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Richard Hawley

Creeping up on one’s musical subconscious when SCOTT WALKER, JARVIS COCKER, Neil Hannon and MORRISSEY weren’t looking, post-Britpop/indie troubadour (and renowned guitarist) RICHARD HAWLEY has climbed to the top of the singer-songwriter ladder; a long way from his salad days as leader of LONGPIGS, and brief side-kick to the aforementioned PULP icon.
Born Richard Willis Hawley, 17th January 1967, Sheffield, England, son of a steel-worker/part-time musician, RH took inspiration from listening to likes of rock’n’roll/C&W heroes such as ELVIS PRESLEY, ROY ORBISON and LEE HAZLEWOOD. Undermining his primary years, a young Richard suffered pain and anguish through numerous operations to conquer a birth defect cleft-lip palate, which still left its mark on a lad trying to make his way in life; his parents divorced when he was 16, leaving other emotional scars, but a reason to write/perform for his first band, TREEBOUND STORY.
Comprising Paul Currie, Paul Infanti, Rob Gregory and himself, the young jangly-pop combo issued four indie singles/EPs in the space of as many years: namely `I Remember’ and `My Life’s Example’ (for Fon Records between 1986-87) and `Swimming In The Heart Of Jane’ and `Take It’ (for Native Records between 1989-90). A claim-to-fame John Peel session behind them, fresh sounds of Madchester, Britpop and grunge had secured the band’s twee-bound story to the vaults of time.
Uncertainty subsequently surrounded the heart-worn artist, but in hit-makers LONGPIGS, another chapter and musical avenue presented itself to the fore. Led by vocalist/songwriter Crispin Hunt, the Britpop band petered out after only two sets (1996’s `The Sun Is Often Out’ and 1999’s `Mobile Home’), leaving Richard to carve out a career as a tour/session man for friends PULP. It was indeed main man Cocker and former school-chum Steve Mackey that egged the guitarist-cum-singer to record his own songs, which eventually emerged on the self-titled, Setanta-supported, 7-song mini-set RICHARD HAWLEY (2001) {*7}.
A worthy attempt to rid himself of a second-tier Britpop status as with the aforementioned LONGPIGS (and TREEHOUSE STORY, in some respects), the convert crooner chimed in with the rich and sophisticated `Coming Home’, the cinematic `Sunlight’ (very BADALAMENTI) and The DIVINE COMEDY-esque `Time Had Made A Change’. Perfect chamber-pop for a moody melancholy day indoors.
Drawing from a dearth of dreamy dirges from his quick-fire demos, the literate star in the making produced his second set of the year, LATE NIGHT FINAL {*7}. Comprising 11 creative cuts and bruising soft-blues ballads, HAWLEY eased into exotica escapism and tunnelled back to a time when BACHARACH was a prince among a swinging 60s globe. Painting passion from his palette of pristine pop platters, a reflective Richard let his listeners wake up to a morning glow, with numbers such as `Baby, You’re My Light’ (the single), `The Nights Are Cold’ and the concluding `The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (Was A Train Coming The Other Way)’.
Switching from an indie contract at Bar/None Records to XL Recordings in the States (to complement his stay at Setanta), the intimate and wistful HAWLEY was again on form with LOWEDGES (2003) {*7}. Named after a place outwith the confines of Sheffield, and retaining LONGPIGS Simon Stafford, Andy Cook and Colin Elliot (adding Shez Sheridan from previous sets), HAWLEY’s brand of sentimental swooning was catered for on `Darlin’’, `The Motorcycle Song’, `I’m On Nights’ and the lonesome `The Only Road’. But still, it would take a push by outside forces to bolster his easy-going CV.
On the back of a RELAXED MUSCLE collaboration set with PULP’s Jarvis Cocker in 2003, Daniel Miller of Mute Records saw potential in Richard’s romance’n’roll rendezvous with retrospection, having been the productive catalyst for NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS. The timeless COLES CORNER (2005) {*8} was the man’s first Top 40 entry. Echoing his country heroes JOHNNY CASH, CHARLIE RICH and JIM REEVES as well as crooners JACQUES BREL, SCOTT WALKER and ELVIS (PRESLEY or COSTELLO!), the smoochy old-school ballads came thick ‘n’ fast throughout; the opening title track, `Just Like The Rain’, `Born Under A Bad Sign’, `Hotel Room’ and `The Ocean’ all singles, but deserving a lot better fate than their minor chart positions portrayed.
In the mould of MORRISSEY meeting PHIL SPECTOR, breakthrough Top 40 hit `Tonight The Streets Are Ours’ was the defining glory to HAWLEY’s Mercury Prize-nominated Top 10 album, LADY’S BRIDGE (2007) {*8}. Swapping melancholy C&W for rockabilly and nostalgia (`I’m Looking For Someone To Find Me’, `Serious’ and `Dark Road’ prime examples), the man who just turned 40 was still finding stormy seas and testing tragedies to write about; none more profound than `Roll River Roll’ (about floods than killed his kinship ancestors), `Our Darkness’ and `Valentine’.
Given carte blanche scope by his boss to come up with an album free of commercial restraints, the evocative Top 20 TRUELOVE’S GUTTER (2009) {*8} was yet another signature set from the autumnal HAWLEY. Choosing confessional country motifs and a chamber-pop underscore approach not that far removed from his previous sets (albeit longer and darker), the emotive and crystalline passages here amounted to ethereal experimentation at times. But for opening trilogy, `As The Dawn Breaks’, `Open Up Your Door’ (a refined classic) and `Ashes On The Fire’, two other songs took on epic proportions as the songwriter removed stereotypical traits on `Remorse Code’ and `Don’t You Cry’ (running up 20 minutes in total). The fact that the former piece was reprised on a subsequent EP, `False Lights From The Land’ – saddled next to the trad `Shallow Brown’ and Hugh E. Jones’ `The Ellan Vannin Tragedy’ featuring folkies SMOKE FAIRIES – was all the more poignant.
Back on familiar terrain for 2012’s STANDING AT THE SKY’S EDGE {*8}, HAWLEY found himself positioned within the Top 3; absence had certainly made hearts grow fonder, weakened as they were by his magical melancholy melodies. Now on the roster of Parlophone Records, the man decided on an earthier, psychedelic-roots approach. Given that the likes of WELLER and Britpop bands had preceded him some time back, a political and acerbic HAWLEY revealed his “rocket sounds” under narratives that name-checked Mary, Joseph and Jacob (mainly on the title track). Opening with the 7-minute `She Brings The Sunlight’, the sonic sweep of `Down In The Woods’ (very STOOGES `1970’), `Leave Your Body Behind You’ and the comparatively sedate `Seek It’ and `Don’t Stare At The Sun’, HAWLEY had almost re-invented himself among the suffocating fresh fields of musical austerity.
Proving he could be here for the long haul, the Top 10 HOLLOW MEADOWS (2015) {*7} – named after another location in Sheffield, “Auley Meadows” – was HAWLEY’s crack at contemporary ballad-folk; proof in the pudding, MARTIN SIMPSON and NANCY KERR augmenting in places, including a worthy tribute to NORMA WATERSON on `Heart Of Oak’. That aside, his old Britpop mucker JARVIS COCKER took a bow on `Nothing Like A Friend’, while other heavenly highlights came by way of `I Still Want You’, `The World Looks Down’, `Long Time Down’ and `Which Way’ (“Echo-ing” Bunnyman IAN McCULLOCH). Still, American audiences were yet to be fully convinced.
© MC Strong/MCS Sep2015

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