SKY’S EDGE is a hill overlooking the centre of Sheffield, the ‘Steel City’ in South Yorkshire that has long been the muse and inspiration for the sumptuous songs of its native son Richard Hawley.
The hill served as an inspiration for the title of his most recent album, the superb Standing At The Sky’s Edge, and it is an apt title, as in many respects Richard is on the cusp of a new chapter in his musical journey - embracing new sounds, rediscovering old passions, and in the process enjoying his greatest level of success to date.
Richard is coming to Galway to play Black Box Theatre in what will be his third show in the city, a place he has had a “cursory kind of wander” around.
“I’ve been to plenty of bars, I know that,” he tells me during our Tuesday afternoon conversation. “I remember one time we landed in Galway, there was a ranging storm, the river was really ferocious and I remember being impressed by that. I also found a record store and a music shop selling instruments, Powell’s, I spent some time there.”
For the most part, a chance to look around a city is a rare privilege for the touring musician.
“It’s the funny thing touring,” says Richard. “It’s like standing outside a sandwich shop and looking in but never getting inside and tasting the sandwiches. I’ve seen the inside of plenty of dressing rooms and clubs, but often that’s all. I’ve circumnavigated the globe 14 times but sad to say I’ve not seen that much of it.”
At his Black Box concert, songs from Standing At The Sky’s Edge will feature prominently. The album, which was released in May, was a departure for the singer-songwriter. Gone were the orchestral arrangements and strings which suffused the epic ballads on albums like Lowedges and Cole’s Corner. Instead ...Sky’s Edge reverberates with massive wall-of-sound guitars, wah-wah drenched solos, and huge crescendos. A heavy shoegaze and psychedelic feel predominates, particularly on the title track and the magnificent ‘She Brings The Sunlight’. So what prompted Richard to go down this different route?
“I’ve been making music for years and in much of that time I’ve not really engaged with my guitar,” he says. “The grandeur that comes with an orchestra, I wanted to replace it with my first love, the guitar. I wanted it to have a ‘band sound’, where me and the guys in the band could see the whites of our eyes, and sit in a room, and engage with our instruments, rather than having overdubs of this instrument or that string section.
“It was five friends, brothers, and fine musicians sitting together and being brave. It would have been easy to rest on my laurels and carry on using orchestras and making a posh sound. It’s widening the ground and you started on. The field is getting bigger all the time.”
‘Psychedelic’ has been a recurrent term when music critics have described the album. As an admirer of Syd Barrett and sixties American rock group The Chocolate Watch Band, there was always a chance Richard would allow such a feel infuse his music at some stage. That said, he admits to being a little wary of the term.
“I’m very careful with that word psychedelic,” he says, “as it’s lost its meaning. Today it means people in purple wigs and funny shades, and mad shoes, and office parties. Aldous Huxley wore a three piece suit and glasses and yet he was a pioneer of psychedelia. It’s like ‘love and peace’. It failed because it became a fashion item instead of being a state of mind.”
Nonetheless Richard’s musical bravery was rewarded when the album received critical acclaim, a top three spot on the British charts, and a Mercury Award nomination - the second of the artist’s career. However he has “mixed feelings” about it.
“A lot of awards are just bullshit and they become titillation to create a media frenzy, which I am really wary of,” he says. “It turns what you do into a three ring circus, and I’m studiously wary of that.
“What I do like about the Mercury prize though is that it is a celebration of the album rather than the artist. The media make the artist more important than what the artist does and when you become bigger than your own music, when you are the story instead of your songs, you know your f****d. The focus should always be on what you do, not on who you are. It’s a fine balance.
“I like that the Mercury celebrates the album in this era of iTunes and shuffle. An album is a sequence of songs, arranged in a particular order, so as to elicit an emotional response. I like listening to compilations, but I’m still one of those people who enjoy listening to albums from beginning to end. All you have to do is give it time.”
Hawley is a first rate guitar player who services have been enlisted over the years by Pulp (he is an old friend of Jarvis Cocker ), Elbow, All Saints, Nancy Sinatra, and Robbie Williams. There was always a chance he would become obsessed with the instrument given that his father Dave and uncle Frank were guitarists (Frank was often spotted in Sheffield sporting a twin necked guitar long before Jimmy Page got his hands on such a beast ).
“My uncle still plays guitar. He’s 72,” says Richard. “Their role was profound, right from birth onwards. The effect they had on me was massive. They were the conduits through which I learned about music. My dad has a collection of 5,000 records - I’m looking at them now - and he and my uncle had a massive knowledge of music. It’s amazing, they were just two ordinary working class lads in post war Sheffield, but the knowledge they had was immense.”
Richard began playing guitar at six years of age, when his father gave a present of the instrument.
“It was just a present from my Dad,” he says. “He didn’t wait for Christmas or a birthday to give it to me, he wanted me to have it now. It was a Hondo II Les Paul copy. It was f****n’ terrible but my dad was smart. With a rubbish guitar, if you can get good on that you’ll be very good when you get a great guitar. Very shrewd of my dad.”
Richard Hawley plays a ‘Róisín Dubh presents...’ show at the Black Box Theatre on Wednesday December 5 at 8pm. Tickets are available at www.roisindubh.net, from the Ticket Desk at OMG, Shop Street (formerly Zhivago ), and The Róisín Dubh.