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Meet Sheffield's '90s Music Legend Richard Hawley Chris Saunders
May 2024
Reading time 5 Minutes

Ahead of the release of his new album and his forthcoming tour, we meet legendary musician, singer-songwriter, guitarist and producer Richard Hawley (who found success in the '90s with Longpigs)

He tells Living North why Sheffield will always be his home.

Born in the Pitsmoor area of Sheffield, Richard says he had a fairly average working-class upbringing. ‘But when I was a kid, the difference between our family and others was that a lot of the other families wouldn’t even have a TV or a radio on and ours was [filled with] music 24/7,’ he recalls. ‘My grandfather was a music hall performer, he was a soldier during the war, he was a steelworker and a card sharp (he was brilliant at card tricks). My mum and dad were both musicians.’

Richard’s dad was a guitarist and his mum was a singer – Richard has been writing songs since he was a child. In the early days of his career he performed with indie rock band Longpigs, then became Pulp’s guitarist before achieving success as a solo artist. His star-studded list of collaborators is impressive, and include Arctic Monkeys, Shirley Bassey (for whom he wrote After the Rain in 2009), Nancy Sinatra and Lisa Marie Presley. He struggles to pick out highlights from his career because the icons he’s worked with are ‘so radically different,’ he says. ‘It would be disingenuous of me to say this is better, or I liked that more. The difference between working with the Arctic Monkeys and Nancy Sinatra is incomparable,’ he admits.

Despite his success Richard remains humble. ‘I get a lot of work, and I get asked to do things, and I never quite know why to be honest – I still haven’t got a clue why the phone rings and people ask to work with me when they could work with so many other people,’ he says. ‘But I’m not someone who gets starstruck easily and when I’m working in a studio, or on a project, the work is the most important thing. That’s a mantra of mine. I don’t really engage with any of the celebrity [stuff]. I’m not interested in any way shape or form. When we’re all gone, no one’s going to be interested in the fact you wore a certain kind of shoe, those sunglasses, or you hung out with a certain person, the thing you leave behind and the thing you create on a daily basis is your work. It’s your work that matters. Everything else is insignificant to me. I’ve been very fortunate working with these people. Writing songs for Shirley Bassey – that’s nuts! I’m a steelworker’s son from Sheffield, and I never, ever forget that. In fact, my great grandmother and all that side of my family are all from the North. My dad got buried in a Bishop Auckland football top. I never forget my roots, ever. It’s constantly with me at all times, like a restraining bolt,’ he laughs.

More recently Richard’s songs have appeared in hit TV dramas Peaky Blinders and The Full Monty and his track Dear Alien (co-written with Jarvis Cocker and Wes Anderson for Anderson’s film, Asteroid City), was shortlisted for Best Original Song at the Oscars. Richard also wrote 20 songs for the award-winning musical named after his 2012 album Standing At The Sky’s Edge which recently transferred to London’s West End. ‘We never thought it would leave the drama studio in Sheffield,’ he says. ‘We thought maybe we’d get a couple of performances of it. Now we’ve gatecrashed the West End! For that to happen is astonishing.’

Richard’s upcoming album In This City They Call You Love features 12 new songs. The title itself is reflective of his hometown. ‘We all read the news and it’s never happy really but at the moment there’s a real darkness to everything that we read and there’s a lot of hateful stuff out there – there’s an umbrella of negativity. On a daily basis, hour to hour, minute to minute, if I’m walking round the streets or in the shops, there’s people saying “morning, love”, “thanks, love”, “cheers, love”, “see you later, love”, “did you drop that, love?” You even get hairy, tattooed bus drivers calling you “love”,’ Richard laughs. ‘It’s a very unusual thing and a very South Yorkshire thing. In Newcastle for example, people call each other “pet”. There’s a tenderness to it which is friendly, although it can be said in many different ways. It just occurred to me that in the city that I live in, on a day-to-day basis, people will address each other in an open, friendly tone. I think it’s quite remarkable. The songs are a reflection, in lots of ways, of that.’ Richard sums the new album up as a ‘hopeful record’. One stand-out track, People, is about Sheffield’s industrial heritage, with Richard reflecting on his late father’s job as a steelworker.

Although Richard says The Leadmill is a ‘stalwart for live music’ and that there are amazing music venues in Sheffield, because he’s often traveling and touring, he doesn’t always get the time to go to them. Reflecting on the North’s music industry, he says: ‘I think it’s a lot better than it was. Sheffield in particular for a very, very long time was sort of like a forgotten city. Record company A&R people would literally bypass it to go straight to Manchester, Liverpool and other cities, and for years it was very difficult to get any interest from record companies at all in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. It was really, really tough, but oddly enough I think that’s had a byproduct of us being left alone to just develop without pressure.

image of Richard by Dean Chalkley Dean Chalkley

‘To earn a living as a musician is incredibly difficult, and that doesn’t change, that’s time immemorial. But I do think it’s a lot better. I think there’s pride as well – being from the North is a plus, to me. I’ve never lived anywhere else other than Sheffield. I choose to stay here because it has such a rich culture and I’m a big local history buff as well. I’m aware of the importance of sticking to your roots. It’s very easy in this modern world to become rootless very quickly. My sister traced our family tree and we’ve been connected to the city right back to the Domesday Book and before. I treasure things like that. It gave me some kind of sense of stability and belonging. For me personally, it gave me comfort knowing where I am is where I belong.’

Armed with years of experience, Richard has some strong advice for budding musicians. ‘When you haven’t got a record deal, a publisher or a manager, just try and remember that not having one is 1,000 times better than having a terrible one,’ he begins. ‘You’re so desperate to get what you’re about across that you can be tempted to sign the wrong thing just because it’s the only thing on the table. Be very careful about what you commit to. If you’re a songwriter for example, and you’ve got a lot of songs, what you’ve got in your hand is worth nothing (financially) but it’s a very quick turn around for the thing that’s in your hand (and your heart) to be worth a hell of a lot. It’s not a removal of a wheel, it’s the subtle turn of a cog. Be aware of the fact that what you’ve got is magical. It’s not worthless, it’s emotionally worth a hell of a lot. Don’t sell yourself short. Keep hold of what you’ve got and don’t let it go. Remember the work is everything, all the other stuff is peripheral. It’s a bit like the 1930s film The Wizard of Oz. Once you get behind the wizard’s curtain, it’s quite disappointing!’ Richard laughs. ‘Keep focusing on the work and your art and don’t get distracted by peripheral things. That’s what’s important. Remember your roots, because if you do become successful and end up in these wonderful and strange places, your roots will keep you safe. They have with me.’

Richard says his biggest achievement is the fact he’s ‘never had a job’, and he’s excited to see what the future holds, but for now he’s looking forward to getting out on tour again. He’ll be heading to Yorkshire following the release of his new album on 31st May.

‘The thing I love the most is playing live. It’s something I’ve been doing since I was a boy. It’s a very energising thing to do, although touring is tiring,’ he admits. ‘I love the mystery of who’s going to ring me next. I trust the fact that maybe someone will ring me up soon to do an interesting project. You never know where your music will take you. It’s like ink in water, it just goes where the current takes it. It’s a mystery and that’s the beauty of the future.’

Richard performs at The Glasshouse International Centre for Music on 13th June before heading to Scarborough Spa on 20th June and Don Valley Bowl in Sheffield on 29th August.

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