OF COURSE it is chic nowadays to pretend that one loved Hamish Hawk from his first album Aznavour in 2014 but, like most middle-aged music lovers, I only became aware of him at the start of this year when 6 Music started playing his skittering, nervy single Caterpillar.
Since then he’s put out two more literate, clever, earwormy singles, Calls to Tiree and The Mauritian Doubles Badminton Champion 1973, the latter of which is currently on 6 Music’s playlist. He is about to release an album Heavy Elevator and right now is giving every impression of a man suddenly going places.
In short, he is on the verge of being someone. But that doesn’t mean Hawk can’t be impressed when he sees someone who already is.
I am still standing at the counter ordering coffees when Hawk comes back to whisper in my ear. We’re inside a branch of Cafe Nero in Edinburgh’s Quartermile and a minute before he’d gone off to find us a table. But now he’s back to tell me quietly, “There’s a Proclaimer in here.”
Sure, enough, around the corner, reading a book, there is indeed.
No one, I notice, is having a second look at Hawk. That might change soon, though. It’s the first day of September and we’re a couple of weeks away from the release of his album Heavy Elevator, but Hawk can tell something is building on the back of 6 Music’s love for him.
“Waking up and hearing Lauren Laverne say your name, that’s bizarre,” he admits, smiling. “It’s been a bit of a dream come true.”
Hawk is still a bit stunned that anyone is paying him attention. But they are. Near the end of August, the playwright David Greig tweeted: “Living in Edinburgh in the time of Hamish Hawk is a piece of luck on a par with living in Athens at the time of Euripides, or London in the time of Marlowe – both exciting, and at the same time, imbued with a sense of that after this, it’s done. That’s it.”
Hawk nods strenuously when I ask him had he seen it. “My head could barely fit through the door when I read it. Yeah … That was something. Euripides …” He shakes his head. “It’s odd because I was studying David Greig plays at school.”
Whether he’s the new Christopher Marlowe (no pressure) or not, he’s still working part-time in a record shop, and sharing a flat in Marchmont. The question for Hawk now is whether this year – and in particular the release of the album and the subsequent tour – will be a pivot point? Will he soon be able to become a full-time musician? Does this mark the arrival of Scotland’s next big thing?
And if that’s the case, then who is he?
Let’s assume he is and make some introductions then. Hamish Hawk, born and raised in Edinburgh, is a well-spoken 29-year-old who likes to go swimming every day, prefers badminton to tennis, has dual British and New Zealand citizenship (his dad is from New Zealand) and is a pretty good German speaker.
He has a face that’s all post-punk angles and he looks, I reckon, a bit like Niles Crane (Frasier’s brother) if he had grown up listening to Bauhaus rather than Bach (or, more likely, both).
Oh, and he’s good company, chatty, inquisitive, a little confounded that anyone wants to know anything about him.
And yes, Hamish Hawk is his real name. “Hamish Hawk is absolutely my real name, yeah. It’s done me well so far.”
In truth, though, he admits he possibly doesn’t quite live up to its raptorish promise. “I am maybe a bit soft round the edges. I’m more prey than hunter actually.”
He has been making music for a decade now, first in a band and then solo. But Heavy Elevator feels like a step forward. Working on the album with his friend Stefan Maurice and guitarist Andrew Pearson has transformed his work, he says.
“It’s no longer just me standing on a stage with my guitar hoping people might like my quirky songs. It’s grown limbs and, yeah, it’s a different beast.”
As a result of their collaboration, he admits his new songs are “bigger and bolder and more fully formed.”
And now he can maybe see a career in music stretching ahead of him. Is that what he wants? “Absolutely. I live and breathe it. There was a point where I told myself – maybe late teens, early twenties – I’m really going to make a go of this.”
How does he quantify that desire? “I have no intentions of being a Lewis Capaldi, Beyonce, Taylor Swift. It’s not stardom … I don’t want that. I want people to say, ‘Yeah, his music is good.’
“I care about song writing as a craft. I care about song writing in and of itself. I think that song writing is a valuable pursuit for humanity. And I genuinely see pop music as up there with great novels and great plays and great paintings.”
Hawk’s new songs, as well as being bigger and bolder than before, are, he admits, riskier too. You’ll either respond to the cleverness on display or you’ll hate it. He doesn’t mind that.
“When I’m listening to music, sometimes I’d prefer to have a strong negative reaction to a song than to have no reaction at all.
“I think when it comes to the most commercial pop music that you hear it’s kind of designed to not touch the sides really. It doesn’t want to cause too much friction.
“I sometimes listen to Radio 1 – which is not my go-to station as you can imagine – to see what’s going on, and there are pop songs that really are banal and boring.
“And I never ever want to write songs that could be mistaken for other songs. I want to have my fingerprint on everything. So, from my earliest songs, there were little unexpected turns in the words because … why not?
“My opening lines in all of my songs really need to be on it. There’s a statement of intent from the first line.”
It’s fair to say that songs entitled The Mauritian Badminton Doubles Champion 1973 don’t pop up often. Some people won’t get it, won’t like it. “Oh, completely,” he accepts.
“People have said, ‘It’s highly literate, he’s clearly a wit.’ But I would never want anything like that to come between the song and the audience. I want those songs to be instantly accessible. They might play with big themes. Mauritian Doubles Badminton Champion being one. It’s about life and death and marriage and legacy and how you are remembered and Christopher Wren in the clouds looking down on your creation. It’s also written in plain language.”
He is not, Hawk says, the man in his songs. Or not quite.
“I don’t write in personas. ‘I’m a 48-year-old … whatever it might be.’ I don’t do that,” he points out.
“They start with me. They will start with a couplet or an observation or a symbol or a feeling. They are me at that point. But what I will do with them between that and the end point is pull and stretch them and throw them around and see how they react to other things.
“I’ll exaggerate and embellish. And often what I will do is match a feeling with what I feel is its symbolic partner, attach it to an image, a symbol, or a reference point, and see what kind of song that makes.”
Well, let’s test this, I say. Let’s dip into the lyrics from his new album and see how much the narrators in his song match up to him.
“They won’t dance the Gay Gordons at my funeral.” (from Bakerloo, Unbecoming). Hamish, I say, do you want the Gay Gordons danced at your funeral?
“Yes absolutely. The Gay Gordons is my favourite ceilidh dance.
“I may be meek but I’m no nun.” (from This, Whatever It Is, Needs Improvement).
On a scale of meek to nunnery, where would we find you? “Probably five or six.” Out of? “Ten. Yeah … I’m no nun.”
On Calls to Tiree you sing “I’m barely acquainted with Saturday nights.” When was your last big Saturday out?
“Last Saturday. I went to a wedding and yeah it was a blinding night out.”
You can remember it? “I can, but Sunday morning was a real trial … for us all.”
Also, on that song you sing, “for years I was Lennon’s Imagine track three.” True or false?
“That was even a sore point for me when I wrote that lyric. I’m irritated by how true it was.”
I had to look it up to find that the track in question was Jealous Guy, I tell him.
“Crippled Inside is track two and people have said, ‘Crippled inside?’” He imitates their look of horror. “‘No, not that one.’ How Imagine track three am I? Yeah, a great deal.”
Hamish Hawk tells me he is currently single.
Fairmilehead sits beneath the ski slope and next to the bypass on the southern edge of Edinburgh. It’s the area where Hamish Hawk grew up. Childhood, he says, was an idyll.
“It seemed like every kid who lived in that street was exactly the same age as me and we would all bundle together playing silly kids’ games. In my memory every evening is perennially mid-summer. And it was all bikes and rollerblading and hide and seek.
“There were woods right next to my house. That was the playground of my imagination. Near the woods there was an old, abandoned hospital. Quite worrying when I remember it. We used to play around the abandoned hospital and there was all kinds of stuff left behind, like fire extinguishers and old beds and wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs.
Prosthetic limbs? Did you take them home? “Oh yes.”
His dad was a graphic designer who loved the Rolling Stones, Elton John and Bob Marley. His mum was a midwife who later became a postmistress with a taste for singer-songwriters like James Taylor and Cat Stevens. Hawk was the youngest of three. His sister was a Britpop fan, while his older brother liked “new metal punk, all the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 bands” and hip-hop.
Hawk himself was a Disney fan, though he’d discover Franz Ferdinand and The White Stripes later.
“And I can see all of those things in my song writing now. I can see where Paint it Black by the Rolling Stones is. I can see Where Do the Children play? by Cat Stevens. I can see where Disco 2000 is.
“I can’t see too much skater music, but my brother got me into things like The Pixies.”
Disney? “That’s the most notable presence, I would say.”
It may be embarrassing to admit, he says, “but from an early age whatever I was going to do it had to involve a stage. I was into acting at school and applied for drama school. And didn’t get in, thankfully.”
He realised he didn’t want to stand on stage and say other people’s words. His own mattered more, so music became the vehicle. But not before he went to St Andrews University where he studied international relations.
While there he was also playing gigs and helping put them on. At one point King Creosote, aka Kenny Anderson, played a gig at the uni. Hawk gave him a CDR of his own songs at the end of the gig. “About 45 minutes later,” Hawk recalls, “he emailed me and said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve just driven back to Anstruther, and I’ve listened to it twice and I love it. What are you going to do with it?’ I said, ‘I don’t know.’ And he said, ‘What are we going to do with it?’”
Anderson became a mentor, asking Hawk to support him on gigs, booking him for mini festivals on the East Neuk and helping him record his first vinyl record. He even turns up in the video to Hawk’s latest single. “I consider it a privilege to be friends with King Creosote.”
These days, when he’s not being called the new Euripides, he’s fielding comparisons with every leftfield musician under the sun. Some – Jarvis Cocker, Scott Walker – he’ll take very happily, though he’s not sure he is worthy. Others Hawk doesn’t quite get.
“I can see why people compare me to the Divine Comedy. I understand that Neil Hannon is a very competent lyricist. But Divine Comedy … I’ve supported Divine Comedy and it was a great privilege, but Divine Comedy are not a band I ever sought to emulate. But it comes up a lot.”
To be fair vocally there are similarities. But, I tell him, I can also hear echoes of Morrissey. Hawk’s a fan, though he’s as pained as many of us are by the singer’s recent political statements.
“It’s awful what’s happened to him, his horrible spewing of vitriol and hate and all kinds of bigotry it’s disgusting. I don’t agree with any of his opinions at all,” he says. But, he adds, “his poetry is immaculate. I’ve never heard anything like it. If you go back to Smiths records, it’s jaw dropping. If my work is compared to his work that’s a huge compliment.”
Now, though, it is time for Hawk to go out and make his own name. I think back to what he said about legacy. Hamish, I ask, do you want to be remembered? Does that matter to you?
“I think it does. You feel exposed when you say that.
“No one wants to be forgotten. I don’t mind leaving my mark on the Earth. I don’t necessarily want to have a big podium in St Andrews Square with me standing in a robe on top of it … But …”
He looks up and smiles. This is not the end of the story.
Heavy Elevator is out on Assai Recordings on Friday. Hamish Hawk plays Hidden Door in Edinburgh on Wednesday and then goes on a national tour. He plays McChuills in Glasgow on November 21 and The Great Eastern in Edinburgh on November 27