Angel numbers: a series of recurring numerical patterns or sequences which those who believe in such things invest with cosmic significance. Also, the name of the forthcoming album by Hamish Hawk – an apt title for an artist who bounces between scepticism and wonder, who alchemises the quotidian, who is engaged in a constant quest to outwit and outflank the ordinary.
With the release of Heavy Elevator in September 2021, Edinburgh-based Hawk established himself as a writer of heartfelt, headstrong, unashamedly literate songs to stimulate both pulse and psyche. Heavy Elevator offered words to savour and tunes to relish. The songs were filmic and romantic, blending wit, wisdom, resignation and beauty with a kind of sceptical joie de vivre, delivered in a rich baritone that has drawn comparisons to everyone from Jarvis Cocker to Scott Walker. A singer of style and guile peddling accessible intelligence: what’s not to love? Heavy Elevator established a powerful artistic imprimatur which nonetheless felt neither defining nor confining.
While the album has been justly lauded, Hawk’s next steps have moved the story considerably further forward. Angel Numbers meets growing expectations head on, with panache and aplomb. More on which shortly. But first, how did we all get here? “Heavy Elevator is bombastic and pretty confident,” says Hawk of his breakthrough album when we meet for drinks in Edinburgh in midsummer 2022. “It kind of kicked down the door, which I didn’t think at the time but can see now.” The door had been creaking for a while. A graduate of the University of St Andrews, Hawk had been making music with serious intent since 2014, when he self-released Aznavour as Hamish James Hawk. Championed early on by King Creosote and Idlewild, the following year he recorded the 10-inch Mull EP before forming Hamish Hawk & The New Outfit, a unit which morphed into his current band. He gigged incessantly, sometimes with the group, mostly solo. In 2018 he released the album From Zero To One, followed in 2019 with another EP of piano ballads, Laziest River. There are unforgettable flourishes on all these records, but Heavy Elevator was the moment Hawk’s music truly grew flesh and bones.
The transformation was signalled early in 2021 with the release of ‘Caterpillar’, the brilliantly tense, tightly-wound post-punky lead track from the album, playlisted by 6Music. Here was the sound of promise being grabbed by the throat. Second single ‘Calls To Tiree’ married clipped, soulful immediacy to self-lacerating lyricism. Something, clearly, had clicked. Heralded by this impressive advance party, Heavy Elevator landed in September 2021 with something between a swagger and a shudder. Hawk views the album now not so much as a new beginning as the culmination of years of work. “It is the end result of several years of writing,” he says. “It was this glut of songs that were there, I didn’t know what they were all going to be. When we were recording Heavy Elevator, they were all changing. I wasn’t sure which ones were going to be on it and which ones weren’t, there were a couple that didn’t get used. The album just felt like everything we had up until then. As much as I had an organising principle behind the whole thing, a symbolic relationship between all of the songs, as is often the case that only becomes clear to you down the line, as you’re writing or after you have written a few.” The album immediately struck a chord. MOJO loved it.
The Skinny pronounced it Scottish Album Of The Year 2021. There was a glowing cover feature in the Herald weekend magazine. Hawk was lauded by Marc Riley and Lauren Laverne at 6Music, where he has become something of an in-house artist. Following the breakthrough of ‘Caterpillar’, ‘Calls To Tiree’ and ‘The Mauritian Badminton Doubles Champion, 1973’ were also playlisted by the station. Both have since become signature songs, calling cards for Hawk’s unique way of processing the world. Playwright David Greig compared him to Euripides and Christopher Marlowe. No pressure. As the singles and albums gathered momentum, accompanied by some startlingly inventive videos, something else was occurring. Hawk was building a devoted flesh and blood audience in the old fashioned way. A series of tours in 2021 and 2022, playing everywhere from The Great Escape to a triumphant Edinburgh homecoming at The Caves, established Hawk and his band as an utterly compelling live act: charged, charismatic, visceral. Which brings us to summer 2022.
We find Hawk some distance further down the track than where he was when he started making Heavy Elevator. It is only now that he can really see that its success changed everything, including his approach to the next record. “Angel Numbers is the only album I’ve ever recorded in the shadow of a vaguely successful record,” says Hawk. “I’ve sold records before, at my merch table. I’d go on tour with King Creosote and Idlewild, all the brilliant opportunities I’ve had, but it’s been modest in every sense. That was fine. Whereas this is three singles on 6Music, and these tours up and down every nook and cranny in the country that have gone so well. People sing the songs back to you, which is bizarre!” Then there are the connections being made daily via social media. “Just yesterday, someone sent me a T-shirt that her boyfriend had bought from one of the gigs so that I could write ‘Happy Birthday’, sign it and send it back to her.” This is the heady new context in which the new album was created. “Even though the songs were written before Heavy Elevator came out, Angel Numbers was recorded in the shadow of all this,” says Hawk. Far from making him self-conscious, the successes of the past two years have proved a very positive form of validation. The dozen songs on Angel Numbers were written by Hawk with Andrew Pearson (guitars), Stefan Maurice (keyboards and drums) and Alex Duthie (bass), who form the core of his band alongside John Cashman (keyboards). Most were written in lockdown during the Covid-pandemic. “It was this ridiculous purple patch Andy and I had,” he recalls. “We just kept writing. There was a two week period where we were writing a song a day – which is just ridiculous for me, because I draft and redraft. It’s really frightening to do that, but I ended up being less precious about it. I knew that I could go back to it, so I was less self-critical. We were just churning it out, and lockdown was perfect for that.” Like Heavy Elevator, Angel Numbers was produced by Idlewild’s Rod Jones at his Post Electric Studio in Leith, Edinburgh. It took a fortnight to record, split into two timeframes: one week of work between tours at the end of 2021, and another week in the spring of 2022. Keeping office hours, ten to six, it all seemed to come relatively smoothly this time. “I had a few personal things going on when we were recording Heavy Elevator which made it quite a stressful experience,” says Hawk. “I’m so glad that it came out and that there’s now cause for me to be jubilant about it, because at the time I wasn’t in a good place.
This one was almost strangely easy. We knew what we were doing, we knew what we were following up, we had the money and we had the songs. It was a more assured experience.’ Indeed. A record which spends 45 minutes wholly repudiating its opening line – ‘I haven’t the foggiest, faintest idea’ – Angel Numbers is thrillingly self-assured. It builds on what came before in order to transcend it. “I’ve been calling it a sister record to Heavy Elevator,” says Hawk. “Angel Numbers is a different record. I think that’s a good sign. You want development. I think there is a maturation that has happened.” You will have already heard the title track and lead single. Released in June 2022, ‘Angel Numbers’ is a big, bold thing; anthemic, even. It was immediately playlisted by 6Music. Four in a row. Questioning our ambivalent relationships with life’s traditional staging posts – the mortgage, the wedding dress – it makes for a suitably confident entrée to Angel Numbers, even if it took Hawk slightly unawares. “Every so often you’ll write a song which you think will be a little flourish on the record, and then it becomes this huge song in recording,” says Hawk. “‘Angel Numbers’ was that. That chorus is huge! I didn’t see it being like that.
It took on a life of its own. I get nervous about choruses like that, because the lyrics are so scrutinised in that moment.” He needn’t worry about the words. Hawk is already firmly established as a lyricist to savour. Aside from everything else that is great about Angel Numbers, I would challenge you to find a more quotable record this side of The Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs. The whirring, club-friendly New Romanticism of ‘Dog-eared August’ offers up just one of scores of killer lines: ‘Would you look at that? I’m on my knees already / How embarrassing for you.’ (“It’s funny, but it’s also true,” says Hawk.) Each track feels like its own world. There are allusions to Leonard Cohen, Karen Carpenter, David Hockney, Dylan Thomas and Britt Ekland – and that’s just on the first song, the gloriously panoramic ‘Once Upon An Acid Glance.’ On ‘Elvis Lookalike Shadows’, we are granted a visitation from Presley in his ’68 Comeback Special splendour – ‘the risen king, sitting in a boxing ring’. On ‘Bill’, the great Bill Callahan appears as a wise mentor in a dream sequence.
Elsewhere, we welcome in Napoleon, Ed Sullivan and Salvador and Gala Dali, as the camera shifts from a rooftop in Berlin to a book store in Lansing, from the gift shop at the Pompidou Centre to the haar-shrouded ‘slate-grey sprawl’ of a Scottish seaside town. There are allusions here and there to the kind of transformative magic found in ancient folk songs; on one track, ‘beasts become birds’, a neat metaphor for the way Hawk upends convention and expectation. All the while, another explanation for the album title gradually emerges: angels appear in several of these songs; they are, literally, angel ‘numbers’. The purpose of all this is not clever-cleverness, but to make both the singer and the listener feel intensely connected to the music. These are personal songs, knotty and self-referential, stitched together from a life being lived. Hawk is smart and literate but never detached. His songs breathe in the world and filter it back out again in a lovely half-recognisable jumble. “We’re all made up of our influences and inspirations and experiences,” he says. “I find that exciting. I hope that a song like ‘Acid Glance’ feels a bit like a quilt made of different squares. Yet it’s still quite obscure. I’ll never fail to be blown away by the many different ways people have related to what I’ve written.” The Hawk pantheon of stellar wordsmiths includes Leonard Cohen, Stephin Merritt, Nick Cave, Biggie Smalls, David Berman, Bob Dylan, Dory Previn and Bill Callahan. He is too modest to agree, but such company does not flatter him. There are a lot of words out there. Here is a rare writer who relishes the challenge of picking the right ones, every time. “I value originality very highly,” he says. “I have a distaste for things that seem generic. I generally don’t land on the lyric that is the simplest formation of it, but I’ll know why I’ve chosen it. Platitudes in songs make me cringe, which is why I’ve always been wary of writing love songs, because it’s hard to come up with one that rings true and rings immediately but that is original.
It is a bodily thrill to me to listen to a song and hear in it a thought I have never heard expressed in a song before.” He is a hard taskmaster. Hawk describes ‘Money’, a chiming pop gem which weighs up the rules of engagement with adulthood in singularly original fashion, as “some of the favourite lyrics I’ve ever written.” Yet almost in the same breath, on ‘Bill’ he critiques his own pride in those self-same words. The song is a beautiful meditation on the artist’s need to burn and rebuild, based on a recollection of the night he was visited in a dream by Bill Callahan. Hawk explains. (Well, someone has to.) “I was in a room in a paper house, a few floors up, and it was full of undulating sand. I was in the middle of the room sitting in front of the board game Go. Bill Callahan was standing in the corner on raised sand with a big stick, and he said, “When you hate the song, come and find me / When you’ve spent too long staring at ‘Money’.” And that refers to staring at the lyrics to my song ‘Money’. It ended up being this sort of mantra, where I would look back on this dream where I met Bill Callahan where he said, ‘Don’t keep staring at ‘Money’’. In other words: Don’t fixate on things you have done that you think are good. Just keep going.” And what of the music? Heavy Elevator offered a surging mix of sounds and styles. Angel Numbers roves even more widely. No fan of shutting himself into a genre box, Hawk and his collaborators – which this time includes guest vocalists Anna B Savage and Samantha Crain – made Angel Numbers with little fixed idea of what it should be, or how it should sound. ‘Once Upon An Acid Glance’ sets the tone, featuring at least a moment of every single instrument used on the record. “It’s saying, ‘This is the palette,’” says Hawk. “It’s everything all at once. I’ve always been passionate about the first song on any record being its own thing. It should be a law unto itself!” ‘Think Of Us Kissing is pulsing electro; ‘Bridget St. John’ a wistful travelogue. ‘Frontman’, which features Savage, broods beneath a thick harmonium swirl. ‘Rest & Veneers’, on which Hawk trades gently barbed lines with American singer-songwriter Samantha Crain, has a countryish lilt, the pedal steel evoking wide skies and rose-flushed sundowns. “It has that ever-so-slightly Laurel Canyon vibe,” says Hawk. ‘Bill’ is almost a lullaby. ‘Desperately’ has a crisp, punchy post-punk urgency entirely befitting its title and intent. The majestic final track, ‘Grey Seals’ is disquietingly atmospheric, vast and sad as the sea. ‘Circumstances so abject, and so foolish of me to expect any less,’ sings Hawk over a rolling tide, proving conclusively that his music offers food for both the heart and the head.
“I’ve never worried about what kind of music we’re making, and I think that shows in some of the instrumentation and the differences between the songs,” he says. “The unifying thing is my lyrics and that world. You’re on a ride. Sometimes there will be a bend, sometimes you will slow down to 20mph, other times it will speed up. It’s a journey, and I’m not worried about it not being cohesive. I don’t mind people making comparisons between certain aspects of the music and other people, but the closer you look, there is less of them than you might think there are.” He smiles. “If I end up sounding like me, I think that’s good.” He has, and it is. Angel Numbers will be released in February 2023. As well as the promise of twelve exemplary new songs, Hawk and his band will be touring far and wide to support the record.
Triumphant festival appearances at Latitude, Belladrum, Summer Sessions in Princes Street Gardens and Connect in 2022, alongside a short tour of Scottish libraries, were a mere taster for the run of gigs and festivals being planned for next year. “I’m excited,” he says, and so he should be. Hawk already looked like a singer-songwriter with a firm claim on posterity. With Angel Numbers, he has sealed the deal.