Hawes was born December 5, 1958, in the North Sea port city of Grimsby. He attended St. Chad's College at the University of Durham, majoring in organ, and then began a boarding-school teaching career at Pangbourne College, later moving to the Charterhouse School as composer-in-residence. The success of his 1990 cantata The Wedding at Cana, performed at Pangbourne, confirmed his desire to be a composer, and in the early 2000s he left teaching to devote full time to composition.
After that, breakthroughs came quickly. Hawes was signed to write the score for the film The Incredible Mrs. Ritchie in 2002. The Pavane from that score appeared on Hawes' debut album, Blue in Blue, which appeared in 2003 on the Black Box
label and was named CD of the Week on the large Classic FM radio network. The CD was nominated for a Classical Brit Award and was quickly voted by listeners into the network's hall of fame. One track, Quanta qualia, has remained one of Hawes' most popular; a version of it was recorded by New Zealand soprano Hayley Westenra
on her 2005 album, Odyssey.
These triumphs led to a Classic FM composer-in-residence slot for Hawes in 2006 and 2007, and to another hit album, Towards the Light. Hawes has not only released his own albums, but has toured in support of them, with himself at the keyboard. His increasing success led to high-profile collaborators such as the English Chamber Orchestra
and soprano Elin Manahan Thomas
on his next album, Fair Albion: Visions of England. Hawes drew the prestige assignment of a commission from Prince Charles, responding with The Highgrove Suite for harp and strings (2009), each movement of which depicted a part of the prince's gardens at his Highgrove House residence.
In the 2010s Hawes has written several larger works and has continued to release his own albums. He has attracted fans in North America, writing the Te Deum for the Lancaster Festival in Ohio in 2011 and an album of intimately reflective, counter-to-type settings of texts from the Book of Revelations for Canada's Elora Singers in 2017. The choral work Eventide: In Memorian Edith Cavell (2014) recognized the career of a famous World War I nurse. Hawes followed that with a clarinet concerto for Emma Johnson
in 2015, and he planned another major work connected to the centenary of World War I, The Great War Symphony, for a 2018 premiere.
Hawes has often collaborated with his brother Andrew Hawes, a poet. Unlike John Rutter
, to whom he has been compared, his settings of Christian texts have been motivated by personal religious faith. Hawes lives near the seacoast in England's Norfolk region.