Bill Ryder-Jones is humble and unassuming when we talk over the phone one snowy morning in January. We’re discussing his quietly imposing album A Bad Wind Blows in my Heart, out soon on Domino Records. It’s a real first for the bashful songwriter and ex-lead guitarist of The Coral – and it’s pretty obvious he’s not that used to talking about it yet.
Last year he began to write about his life and experiences far away from the limelight in an old bedroom at his mum’s house, mocking up demos with whatever instruments he had to hand.
He describes the results as ‘personal, humble and honest’. And, while he’s not wrong, he forgets to mention that the album brims with bittersweet pop nuggets, complete with towering choruses, brooding melancholy and counter melodies.
His well-documented departure from the band he’d spent a decade with led to a surprisingly short fallow patch. Soon Bill was recording with the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for his debut solo set If…, released on Domino imprint Double Six in 2011.
Based on the novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino, the mostly-instrumental album was more like an intricate film soundtrack. But, egged on by mentor and friend Laurence Bell at Domino, he began to develop a portfolio of gut-wrenching songs that carry the same weight as great British songwriters before him, from Nick Drake to Stuart Murdoch.
And, since he’s been at pains to stay out of the public eye for so long, the set offers a tantalising glimpse into his private world. While the snow outside continues to settle, it seems as though Bill is finally thawing out…
How does your new album differ from If…?
Sonically it’s very different, but that’s quite hard to quantify. When you are writing all the time these shifts just happen and it doesn’t feel that odd. But, having had a few weeks away from it, I think it’s completely different. The first album was all about orchestras and instrumentals and there’s none of that in this one. It just made sense to go this way.
So was the recording a lot different too?
It’s been completely different for me – the first time I recorded in studios and churches. We had a big day when the orchestra came down; that was quite stressful and intense. You can’t fuck about; it’s got to be done.
This one was a lot more relaxed. I recorded it in my old room at my mum’s house. I live about a mile away so I could just swan down there, have my breakfast and do a bit of music. It was really nice.
I couldn’t bear now to go into the studio with a philharmonic and have all that stress but at the time it was the only thing keeping me going. I suppose it’s all tied to circumstance.
Did you sit down to work on a definite album or is A Bad Wind Blows in my Heart a snapshot of what you were doing over a period of time?
I don’t think it’s ever as organic as you want it to be. It’s never just that, ‘I have a need to create’ bullshit! It’s always half and half. I was signed to Domino for some songs I’d done, but I was really conscious of all that singer-songwriter stuff – it really grates on me.
Purposely with the first album I tried to get away from that, but Domino were into it. So after If… was finished, I was sitting around with nothing to do. I had a few ideas and demo-ed them in my mum’s house with whatever instruments were lying around. I sent them to Laurence Bell [co-founder of Domino] and he really loved it all. I told him I kind of wanted to do a soundtrack or something but he talked me into this. He didn’t push me – it was a confidence thing more than anything.
Why is confidence an issue for you?
My whole thing with music, particularly my first album, is not wanting to tell people anything. I had a definite message on If…, but the message was someone else’s. All the visions came from a book. All the life experiences were tacked on to the source material.
Plus, I’ve always had a beef with the singer-songwriter ‘let me tell you all about my shit life’ thing…
Do you feel more exposed when you’re putting words to your music?
Yes that’s it. And also, the reason you get into a piece of music is because it allows you to experience the feelings you have inside in quite an obvious way. It’s not always easy for people to sit down and work out how they’re feeling. But music is magic because it can turn on the tap. You can attach whatever is going on in your life to that piece of music.
I try not to think about that stuff too much: because it is magic, it scares me. You can definitely hear when someone means something and you can hear straight away when they don’t. It’s why we all get into it. It’s that connection.
You were well known as the lead guitarist with The Coral, but your solo work involves lots of instruments. Is that a new development?
Not really. I played violin when I was a kid; that was my first instrument. I’ll make a noise on anything without being particularly capable! I think if you’ve got a bit of a musical side and some intelligence you can unravel the codes – how to make a decent noise and put sounds together. The mathematics of it are pretty straightforward, so if you can grasp them you’re halfway there. It’s just whether you’ve got that desire or need to sum up what it is you feeling in a way other people can understand.
That process can seem like witchcraft to an outsider… Do you think songwriting can be taught and learned, or do you think it’s innate?
I don’t think there are definite answers with music. You can teach some of the craft in the same way you teach people how to write a story. Start with a beginning then add a middle and an end. But ultimately you shouldn’t need to be taught, it should just come. Teaching yourself is the best bet.
How did the new songs come about?
The songs on the new album are kind of weird. I’ve never been able to do or enjoy the verse-chorus thing. I have to do one bit, then another bit, then an end – like a story. That, for me, makes a lot more sense. I get a bit bored by the craft of songwriting.
You mentioned Laurence at Domino earlier. How important has his support been?
I can’t stress enough just how much he’s done for me. On all levels he’s one of my favourite people in the world. He just phoned me up one day when I was in the shit and said, ‘Do you want to meet and come and play me some songs?’
I didn’t think anyone like him existed in the music world. He is totally about art but he has a business to run too and I get all that. I told him about the book and the album idea, and that it would cost six grand for an orchestra. I said we could only have the orchestra for three hours and it might go wrong. I saw his eyes going round in his head and he said, ‘Yeh, OK’. And with this new record, he was the one going, ‘Do this, people will relate to it’. My whole thing is about not really sharing things and keeping life private. He knows all about my life and said that if I put these songs out there they’d be good for some people.
He’s like a father figure too. Once you meet someone like that you get into a really healthy mode where you’re trying to impress. Every time I write a good song I can’t wait to play it to him.
You can tell a lot about the company by looking at the musicians they get behind…
I definitely think I’m at the top of their obscure signings list! When I was out of the band, being an idiot and not being very well at all and Laurence got in touch. I told him I wasn’t well, I couldn’t play shows or promote. And he said, ‘What are you talking about? That’s not even a thing. Make some music!’ No one else gave a shit about what I was doing – record label, my old management – no one was fucked at all. Then he came along.
There was a definite idea behind the first album. Was it the same with this new one?
Yeh, remember what I was saying before about keeping everything private? The idea was to change that. It was a slow thing; I didn’t sit down and say, ‘Right, I’m going to write about my life’. Every song on the album is about a thing that happened. There’s only one song that I completely made up. I wanted it to sound like a humble and honest record and that’s what it turned into halfway through.
Considering it’s quite a personal record, are you keen to take it out on the road?
Yep, I will do. Without getting too deep into it, this is the best I’ve been mentally for many years and I’m quite confident. I’ve just booked my first show for September but I’m going to do some more before then. It’s got to be done really. I don’t have the desire to go out and play for people when I know its going to be a struggle – it’s just a bit odd. But I get it; it’s all part of it. And I’m 30 this year, so it’ll get too late if I don’t do something and try to have some fun.
Also this record is about the connection, so people have to buy into what I’m like as a person and what I’m saying, before they will fall for it. The way to do that is to be in the same room as them.
A Bad Wind Blows in my Heart is released on 4 March through Domino Records.