Introduction: on the road again
Last September, Sheffield’s guitar-toting musical maverick Richard Hawley released his eighth studio album, Hollow Meadows. The platter’s 11 superb cuts once again served to illustrate his untouchable genius both as a singer and a songwriter.
As ever, Hawley’s six-string playing is also absolutely top notch, from the echo-drenched melodies of album opener I Still Want You through the garage-psych stylings of Which Way right the way across to the gentle sweet pickings of What Love Means.
When we catch up with Richard on the phone to run through his top five tips for guitarists, he’s enjoying a bit of downtime at home before launching into another concert trek across the UK. His last British tour, towards the end of the last year, was an experience he particularly savoured.
“Generally, I’m loving playing live more than I’ve ever done in my life,” he tells us. “I just feel really relaxed and happy with playing the music. It’s very simple, and getting to the simplicity of playing is the essence of what I’ve always tried to do with me and the guys.
“I just feel really connected with the audiences and I don’t feel like a salmon swimming upstream any more. There’s some folks out there that actually get it now! I’m enjoying whatever it is. I don’t really know what it is but whatever it is, I hope there’s some more of it!”
The European leg of the tour, however, was foreshadowed by November’s horrific shootings in Paris. It was a matter of brave faces all round for Richard, his band and his crew.
“The flower seller gets his flowers out in the morning, the baker bakes his bread, the café owners open up the café and they do what they do, and musicians turn up and entertain people in the evening,” Hawley says.
“It was really important to be part of that arc to the day and not kind of opt out of that and run away. It was important to just simply do what you do and be part of the whole thing.
“There was a gentle bravery in it all from everyone concerned - the audiences, the crew, the band, everyone. They all contributed and we just gently and quietly got on with what we do rather than be defeated by mindless hatred.”
Did Richard initially consider pulling out of the gigs altogether?
“No, I personally didn’t,” he quips. “I’d have got onstage with a fucking scuba outfit and a banjo… although, thankfully that didn’t come to pass!
“But I did call all the band and all the crew and said, ‘Look, if anyone doesn’t want to go, I completely understand’ But everybody - all the boys and all the girls - just said, ‘No fucking way, we’re going!’ I was really proud of them for that.”
We gave Hawley a few days' pre-emptive warning on quizzing him about his top five guitar tips, and it turns out he’s put quite a bit of thought into them.
“I think this kind of thing is really important, especially for younger readers and players who are really wide-eyed about the whole thing,” enthuses Richard.
“It’s important not to make it inaccessible. All of us, anyone who plays guitar, whatever music you make - at some point in your life, you were just a wide-eyed kid and hopefully you’ll never really lose that.
“I always like to try and help out enthusiastic kids. There’s so many of them, and I need them and I try to not be a dickhead or a rockstar… that’s horrible, that! You just realise that whatever age you’re at, you’re still not that far away from that little kid who was completely blown away by listening to the tunes, and I still am amazed by listening to music. I hope these tips can inspire a few people.”
RICHARD HAWLEY UK & IRELAND TOUR 2016
Thursday 18 February Scunthorpe Baths Hall
Friday 19 February York Barbican
Saturday 20 February Southampton O2 Guildhall
Sunday 21 February Norwich UEA
Tuesday 23 February London Hammersmith Eventim Apollo
Wednesday 24 February Manchester O2 Apollo
Thursday 25 February Cork Opera House
Friday 26 February Galway Black Box
Sunday 28 February Cardiff University Great Hall
Hollow Meadows is out now.
1. Whatever you choose to do on the guitar, play it with authority
“Duane Eddy told me something that was a really great piece of advice, which was, ‘Choose what it is that you want to do but - whatever it is - play it with authority!’
“It’s to do with who you are as well. That was like a really clear, very concise piece of beautiful advice about the guitar. It doesn’t matter what it is, how complex or how simple… but, whatever it is, you’ve got to do it with authority and you’ve got to make it yours. That’s number one.”
2. At some point, it's a really good idea to engage in theory
“You’ll probably know when it’s the right time, because not everybody can just carry on playing one-chord Bo Diddley stuff. There are other chords and there are other things, although Bo Diddley was obviously the master of that!
“I engaged with theory very early, actually, and that was something I was very lucky with, because my family are musicians. I remember being very, very young sat on my grandad’s knee at the piano and him just teaching me roots and 4ths and 5ths and all that kind of basic stuff about scales, why a chord is related to another and why one note is related to another. That sort of orders your mind in a certain way, although sometimes that can be restrictive as well.
“I never learned to read music. I sometimes regret it, and sometimes I’m glad that I didn’t. The order in your mind versus its chaotic possibilities is something that I often struggle with. Music’s numbers and letters if you boil it down to what it is, but when it’s written down on paper, it just looks like fly shit to me! It doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. I don’t have any cognisant understanding of it. The logical part of my mind was ordered when I was very, very young and the rest is just fucking chaos!”
3. There is no substitute for practice
“It’s not like a computer game, where you get good, ‘Ooh I’ve cracked it, I’ve passed level 16…!’ You have to sit and engage with your instrument and practise until it doesn’t sound like 10 cats being set on fire… or maybe that’s what you want it to sound like, I don’t know!
“But, there’s no easy way round practising, I’m afraid. You can’t negotiate your way round that even at the most rudimentary level. The thing with practising is that it helps you to form a bond and a love of your instrument.
“I think there’s different ways to practise. There’s the old kind of hairbrush in a fucking mirror, where - when you’re playing it - it’s like a performance, almost, and you get into that side of it, which I did as a kid. Then there’s the other side, which is the brutal sitting there until your fingers bleed practising, which I did as well. It just depends on what you want to do.
“If you want to be able to play very, very well - which is obviously down to the individual in what you can consider that to be - you have to engage with the guitar and practise and practise and practise until you get it right.
“What I found to be an acceptable level was fairly high up the ladder, I guess. That’s not me being in any way arrogant. It’s just the people who I liked, like Scotty Moore, were at a certain level. When I was a kid, I remember saying, ‘I hope by the time I’m an old man, I can play nearly as good as Scotty Moore’. I’m going to be 50 next year and I’m about halfway there!
“To learn all those licks and all those little riffs of his has been like a lifelong thing. I love that style of playing and picking and all the practice and all the kind of theory study and stuff that I did when I was younger has really helped me.”
4. If it's driving you mental, leave it alone for a while
“When it’s driving you mental and you can’t quite figure out the Rubik’s Cube, it’s best to leave it alone for a while. Don’t just keep hammering away, because you’ll probably see what it is that you’re trying to do from a different angle on a different day… and you’ll get it. Sometimes, it definitely helps to walk away from it.
“Be patient with yourself, because you can’t get it all in one day. That patience thing is something that’s important, because it’s something that will accompany you all the way through your life. The whole way. If you truly fall in love with the guitar - and I’m a head-over-heels, married man to the guitar and I still love it every day - it’s something that will accompany you in your loneliest and most difficult moments. I’ve found that the guitar’s been something that has really helped me, and without it I would be a lesser man.
“Like when you’re in a lonely hotel room somewhere and it’s just leaned in the corner - even if it’s silent, you know that it’s there. It’s like taking your own piece of furniture with you that makes things feel like home. I love that aspect of it and, without learning the guitar, I wouldn’t have seen a 10th of the world that I’ve seen. There’s no doubt about that in my mind, and I bless the day that I was given one. It’s been my way to see a lot of things internally and externally.”
5. Be open to new ideas
“Keep an open mind. Always be open to new ideas and constantly have your radar on for new and interesting things. You will never know everything, I’m afraid, even if you’re Segovia or Chet Atkins. I think that they were probably still searching 'til the day that they died.
“And being open to new things kind of keeps it exciting as well, the fact that there’s going to be somebody come along with a completely new approach and a new way of playing at some point in history and it will completely blow your mind. I love that and I’m always waiting for it. Like, I love what the guys from Radiohead and bands like Muse and stuff like that do with the guitar. It’s just like really, ‘Woah, I didn’t think of that!’ You’re hearing an individual approach.
“And that’s the thing as well… however many frets you’ve got, the myriad, multiple possibilities of what to do with them, is really, really fucking truly astonishing! This very basic and - in a lot of ways, quite simple instrument - can do all that. It’s the magic in it.
“The magic that you can do with the guitar never ceases to amaze me. You can be a magician and do magic tricks that no-one else can do and you are the magician who invents them as well. You’ve got to really believe in that possibility, I think, and don’t be shy! Whether you’re on stage or you’re just sat in your own home, you can still be a magician and do beautiful slight-of-hand things that no-one else but you can do.”