’s Edge — a radical departure from the lush orchestration and easy crooning of his breakthrough album, Coles Corner. On the new single, Down in the Woods, he rejects technology in favour of a glorious backdrop of psychedelic guitars. “I guess I’ve chosen to unleash the beast that is guitar playing. It’s a very male thing. All my male mentors, my grandfather, my dad, were gentle men but, when it came to expressing themselves musically, they had venom. I have that too.

“My dad, who died in 2008 when I was recording Lady’s Bridge, was a Teddy-boy biker who first heard My Baby Left Me by Elvis on a service station jukebox. He told me that his life went from black and white to colour in an instant.”

When Hawley was 16, his parents divorced. “They broke up during the steel strike,” he says. “They couldn’t afford to stay together. There’s that saying: ‘When money walks out the door, love is not far behind.’ I watched as my whole community fell apart during the steel crisis and miners’ strike. Everything that was stable was gone.”

Given Hawley’s own rocker look (he is also currently hosting a rockabilly show on Radio 2), I ask him about nostalgia, and he scowls. “You think I want to return to rickets and bad dentistry?” But although he says he’s not nostalgic in its truest sense, he is old-fashioned. Cocker tells me that Hawley has “slowly built things up year on year. It’s quite a real thing. Which is very rare these days, or so I’m told, in this modern music business.”

Hawley seems to apply the same combination of loyalty, patience and industry to his marriage. For Your Lover Give Some Time, from his last album, celebrates the compromises and constancy of matrimony; She Brings the Sunlight, from Standing at the Sky’s Edge, is a psychedelic ode to his wife, Helen.

“But I’m aware that if I kept writing songs for my wife over and over it’d be extremely mawkish,” he says. “My songs are for all lovers. I love watching older couples walking hand in hand. I know the air between their palms is where humanity is safe.”

Down in the Woods is released on Monday. Richard Hawley plays Latitude Festival tonight and tours the UK in September