Richard Hawley has achieved his high profile in the 21st century by harking back to an age before the Beatles. Hawley and engineer Colin Elliot document the recording of his new album Lady’s Bridge.
Although Richard Hawley has now made five solo albums, it was only with last year’s Mercury–nominated, gold–selling Coles Corner that he achieved widespread recognition. Like its predecessor, his new album, Lady’s Bridge, reflects Hawley’s unashamed love of music from the ’50s and ’60s, with a referential nod to the likes of Fred Neil, Link Wray and the Del–Vikings. The album’s title, named after a Sheffield landmark, is used as metaphor for the singer, songwriter and producer turning 40, losing his father to cancer and basically getting through life on his own terms. It’s an ambitious and honest album utilising local musical talent — inspired by, and proudly made in Sheffield.
“I think we’ve not been afraid to go big,” explains Colin Elliot, co–producer and bassist with Hawley since the beginning of his solo career. “Coles Corner did so well and got such great things said about it. ‘The Ocean’, in particular, was such a big track, orchestrally full–on but with some big guitars. And then when we played it live we made it even bigger and Richard does a 10–minute massive solo at the end of it — and everyone loved it. So we thought ‘OK, let’s see where we can take this with the next album.’”
Richard Hawley’s solo career got off to a less than promising start when his then band the Longpigs finished their second album. Asked by their record label to write some singles, and armed with a small budget, Richard chose to work at Yellow Arch Studios in Neepsend, Sheffield, with Colin Elliot, whom he knew from the Sheffield music scene.
“The first attempt was a rocky single called ‘Ah Well’, which we stuck down in around two hours and realised it was shit,” admits Elliot frankly. “Richard then went through a confidence crisis, I suppose you could say, and didn’t want to carry on. But I said he must have some songs — we had a whole week booked in the studio. So we ended up recording all the stuff that went on to become the eponymous debut mini–album in 2000 only after manager Graham Wrench heard the material a year later, thought it was wonderful and got a deal with Setanta.”
Colin never imagined then that Hawley’s music would break so many barriers and reach out to so many people. “I didn’t expect it musically to end up where it has done either, because when we started it was definitely Richard reacting to having done stadium gigs with Pulp and the big noise production of the Longpigs. He definitely wanted to get back to the music that he loves — people like Fred Neil and all that kind of ’60s light, quiet music. I hadn’t heard any of it — I just went with what I heard from Richard.
“The first couple of albums were an acoustic guitar, accompanied by other things like xylophones, lyres and glockenspiels — we just called them ‘specky’ instruments, there wasn’t a great deal of musicianship involved.”
Ambitions have certainly been raised with Lady’s Bridge. Since signing to Mute and releasing Coles Corner, long–term members Colin and guitarist Shez Sheridan have been joined by Dean Beresford on drums and pianist John Trier to form a serious working and touring band. In preparation for Lady’s Bridge, the band routined around 40 songs and spent two weeks just playing, discussing arrangement and structure, as Colin explains. “We had this massive bank of ideas and the ones we picked pretty much stayed as they were, structurally, and everyone’s parts stayed the same — then it was just a question of enhancing what we’d worked out. People like my myself and Shez have known Richard a long time and even though we might not have known what he wanted seven years ago, we do now!”
Even with so much riding on the success of the album, Richard Hawley preferred to pursue an approach to songwriting which would seem a frighteningly high–risk option to others. “I had loads and loads of songs: some half–finished, some fragments, and some fully formed,” he explains, “and this is what I call ‘the safety net’. Usually I ignore that completely and do the Cool Hand Luke thing and just try and write from scratch pretending all the time to the lads I know what the fuck I am doing. I don’t. Ever.
“I like to push myself. It’s much more interesting and challenging to just come up with stuff on the spot. I think most producers and musicians would shit themselves working like this, but I have found it to be the best way. All the lads are excellent players, and it’s better that they and I don’t really know for certain what the fuck is going on — you can keep performances really fresh like that. Basically, I turn up with all these songs, then fuck them off and listen to my doodles or read the pile of paper I laughingly call my notebooks and start from there. ‘Valentine’ and ‘I’m Looking For Someone To Find Me’ were the only things that were vaguely near completion, the rest was either made up on the spot or was made from a scrap of an idea on a tape. They are all just musical shorthand that reminds me of an idea I had maybe a month or even a year before. I must admit I am very lazy, too — the studio focuses my mind onto the job of writing finished songs. I have loved working this way. It’s a good feeling when you finish a song and sit back and listen to it and go ‘Where the fuck did that come from?’
“The magical places you go to when making music is all I am bothered about — all the rest is bollocks.”
With everyone instinctively playing the right thing, Colin, as recording engineer and co–producer, modestly describes his role as “sticking a microphone in front of them and making sense of it all”. The recording equipment at Yellow Arch has changed little over the years; there is still the old Amek Angela desk, but the recording medium has moved inevitably from ADAT to Logic Pro. Despite both formats being digital, Colin has been able to produce a big warm sound that recalls the ’50s and ’60s.
“For me, digital is only a medium to, as faithfully as possible, record what you’re doing. The thing about analogue tape is that it would mess things up, in a nice way and you could push it, saturate it — but it’s possible to get that effect elsewhere.
“The important thing is, it always comes from the source. That’s the whole thing. Richard’s voice is incredibly warm, we use an old ’70s Ludwig drum kit tuned in an old way — it’s not got a clicky bass drum, or modern attacking sound — and a ’79 Fender Jazz bass which goes through an amp and then comes out into the room and you hear the room. There’s nothing DI’d. All the guitar sounds are through valve amps and they are all distant–miked. There’s never a mic closer than two feet from an amp and there’s always reverb on the amp. So there’s as little digital processing as possible. The recording in Logic is just the means to faithfully reproduce what we make in the first place. You have an idea, the guitar’s in tune, it’s a good sound — let’s record it.
“There’s no great technical thoughts, like ‘We must use this mic on this setup’; it’s just what’s to hand, as long as it’s a good mic and it’s going through a good chain. A couple of guitars were recorded with [Neumann] KM84’s, and sometimes they were done with a Rode NT1. I’d say the bulk of recording was through the [Neumann] U87; the mic that I would generally just have out and move around to do vocals, then guitars and all that stuff was the U87. This went into a TL Audio EQ1 and then from that into a Calrec 6400, which is the dual stereo compressor that the BBC used to use.”
Everything was recorded direct into Logic (Colin still uses version 6, because it works and he doesn’t want the hassle of changing the operating system) through a MOTU 24I/O at 44.1kHz using a 766MHz G4 Mac. Amazingly, Colin has been able to get the track count up to 64 audio tracks with minimal CPU overhead, mainly because he uses very few plug–ins. “I only ever use high–pass EQ in Logic or low cut, just to get rid of rumbles and things like that. I might occasionally group things like backing vocals and EQ them, but generally no. The whole thing that took me so long to move from ADAT to Logic was because I wanted to make sure I could use the Amek desk and all the outboard gear. So it’s not like I’m mixing anything internally within Logic. I use Logic’s Tape Delay quite a bit, but I don’t touch the compression — it’s way too vicious!”
So how did they end up with such huge track counts? Partly, explains Colin, it was down to extensive use of doubling and multi–tracking parts. “We’ll have five acoustic guitars, or if we’ve got a theme playing in the background, we might do it with an electric and then double it with a 12–string and then octave it with a baritone, duplicate it with the lyre and then put the glockenspiel on top! And a lot of things are recorded both close and ambient. The things that get tracked up the most are percussion — you might have 10 tambourine tracks. Or with strings, we only got seven players in and track them up with six mics, then do five takes, so that’s 30 tracks of strings and you’ve got to put them together.”
The multiple doubling up of instruments is undoubtedly a Hawley trademark, and is often applied in such a subtle way that you’re often not aware of the depth of the sound that you are hearing. ‘The Sea Calls’ is a deceptively simple track that cycles round and builds up with a bewildering amount of different instruments.
“It doesn’t matter if [listeners] appreciate it or not,” says Hawley. “All that matters is that they are moved by it or not. Knowing when to stop is an art you have to learn. It always comes to a point where you have filled enough space inside and outside the track. If I have a riff I will play it on guitar sometimes, then double it up with another instrument that has the right frequency I hear in my head for the part, and build the track from there. I operate almost totally on instinct in the studio, there’s very rarely a plan. I try and leave some air in the tune to help the listener breathe.
“A lot of modern music is so dense I get tired listening to it, with no air or space. ‘The Sea Calls’ just soaked up whatever was thrown at it — some tunes are like that, they’re like hungry monsters. On every album there’s one that foxes you but we got there in the end. All the sounds on that were carefully placed but a lot of the ideas were very mental, like the piano I played on it, it was really heavy playing but it just disappears in the track.”
“The Arrange page is absolutely ridiculous, there’s just so many instruments on it,” adds Colin. “Five or six guitars, drums, loads of percussion, backwards guitars, vibes — forwards and backwards — distorted accordion, fuzz guitar, banjo, lyre, dulcimer. We just absolutely got everything out and threw the kitchen sink at it, and everything seemed to work. So then it was a case of making the picture work, taking some stuff out earlier on and try to build the dynamic. It doesn’t have a middle eight or an instrumental section — it’s just linear and tells a story.”
“One of the great joys of Logic is that you can just keep going and going with it, as opposed to tape,” says Colin — but he’s quick to qualify that statement. “However, the thing I really liked about tape was that you had to be decisive and make your mind up. It really infuriates me with Logic if anybody says to me ‘Can you keep all that?’ At what point are we going to go back and trawl through the other 32 takes? Let’s decide now. If it’s good, then it’s good and we bin the rest. I delete things as I go because I hate having alternatives hanging around — ’cause it’s just room for doubt in your head all the time. That’s why I quite like to commit to a sound in terms of EQ, on the drums especially. I’ll EQ them and even if we’re using distortion by driving the compressors hard, I commit to it and put it down like that.”
That sort of commitment echoes Hawley’s own approach to creating guitar sounds. “Richard’s one of those people that when he goes into the room and you stick a mic up in front of him, he plays something that sounds like it has always belonged on the record. It’s very rare that something doesn’t work. He’s great with his pedals and his sounds, so he’ll go in, use a delay and a compressor and digital reverb pedal, with stupid amounts of effects on, and he’ll put that into his amp, which has got a Copicat running an echo on it, then he’ll put reverb on the amp as well. Richard just gives you a sound that sounds like it belongs on the record. A sound that just sits in the track and makes everything big and warm.
“He’s got a massive guitar collection but he knows that that particular Gretsch feeds back in a certain way if you do it like that. Or he’ll get the Silvertone out which has a certain ‘jangliness’ that the Telecaster doesn’t.”
As an accomplished arranger, Colin had intended to record strings at Yellow Arch but delays, including the death of Richard’s father during the making of the album, meant they over-ran and used another Sheffield studio, Axis run by Mike Timm, which has one of the best live rooms in the North of England. The final result would be a combination of real and sampled strings.
“About 80 percent of the strings on ‘Valentine’ are from the East West orchestral library,” recalls Colin. “I’d just bought it two–thirds of the way into the album. It doesn’t play on an Intel Mac so I had to use it as a stand–alone player. Because it’s very sample heavy, with stereo close–miking, stereo stage miking and stereo room miking, it kept crashing. In the end I played each line individually, but it’s great, ’cause you’ve got expression and you can really make the strings swell. The mix we had of ‘Valentine’ before we recorded the strings would have done, but we wanted to add real strings.”
The brooding and contemplative ‘Our Darkness’ also features a lot of the East West strings and horns. Colin started off wanting a real brass arrangement, and tried to get one of the famous local brass bands, like the Grimethorpe Colliery Band or Black Dyke Band. “We thought it would be great, but it just didn’t work out,” admits Colin. “None were available at the time, so we got eight members of the Stocksbridge Brass Band to come into the studio, and they weren’t really up to the job. We ended up recording them all individually because the tuning was out and we re–pitched them all, changed the timing, and even then it still wasn’t right. But we managed to use them and mix it in with the East West sounds.”
Logic is used heavily for recording, track arrangement and automation, but the Amek Angela desk at Yellow Arch comes into its own for final mix EQ and auxiliary outboard manipulation. Tracks are recorded, balanced and mixed as they go along — some (‘Dark Road’) taking just two hours, others (‘The Sea Calls’) up to seven days.
“You work your way towards the finished mix as you go,” explains Colin, “and every time you add something new to the track, that affects the balance, so you re–adjust and move things as you go. By the time everything’s recorded, you stop, take a break, come back, have a listen, maybe spend a couple of hours and then it’s mixed.
“I hardly used internal effects in Logic, although with ‘Our Darkness’, as it goes into the big brass section and the singing finishes, I did increase the reverb on the voice using Space Designer. Otherwise, for reverbs, the Lexicon PCM60 is on pretty much the same setting all the way through — a vocal plate setting. Wipe the pre [-delay]. I know it’s digital, but it sounds great. I really like using Drawmer DL221 compressors on backing vocals. Because when they squash the dynamics they almost squash the frequency as well and make the backing vocals sit behind the lead vocal really well.
“I’ll also use an Alesis Quadraverb as a back–up reverb with a massive long delay plate, EQ’d. I hate looking for a sound with gear, so if I’ve got something that I know how it works, I’ll just turn to it. If I need a big long reverb I’ll switch the Alesis on. Then anything that needs that big reverb gets routed through that.”
Richard Hawley’s vocals are usually compressed in the mix as well as on the way in. “Generally they get EQ’d the same way when they come back,” adds Colin “and get re–compressed in the mix as well, through the Calrec, so double compression. And I’ll crank a load of 18kHz into it. I love the EQ on the Amek, especially the high-end mid [band] that you can wind on up to 18kHz. You can stick that on a vocal to your heart’s content and it just shimmers.”
Mastering was done at Sound Mastering, London, with Duncan Cowell, a mastering engineer renowned for his digital remastering of specialist rockabilly, blues and jazz re–issues. “He’s great,” explains Colin, “because he doesn’t touch hardly anything. He just tickles it and makes sure that the levels match, leaving it as loud as it can be without affecting the dynamics. Duncan made an important point: what would you rather have, a really loud album that people are going to go and turn down or a nice dynamic album that people will reach to turn up?
“For me, the reward is listening to something great on great speakers. Brilliantly recorded music on a brilliant system — you can’t get that through earphones on an iPod, squashed to fuck. Artists like Keane have got some fantastic songs; one on its own is great, two are OK, but by three songs you’re knackered. It’s just such an assault. Then you go back to your ’50s, ’60s, ’70s recordings and you can listen all day to them. I don’t know what’s going on. It’s all about competition and who can shout the loudest.”
Colin Elliot was forced to change studio monitors during the making of Lady’s Bridge — a major consideration at the best of times, let alone when you’ve already mixed three–quarters of an album. “We had started off with Spirit Absolute 2s,” recalls Colin. “They’re OK, I’ve used them for years, but they’re ‘toppy’, and certainly in the configuration I had them we didn’t get much deep bottom end. You could see it but you couldn’t hear it.
“I was running those and a Martin Audio PA, a really big rig with subs, just for loud listening, plus a little ghetto-blaster, which is fantastic. I love doing vocals through ghetto-blasters because you forget about the technical side, like listening to the timbre of the snare, and you just end up hearing a piece of music. I’d got into the habit of balancing a mix using a combination of all three systems.
“Then the Martin Audio system broke and we wanted to get something decent in, and were recommended the Focal Twin 6s. They were the only system I could get in a hurry, so we got a pair of Twin 6s complete with beryllium tweeters and a sub on trial. As soon as we plugged it in, even though one of the speakers didn’t work at the time and we had to work in mono for a day, it was a Godsend, and everything sounded the way it was supposed to. And when we got the whole system working it was fabulous.
“Eight or nine tracks had already been mixed, and when we listened to the old mixes on the new system they all sounded great. I really found a difference in the lower mid — I just found that I could place things so much better. ‘Valentine’ was almost a result of having the new monitors, in that I felt able to get all that warmth and all that stuff that’s happening in the 200 to 500 Hz region.”
Richard Hawley’s big guitar sound stems in part from his use of dual amps, fed with dual signals from stereo tremolos and other effects. “I always use two amps in stereo and have for years,” he states. “You get a real wide sound with that. The amps change all the time. I use Fenders mostly these days — they’re super–reliable and sound ace. I do use an old Burns Orbit II transistor amp, the first ever built, in fact, also two WEM Dominators for the ‘double Wemmy’ sound, that’s on a track called ‘Dark Road’. It’s huge; they’re only 30 Watts apiece, but together they sound awesome. I did that guitar sound with those two and a Gretsch 6120 guitar I got in Norway with a Boss compressor and a Boss stereo reverb. I remember doing a gig with my Uncle Frank [White] a couple of years ago with that setup, and his bass player said, when he saw them ‘Look, it’s a bring and buy sale — they are shit amps!’ He did shut up when he heard them, though.
“I have a Selmer Zodiac and an old Rac amp from the ’40s that gets an airing now and again. That was used on ‘Serious’ with a Fender speaker cab, a Peavey 5150 for a more modern sound and an ancient Gretsch amp previously owned by a Mr G Harrison from Liverpool — don’t know if it’s the G Harrison. I always use the spring reverb on the amp, as well as the Boss pedal, and usually a bit off the desk too. You can’t have too much reverb. I use an old Ross fuzz pedal: it doesn’t fizz like some distortion pedals do, it’s really creamy and clipped. I swapped it for a fishing reel when I was 14 and it’s still my most–used fuzz pedal apart from the Tone Bender. I don’t use distortion much, because that’s too easy.”
Richard Hawley has amassed an amazing arsenal of stringed instruments, amps and oddities, many of which have found their way onto his recordings. “I have collected an odd array of instruments over the years: lots of zithers, lyres, an electric vibraphone from the ’50s, weird keyboards like Omnichords. I got my first lyre in Corsica from my in–laws. We visited them and they had this little kids’ toy called Le Lyre Enchanté [the enchanted lyre]. I was fascinated by the sound of it and eventually got one in Paris in a shop called FNAC. I have used it on loads of my songs and now have about six of varying sizes, the best of which I got in a weird little music shop in Seattle on the harbour last year. It looks like Napoleon’s hat. That’s all over the new record. The only problem with them is they are a bastard to tune — poor old Shez [Sheridan] gets lumbered with the job of tuning them, in fact I recall we sampled it and sometimes used that and played it on a keyboard, but only on parts where it was supporting a sound or was buried in the mix, otherwise it would sound shite. I prefer playing it for real.
“I have about 50 or 60 guitars: old Gretsches like the ’64 Tennessean, ’66 Country Gent, ’65 Clipper, ’66 Nashville, three 6120s of varying vintage, a lovely ’66 Gibson 335, a Baldwin 12–string from ’67, a ’50s Silvertone, a couple of baritones. I have a really nice Ibanez acoustic my wife bought me about 15 years ago that I use on everything. Shez has an old ’60s Guild acoustic we use a lot. I have a few Hawaiian lap steels, an old Selmer from ’38 and a Supro eight–string from ’64 that’s a beautiful sound, like angels. My favourites are the Gretsches, though. They almost play themselves. They need a load of TLC but it’s worth it.”
With so many instruments, how does he decide what’s right for each track? “It’s years and years of playing, I suppose. You know what a guitar will sound like when plugged into a certain amp; there’s a world of difference between a WEM and a Fender. I guess I have played and been curious enough to experiment with sounds over the years on my own to feel what is the right thing to do at the time.”
Richard Hawley’s music always appears fluid and organic, so I was interested to learn that everything is done to a click and always has been. “There are many reasons for that,” explains Colin. “I think there was one song where we didn’t do it to a click and we regretted it for the next five days when we were trying to loop some percussion or change a drum fill here and there. It’s not so much the people making mistakes that need fixing, it’s when you get so far and think ‘That middle eight would be brilliant coming into the second chorus.’ If it’s to a click you can move it, if it’s not then it’s a real nightmare. And also it takes away any doubt about tempo and there’s never going to be an argument about who was speeding up or slowing down. We all kind of like playing to the click. It’s your friend, not an enemy. It takes the responsibility away from everyone, no arguments; that’s the timekeeping and it leaves everyone else free to just play.”