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Interview: Hamish Hawk

8 February 2023

With a richly warming baritone voice, Hamish Hawk sounds more mature than his 31 years of life might imply. The up-and-coming UK star has been on the radar, after a decade of self-releasing material, since 2021’s worldwide debut, the stunning Heavy Elevator, which found Hawk earning comparisons to Scott Walker, Jarvis Cocker, Neil Hannon and Morrissey among others. A relatively quick follow-up, Angel Numbers, was recorded with Idlewild’s Rod Jones at Jones’s Post Electric Studio in 2022 and released earlier this month. If Heavy Elevator was Hawk’s introduction to the world, Angel Numbers establishes the singer/songwriter as a formidable and unique voice in a crowded landscape.

With Hawk’s schedule loaded up with interviews talking about the writing and recording of Angel Numbers, this conversation breaks away from the norm and gives Hawk the chance to share more about the person behind the music and lyrics.

Do you start off the day with coffee and, if so, do you have a favorite coffee cup?

HAMISH: I very much do, coffee man through and through. Tea in the afternoon. I’m the kind of person who turns my nose up slightly when people say, “Oh, I must have coffee when I wake up.” As much as I do drink it, very much out of habit, there’s something about someone who says, “I’m barely myself without coffee.”

I do have a favorite mug. There’s a particularly type of shape that I like of a mug. I don’t like tall and thin and I’m not one for china, I don’t like anything that’s difficult to hold. A shorter, stubbier mug with quite a wide handle where you can either hold it by the handle or you can hold it in your hands if your hands are cold.

I’ve had favorite mugs through the ages, that’s something has happened and I’ve lost them. It’s been quite an emotional experience. In Edinburgh, about an hour-and-a-half from what’s known as the East Neuk of Fife – Fife is a region to the northeast of Edinburgh over the river, and you cross over a big suspension bridge – the East Neuk is a sleepy, coastal part of Scotland, sort of fishing villages, but it’s also got quite a rich musical history as it so happens. There’s a pottery there and I bought a mug at the pottery. It’s exactly the shape I described, sort of short and stubby, very sturdy. The top half of it is glazed and shiny, the bottom half is unfinished and rough, like a bit of stone or a blackboard. It was a great mug and it put me in good stead for a long time and then it just cracked one day while I was washing it. So now I have the mug but I use it to keep pens it because I couldn’t bear to get rid of it. I replaced it with an incredibly cheap mug that was the right shape. It was bright yellow. But that one, only recently, it’s handle got smashed so I’m searching for the right mug. I’m still looking for my golden mug.

Between finishing the recording of the album and the release, as it’s been quite a while, how do you keep yourself busy?

HAMISH: It’s funny you should ask me that now because, essentially, in the wake of my last record, Heavy Elevator, things took off in a way they hadn’t before over the last year, year-and-a-half. Prior to that, I was making music for the best part of a decade. I was, on my own, releasing CDs or records or EPs or doing gigs, I was doing so ostensibly for myself. There were people who were ardent supporters even then, who I’m so grateful to for giving me that sense of vindication and giving me the will to continue and a real feeling of support that maybe they’re not even aware of how much that contributed to my sense of self. I was doing it for them but mainly for myself. It was something I could do on a fairly regular, albeit sort of infrequent, basis. Then, the last record sort of took off and interest in the follow up, Angel Numbers, is quite considerable. Heavy Elevator was the first time I released a record and now there’s certain weight of expectation on my shoulders that’s never existed before.

Going back to your question about hobbies, music, for a long time, was that place, was that thing I went to. Aside from a day job and aside from socializing and aside from exercise – I’m quite a keen swimmer, I swim a lot – the music was the other thing, it’s what took care of the other side of myself. It took me many, many years to recognize that not everybody writes songs. It was my thing. Now that the music has people looking out for it and asking for it, I’ve quite honestly realized that I’m sort of lacking a certain other dimension in terms of a vocation or a hobby aside from my life as a musician. I found that being a songwriter and caring about it as much as I do and putting as much into it as I do – not only the craft of songwriting, but the stagecraft as well – it’s an all-encompassing, all-defining part of my identity. I perform under my own name, as time goes on, that gets more and more entrenched and you find that thing you talk about with your friends can kind of be talking about Hamish Hawk business. I certainly get tired of hearing it and I’m sure they do as well. I’ve maybe found that I’m short of something. But, I do quite a lot of what everybody else does I suppose – it’s films, it’s reading, it’s television, it’s socializing. Besides that, I’m a very, very keen swimmer. I love it and always have. It’s my place that I take myself to and focus on the movement and the breathing and it takes me away from everything else. Not only is it my exercise, it’s also a hobby, and it’s also a serene moment in my day.

To most people, you’re Hamish Hawk, Musician. But for those who don’t know you as a musician, maybe your neighbors, what comes after the Hamish Hawk comma?

HAMISH: That’s a really good question. When I’ve had day jobs or part-time jobs, I’ve almost sort of said – I used to work at a record store, for example, and I said, “I work at a record store” and my friends would tell me off when I’d introduce myself as that because they’d say, “You’re a musician.” If it was someone who met me in a shop or on the street, I would wager they would think of me as a storyteller. I talk a lot and I enjoy conversation and I certainly don’t shy away from talking, even in those moments where I say, “Oh, I’ve been talking so much” or “I can’t be bothered” or “I just wish people wouldn’t ask me this,” I’ll say that and then about 2 minutes later I’ll be talking at length. I’m a bit of a yarn, a bit of a talker. Conversationalist. I would be happy if somebody said, “Hamish Hawk, Conversationalist.”

You worked in a record store. How do you feel about physical media? Do you collect music in a physical format?

HAMISH: Yes. Over time, I’d say my feelings have changed. I wouldn’t say that I feel as strongly as you might think about physical media but it has a certain place in my heart. I’m a CD nut, I still have every CD I’ve ever bought and they’re in boxes because I don’t have places to put them. I’ve never thrown them away and I have no intention of throwing them away. It’s not simply a nostalgia thing, I do relish in physical media. Same with records. I haven’t gotten to the stage of buying the record of the CD that I have. But, I do have quite a lot of records as well. It’s a fundamentally different experience. It’s not to say that streaming doesn’t have it’s obvious benefits, which it does, I couldn’t be disingenuous enough to claim that the majority of my music listening happens anywhere other than on my phone, it does, but I love listening to music in my car, for example. And that’s got a CD player. I’ve got a HiFi that has a CD player. I do put on CDs every so often. Sometimes I want to be away from my phone for a while, I don’t want to interact with it. I find that the listening of albums becomes so much easier if you can put a CD on or put on a record and turn it once. You’re engagement, I would wager, is steeper and more undisturbed than it might be if you’re streaming. Half of the time, I’ll listen to a song on Spotify and halfway through I’ll be reminded of another song. I like CDs, I like records, I like sleeve notes, I like discs, I like looking after my records. I’m not at the stage where I’d call myself a hoarder but I’m a bit of a budding collector.

When I go on a long drive, I’ll grab a handful of CDs because the only CD player I have is in my car.

HAMISH: I do exactly the same thing. I’ll grab a handful and then I’ll get in the car and think, “What collection of CDs is this?” And then something happens, track 4 of the second one you put in, you go, “I haven’t heard this in years.” It can spark something, in tandem with driving. I love driving. Other than walking around town, which I very much do, I also like driving. Once you’re locked into driving, you don’t really think about much else. Then you come back and you’ve gone through things in your head and you didn’t quite know you were doing it.

Are there CDs that you leave permanently in your car? I have a Tom Petty box set, The Police’s Greatest Hits, and I think I have a couple Black Sabbath CDs and those are always in the car.

HAMISH: I have Black Sabbath as well. I’ve got a copy of Paranoid in the door that has been there since I’ve owned the car. I’ve got – it’s almost gotten to the point where I could never take this out of the car, it lives in the car, it’s not even part of my CD collection – Bob Marley’s Legend. I grew up listening to that in the car, my dad used to put that on. I am a huge admirer of Bob Marley. Reggae does that. You can play it to 4-year-olds, 8-year-olds, and 12-year-olds, and everybody loves it, especially Bob Marley. And, this isn’t one that’s always been there but it’s certainly been there in the last year, Regina Spektor’s Begin to Hope. That was from when I grabbed the stack and took it into the car. The other 4 CDs have come out of the car but that one stayed. When it comes to interviews, I don’t think I’ve had much time to talk about Regina Spektor but I really enjoy her music and have since I discovered it when I was 15 or 16.

Is there a particular song that, when you hear it, you can be transported to a very specific moment in your life?

HAMISH: Yes! It’s the first track on Antony and the Johnsons album, I Am a Bird Now. The track is “Hope There’s Someone.” When I listen to that, I’m in exactly the place that I was when I first heard it which is a friend of mine’s bedroom when I was about 15. I remember the air in the room changed and was electrifying and me going, “What the hell is this?” I will say, there’s probably quite a few of those that I could say but that’s the one that came to mind. I know that I am there when I listen to that song. I’m filled with the same awe and wonder with Antony’s voice now as I was then.

Have you ever had someone tell you that one of your songs is one brings back memories for them?

HAMISH: I must say, I’m fortunate enough these days, increasingly I’m getting people getting in touch with me on social media about specific songs and really going into real depth about them. I’m so grateful to those people for reaching out as it really gives me this humility, the ability of music to travel like that and go these distances and have these affects that you couldn’t have foreseen or imagined at the time of writing. There’s a song from an earlier record of mine called “Catherine Opens a Window,” and it’s just me and a guitar, it’s a singer/songwriter ballad but more so than anything I’ve written, that has just traveled across time and space and the number of people who have related to that song or it has resonated with them beyond them knowing what it’s about – they don’t know what I know about it – it has it’s own life beyond me. I’ve had quite a few people bring that up with me and it humbles me every time.

You’ve been working with Rod Jones from Idlewild for a little while now. About 15 years ago I wrote on a blog that if I could only listen to one band for the rest of my life, it would be Idlewild. They weren’t even my favorite band at the time but I thought I would never get sick of their songs. If you could only listen to one band for the rest of your life, what band would you choose?

HAMISH: I would say I listen to this band’s music more regularly than almost any band and they have sufficient number of albums and their albums are long enough to sustain me for a bit of a time, it’s the Magnetic Fields, the New York outfit fronted by Stephin Merritt. Favorites are tough, and Stephin Merritt is famous for saying, “I don’t have favorites because I’m not 10.” As much as I, in spirit, agree, I also love things like top 10 lists and favorites and I think they tell you a lot about someone. I have no qualms in saying that 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields is one of if not my favorite record and I think it’s helpful for me because it’s 69 songs long. I love Stephen Merritt’s songwriting, I love his lyrics, I love his voice. I think the band are so diverse and innovative. If I were put somewhere where I could only listen to one band, I think they would fulfil me most.

When you’re making an album, do you have any non-music traditions that you do every time, like maybe playing ping-pong on a break or, after the first night of recording, do you go to dinner somewhere special?

HAMISH: In the studio, not so much. The studio where we’ve recorded our last two records is Post Electric Studio in Leith, owned and run by Rod Jones, it’s state of art and a beautiful place to be but it isn’t the kind of place crammed to the ceiling with XBoxes and Play Stations and foosball tables and pinball machines. It’s actually quite calm. We focus on the music when we’re in there. I’d say the tradition, something that I enjoyed, the band, we all live separately, my guitarist lives in London. Four of us live here in Edinburgh and my guitarist lives in London. When we were recording Heavy Elevator, we all made sure to get an Air BnB together. We did go to the pub and go out to dinner after recording sessions sometimes but the biggest tradition is that world you create. Recording studios are like casinos. A lot of them don’t have windows, they don’t want you to think about the time. The tradition, more than anything, is trying to establish that feeling of creating a universe within itself during the recording. You can’t move beyond it’s limits, that’s all it is. As much as it is quite a modest little world, it’s got everything you need in it.

What bands do you consider to be hometown heroes?

HAMISH: I think I’m safe in saying that Edinburgh is not known for it’s bands. Glasgow is an hour away and it very much is known for it’s music heritage and the rich musical history that it has. Because Scotland is a small country, and it’s an incredibly industrious country when it comes to the arts, you end feeling like that with Scottish bands whether they’re from Edinburgh or Glasgow or Aberdeen. The bands that are from Edinburgh, I suppose, are The Proclaimers and Bay City Rollers, it might just be one of the members. Beyond that, the bands that I feel that pang of national pride would be a band like Belle and Sebastian or Franz Ferdinand. When I was growing up, Franz Ferdinand were very much on the up-and-up and “Take Me Out” was just everywhere. Now it’s a world-conquering mega-hit that everybody knows. Any of the Glasgow art school bands – Camera Obscura, Edwyn Collins and Orange Juice. I also love Frightened Rabbit and was hugely affected by Scott’s death. Frightened Rabbit were very much an adolescent band for me, I was a huge fan and I wouldn’t have started songwriting when I did were it not for them.

Is there a song you’ve written that nobody has asked you about the lyrics but that you want to talk about?

HAMISH: Honestly, I think I’m lucky enough to say that I don’t think so. I’ve always made it quite apparent that my life in music is very much a life of words. When I was a solo performer, and it was me and my guitar, I was writing everything. Working in collaboration with my guitarist, Andrew Pearson, and my drummer, Stefan Maurice, we’re all an official songwriting collaboration. I deal with every word, every word is mine. What I’m learning to do is be sent a demo and for me to have full reign over the lyrical content of the record. Because I’ve made it my aim to focus as intently on lyric writing as I can, I find that when I do interview, the meat of the interview tends to be with my writing of lyrics. I’ll get thrown quite surprising questions about the lyrics. I find that people ask me about the lyrics even more than I thought they might which is nice for me because, as a listener, I listen to lyrics all the time.

For the song “Elvis Look-Alike Shadows” what came first – the title, the lyrics or the music?

HAMISH: I started with the image of Elvis. I had an old lyric that I couldn’t get to work in a song. It was “upside down Elvis shadows” and it was because I was walking one day and the clouds in the sky were pushing this silhouette onto the ground. From there, that springboarded me towards a song where I, with my tongue firmly in my cheek, was likening my own progress in my career to Elvis’s meteoric rise to fame. I fell into the image of someone who, like I do, was watching clips of Elvis on YouTube, whether it was the comeback special or the King in the Ring performances or the Ed Sullivan Show or just watching documentaries as people do, I thought it would be funny if someone watching them at home might be convinced that Elvis is trying communicate posthumously through the videos to this person to feel inspired to make their own success in life. That was the idea for the song but it started from a lyric that I couldn’t quite work into another song and then suddenly it spawned the rest of the song.

Have there been any times – whether in your music career or in your life – where you’ve had a “pinch me” moment that, if you were to go back in time and tell the 12-year-old you that something happened, the 12-year-old you would never have believed?

HAMISH: There have been a lot of them. We were given the opportunity to support Franz Ferdinand last year for Independent Venue Week here in the UK in association with BBC Radio 6 Music. We were sort of hanging out backstage with Franz Ferdinand and Alex Kapranos says, “As if that was a normal thing to do.” Because I remember standing in Princes Street Gardens, which is a park here in Edinburgh that has a stage that they use during festivals, when I was 14 in the front row gazing up at Alex Kapranos like the deity that he was. Recently, the band and I did a session at Maida Vale Studios in London and, you know, Dusty Springfield’s recorded as Maida Vale Studios. Bing Crosby’s recorded at Maida Vale Studios. Led Zeppelin and The White Stripes. To stand in those hallowed halls, I’m still not over that.

If you could relive a day of your life, you can’t change anything, what day would that be?

HAMISH: A few years ago, I think it was 2017, I was given an opportunity to do a shoestring tour of the U.S. I was doing living room shows in America, not making any money. By the end of it, I had seen 26 states and played about 45 shows over 6 weeks. We had driven 10,500 miles all the way down the East Coast, down to Georgia, all the way through the deep south, up California, and then back. I remember arriving in Los Angeles and it was the first time I had ever been in Los Angeles. I had a gig but it was a couple of days later. I had this feeling of achievement and was thinking, “This distance that we’ve come. I’ve never existed at this point on the map. I’ve never been anywhere like it.” I made a couple of acquaintances, one notable acquaintance when I was in Los Angeles and this sort of 3 or 4 days in Los Angeles were swallowed up by that acquaintance and it was just that feeling of going to the ocean and dipping my toe in the Pacific for first time and looking back at these gigs and thinking, “Life’s pretty good.”

What plans do you have for 2023? Maybe a return to the U.S.?

HAMISH: We’ll be at SXSW in March. We’ve got our UK tour in February, we’re coming to Austin, Texas in March, and then it’s going to hopefully be festivals throughout the summer with hopefully some European dates. I’m hoping that March isn’t the last time I see the U.S. this year.


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