Whisky & Culture

The Distillery's muse

Richard Hawley is a singer-songwriter who has carved a name for himself as a solo artist. Neil J. Ridley caught up with the Sheffield - based troubadour
By Neil Ridley
The old adage that ‘all good things come to those who wait’ isn’t one you’d normally apply to today’s fast-paced and often ruthless music business.

But for Richard Hawley taking his time has been a virtue when he looks back over the many highs of a hugely varied music career.

Since picking up the guitar at the age of six, Hawley’s musical pathways have seen him shift through successful stints in 90s Brit Pop darlings The Longpigs, as well as whimsical Sheffield songsmiths, Pulp. Now at the age of 43 and into the release of his sixth solo album, Truelove’s Gutter, the star’s feel truly aligned for the man, once described by legendary crooner Scott Walker as ‘one of the all-time greats’. So did he ever envisage becoming this successful?

“Not at all” explains Richard. “I kind of started off doing the solo records to appease a lot of people, who used to nag me about my songs, mostly Jarvis (Cocker, lead singer of Pulp) and my dad, who used to say ‘you should really do something with these tracks.’

“Whilst I was playing with bands I was writing songs for myself, not really for anything specific but I’d been building up a body of work since I was about 14 and when I recorded the first batch of them I managed to get a solo record deal”.

But I imagine that working with a variety of artists as a songwriter and session guitarist (from Robbie Williams and All Saints to Elbow and the great Nancy Sinatra) has presented a number of creative challenges- has that helped shape you over the years as a musician?

“Well it probably hasn’t hugely influenced the sound of the records I’ve made, but I like working with other artists because it stops you being selfish in a way as a writer- my mum and dad bought me up properly and to share things!”

So does being solo feel like a far cry from the Britpop days of The Longpigs and Pulp?

“Absolutely. It’s a completely different universe now. It seems like another planet to me, as a lot has happened in the last 20 years… that’s a lifetime for some people.”

A recent invitation to Dufftown, and the Glenfiddich distillery have seen Richard embark on another exciting, if slightly leftfield songwriting project, the results of which are why he is currently residing in a Manchester recording studio. How did your involvement with the project come about?

“Well Glenfiddich asked me a while back to become one of their ‘Artists-In-Residence’” he explains “to which I immediately laughed and said ‘Piss-Artist-In-Residence more like!’

“To be honest, I was slightly cynical about the whole thing, but they convinced me to go up to visit the distillery and I was amazed that a place like that can exist in modern times – that you’ve got a family that are still connected to it from the original days.”

A surprise then?

“I found it quite a moving place. The thing I loved best was talking to the people who have been working there, some of them for 40 or 50 years. Me dad was a steel worker, working in the industry for a similar amount of time and got thrown on a scrapheap, with no ceremony whatsoever and it was obvious walking round talking to people at the distillery that it’s quite a happy place.

“I’m quite difficult to bullshit and my radar is on maximum most times, but it was obvious that it was what it purported to be…and more really. Dufftown has a really good pub called the Royal Oak – the landlady Pearl, was fantastic and I really enjoyed my time there, just wandering round and taking it all in.”

So it was an influential time, from a songwriting perspective?

“Obviously it’s a business, it’s not like a hippie commune, but it’s on a different level to the madness that you sometimes see in the modern world. Maybe one day the penny will drop for us all! It definitely sparked something creatively and I was pleasantly surprised -I actually started writing songs straight away and I came up with a few ideas to coincide with what I thought the whole process of whisky making was about.

Have you approached these recordings with different mind set?

“Well I’ve used the opportunity to work with some musicians I probably wouldn’t normally work with. There’s a harp player and a guy who plays musical saw, plus a Cor Anglais player. We’re going to play at the distillery at some point soon, I’m really fond of playing unusual places and this will certainly be one for the books…”

I point out that there are plenty of great places to play around a distillery- maybe in the still house or the dunnage warehouses, with all the years and years of great casks slumbering away…?

“That’s really the thing that affected me to be honest. I’m the son, of the son, of the son of a musician. As well as being steel workers, my family were all musicians, going back four generations and I have a kind of affinity with the fact that not everything in this world, including whisky, has to be rushed…you know, made yesterday and delivered today. Some things take time and I suppose that’s parallel to my career, because it’s taken a long time for me to get it together.”

Poignant words indeed. Have you had a lifelong enjoyment of whisky?

“Yeah, definitely. My grandfather was a big whisky drinker but the thing he always instilled in me was a deep respect for it, you know, how to drink it properly. It’s definitely not like a pint of beer- it’s a thing to savour, not to neck.”

Any particular ‘desert island drams’ you’ve tried?

“I would never profess to being an expert or a connoisseur on whisky,” he smiles “but the landlord of my local pub, Tom is a really good friend of mine and I was having a drink with him fairly late one night when the phone rang- and it was his son on the line; the first thing he said was ‘Hello Grandad!’ Basically, his wife had just given birth to their first child, so Tom went into the cellar and pulled out this really dusty old bottle of Laphroaig- it must have been 40 years old or more and he poured a couple of large drams for us to toast the baby’s health. It tasted twice as good under the circumstances!”

As the sounds of musicians warming up resonate from within the studio, it’s soon time for Richard to rejoin them and finish off the fruits of his distillery songwriting sojourn. We have time for one last question and I am intrigued to discover what’s next for Richard Hawley, an artist seemingly content with his wonderfully steady ascent to success.

“I’m writing a lot for my next record, but I’m also working on a few songs with Paul Weller and also Lisa Marie Presley, who I’ve been working with for the last year or so and we’re at the stage were we’re combing through all the songs we’ve written and are looking to turn that into something special. We’ve got a lot of songs to choose from!”