Bill Ryder-Jones: ‘In my school, we didn’t sing hymns, it was always Beatles songs’
Despite having been in the music business over 20 years, there’s something endearingly understated about Bill Ryder-Jones.
Having started out in The Coral, aged just 13, he’s certainly a seasoned music industry veteran, with his most recent solo studio release ‘Yawn’ being met with systemically grandeur reviews.
The overwhelming success of ‘Yawn’ has seen him reimagine these tracks in a completely new and ingenious way, with simply vocals and piano. ‘Yawny Yawn’, released last month, is every inch as precise as Bill himself. To converse with, he’s exceedingly humble and softly spoken, with a wicked sense of humour; there’s a sort of ethereal and unadorned vulnerability to him, something which so few artists these days can boast.
What are your earliest memories of music?
Two stories here, the first being my brother learning the violin; he was learning Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’, which was on a very popular advert at the time for Warburton’s bread. My most significant memory is from when I was a little boy in primary school, and there was a girl who I was in love with called Claire. When we used to line up for assembly, we used to look at each other and smile but we never spoke until one day when we went on a school trip and we were put in the same group. We spent our entire lunch break chasing each other around this park, then sat together on the bus on the way home. It was so perfect. The next day in assembly, we were singing ‘Yesterday’... in my school, we didn’t sing hymns or anything like that, it was always Beatles songs! ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, ‘Octopus’s Garden’, ‘Yellow Submarine and ‘Yesterday’. She wasn’t looking back down the line at me and I remember trying to get her attention. All of a sudden I realised I’m singing these words and for once they really mean something. That’s when music kind of hit me as a thing that people actually write... not as something that just exists.
Let’s talk about ‘Yawn’... it’s such a poignant album, and obviously so deeply personal for you. Was following it up with ‘Yawny Yawn’ always the plan or did that initial response to it inspire you to re-record it in a more stripped back habitude?
I did decide to do it before the album came out. I don’t really have a great answer as to how ‘Yawny Yawn’ came about, to be honest. I’ve been wanting to do some more piano gigs where I can really talk to the audience and draw it out a little bit. One day I was playing some of the songs to myself and realised how well they worked, so I recorded a couple. My management are always going on about extra content so I started off just thinking that if I did these two piano versions, they could use that. Everyone told me how good they sounded, so I just decided to do the whole record. Even though it really is the least cool thing you could ever do... no sex, no mad sounds, no guitars, just the pianos and the vocals. I was worried that I’d wandered into this territory where I was just making songs to help my live set and making them big, so it was nice to hear those songs like that and I do think ‘Yawny Yawn’ is a better record. It’s exactly the same songs, but it just makes more sense.
Were there any particular themes, topics or emotions that you particularly wanted to explore creatively in the albums’ writing process?
If anything, I think it’s completely the opposite; I wanted to avoid certain things. I wanted to avoid writing songs like ‘Daniel’, and I wanted to avoid writing words and melodies that were very direct. The only thing I wanted for the record was for it to have a mood, which it has, and to have songs that, other than ‘John’, no one really knows what they’re about. Obviously I know what they’re about, but I didn’t want to ram anything down anybody’s throat. There are a couple of tunes on there that deal with things that I’ve never really talked about. ‘There Are Worse Things I Could Do’ is the first time I’ve really bothered talking about my sexuality. ‘Happy Song’ is about the expectation from people in my life who don’t understand how loved I am, who think I want to be more successful than I am and so think they can give me advice in pubs. They’ll say ‘You should do more songs like The Coral, you should do more upbeat songs and it’ll really take you there,’ without actually asking me where I want to be.
Over the years you have written about a lot of deeply personal milestones in your life, from relationships to the loss of your brother; how does it feel sharing so much of yourself with your audiences like that?
I genuinely don’t think about anyone other than myself when I’m writing. The only tricky thing is that sometimes, when you’re saying so much about yourself, the person listening is half way into a conversation with you. Quite often I get people who feel like they know me because they’ve heard my troubles, then want to tell me theirs. I’m not a therapist. I’m quite sensitive, and that can be challenging. People who are like me, who have issues and struggles but really work hard to get where they want to be... that’s predominantly my fanbase. They’re the people I feel s*** about when I f*** up, have a bad gig or drink too much. Sometimes I slip, as all humans do. The only consideration I really have for other people is thinking that all I have to do is be a positive influence on the lives of people like me who struggle, which I hope that I am.
The forthcoming ‘Yawny Yawn’ piano tour will see you playing a number of intimate venues across the country. Does performing like that, without the backing of your band, make you feel more vulnerable?
I’m not as good on the piano as I am on the guitar so it’s a little bit more nervewracking. I get the shakes a little bit and forget certain things sometimes. I play with my eyes closed quite a bit when I’m playing the guitar and it’s fine but with the piano, the bad notes are right next to the good ones! At one point, I found myself in a position where I couldn’t get up on stage without either having way too much to drink or taking diazepam to calm me down, and I want that to change. I’ve ended up in that territory where people think ‘Bill’s a bit of a wreck when he’s on stage,’ and I’m better than that. I figured if I put myself in this position where it’s really daunting and I don’t take anything but just have an emergency one in my pocket, then that’s reason enough. When I was 21 and all of this s*** kicked off, if I’d have known about valium and known that no matter where I was, if I had a panic attack or freaked out, within 20 minutes it would have stopped then I would have done all of the things that I didn’t do. I wouldn’t have lost my 20s to panic. But there is a flip side; I have a personality that quite often likes to stop the thoughts. At times, the valium has been really useful but at the same time it’s really bad and if I drink on it, I can’t remember a thing. I’m worried that it’s messing with my brain. But I’m alright! I’m 36... I’m nearly a f***ing grandad!
You’ve been doing this a long time now; is there anything that you’d like to see change about the music industry?
It’s going in the right direction. I think problems within the music industry are the same as problems in all aspects of life, one being single use plastic water bottles at gigs; we don’t have them on our rider any more. Though I can only speak for myself, all of the issues that I had personally have been addressed. When I had my problems, there was no real talk of mental health and there was no help. There were very few women in top jobs outside of PR. By chance, my whole team is female... my manager Ellie, my agent Adele, my product manager Chloe, Gillian who does my radio plugging, Aoife, who does my press, and Colleen... all these wonderful women who are there because they worked their a****s off. It wasn’t by design, but I’m glad! I know I sound like a k*** but I am aware that women have to work twice as hard to be a success. I’m sure the world doesn’t need me telling them that, but there you go!
Speaking of mental health, there does seem to have been a great deal of focus in the media on mental health within the music industry of late. Would you say that over the years, for you, music has been a useful way of navigating your own psyche and giving it a destination?
Absolutely. There are two sides to every coin; certainly when I was younger, and now, but more so back then, being able to creatively express who I was through music changed my life. But then if you have the kind of personality that is obsessive like I do, sometimes you end up validating yourself by how well you’re writing which can be a problem. If I’m not writing well, I feel like a fraud, then if I am writing well then I feel like the best f***ing writer in the world.
So you’d definitely say that there is a relationship between your mental state and your creativity?
They are one and the same. I don’t trust people who want to be with me if they don’t think I’m really talented! I know I’m quite funny and I know I’m quite good at football, but apart from music, there’s nothing else that I really have. So when you consider yourself from that perspective, it impinges on your mental state quite vehemently. I’m in therapy at the minute trying to work out who I am. The persona that I have to adopt when I’m on stage is quite brash, which is not how I really am at all. When I’m with Larissa, the girl I’ve just started seeing, I’m just normal and quite quiet. I learned on stage be a bit of a gobs***e and abuse people, and it’s ended up slipping into my daily life a bit. I’d make these s*** jokes then play these honest songs, and it gave me a bit more confidence on stage. I am trying to address all of that... I’m trying to get rid of that guy, because I think I sometimes go too far with it. I’m just not built to be on stage in front of people. I know it’s a good thing to be doing, and I do enjoy it most of the time once the first couple of songs are over with.
In terms of the government hierarchy in this country, do you think enough is being done to aid those most in need? What would be your message to the powers that be?
The government are not doing anything correctly. The whole world is wrong, it’s not just our government. We’ve f***ed the whole thing. We need an asteroid to come and wipe us out so that the next species can come and take over! We live on the most amazing planet and we’re so fortunate, but we’re cancerous. We’re killing it and the government are not doing nearly enough. They do the absolute bare minimum. Don’t even get me started on politics! There are a few politicians who I do think are genuine and who I enjoy listening to, but the f***ers who are in charge of this country are self-serving and deluded. I feel really let down by Jeremy Corbyn in particular, because he was someone who initially made me feel a bit better. The way he’s bottled it around Brexit and seems to be just sitting around waiting for the Tories to implode so that he can sneak in the back door is disgraceful. I sort of get why he does it, because he’s an early socialist and thinks if he keeps quiet, he’ll be able to get in power and make some good changes but he knows full well that if there was another referendum now, it’d go the opposite way. How many old racists have died, and how many young liberals are now old enough to vote? If you put a piece of bread in the toaster and realise when it pops out that there’s mould on one side of it, you don’t just think ‘Oh well, it’s toasted now,’ and eat it, you chuck it in the bin. Everyone has seen the complete carnage of Brexit, and the world has changed since then.
Social media is very much a bittersweet platform in the modern society, but as a musician, I imagine it’s invaluable in terms of promoting your work. How much of an impact would you say it has to you personally, both as an artist and a human being?
Always take time away from social media. I don’t run Twitter or Facebook any more because I can’t tolerate that world. I use Instagram in much the same way as everyone else probably does... I try and keep it off my phone, and then if I’m told to post something I’ll download it, but also if I feel a bit s***, I know I can find a decent photo of me in decent lighting, ship it out and get a bit of an ego boost. It does more harm than good. You can sell and promote any version of yourself. Young women don’t need to be surrounded by photos of people who are born with genetics that mean they look a certain way and then you’re made to feel s*** about it because they’ve got a hundred thousand likes. Twitter has been pretty great for me in recent years; Kya, my ex, made me aware of a whole new world, of people of colour... so I think it has been really great in terms of bringing that to the forefront. It’s been positive for me in that respect but I just feel as if I can’t deal with it all anymore. That said, Twitter is great for getting the truth out there to people and there’s no agenda with it really. You can follow who you want, and people power is good.
Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of music?
Nothing, really. I like computer games, I like to drink, I play football, I swim... I’m interested in ancient civilisations! My life is literally groundhog day; I go to the studio and work, come home, eat something, try and write, then end up watching something on Netflix and worrying about falling asleep. That’s every single day! I have no party tricks really, but I can put a cigarette out in my mouth, if that counts. Hot things don’t like wet things!
Tell me something about Bill Ryder-Jones that nobody else knows...
I’m trying to think of something light-hearted! I nearly died three times; I fell off a rope swing and my head missed a rock by about an inch... I fell about thirteen feet and nearly drowned, and the other thing we won’t go into.
I like dogs more than people; I think very often about giving up music and moving to Africa to work with animals. I will at some point. My grandfather went to prison in the Sixties and didn’t get out till the Nineties... that’s all I have.
Are there any steadfast plans for a follow up album or are you just taking every day as it comes?
I’m always thinking about the next thing. I’m not writing particularly well at the minute, but I do have a couple of new songs that I like. I’m trying to decide whether to f*** my career up or not; either I carry on with this and do more stuff that might get on the radio... no one ever thought I’d get playlisted with ‘Yawn’, but I did, so everyone wants me to do more of that. I’m an a***hole though, so I might go and do something like ‘If’ instead. You’ll have to see!
Bill Ryder-Jones plays at Upper Chapel, Sheffield on October 4. www.billryderjones.co.uk