Travelling Man: Hamish Hawk on Laziest River
We speak to Hamish Hawk about the adventures and misadventures that led to the release of his new, piano-led collection of "away from home" songs, Laziest River
Three of the recordings found on Hamish Hawk’s new EP will be familiar to those who managed to snap up one of the 50 handmade CDs he released in 2017. Name-checking Austin, Texas and the Swannanoa River in North Carolina, the songs were written during the six weeks Hawk spent travelling across America earlier that same year. Keen to part with them quickly, Hawk – after a fruitful day spent in the Penicuik studio of Mattie Foulds (The Burns Unit) – decided not to wait for label involvement, and to share them himself.
Hawk’s eyes light up as he speaks of his fascination with small, everyday interactions, and how unexpectedly and profoundly they can influence what's to come. Out for breakfast one morning before leaving for America, he explained his (lack of a) plan for "the longest holiday I’ve ever been on" to Dan Willson – known to many as Withered Hand – who put him in touch with Brendon Massei, a Baltimore-based songwriter who has recorded as Viking Moses since 2003. Massei tours relentlessly and invited Hawk to travel with him as he played in houses across America. Driving through 26 states, the two covered over ten-and-a-half-thousand miles, "starting in Washington then going to New York, down to Georgia and west all the way to California." After Massei performed, he and Hawk would "be looked after, given beds and such"; their accommodation often housing "some kind of upright piano."
The three songs Hawk released in 2017 were all written in these houses, as he became overwhelmed by – and compelled to document – "the number of unique and truly inspiring situations I found myself in." China & Down, he says, "was written in one sitting, Jackie O. Swannanoa was written in six different sittings, so each different little bit is actually about a different place altogether. It just grew an extra limb every so often." Hawk is particularly attached to Swannanoa, as it stands out amongst his work as a straightforward, yet elegant documentation of "exactly what happened. Those six weeks are journaled in that song."
Keith Ingram, owner of Assai Records – Hawk’s current label and workplace – suggested that the three "travelling songs" could be released again as part of an EP if Hawk had any material fitting to accompany them, which he did. None of the songs on Laziest River were written in Edinburgh. "Mudchute was written in London," Hawk tells us. "I was on the bus in the Isle of Dogs, got off too early, and just ended up wandering about Mudchute. Two of the songs were written in Glasgow, one in Latvia. Jude the Obscure wasn’t written by me at all." The instrumental was penned and performed by frequent collaborator Stefan Maurice, though the track was named by Hawk after an Assai Records regular who had heard the demo. "I said I could name it after you. That’d be funny. I couldn’t call it Hey Jude," he laughs, "so it’s Jude the Obscure."
Assai customers will not be surprised to hear that Hawk is a warm and enthusiastic host and interviewee, who is more than happy for our conversation (taking place in his Edinburgh flat) to stretch on for several hours. We cover everything from performers he admires ("When Kathryn [Joseph] sings, she elevates the whole space into something else") to a recent Vic Galloway session in which he (and his band, The New Outfit) covered Beauty School Dropout from Grease. "I can’t get away from larger than life romanticism and big showy gestures," he delightedly admits.
Five of the tracks on Laziest River were recorded by Idlewild’s Rod Jones in his Leith-based Post Electric studio. While the influence of "big crooners and show-tuners" is welcome throughout the record, Hawk assures us "there’s also just an ordinary Edinburgh guy in there as well." Hawk’s distinct charm shines through on Dud, as he sings 'I’m a dog / Not been taken for a walk in ages'. Laziest River is tender, wistful, reverent, eloquent, comical and refreshing in its unabashed openness and curiosity.
Hawk hopes to record the follow-up to his debut record From Zero to One later in the year, and hints that a couple of tracks from it may receive an airing at some point during his upcoming UK tour. "A lot of the songs on the first record are about real situations where I met certain people, and how their personalities clashed or matched perfectly with mine," he explains. "It was about uni, the people I met at uni and my girlfriend at the time. The new record finds all of that coming to an end. The darker corners of my songs are darker, but the more playful side of my songwriting is more playful."
Hawk considers Laziest River an offering of "away from home songs. Thematically, and in terms of genre." He concludes, "My brain isn’t in Edinburgh when I’m singing them."
Laziest River is released on 3 May via Assai Records