‘Milk for Flowers’ is H. Hawkline rising to the task of doing justice to an incredibly painful period of his life, with every note deeply felt without being entirely instructive of its meaning.
Since the presentation of its title track as lead single, Milk for Flowers, the new album from H. Hawkline, has come across as a very different project to his earlier material. All of the familiar favourite Hawkline elements are there: squalling riffs, bizarre guitar tones, and colourfully image-laden lyrics. Yet there has also been a sense of seriousness to the project that has never been so important on his previous six releases.
Cate le Bon – producer of all of Hawkline’s work since In the Pink of Condition (2015) and collaborator and friend for far longer than that – introduced the record in terms of the sadness that underpins it, which jarred the ostensible levity of ‘Milk for Flowers’ when it first came out in November. She says, “I watched my dear friend fold into himself and extract from a terrible time an album so exquisitely raw, yet deftly graceful”. Repeated listens in light of what has been said about the album begin to explain how this experience is written into it, even at its most playful-sounding moments.
Beamed to me on a late afternoon Zoom, Hawkline gave a generous articulation on the themes and approaches that went into the album, after a quick update on his Fantasy Football team. (He is an avid player of the game and is tuned into the Twitter discourse surrounding it. When I met him briefly at End of the Road last year ahead of his appearance in Aldous Harding’s band, he was second in the Cardiff indie musicians mini-league. At the time of this discussion, he had slipped to third, leapfrogged by a well-timed Marcus Rashford Triple Captain).
“Everyone has their own copy of the record you make”.
Though there has been some limited disclosure of the album’s subject matter, which centres on the experience of grief and our helplessness in the face of it, Hawkline has generally avoided explaining the specifics of the situation from which it came. Explaining that “it’s the first time I’ve written about something so personal”, he expresses the importance of protecting his privacy but also of protecting a song from being explained away. “Everyone has their own copy of the record you make, a completely different record to the one [you] wrote”. The process of reshaping personal experience into something universal defines what is described as the ‘craft’ of songwriting, and in this case it felt particularly necessary.
The H. Hawkline style has always been rich in surreal imagery and dazzling vocabulary that confuses meaning, which was something he did not want to lose on this production. Unlike earlier records, however, this album shifts more noticeably between barrages of imagery and moments of exposed emotion. Title track ‘Milk for Flowers’ is a whirlwind of vivid symbols – ‘a nun picking roses’, warm milk at night – but at two-thirds of the way through all of this falls away with the music for seven bars as Hawkline cuts through with a heart-rending, “And I miss you so much”. The album as a whole maintains this balance between creating space for these tender moments and avoiding the prescription of specific emotional responses.
The trust in this method of combining the abstruse with the direct is something he credits to partner Aldous Harding, whose writing and delivery can supernaturally weave pure expression into complex visual metaphors. “People say [impression of lazily baffled listener] ‘Oh, lyrically what is she singing about?’, but even if she’s not directly saying something, there’s a feeling in her words”, which can communicate the meaning of a song.
In responding to such specific events, Hawkline found that, for the first time, “just writing the thing that happened was enough”. While certain ideas were better expressed by poetic means, he felt that “what I was describing wasn’t poetry”. As such, “there was no hiding on this record… I had to embrace the lyrics that I was writing”. Where some previous material leaned more readily into Surrealist automatic processes and made use of scratch lyrics (see, for example, the chorus of 2015 song ‘Everybody’s on the Line’, a scratch phrase that survived upon the insistence of Cate le Bon), on this album Hawkline “didn’t really ever feel like I was reaching for any lyrics”. It seems more appropriate to consider each piece as having been guided into its form. His slow and thoughtful manner of speech in explaining this suggests the patience and emotional vulnerability this process required, and still requires at the point of touring the record and delivering these songs live.
Hawkline recalls ‘Like You Do’ as one song in particular where the appropriate personal meaning was found through the simplification of more literary lines to something that could almost come across as bland. “The lyrics of that were quite different when I first wrote it. When it came down to recording, I felt that with the song being as sad as it was, it needed less, it needed more balance. So the first verse became quite trite: ‘I’ll see you when I sleep, we’ll make it right, and if it’s easy, we’ll dream it twice’. They’re quite nothing lyrics, it could be from a Buddy Holly song. I wanted that sort of plainness”.
He recounts a similar experience with ‘Empty Room’, where the language of loss as described to children colours a repeated line: “Don’t go on holiday”. Hawkline invokes the terms in which a parent might soften the death of a pet. “You know, if your pet dies and you ask your parents, ‘What happened to Spot the Dog?’ and they might say ‘Oh he’s gone on holiday.’” He points out that this line too is, “quite a nothing lyric in another context… almost a bad lyric”. Returning us to the idea that we each come to possess a unique version of an album, he reflects, “That was one lyrical point that unlocked the writing of the whole album because what I was saying meant so much to me, but I knew that it could have quite a light feel to somebody else listening to it.”
“We’re all really horrible to each other in a lovely way”.
In developing a sound for this record, Hawkline’s only intention was to match the clean realness of his writing. “It wouldn’t have made any sense” to contrive some innovative sound for the songs he had written. “I wanted it to be something that people could listen to and not think about the music, for people to be feeling everything while they were listening”. He tells me, “If at any point you go ‘oh what’s that guitar sound’ then I’ve failed.” It is impossible not to refute this comment and point out the brilliant liquid electricity of the slide guitar sound that comes in on the chorus of ‘Athens at Night’, a standout moment of the whole album on first listen. “Maybe I’m kidding myself”, he jokes, but insists he genuinely does not recall spending much time on it. Considering the matter further, Hawkline reflects that it perhaps speaks of the depth of his collaborative relationship with Cate le Bon that such a bizarre sound felt like a go-to tool for that section of the song.
Milk for Flowers is the latest in a long lineage of albums produced by the Cardiff indie scene that feature contributions from a Venn diagram of the city’s leading alternative music talents. At the core of this collaborative community are Hawkline, le Bon and Sweet Baboo, who have appeared on each others’ records in turn for over fifteen years now. The three of them have built up a strong understanding of each other’s playing, and a trust in what each will bring to a song. Though their lives have taken them on quite different musical and personal journeys, they retain a common trust in what each can bring to a recording, and in their opinions on the music. As Hawkline puts it, “we all speak the same musical language, but everybody talks in a different accent”.
The key strength of this relationship is the nigh on unconditional friendship upon which it is built, which means “we can all be quite horrible to each other” when playing together. “Our language [can be] really brutal… but it means things get done quicker”, Hawkline explains. Sweetly, he adds that they are also known to “make fun of each other’s songs”. He finds a beauty in fact that they are “The only people who could do it” to their music. “We’re all really horrible to each other in a lovely way”.
One point early in the recording process demonstrates the benefits of this brutality and the room for self-exposure their relationship has established. Hawkline reveals that opener ‘Milk for Flowers’ was originally a waltz in 3/4 delivered far more tenderly. While the band were rehearsing it in their Cardiff practice room, le Bon said something along the lines of “What if you did it in 4/4?… and let’s give it this stompy, almost Northern Soul feel.”
“I was quite angered with her for suggesting that because the song meant so much to me and I was really happy with the way it was. When she asked me to sing it, I remember having that feeling where somebody asks you to do something in front of a lot of people and you can’t quite believe it and you almost tear up as you do it. Inside I was like, ‘It’s this really sad song, it’s lynchpin of the album, why are we all smashing it out in this way?’ And then the more we played it, the more it started to make sense”.
The final arrangement flies with an almost triumphant insistence, drawing out the visual and emotional confusion of the lyrics. “I think if you have something that is sad lyrically and you play it as a sad song it diminishes the sadness of the lyrics because you’re telling people what to feel. So suddenly to have it be this confident-sounding song, to sing those lyrics over it was this really bizarre and wonderful thing”. He explains, “That was a moment where, firstly I was like, ‘This is why Cate is the right person to produce it’ but also, ‘Where else can we do this?’”. The record as a whole does not stew in the sadness from which it was borne. Instead, it continually revises these responses in a manner descriptive of the strange spectrum of human emotion brought out by an intense experience.
‘It’s a Living’ was similarly reimagined on le Bon’s recommendation in a manner that drew out the deeper meaning of the song. In something of a reverse of the process described for ‘Milk for Flowers’, she removed the breeziness of the original, giving it a colder sound to facilitate its emotional resonance.
“One of the funny things about grief is that you have a completely different set of parameters about what happiness is and what horror is. When you experience something really powerful, an extreme of emotion, that becomes your new parameter. And I think when you grieve, you can find yourself telling something to somebody that feels normal but they’re listening like ‘this is quite a horrible thing’.”
‘It’s a Living’ was written with “Jeff Lynne-type production” in mind, an epic sound suited to what Hawkline describes as its “‘My Sweet Lord” A to F#m” chord progression. “Cate just completely dismantled it, like ‘take this off, get rid of that’ and it took on that real jm jm jm jm rhythm. I think [when rehearsals started] I had stopped hearing what I’d written, but Cate was going ‘I really don’t think it’s suitable to do a Jeff Lynne-type production on that song’. I remember we recorded it her way and I was like ‘I’m really not sure about this, it’s nasty and abrasive and there’s no bass on it and there’s that horrible little distorted acoustic guitar. Cate said, ‘Just go in and sing it and have a listen and if it doesn’t work, we’ll do another version’. And as I was singing it felt like I was hearing the song for the first time. I was like, ‘Oh this song is a lot sadder than I thought it was’. It was a really nice moment, but also a really sad one”.
The Wax Laminate Finish.
Listening back in light of Hawkline’s comments on the process of bringing this album into being, you feel a frightening sense of the gravity and sure-handed effort that went into its creation. This was a process of ‘extraction’, as le Bon says, executed with commitment to communicating the truth of what it described. To discuss it is evidently a strange process for Hawkline, the conductor between the events that informed it and the finished production. With difficulty, he explains how odd it feels to now be promoting and touring the album. “I struggle with the fact that I’ve made a piece of art about something that has happened that was so painful and now… It never occurred to me that this would become an album that I would design the cover for and package and talk about what colour variance we would release it on and, ‘Did we want a wax laminate finish? Did we want a tip-on sleeve?’ It’s unavoidable that it will become a commodity, but to discuss it as such can be a difficult thing to square with yourself. And even I would sometimes find myself getting excited by questions like ‘do I want a tip-on sleeve?’. But then afterwards there would be this feeling almost of shame.”
Everyone has their own copy of the record you make. Each lyric change, each additional layer of instrumentation, each stage of the album’s packaging revises the interpretation of its subject matter (a process mimicked in the three identical music videos produced for the album’s singles) and takes its content further from its source. This is the bittersweet beauty of popular art that makes it so accessible and invites such fascination and obsession. Once you have your copy of the record, you can experience it however you want. You can remove it from its tip-on sleeve to play it whenever; you can put its closing track at the start of a playlist; you can even teach yourself the chords to ‘Milk for Flowers’ and re-arrange it to its original 3/4 rhythm.
“Stay inside, we’ll see what’s on tonight”, Hawkline reasons on ‘Empty Room’. In this portrayal of bereavement, the mundanity of television programming comes to his service as a distraction, a cultural product to which we are entitled to tune into whenever we wish. The album is now available for anyone to respond to it as they may, but it is an incidental offering, which came unstoppably into being under the guidance of a great songwriter. Every moment is dense with deeply felt meaning, but now that expression will forever shift in the eye of the beholder. Like the experience of grief itself, its resonance is complicated, ever-changing and irresolvable.