There is an overarching sense of authenticity in the work of Bill Ryder-Jones. He doesn’t embody the typical traits of the posturing rock star – it’s not an archetype he’s arsed about. There is more poetry than posing. 2013’s ‘A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart’ and his latest album, ‘West Kirby County Primary’, capture instead the honest realities of the everyman artist.
Lyrically, the albums cover everything from morning-after epiphanies and dealing with depression through to exploring relationships and meditations on bereavement. I catch up with Jones in Glasgow during his current tour and find him in fine spirits. Having co-founded The Coral as lead guitarist aged just 13, Jones is no stranger to touring. But now that he’s older (32), wiser, and running the show, he is clearly more at ease and excited about playing his new album.
“I much prefer it now than when I was in the band,” he says. “Everything is on my call. And the lads I’m with are my best friends… yeah, I'm really excited this time. The last record, when it was put out, I wasn't really playing live at all so I didn't get the chance to give it a fair go. This record lends itself a lot more to playing, the band are a lot tighter and I'm better at all those weird things, like containing those weird thoughts when you’re centre stage. And I'm really buoyed by how well people have taken the record and it’s selling better than the last time. So I’m happy to see a progression, you know.”
The continued commercial and critical success of his third album must be that much sweeter for Jones, knowing that it nearly didn’t happen. The album was almost an entirely different set of songs, which he scrapped at the eleventh hour. Jones explains he’d lost his direction and was writing for the wrong reasons.
“You've got to understand it’s incredibly easy for anyone to steer the ship in the wrong way. You can take your eye off the point... and with this machine (Domino Records) that is backing me, and my own pride and ego, it's easy to go down the wrong route. So yeah, I spent the best part of a year, really (writing songs that he scrapped)... I mean there's some really good songs that are included on this album from those sessions, but there was a lot of sub-par stuff, and everyone knew it but nobody was telling me. And I knew it, but I didn't want to believe it because it was the first time I’d said to Laurence (Bell, Founder of Domino Records) that I want to go for it… I want to prove to the label that I can make money for them and be one of Domino’s big boys, and that was my obsession and I was writing for that.”
Jones’s discontent grew to the point where he had to intervene before the mixing stage. “It just wasn't good enough,” he explains, “so I went back to the label and said so. And at the same time I was drinking a hell of a lot and staying out and I wasn't doing it for the reasons that I used to do it. Writing music, for me, it’s pretty much the only way I can feel good about myself. When I can parcel something up nicely and it feels good, that's my sense of self. And I lost it. I wasn't making things for that. I wasn’t making things that made me feel good, and that's the key. When I realised that I went back to them and said it’s not good enough. And credit to them, they let me (start again).”
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This is the real joy of doing my job...
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Domino had already spent around £10,000 on the album that was dropped, but the label has never taken a cutthroat commercial approach, but rather is renowned for bestowing faith and belief in the integrity of their artists, giving support whenever possible. The trust paid off and Jones explains that after emerging slightly ragged from this period he was able to find his feet and mine a new seam of material.
“This is the real joy of doing my job. I got my head together, I stopped drinking, I stayed in… and I wrote ‘Tell Me You Don't Love Me Watching’, ‘Two To Birkenhead’, ‘Let's Get Away From Here’ and ‘Put It Down Before You Break It’ in like… two weeks, and recorded them as I was going. And it was just beautiful and I was so full of fucking energy, and I was like, God this is why I do it! I am myself. And I'm actually talking about things that I don't like about myself. Most of the songs are about bad things that I've done when I was making the album that never came out… Because I was acting like a dickhead and staying out all the time… but it was good song fodder, you know.”
Inspiration can obviously be a capricious tease, but her return has set Jones back on the right path. “I hit my stride and there is no better high… that's why we do it. That's why we resort to silly things when we can't do it. It isn't like a drug – you can't just go and buy it – you have to wait. And if you've ever been hooked and you try to get hold of something and you can't, then you get the next best thing. And that's what ale and drugs are for musicians, you know.”
It’s heartening to sense Jones’s vindication borne of trusting in himself, and also to glean something of a valedictory glance back at some of his tough times. Jones has endured more than his fair share of life’s trials and the black dog of depression has been an all too frequent companion of his. But what endows Jones’s work with such intimacy is that he isn’t shy of exploring and sharing some of his innermost ruminations.
The deeply moving song ‘Daniel’ is a case in point. Jones explains, “Daniel is my big brother who passed away when I was a little boy. I've written tunes about him for a while. This one skirted around the fact and I didn’t want to get into it but it kind of just happened, it just seemed to roll, so yeah, the story of Daniel is more about… it's like a composition tool. It's more about when someone dies, focussing on the effect on the people left over. The real tragedies are the people whose lives... not the real tragedies, but the equal tragedies, are on the people left behind and how they have to live.”
Responding to the question of whether he composes his songs for cathartic reasons he thinks for a moment and concludes, “It's true, I actually do, but it's never the subject matter of an individual song that is the therapy, it’s the process. It's being involved that’s the catharsis. With ‘Daniel’, like it doesn't help me understand that thing any better, but just sitting down every night and trying to put things in place does. I really believe in energy and vibration and just sitting with a guitar and the way those harmonics go through your body, I think that’s half the reason we enjoy music. What fascinates me is that the sound of music is the by-product of the energy that’s being emitted from any machine instrument. So I'm interested in how much we enjoy the things we hear, but actually how much what we feel – as energy coming at you – and how important that is to music.”
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'West Kirby County Primary' is out now.
Words: Nick Rice
Catch Bill-Ryder Jones live:
17 York Crescent
19 Hebden Bridge Trades Club
20 Scunthorpe Cafe Indie
25 Preston The Ferret
27 Hull Adelphi
1 Leeds Belgrave Music Hall
2 Brighton The Green Door Store
3 London Scala
4 Manchester Deaf Institute
5 Birmingham Sunflower Lounge
8 Glasgow Stereo
10 Liverpool Arts Club
11 Cardiff Moon Club