Richard Hawley had a busy schedule at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW). On Thursday he and his band played a day show to a big crowd at the large, dingy rock club Emo’s. That night, Hawley and his mates opened the BBC Radio 2 British Music Showcase at the cavernous Austin Music Hall for festival headliner Morrissey. Hawley and company headed outside Austin city limits to The Backyard on Friday to catch Willie Nelson, but Saturday night he was back at SXSW and performed at the small 6th Street venue, The Eternal, as part of a mostly acoustic line-up that featured Jose Gonzalez, Martha Wainwright, and Josh Ritter.
Hawley’s active itinerary didn’t stop him for shopping for clothes, two pairs of big black cowboy boots (“The Cadillac of boots the chap at the store told me,” Hawley quipped), and a cream colored Western style suit that he took me to his room to see. He wore a light colored purple suit, purple shirt, and the cowboy boots when I met him as he was dressed for the latest type of commercial activity 21st century artists must do as part of their promotional duties. He was being filmed while doing introductions for his latest music video that was being shown on American cable television, in-store features, and Internet programs. Hawley repeatedly smiled and said to the camera, “Hi folks, I’m Richard Hawley and you are about to watch my video on (FYE, Harley Davidson, Blockbuster, Pep Boys, Nordstrom, MTV.com, New York Times.com, Radio Shack, etc.).” When asked later, Hawley did not know what his latest video in the States would be. He made four videos in England and had no idea of their U.S. release schedule, but “no matter,” as he said. The important thing was his video would be shown and his music would be heard.
Ever since he was a young teen gigging with his father and uncle at various seedy bar halls and clubs in the United Kingdom and Europe, Hawley has been in the music business. He had toured America previously with his own group Longpigs and as guitarist for Jarvis Cocker’s Pulp (“I’ve been in 48 states, every one but Alaska and Hawaii. That’s more than most Americans,” Hawley noted). Now at 39 years of age, Hawley seems at the brink of stardom. His latest solo album, Cole’s Corner, made dozens of best of 2005 lists, and he was currently performing before sold-out audiences at venues in major cities all across the United States.
“That’s laying it on a bit thick, don’t you think?” Hawley said with a laugh when asked to comment about his recent successes. “I’m playing before a full house at Joe’s Pub (in New York City), not Yankee Stadium.” Hawley spoke with a pleasant British accent and an infectious grin. “I grew up in a poor, industrial shit hole—I’m a working class boy from Sheffield. My folks would clap me around the ears if I started bragging or moaning about my situation.” He told several humorous stories during our conversation that all seemed to begin earnestly but then poked fun at taking one’s situation too seriously. A sample: “I read an article on the plane flight over to Texas that drinking could seriously impact one’s health. Drinking over an extended period can be fatal. Now I’ve been known to tipple for quite a few years, so I made a resolution. I’ve got a family, you know. From now on, no more reading on planes.” Hawley recited the tale as an experienced jokester.
The Englishman willingly discussed his music, but he clearly wanted to talk about other topics as well. He doesn’t believe there is a strong separation between his music, other aspects of his life, and being in the world. When asked specific questions about playing his guitar live, the Englishman seemed confused and admitted he didn’t really think about it. He just did what the moment demanded. For example, during Hawley’s live show at Emo’s he banged his acoustic guitar strings to get the maximum amount of noise out of them, while on the electric tunes he would strum his instrument much more gently. Hawley said he was unaware of this fact, and his puzzlement seemed genuine. He works on getting a certain sound and doesn’t pay particular attention to how he gets it. Performing live required a certain level of unconscious connection between the musician and the audience.
In terms of his lyrics, Hawley said, “I don’t like to write songs that look at the big picture of the downtrodden masses, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand. This is no time for foolish complacency. My way of thinking is to treat human beings with respect on a one-on-one level. That’s what I do in my songs. I think that itself is a political statement, even if it boils down to ‘don’t be an arsehole’”. Hawley paused for a moment to choose his words carefully. “The bombings in London were scary. I tried to call my friends, but all the phone systems went down. Panicking doesn’t help. Anger is more likely to cause one to do something you’ll regret. It’s like being in a room with no lights and with a gun. You’ll probably shoot yourself. A musician should be the person who looks for the light switch.” The flow of Hawley’s thoughts was a bit convoluted, but his message was clear. His role is to illuminate.
“It’s easier to be a bastard than a good human being. It’s easier to fuck someone over than be fair. It takes more guts to be patient and understanding,” Hawley said. One has to step back from a situation not to be jaded, and just observe others without reaching a verdict about their lives. That’s what Hawley did on his recent disc Cole’s Corner . He said he tried to create “little snapshots with words about how people really live”. The title song refers to a street corner where a department store once stood where people now meet for illicit affairs. Hawley said every town in every country has such a place. He didn’t write the tune to celebrate such meetings, but he’s not here to judge people either. He just wanted to shine a beam at human behavior, in this case what he considers that natural human instinct for connection.
“We live in the age of the Internet,” Hawley said. “We can email anywhere in the world and reach out to people we never met, but there is a dark side to it. It leads to isolation. We end up just sitting at computers by ourselves”. This desolation is the latent theme of the songs on Cole’s Corner . His portraits of solitary people showcase our common humanity as a good thing, i.e. we are lonely together. Hawley’s rock ‘n’ roll serves as a way of turning his love light on the crowd and makes them see each other, one to one, as human beings. And despite the sometimes somberness of the lyrics, the music always makes a psychic link to one’s pleasurable instincts. In contrast to Morrissey, whose listeners at SXSW were miserable together, Hawley’s audiences smiled at each other knowingly during his performance.
The interview ended and Hawley kept me company while I waited for a ride into town from his hotel. He lit a cigarette and started talking, “When a man gets older, his thoughts turn to hunting. This man I know went into the woods, shot a deer, cooked it, and served it to his family. His wife asked him what it was, but he just smiled and asked if she liked it. Then his little girl pestered him, ‘Daddy, what is it?’ The man didn’t want to tell her directly, so he said, ‘It’s what mommy calls me’. He meant ‘dear’ but his daughter jumped up from the table and screamed, ‘Mommy, don’t eat it. It’s a fucking arsehole’”. Hawley laughed as the taxi arrived. He had perfect timing.