Though the English steel town of Sheffield has produced an unusually crowded field of popular musicians—from Joe Cocker, Def Leppard and the Human League to Pulp, Cabaret Voltaire and Arctic Monkeys—only Richard Hawley can be trusted with the key to the city. A deep-voiced, working-class songwriter with an affinity for ’50s-era crooners, American country music and grand orchestration, Hawley has paid tribute to his hometown through songwriting that serves as a sepia-toned photograph of timeless places and love-troubled lives. While it may seem as if nothing changes in Hawley’s stylishly retro work, sixth album Truelove’s Gutter (released this week on Mute) is a deceptively tranquil sea change of sonics—employing glass harmonica, waterphone and other ethereal sounds—and themes, with the album delving into lyrical topics of dashed hopes, drug addiction and, of course, love gone wrong. Befitting its title, Truelove’s Gutter finds Hawley trawling Sheffield’s shadows and back alleys on his most spacious, soul-baring album to date. Hawley will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com this week.
MAGNET: Richard, we’ve spoken a few times before, circa (2007’s) Lady’s Bridge and (2005’s) Coles Corner, and I enjoyed hearing you talk about the places in Sheffield they’re named after. What can you tell us about Truelove’s Gutter?
Hawley: It’s called Castle Street now, but in the 18th century, it was called Truelove’s Gutter. I found out about it through my mate J.P. Bean, who wrote an awesome book called The Sheffield Gang Wars, which I want to make into a film one day. It was named after Thomas Truelove, who ran an inn there and had a gutter you could drop waste into the river. These days, they don’t bother with the gutter—they just drop it anywhere.
Is there any place or landmark in Sheffield that you loathe so much you would never name an album after it?
The National Centre For Popular Music is a total and utter waste of time, love and money. I love modern architecture, but in Sheffield it’s always been on the whole utterly horrific. The station is great and some of the redevelopment is great, but I am sure Homer Simpson runs the fuckin’ council asleep with a donut in his hands.
I think you have gotten a reputation as being a hometown kind of guy, yet you spent a good deal of time on the road touring for the last couple albums. Were there any places that made a strong impression (positive or negative) on you? Or is a touring schedule not the best way to really see different parts of the world?
I would have to go with the latter there. You can’t know a place until you’ve lived there. Traveling is like looking in the window of a sandwich shop but never getting to actually eat the sandwich. I would probably be doing a great disservice to a lot of places by saying anything at all good or bad. I mean, Sheff isn’t exactly the loveliest of cities, and the development of it over the years has been a bit like putting lipstick on a fuckin’ gorilla. But I know it’s beautiful.
Truelove’s Gutter has an array of unusual instruments, from the glass harmonica to the Cristal Baschet, but they all have a sort of ethereal quality to them; these aren’t instruments that impose themselves too much in the songs or cause a racket. Did you choose them based on these tonal qualities? This album leaves so much space for your vocals.
I wanted you to hear it all. I often layer up a shitload of things playing one riff, but this time I avoided that and just kept it simple. It may sound complicated, but it isn’t. The hardest thing was leaving it alone to breathe.
The new album also has some darker moments, like the addiction-themed “Remorse Code,” and I think it’s your moodiest stuff since (2001’s) Late Night Final. Do you think sometimes that darkness gets overlooked by listeners when you’re making the kind of music (orchestral, romantic-sounding, luxuriant) you do? It’s easy for listeners to get lulled into the music.
When I type up the lyrics to even the happier-sounding stuff I have done, the words are always the darkest part of the song in isolation, but I want it to work as a whole. It is why I have avoided writing songs in minor keys; if they were, it would be wrist-slashingly grim. I am a hopeful man but a pragmatist … hopefully. Well, I hope so, anyway.
Truelove’s Gutter isn’t a post-rock album, but it does seem like you’re stretching things out (a couple songs are around 10 minutes long) and using more ambient sounds. Were you conscious of not doing a more traditional, throwback kind of album?
Fuck knows. I just wanted to play my guitar and take my time.
Music can be timeless, but websites always have to be up to date: I noticed you have a Second Life location … and it’s an island shaped like a guitar. I’m not that familiar with Second Life, but wanted to ask how much you’re involved with that or what you know about it.
Absolutely fuck all. That’s my bleedin’ manager. He likes the modern world and all its toys. He’s a fuck wit he is. Why didn’t he buy a guitar-shaped bed? Or even—god forbid—a fuckin’ guitar? I am still trying to get my head ’round first life. Ask him about it. I should make more of an effort with it all but can’t be arsed. I believe it’ll fade away. I mean, it hasn’t taken off, has it? Only by a load of sad fuckers. I do e-mails now but can’t be arsed with anything else. Well, maybe eBay for amp spares and football boots for my boys, but there’s a whole world out there, and I want to see as much as I can while I can. My manager is all right, though. He makes good sarnies and tea.
It seems like music is such a huge part of your life—it’s a family tradition, with your father and grandfather both being musicians. What do you think you’d be doing if you had to choose a profession other than music?
I would like to have been a carpenter. I love the idea of construction, knowledge of how to make a bed, a table or a guitar out of a tree. Those skills are so amazing, but I would probably be the only one with a roadie.
“For Your Lover, Give Some Time”: