Oct 12, 2022
By Andy Robbins
Photography by Emanuele Centi
Things are looking up for Hamish Hawk. The Edinburgh-based songwriter has charmed audiences and critics alike with his lyrical joie de vivre and flamboyant performances, bringing him to the brink of mainstream success.
His acclaimed album Heavy Elevator has been shortlisted for the prestigious Scottish Album of the Year Award Scottish Album of the Year Award after picking up comparisons to Scott Walker, Morrissey and Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields, while he’s become a regular feature on BBC 6Music’s playlist.
But even before the gongs have been handed out, he’s wasted no time in announcing the anticipated follow-up Angel Numbers which is scheduled for released in February next year.
Early listens reveal 12 songs of timeless quality that seamlessly blend his bombastic pop and lyrical panache with a deftness of touch and broader musical palette than its predecessor.
Under The Radar enjoyed an hour in his company to find out more during an overnight stopover on his journey from the Scottish capital to London for a live session at the BBC’s famous Maida Vale studios.
Andy Robbins (Under The Radar): How are you? You’ve had a busy year already. You’ve released a covers EP, played South By Southwest, toured the UK with your band and performed at numerous festivals this summer.
Hamish Hawk: Since Heavy Elevator came out it really has been non-stop, but certainly since South By Southwest we’ve had quite a lot of things going on. Every so often you lull yourself into a false sense of security and have a couple of weeks where you don’t really do anything and you think ‘Oh, this will be nice’ and then things suddenly come thick and fast. In the past nine months we’ve had three tours of the UK, so there has been a lot to take in but it has been sensational.
And then just in the last couple of weeks we’ve had a new single out and we’ve also been longlisted for the Scottish Album of the Year (going on to make the shortlist before the winner will be announced on 20 October).
We’re just on our way down to London to record a session for Steve Lamacq on 6Music. That’s going to be at Maida Vale, so that’s a bit ridiculous.
That should be amazing. You’ve already had a few moments this summer when you must have pinched yourself. One of them being when you played Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh supporting Simple Minds. That must have been pretty special for someone like yourself who was born and raised in the city, and somewhere you still live.
Of course, and every time its bewildering. This past year since Heavy Elevator came out, the opportunities we’ve had have been beyond words. It’s been such a rollercoaster in every sense and I’m so grateful for it.
I’ve known for some years now that this is my life. This is the career path that I’ve wanted to pursue since I was a teenager. So much so that I’ve never really considered it a career path. It feels like something that is tied to my sense of self and ambition. I’ve always known that this is something I’ve wanted to do on some level.
I was such a keen gig goer as a teenager that I was just completely enamoured with whatever was going on up on the stage. I loved the whole idea that the people up on stage had practiced and travelled and rehearsed and written these songs. The culmination was all in that moment on stage in front of me.
I’ve fantasized about it since I was a kid, so playing Princes Street Gardens…I saw Franz Ferdinand play on that stage in 2005 and I remember it so vividly. There’s a snapshot in my mind of Alex Kapranos and Nick McCarthy, what they were wearing, how they were dressed, how they posed, everything. So to make these steps and get to these points where there potentially could be someone in the audience who is the same age that I was then, looking up at me and going ‘Oh wow’…it’s something else.
It must be very different when you are the one on the stage rather than being in the audience. Are you able to enjoy the moment and take it all in?
It’s a really good question and it’s something that my family often ask me. I can speak for members of the band as well when I say we’ve all had that question and had people imploring us to enjoy it. It’s usually people older than us saying you have to grab the bull by the horns and enjoy it as much as you can, relish every moment. It’s the best advice I’ve been given, certainly in recent memory, because it’s so easy for the moments to flash past you and for the memories of those really great gigs to be quite banal things. It’s very rarely the moment on the stage. That’s the treasure you should have, but it’s usually how nice the loos were or something like that.
But since people have been saying it more and more, I’ve been consciously choosing to take the snapshot as it were and enjoy that moment.
You’ve got another one of those memorable moments coming up after Heavy Elevator was nominated for the Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award. Some incredible albums have won and been shortlisted since the awards started 10 years ago. How do you feel about being part of it and in some way carrying on that lineage?
I’m so honoured and quite bowled over by the whole thing. I’ve followed the SAY Awards for years and I’ve made a point every year of listening to the nominees.
We’re really, really, really proud of the record. I think we have sufficient distance from it now to know we are really proud of it, we enjoyed making it and it will occupy a very special place in all of our memories forever. It was a very special thing for everyone involved, but to be brought into that Scottish Album of the Year nominee family…I don’t know how to take it, but I’m immensely proud of it. As someone who has been so enamored with Scottish music in particular and the output of the independent Scottish music scene, it is something the band and I have thought about all our lives.
Scotland has produced so many incredible bands, artists, musicians and labels over the years. Why do you think that is?
I honestly don’t know so, before I wax lyrical, I should make it clear that I don’t have a clue. I’m not sure if there is an essence as it were to what makes Scottish music Scottish music. It’s a small country and there aren’t that many people who live here so it does seem when it comes to the arts in particular, whether it’s literature or whether it’s poetry, songwriting or painting or sculpture, there seems to be quite an impressive output and there arguably has been for some centuries.
With a pinch of salt I could say there is an emphasis on the arts in Scotland, or at least I feel fortunate enough in my upbringing and my education that there was a focus on that and it was always a big part of me growing up.
With my music, and especially because my name is Hamish Hawk, there was a period when I feared I might be pigeon-holed as a ‘definitive Scottish artist’. It’s not that I wanted to distance myself from Scotland, it’s just that I fear that parochiality and I would like to appeal to a wider base than just one nationality.
But in terms of the lineage, I couldn’t imagine being part of a more exciting and diverse group of artists than Scottish artists of the 20th and 21st century. It’s dumbfounding how many amazing bands have come out of Scotland and generally to be part of that family is, well, it’s thrilling.
Is the nomination for the SAY Award a bookend for Heavy Elevator which was recorded almost three years ago, before the pandemic?
You might be right, and that would be healthy in a way. We’ve lived off Heavy Elevator, not necessarily in the financial sense but artistically, since we recorded it. Now, maybe yeah, it could be a bookend and we’re moving into the world of Angel Numbers, which we feel is right.
You’ve worked closely with some well-known artists who have been nominated for the SAY Award previously themselves. Kenny Anderson, aka King Creosote, helped with your early releases after you handed him a CD-R of demos, while Rod Jones of Idlewild produced both Heavy Elevator and your upcoming new record Angel Numbers. What have you learned from working with such established figures in the industry?
I couldn’t fail to notice how many truly amazing and dedicated mentor figures I’ve had throughout my career. There are so many people that I owe such a huge debt of gratitude to and I take every opportunity I can to thank them because I know for a fact that Hamish Hawk as a project is an enterprise that involves so many people, far beyond myself. I owe that huge debt of gratitude to every single one of them.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have these mentor figures. There have been so many people I admire and songwriters that have become gradually involved in the music in some sense, either playing on records, singing on records, being given a support slot or them supporting us.
We had Withered Hand (Edinburgh-based musician Dan Willson) in the “Mauritian Badminton Doubles Champion 1973” video, as was Rod Jones, as was King Creosote, because we wanted to say thank you to these ‘Scottish music father figures’.
You mentioned lineage and that’s the word because we feel indebted to these people and we’re essentially trying to carry the baton just a little bit further for Scottish music.
You’ll be carrying that baton further when Angel Numbers is released next February. What can you tell us about the new record?
Angel Numbers feels like a sister record to Heavy Elevator. Whether intentionally or unintentionally there is a partnership between those albums for me.
Heavy Elevator very much dealt with the idea of trying to move upwards but being slowly pulled down by a weight of baggage. Angel Numbers deals primarily with ideas of looking upwards. It’s not the movement upwards but a gaze upwards with ideas of success, fame, ambition and hoping, dreaming, visualising and fantasising and all of the good and bad fallout from that.
I’ve described it as the curse of ambition. What I was trying to explore as best I could with the lyrics on the album is the desire for success and an impulse to achieve and how you reconcile that with sitting still.
It’s a record that feels like a natural progression, taking your sound forward both musically and lyrically.
What I’ve always tried to do, what I’ve always wanted to do and what has always inspired me when other people do it is the pursuit of originality. I don’t want to come across as high and mighty when I say that, but I think it can be very tempting to jump on something that already exists. It’s not about being judgmental about jumping on bandwagons or trends, it’s just that I don’t think I’ve ever been a particularly trendy person.
Your lyrics demonstrate a fantastic use of language and turn of phrase. How difficult do you find it to write them?
It is a constant work in progress. I’m constantly making notes, whether it is in notepads, journals or on my phone, on napkins or on the back of my hand. I will constantly be making notes of words, phrases, idioms, quotations or odd amalgams of words that come to me, things I read on signs and things I can overhear people saying.
It can be so easy for young artists and creatively minded people to have a sense of imposter syndrome for saying they are a writer or they’re a songwriter. It took me so long to feel comfortable with saying I’m a songwriter and I’m a musician. I felt like I needed some kind of external validation to be able to call myself that.
One of the things that I realised, to allow myself to call myself a songwriter, is that not everyone does that. Not everyone walks around making notes like that, where as on my part it is a compulsion and it has been since I was a teenager.
When I started writing songs the muscle wasn’t as exercised, but I was still very aware of flourishes of language or lyrics that I liked, or sayings and words that I liked.
I started noting them down when I was in my first band at school. I knew then that I was going to have to write the words. Then when I started playing solo it just kept going and now I see myself principally as a lyricist.
When I write them, I know they’re lyrics. I know they’re not long-form pieces or poems not set to music. I really care about it. I really care about good lyrics. I could probably talk for hours about that.
Many of your songs have memorable opening lines. “Who buys a jacket from a gunmaker?” on “Money” and “Called you from the queue, twelfth in line at the bloody Pompidou” on “Desperately” are two great examples on Angel Numbers. Do you always try to grab the listener instantly with that first line?
Yeah, I think so. First lines are really important to me. I know when I’ve landed on ‘the one’. There are different ways I write songs, but I know something is going well if it comes right out the gate with what I think is a strong opening lyric. I’ve gotten to the point now where I’d say it is a bare essential for my songs.
When I’m writing and in a flow state, I’m not thinking about them being consumed. I’m thinking ‘Is this good enough for me?’. Once I’ve written them and stand back it is only then that I consider how they might go down or how they might be engaged with. That’s when the nerves start because sometimes they don’t always paint me in the best light.
I think autobiographical is the wrong word, but they’re all coming from me. I wrote them all. Whether it is a character or a persona or an exaggerated side of myself, or if I’m being sarcastic or trying to be ironic, that differs with each song.
But when I’ve got that first lyric, that usually spurs me on. It’s more difficult when I have something that’s clearly meant to be in the middle of the song and no strong lyric at the beginning.
Angel Numbers isn’t out until February next year, but a lot of the songs that feature on it were written some time ago.
With our last record Heavy Elevator, a lot of the feedback we had from people was that it was particularly resonant with them in lockdown. Particularly the song “Caterpillar” and the notion of feeling trapped, or just that general angsty feel of some of the songs. We always thought that was funny because it was written and recorded before lockdown.
Angel Numbers very much is the product of that period of time. We wrote the vast majority of these songs locked up in our houses, but when I listen to it now I’m not sure that comes across and it almost feels like a freer album than Heavy Elevator in some senses.
It was recorded again with Rod Jones on production duties, at his Post Electric Studio. That relationship is obviously very fruitful.
Very much so. One of the pleasures of working with Rod is that I’m not entirely certain he knows quite how great a producer he is. There’s a real lightness of touch that he brings to the equation. He’s really dedicated and you can tell he’s utterly consumed by the project he’s working on.
We all really enjoy working with Rod, we’re very close with him and he is one of our managers as well. I feel that our music is in very safe hands with Rod. It’s really, really useful because he seems to be able to see the wood from the trees when we’re in it and it is all too easy to lose yourself in the process. Yeah, it’s been great having him as producer.
You’ve already released two singles from the album; the title track “Angel Numbers” and “Think Of Us Kissing”. But there are lots of sublime moments on the rest of the record, including duets with Anna B Savage and Samantha Crain, as well as the beautiful closing track “Grey Seals”.
You’d be surprised by the conversations that we had about what would constitute the lead singles. It was actually quite difficult to land on those songs. I feel on Angel Numbers there are certain pockets within the album. Not necessarily songs that sit next to each other in the track listing, but pockets in terms of different palettes or different feels within the record.
It’s not been the easiest task landing on the lead singles for Angel Numbers because we want to be representative of the entire album. But we recognised that it is difficult to tie together one cohesive identify by choosing three songs from those different kettles of fish.
It’s safe to say we were more ambitious with this record because we felt more assured in the studio with Rod. But yeah, Angels Numbers is a different musical palette to Heavy Elevator. I would say it’s softer and more contemplative. Heavy Elevator feels quite boisterous and bombastic and, as much as that is catered for on Angel Numbers, there is more of a kind of soft elegiac quality to it that I really like.
You’ve already been playing some of the new songs live this year, but presumably you are keen to perform even more of them when you tour again next year?
I absolutely can’t wait. I’m really excited to see how those songs interact with the older songs in a live set. As much as it is always going to be nerve wracking releasing new music, I think for fans of Heavy Elevator it’s not going to be a terrifying departure.
You are quite theatrical and flamboyant when you perform live. Does that showmanship come naturally?
Without wanting to sound contrived at all, I used to play just me solo with an acoustic guitar. As much as every so often I would have a little gyration or leg kick, there was a certain way I wanted to come across when playing like that.
One of the most important things about writing Heavy Elevator and Angel Numbers with (band members) Andy and Stefan is that it has allowed me to put the guitar down and just stand at the microphone. I’d never done that before but now it seems crazy to think there was a stage where I wasn’t doing that.
Now it feels like the most authentic thing I could be doing and the truest thing I could be putting out there. I’m not saying I don’t perform for a crowd to get people riled up and excited but, to answer your question, it very much does come naturally.
One of the things I’m haunted by when we play live are the photos of me with some horribly contorted face! But when I’m performing with just a microphone and the band are performing around me, I’m in it. I’m in the music and it’s the least self-conscious I could possibly be.
It’s still very surreal to have people sing the lyrics or parts of the melody back to us. I hope that feeling never gets old because it doesn’t feel like it ever will at the moment. It’s the highest compliment we could possibly be paid.
As you say, we’ve played a few on tour already, but I can’t wait to share the new songs with people. It’s like having a new colour to paint with.
Angel Numbers is due for release on 3 February 2023 via Post Electric.
Hamish Hawk will perform at Mutations Festival in Brighton and Rockaway Beach in Bognor Regis, before touring the UK during February 2023.