Sunday Sessions 2 - Hamish Hawk
By: Emma Corcoran
If The Smiths, The Strokes and Siouxsie & The Banshees morphed into one, then low and behold, you would have the unstoppable sound of Hamish Hawk & The New Outfit. Although relatively new, the band has already established themselves as a talented group of musicians and, for lack of a better word, a badass live act. Their songs engage with the audience on a remarkably personal level, combining light-hearted humour and casual conversation with raw emotion. With the upcoming release of their debut album this Spring, they are without a doubt one dynamite band to keep under your radar.
Last Friday, we caught up with Hamish Hawk, lead vocalist of Hamish Hawk & The New Outfit, after his performance at the Music is Love Annual Festive Bash. The St Andrews alumni and resident of Edinburgh launched his solo career last June with the release of his first album Aznavour and formed his band just under eight months ago.
What began as asking for a quick statement somehow resulted in a twenty minute chat, but we wouldn't have had it any other way. Hamish Hawk spoke with such feeling, honesty and conviction in a way that I can't quite describe. Read on to discover for yourself exactly what I mean.
An Interview with Hamish Hawk:
ST.ART: Can you tell us a little bit more about your music and how your band formed?
HH: Basically, I’ve been playing solo for quite a while, but I felt that some of the songs just needed a little bit of extra grit to them, a bit of extra something – colour somewhere. And as much as I still love playing solo, now that I’ve got a band, the way that I play solo changes and the way that I play with the band changes, so it’s nice that they kind of inform each other. But I only formed the band about six, maybe eight months ago, so really very recently. John on keyboard and Alex on bass, I knew both of them in High School. John’s a session keyboard player, and Alex is just a really good friend. Then I met Andrew, the guitarist, here at Uni, and Barry was a friend of his from Glasgow, so we’re a kind of ragtag bunch. We basically formed because I needed to play a support slot for a local Fife folk musician called King Creosote; he asked me if I wanted to play support for him, and I said absolutely. But the performance was at the Perth Concert Hall for one and half thousand people, so to play solo there – that’s a big number, and I wanted backup. We got together for that, and it just sort of fell into place. I think we played well, and we’ve been doing it ever since. I still play solo, but I like to play with the band more.
ST.ART: Your songwriting then, is it collaborative?
HH: No, it’s all me. Obviously the arrangements we work out in rehearsals, but I come up with the basic structure and all of the words. I play at home on my own with my acoustic guitar. Usually I’ll have had a phrase going around my head all day, something that I know would be good in a song. I don’t know what the song’s going to be, and I never really have a tune, but I just play some basic chords, like a kind of loose outline, a stream of consciousness sort of thing. Sometimes I sit down for fifty minutes, do that, and I’ve got a song, and it’s great. Other times I get two-thirds of the way through, and I get stuck, and it remains as a kind of fragment for a long time. Then later, something happens to me and I realise, 'Oh that's how the song is meant to finish.' So yeah, I write all of the songs on my own, basic structure, all the lyrics, and then I go into rehearsal and we do it like that.
ST.ART: It’s nice that way; it’s more free-flowing. It’s not forced, like sitting down and writing something.
HH: And that’s the thing, I never write down anything, really, until after; I only ever write down my lyrics once I’ve finished them, so I can say, ‘There’s the song. That’s the whole song, done, signed at the bottom.’ While I’m writing something, it’s all just in my ears and in my head, I don't write down anything. For me, maybe not for other people, but for me, writing feels slightly less personal somehow; it takes a conscious effort to write something, whereas I prefer it to come out of my mouth instantly without having anything come before that.
ST.ART: And it’s easy to remember your lyrics?
HH: I do it over and over. You know what they say about revision, when people are typing out notes, you’re meant to remember your own handwriting much more easily than you remember fonts, like computer types. With this, I don’t write down anything, so I just have to keep hearing it and saying it.
ST.ART: Which I think works for a musician.
HH: Yeah, it does. It sits really well with me, with my whole... I’ve never had a problem with the way I write songs; it works for me. I would never say that it works for everyone, but it works for me. Some people write songs like poems; they write them down and think about beeps and so on. But for me, the most important thing in my songs is my actual choice of words, not necessarily the meaning of the words, but the way the words sound and the way the words sound together. Sometimes there’s a word that means the same thing as another word, but I would prefer to use that one instead of that one. Some people might say that it doesn’t fit, but in my mind, it does.
ST.ART: I think it’s more unique in that way; it’s more personalised. It’s not conforming to any ideal.
Where do you draw inspiration for your songs? You have a song from Edinburgh, a song from St Andrews, so it is life experiences?
HH: My biggest inspiration by a country mile, since I started writing songs , we're talking just under ten years ago now, is people. If you give me a scene that doesn’t have any people in it, I’ll struggle to think of anything to do with it; I’ll struggle to truly use my imagination with a blank canvas like that. But as soon as you give it a social aspect, I find myself getting interested. It’s things people say. It's things people say and I go, ‘I would never say that, I’ve never said that before’ and then, ‘That’s really interesting – why did they say that? What made them say it? Why did they choose those words? What’s happened to them in their lives that would make them have those words in their heads ready to be used?’ I was interviewed a couple years ago for Hearing Aid Magazine, when it first started, and my interviewer, my friend Oscar, asked me what I write songs about, and it’s people, it is just all people. Some of my songs don’t use he or she, any kind of pronouns like that, they don’t mention people, but they’re always inspired by people, definitely. So for my whole first album, which is ten songs long, every single song is about a different person. Some are fictional and some are real, and I like the idea that people would listen to them and not know.
Another thing that happens to me that I sometimes feel a bit bad about, and I don't know what to do sometimes, is that a song will come out about someone and it’s really nasty; it’s really not a nice thing to say, and it’s not something that I would ever say. But that’s the thing about songwriting – you can’t censor your own songwriting, and you also can’t hope to just please everybody with everything you say. None of the truly great artists ever just started doing what they were doing and everyone was like, ‘Yeah, it’s great.’ There was always a little bit of friction somewhere, and I like the idea that some songs go, 'Oh god, that was a bit close to the bone.'
ST.ART: Well it incites feeling; it evokes a reaction.
HH: Exactly, it’s a reaction. And just as I was saying about the social aspect, on stage, I like to talk to people.
ST.ART: It’s more interactive in that way.
HH: Definitely. It cuts the pretence. Sometimes when you go onstage, people go, ‘Right, there’s the performer. Is he going to impress us?’ and it puts up an invisible fourth wall. I know it’s cliché, but I like to smash that down and say, ‘No, this is just a normal room, and I’m just blocked from the ground to the stage.’ Yeah, I’m the only one talking, but at the same time, I want to put people at ease. I like to talk and make it a social interaction, so that when I talk about the songs, people have the same feeling as I start to play them. I put people in a certain mood, and then I’ll play the song, and they'll listen to it in that mood. I quite like that, so I always like to talk onstage.
ST.ART: I think that’s great. I do think it puts people at ease; it makes it more casual and conversational in a way. It also makes it more personal.
HH: Yeah, and there are some artists and musicians, like just think of your icon, your favourite musician, and if you saw them, you would just be in awe of them. When they’re onstage, you don’t want them to be normal, really; you want them to be really weird. That’s why they say don’t meet your heroes, because you kind of want to believe them as this ethereal figure on top of a pedestal. I don’t really want to be like that,; I don’t want to be someone’s icon, really. I love when people say that they like my music, I really do; it makes me feel, I don’t know, it just makes me feel great. But, no matter where I’m playing, I would always want people to feel that they could come up and speak to me. I just like talking to people and I like people, and that’s why my songs are about people. That’s all it is.
The songs from my first album were about a lot of people from here, and the cover art was done in Castle Sands, so it’s very much a Fife and St Andrews album. A lot of my inspiration for my first album came exclusively from this town. People say about St Andrews, just as they say about a quite lot of places all over the world, that art can be quite stifled and there’s not a lot of opportunities, there’s not a lot of places to play, but I’ve just never ever found that to be the case at all. I think that if there’s any limitations, the creativity just goes through the roof. If people try to stop you from doing something, you’ll want to do it so much more that you’ll try so much harder. Jack White from ‘The White Strips’ said in an interview that if you put a band in a studio and say, ‘Do whatever you want. You’ve got all the instruments you need, all the time you need, all the money, it doesn’t matter.’ The album might well be quite good, but they haven’t needed to focus at any point because it’s just all there for them. Whereas if you shove a band of five people into a room as big as this and say, ‘Record your album in here, and you’ve got two days’, they have to try so much harder. Freedom and opportunity really limits creativity, whereas if you give them limitations to begin with, the creativity will thrive. That’s what I think. For example, song ideas always come to me when I don’t have any time to write the song. They always come to me when I’m doing something, and I need to keep thinking about it, otherwise I’ll forget.
ST.ART: It just kind of happens in a moment; it’s very spontaneous.
HH: Oh yeah. I mean, I have no idea what my next song’s going to be at all. I don’t know. But I know it will come. And I’ve never had writer's block. I’ve always just thought, if you’re not writing anything at that point in time, you’re not meant to be. The idea has to flow, and it will, you just need to take a step back and say it will come, and then it does. If you keep telling yourself that it has to be now, it will never come. And that it’s the same with all sorts of things, like relationships. People say that if you sit there waiting for it, then it's never going to come.
So yeah, that's how I feel about making my music: it's very much spontaneous, it's influenced by every interaction with every human being I meet and it's a very uncensored approach. It's very loose. I like to play around and be funny with it. I think it's very important to take your work seriously, but I never take myself seriously, ever. I think that's really, really important, because as soon as you start taking yourself seriously ahead of your art, then you just get a bit big-headed and people lose interest.
ST.ART: I think it's nice to have a balance.
HH: Completely. I think people appreciate honesty in music and willingness to experiment and little bits of humour. People are looking for something to relate to in music, and if you can just show them that you're another human being and they're another human being, that's really what it's about.
ST.ART: I think your lyrics are honest as well. Like in your final song, you're speaking about memory, right? And being unable to remember. I don't know why, the lyrics just really stuck with me. I really like songs that sound sort of like poetry, but also kind of conversational, like everyday speech, something you can relate to. And I think that has a very honest quality; it's something that's personal and sincere.
HH: There's something really special to be found in everyday speech, that's the thing. There was one point when people were singing songs and were talking about, even in the 50s, with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, big huge love emotions and big gestures - things like, 'I want you more than the moon and stars' and, 'This is what I feel and it's the be-all and end-all.' But there's something to be said for the everyday. People don't go out saying stuff like that very often, but there are certain things they do say very often that really convey something quite special.
ST.ART: And might even have a more powerful impact, honestly.
HH: Of course, of course. I think it's really important to connect on the everyday level, and that's what I try to do with my songs. I've been told that if you write down and read my songs, and obviously I don't want to toot my own horn, but they flow in a quite interesting way; you can read them as if someone is speaking, like a script. It doesn't feel like a song, apart from the fact that it rhymes in places, and it certainly doesn't sound like a poem. It doesn't feel like it has any kind of real poetic structure or use any poetic techniques beyond rhyme and rhythm, assonance, maybe a bit of alliteration, that sort of thing, but nothing really technical.
I think there's something special to be found in the everyday, and that's what I try and do. I think there's something funny and something really beautiful to be found in the everyday, and I like to smash those things together and say, 'Hey that lyric is quite humorous and that lyric is deeply emotive.' That's what I try to do: songs about people, mixture between laughing and crying, just being honest and trying to relate and trying to communicate and trying to engage with the audience. And if I don't engage, then I don't have a good time. If I can't talk to the audience, then I don't enjoy the song. Sometimes I see the hall and it's full of people and they're all chatting, and sometimes I've been able to stop them, without telling them to. I just sing in a certain way, and it works. You sort of bring them round.
ST.ART: It's the power of the voice, I guess. And the music.
HH: I suppose so, yeah. My voice is not something I've ever tried to hone; I've never tried to do anything in particular with it. But I think there was a moment when I was writing songs and not performing very often where I just thought, 'I could sing it like this, or I could just be how I want to sing it, the feeling of each word.' That's exactly what it is. It sounds so cheesy, but it is how each word feels. When I know the line I'm going to sing, I know pretty much the delivery that I want, not necessarily the rhythm, but the way it's going to sound and the message it's going to get across. That's not to say that other people don't listen to my songs and hear a completely different thing, and that's great. I like the idea that it takes that away from me. As I say, I don't want to be anyone's icon; I just want someone to get something from my music and to enjoy it, that's all it is. It's all about making friends.
ST.ART: What are your plans for the future?
HH: Well our band is relatively new. I've got a solo record that I released last summer, and about three days ago, I released a new vinyl. I've also recorded a new album already with the band, so that will be released spring next year, and that will be pretty much every song you've heard tonight plus about four others. The album's going to be called 'From Zero to One', Hamish Hawk & The New Outfit. I'm really excited about it.