Richard Hawley was born in January 1967 in Sheffield. Both of his parents were musicians and he formed his first band, Treebound Story – who went on to record a session for John Peel before splitting – at school. He went on to greater success with Longpigs, with two Top 40 albums and hits including She Said and On And On. When Longpigs split, Hawley joined Sheffield pals Pulp as a touring musician while working as a session musician.
In 2001, Hawley released his first solo material with a self-titled mini-album before 2001’s breakthrough Late Night Final. A string of well-received and increasingly successful albums followed – including 2003’s Lowedges, 2005’s Coles Corner and Lady’s Bridge (2007). Hawley also collaborated with Nancy Sinatra, Arctic Monkeys, Duane Eddy, Shirley Bassey, Manic Street Preachers and Tony Christie, among others.
In recent years, the hit albums and tours continued while Hawley also branched out into film work – scoring (and making a cameo appearance in) 2017’s Funny Cow and contributing songs to Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City (2023), while the Oliver-award musical Standing At The Sky’s Edge, based on his 2012 album of the same name, returns to the West End in 2024.
Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to my Younger Self, Hawley reflects on how music got him out of trouble at school, his time as a session player, and getting ribbed by Willie Nelson.
The young Richard, at 16, was obsessed completely with the guitar. I didn’t care much for schoolwork. It could be a really rough school – this was north Sheffield – but I got away with the whole fighting thing. Because I was slightly funny and also big, so they would have to think twice. I used to go in the music room and hide away playing guitar. I formed a band called Treebound Story with a gang of friends and was playing with my uncle Frank’s rock’n’roll band in the evenings. So the whole concept of school just faded out.
It was a time of great fear. If you were a northern girl or boy, you were fucked. Especially if you were from Sheffield, where the hammer blow of Thatcher’s Tories fell the hardest. They smashed the unions. And my father, my uncles, all their families and friends were steel workers or miners. So it wasn’t a happy time. Sheffield was devastated by politics and the collapse of that era of industry. Horizons weren’t just lowered, they were destroyed.
Thatcher was the defining thing about my youth. And that gave us something to fight against. If you’re a teenager, you need something, because otherwise you turn on your parents or teachers. It’s like Marlon Brando in The Wild One. “Johnny, what you rebelling against?” And he goes, “Whaddya got?” I’m still a bit like that now. Not a lot has changed. The anger and the fury against injustice is still there.
Music wasn’t a career choice. It was an avoiding-having-a-career choice. It was option one out of one option. There was no work, there were no jobs. So if I was talking to my younger self, I would say stick with it kid. There’s no way I could have envisaged what has come to pass.
It’s very visible that I’m different to all you fuckers. [Hawley had multiple operations after being born with a cleft palate]. It teaches me immediately who is an asshole and who isn’t. Who is going to be cruel and who will say it doesn’t matter. I survived that because of love and the NHS. So I would tell my younger self, don’t get stressed about that shit. Often things you think are a problem can turn into an asset.
I used to play with Uncle Frank at this pub, The Pheasant. Half my teachers would be there, pissed up on a Friday night. So I could get away with murder. These were different times. Lots of my teachers were enlightened human beings – Chris Hoggart, my English teacher, got me into Captain Beefheart and Zappa. We’re still friends now.
I used to write the names of loads of old blues, country and rock’n’roll singers on my exercise books. People like Little Walter or Big Bill Broonzy. There was absolutely fuck all written inside them. I’d sit at the back for physics with two punk girls and read NME and The Face. We had a great teacher who was happy with that as long as we didn’t speak or contribute in any way. He’d had his toes shot off during the war. I remember him saying: “Hawley, I need to talk to you.” I thought, fuck, I’m in trouble – even though I’d only sat there, looking at a Bunsen burner, wanting to torch the place.
But he said: “How does a 14-year-old know all these obscure artists?” I told him my dad played with half of them and he started trembling. It turned out this physics teacher had the largest collection of blues 78s in Britain. He invited me and my dad over to listen to records by Son House and Skip James… and he still didn’t make me write in the exercise books.
I was known in school as being the music guy. Two teachers, Mr and Mrs Crawley, pulled me aside after a lesson. When teachers talk to you in school it was a bit weird, but they said: “Look, we’re getting divorced. We can’t decide who’s going to get the record collection. So we’ve decided it should be you as you’re the only person who likes half these bands.” They gave me a massive pile of records – Love, The Doors, Bob Lind, Jimi Hendrix. I still have them all.
Every now and again you’ve got to look in the mirror and give yourself 10 out of 10. Because no other fucker will do it for you. That was something my grandad told me. Albert Edward Wright was his name. He was a fabulous man. He’d been a music hall performer in the 1930s, as well as a steel worker. When I was a kid, he said, “Your mother tells me thy wants to be a musician. First thing I’m gonna tell thee is thy might fail.” At the time I thought, fucking cheers for that. But as I’ve got older I see the wisdom. One of my little mantras is bronze forever not gold for a week.
Sheffield bands like Def Leppard, Heaven 17, Human League and, later, Pulp, showed the way. If you want to talk about sticking to your guns, Pulp are the living example. It took so long. Me and Steve Mackey, who we’ve lost recently, met on the first day of infant school. We stayed friends our whole lives, through the whole fucking ride. Playing with Steve [Mackey], Jarvis [Cocker], Candida [Doyle] and Nick [Banks] was something else. Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, Sheffield was entirely bypassed by A&R people from London. What that did was leave it to ferment. One of the greatest goals in life is to learn to be yourself. And we had the time and space to do it.
I still relate to my 16-year-old self. Guitars and records and music. I’m happy doing the Richard Hawley thing because you hit the bullseye without aiming for it. Try to be successful, try to have a hit and it’ll be shit and will warp your idea of yourself. I did my first sober record in 1999. That’s almost a quarter of a century sticking to your guns. If you become successful by compromising, you’re not going to be happy.
I had a ringside seat to fame when I was a session player. So when it was my turn, I hope I’m behaving in a decent way. I’m glad it all happened for me much later. I wouldn’t have been able to deal with it. I’d have been dead. So 10 years being the session guy watching how to make records and learning my chops in pub bands was invaluable. It’s easy to say now, but every crappy gig will teach you at least what not to do.
I would have been very content with playing pubs and clubs my whole life. I guess I would have found it frustrating at times. But if that’s the way it had gone, you have to accept these things. Because whatever my future path was going to be, I was definitely determined I wasn’t going to be working for the man. And I was definitely determined that whatever my fate was, it was going to be intertwined with that six-stringed instrument called the guitar. Because that was my shovel. That was the way I was going to dig myself out of the shit.
I was always happy stood at the back. If my uncle Frank was late, I’d start gigs on my own singing Chuck Berry or Gene Vincent songs and end up spewing in the bogs. Even when I went solo, it took a long time to get rid of crippling nerves. Around Truelove’s Gutter [in 2009] I found the best way to beat them was laughing at the universe, teaching yourself not to care as much. Now I love interacting with an audience. If you spend long enough onstage you either become loose or get numb – and it’s not a good idea to become numb.
I’d tell my younger self to stay sober more. I don’t have any real regrets. The only one is getting sidetracked by drugs for a two-year period. And that’s a heavy one because it [heroin] kills people. When we were kids in Firth Park, you’d be lucky if you could get hold of a bit of weed. But when the steelworks collapsed, drugs moved in quickly. When I was in Longpigs, cocaine used to turn up when you got a record deal or went to London. I got very enamoured.
I was a monster party animal. But the funny thing was, when I quit, lots of other party animals went: hold on, what does Hawley know that we don’t? There was a domino effect. Maybe we were all looking for reasons to stop. But it’s barely in my rearview mirror now and the damage it did was minimal. I’ve still got a marriage and a family. My wife is a psychiatric nurse – as the joke in our family goes, I’m a live-in patient. She said, if you just stay in this bedroom for two weeks it will all be gone.
This year is our 25th wedding anniversary – that is a long time, especially in the music industry. Most relationships don’t last 25 minutes and we’ve been together 33 years. We’ve been like ships in the night at times, just like my mum and dad were when she was doing shift work at the Northern General Hospital. But you can survive these things with patience and love.
My three kids are the best three co-writes I’ve ever been involved with. Make sure you write co-writes! All three are wildly different. They love music but have chosen not to be musicians. Following in any successful parents’ footsteps is hard. It was hard enough for me with my dad and uncle, who were local legends. But I’m known all over the place – people have heard of me in Macclesfield and Rotherham…
It took me a long time to realise I’d earned the right to be here. I got invited to play at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville by Boz Skaggs. So I was standing in the middle, where Hank Williams had stood – imposter syndrome everywhere. And I remember afterwards, sitting with Duane Eddy, who I absolutely love, and Willie Nelson. Musicians that are just jawdropping. Duane told me, you’re here because you can fucking play. I said, I’ve been thinking about getting a cowboy hat. Willie chirps up with the thing is, there’s only two kinds of people wear a cowboy hat – that’s cowboys and assholes. And you don’t look like no cowboy to me, son!
What song would my younger self be most proud to write? I’ve not written it yet… but it’s called Don’t Be a Cunt. That’s quite funny, come on! Please put that as the last line: I’ve not written it yet, but it’s called, Don’t Be a Cunt…
Now Then: The Very Best of Richard Hawley is out now. Standing At The Sky’s Edge is at the Gillian Lynne Theatre, Drury Lane from 8 February – 3 August 2024. Richard Hawley is on tour in 2024 – buy tickets here
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