Hoping third time is a charm for a GIT Award win, Getintothis’ Mike Townsend talks to the former Coral man about life as a solo artist.
Liverpool musicians have had a complex and undulating relationship with this city. Historically heralded as the music capital of the world, the impossibly high standards set before most were born can still linger over like a cloud of smoke, suffocating the sense of place out of the very bones and soul of their songwriting and their sense of place in the world. Can you be proud of the place you are from without being beholden to it? Liverpool has had to wrestle with that question more so than any other city in the UK.
You can’t really trace the development of Liverpool’s music scene. It is difficult to look at it like some sort of slow, gradual progression, built upon complex layers of slow moving currents like say Chicago House or Post-punk in Manchester. Instead, Liverpool’s musical heritage is often looked upon as a series of fist-shaped landmark moments, indisputable in their validity and unshakable in their influence, written into history like a knife carved on stone. Merseybeat in the late 50s, The Beatles in the 60s, Echo and the Bunnymen in the 80s, Cream in the 90s, and so on.
Fitting nicely alongside these are The Coral. Formed in 1996, guitarist Bill Ryder-Jones, alongside Nick Power, Lee Southall and Ian and James Skelly emerged from a pub on the Wirral and into the forefront of the UK’s then revered guitar scene. Looked upon by some as the spearhead of a revival in British guitar music, their eponymous debut album reached number five in the official UK charts. World tours and prime time TV performances followed, as The Coral became one of the biggest acts to emerge from Liverpool in decades.
In 2007 though, after months of back to back shows and relentless media attention, Bill Ryder-Jones quit the band mid-tour, prompting a semi-permanent hiatus of the band and the beginning of a new chapter in the career and life of Ryder-Jones as a solo artist.
Three years of self-imposed exile followed: “Yeah, I certainly didn’t want to get back into music”, Bill explains, “but I had dropped out of university, and I really had no money, and it was one of those weird times where you just think – what the fuck am I doing?”.
Bill Ryder-Jones as the solo artist first manifested itself in 2009, not as a freewheelin’ troubadour with a guitar hanging over his back like many will have expected, but in the discrete form of an instrumental film composer, writing and recording the soundtrack to Laurence Easeman’s short piece A Leave Taking. “Ultimately I think it was a conscious decision to do something a bit more low key. I knew I wouldn’t have to play any of it live, I wouldn’t have to explain my thoughts, I could just write”.
The score eventually saw a release on Domino imprint Double Six as a free download in 2011, marking the start of his relationship with Domino Records that has just seen its fourth release in six years. “When Domino first called, I was initially a little bit cagey about getting involved”, Bill elaborates, “but my girlfriend at the time persuaded me to go meet them. And yeah, when I got there they made it clear that there was no pressure, they didn’t even offer me a record deal at first, it was just a publishing deal which gave me a bit more time. And yeah, they really helped me get my confidence back”. Whilst this pairing might seem like the most natural fit in the world (Domino boasts Pavement on their roster, an obvious influence for Bill), it wouldn’t always have seemed as likely.
“After I left The Coral I decided to just stop playing music completely. I just didn’t want to be around music anymore. I had a lot of problems at the time and I got really obsessed with this idea that it was music which was making me ill. So I just pulled the plug on all of it and I went to university, mainly because it was something I always felt I should have done. But the stress of it, and God knows how anyone does it, just got too much and the workload got on top of me, so I had to pull that as well. And then my money started running out, which is when I got a call from Domino saying that they liked some of the songs on my MySpace”.
Following A Leave Taking, Bill dived further into the conceptual, writing and recording a body of work to accompany Italo Calvino’s postmodern 1979 novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, simply titled If… The book’s central narrative, which focussed on a reader trying to read a novel by the same name seemed appropriate, with the soundtrack fittingly reflecting Bill’s attempt to find a place for himself within music again. Were these more conceptual, more inconspicuous musical projects an attempt to ease himself back into music? “I think that’s fair to say”, Bill explains. “But even releasing the film sound track was still incredibly intimidating. I mean, whenever you write something, autobiographical or not, you are always opening yourself up to critique and being exposed”.
This notion of being exposed – not only being exposed to public perception, but to your own expectations, can be crippling for some artists. It can wrap itself around you and squeeze all creativity from your very soul. The lack of expectation and attention surrounding this return to music must have felt liberating for Bill, having dealt with the demands of an entire nation of fans and music press for so many years. Were these the only circumstances he would have considered returning to music? Rising faintly from the shadows behind a limitedly released independent short film? The contrast from being lead guitarist in a revered rock and roll band to a film composer, to a footnote at the end of the credits, will have been jarring for Bill. But perhaps these were the only circumstances where he could have even returned to life as a recording artist. Attempting to outgrow your past can come in many different forms, and sometimes subverting it entirely is the best way of becoming something new.
His latest solo record, the excellent, widely revered West Kirby County Primary, came out on November 6 last year – again on Domino Records. It was a strange feeling when the record was released. This artist, whose presence in the Liverpool music scene had felt almost omnipotent for over a decade, only now coming into wider public consciousness. It felt like the long awaited return of a dear old friend, stepping quietly through the front door as if he had never been away. Intentionally or not, it felt like a natural progression from any of his previous releases – both deeply expressive but still only tentatively revealing of the man behind them. And if A Leave Taking was the soundtrack for a short film and If… a book, maybe West Kirby County Primary is the soundtrack for a place. “I am proud of where I’m from, yeah, and I do love it. But it was just more of a nod to this strange little world that me and my friends lived in. I think when it comes to the place and to the Wirral, it just naturally tends to form the backdrop of all my stories”.
Stories absolutely form the structural heart of this album: “When we lost our little boy we tried so hard to stay together”, he sings on Daniel, “Take me somewhere I’m not likely to forget, two singles to Birkenhead” on Two To Birkenhead. These are all rich in narrative, capable of provoking these intense feelings of mystery and attachment in just a few words. This album sees his already established ability as an arranger and as a musician meet his ability to use words as if they are an instrument in themselves, creating a record that pitches him as one of this country’s best songwriters. “I think I tend to write about things that have happened. There is always a point to the song. I mean for me, imagery is such a small interest when it comes to songwriting, and lot of the time I even threw away quite well rounded lyrics. My main concern has always been melody. Melody is so hard to grab sometimes, that if I write one that works and it doesn’t fall perfectly with the melody I will ditch it”.
Three albums in, Bill Ryder-Jones can be regarded as a firmly established solo artist. And after all the turmoil of The Coral, he is in the rare position of getting to do all of this twice. So how does it feel, now that his career as a musician finally appears to have settled in a place that he’s comfortable with? “Relief doesn’t even do justice to the positive effect this has all had. You know, this one phone call from Domino has really given me everything back. It’s changed my life. The state I was in when they phoned me. I had really given up on any sort of positivity and hope”.
After trying almost every alternative to conducting a life without music, after spending years trying to plug the gap and, music stopped being a cross to bear and turned out to be something he couldn’t live without. Every artist, whether you are a sculptor or a painter, or simply a singer playing songs on a guitar, has a tumultuous and undulating relationship with their craft. It doesn’t exist in a fixed state and it can’t necessarily be quantified. It develops and changes with time and with circumstances in the same way our relationships with people can, capable of making you feel these moments of absolute ecstasy and crippling unhappiness for reasons that seem almost interchangeable.
Bill Ryder-Jones has traversed this spectrum, experiencing both the well documented highs of being in one of the biggest bands in the country, to the lows and isolation of writer’s block and a crisis of confidence and identity. Now though, you get the feeling that he has at last managed to control the parameters at which music impacts his life. It might still exist on a spectrum, but he can at least see the edges. Gone are the extremes of playing to a huge arena in Europe, or live on Jools Holland. Instead, we see a modest, slightly subdued artist, slowly developing and honing in on his craft. The praise and adulation have predictably arrived, but they are on his own terms. “I am very proud of the records I have released so far. I feel like I now know what sort of music I want to make, how I want to deliver these songs and what style of music I consider my own”.
Bill recently signed a new record deal with Domino, which will see him release two more solo albums in the near future. There’s a European tour before that, as he continues to explore the ways in which he can use music to create peace and hope in his life: “Certainly happiness and peace is something I am always looking for. I think most of the things I write about I already know very well. And it does of course feel good making something that feels ugly sound pretty. But yeah, if I’m being honest I spend a lot of my time being slightly disillusioned with the world we live in, and maybe obsessing over the things in my life that aren’t the way I want them to be. And I’ve looked for the answers in relationships, in drinking and in drugs. But music was the only thing I’ve ever known, so I had to give it another go. And that’s how you win the game, isn’t it, by finding a place in the world where you can feel content. That’s what we’re all after”.
The GIT Award 2016 take place at Constellations on May 14. Tickets are available here.