For the cult fanbase that Bill Ryder-Jones has nurtured over a decade-plus of solo albums released following his departure from The Coral in his mid-twenties, the West Kirby singer has become synonymous with a certain type of sonic intimacy. Though his output has ranged hugely, from conceptual debut ‘If…’ - described as an ‘imaginary film score’, through the more traditional forms of ‘A Bad Wind Blows in My Heart’ and ‘West Kirby County Primary’, to the delicate ‘Yawn’ and its even sparser sister record ‘Yawny Yawn’, the through-line has been the singer’s acute affinity with life’s tougher moments, and his ability to offer some sort of solace in sonic form.
‘Iechyd Da’, Bill’s fifth studio LP, maintains that standard lyrically; written during and after a particularly crippling lockdown breakup, tracks such as ‘If Tomorrow Starts Without Me’ and ‘It’s Today Again’ wear their worries firmly on their sleeve. But the record also contains a sense of positivity and hope that makes sense of its title, translated as ‘good health’. Musically rich and rousing, ‘Iechyd Da’ is an album that considers its options and, ultimately, chooses life.
Just before Christmas, we sat the singer down in an East London pub to discuss “the best thing [he’s] ever done”.
‘Iechyd Da’ is the most widescreen record you’ve made to date - what was pulling you in that direction?
I haven’t been happy with my last two records. ‘West Kirby County Primary’ had good songs on it, but it didn’t give me what I love from the records that I love, which is a nice, big, ‘You’re alright, you’ll be sound’. And ‘Yawn’ didn’t have enough light moments. When we started rehearsing songs for ‘Yawn’, I realised I didn’t want to play them. These do not make me feel good. And particularly when you’re a bit lost, what IS making you feel good? And what was making me feel good was going home and listening to the records I loved when I was 16: Gorky’s [Zygotic Mynci], Super Furries, The Beatles, Wu Tang Clan, a couple of other bits. And I just thought, these people make a weird version of joy, of hope.
You couldn’t say ‘Iechyd Da’ is necessarily upbeat, but it’s a version of hope, and that was the message. I know this album’s not going to go to Number One or anything like that, and my life’s not going to change drastically, but this is a great record; it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. And it’s going to make my audience even more fucking in love with me… I can barely handle them as it is… Apart from the Patreons! You guys keep working!
Is there ever a chicken and egg situation of writing songs that are very raw, and getting put back in that place when you then have to play them live?
It’s one of those weird, fortuitous things where, when the song’s out and people start telling you how it affects them, your ownership sort of goes. Particularly when it comes to gigs, which have always been a real struggle. Gigs are not a normal thing to do; I’ve developed a side of myself just from hanging out in pubs, mirroring how funny people talk, and how people can hold themselves. But with regards to the personal songs, fortunately when you’re playing live, you’re aware that people are wanting to hear them and you just have to do a good version of it. Only a couple of times, I’ve got choked up.
With this record, it has been hard because the record started with me writing in lockdown for me and my partner at the time, and then we split up and the rest of it was about the split up, and then [I had to] mix it and go back to them places. It was over the span of three years, making this record. So going back to a song you’ve written two years ago that’s still quite raw is pretty fucking heavy, but it’s also what you’re in it for. That’s a good thing.
“I really subscribe to therapy; I love going to therapy, and I think that’s what the songs [are].”
Are you someone who needs distance to be able to process things?
I really subscribe to therapy; I love going to therapy, and I think that’s what the songs [are]. Songwriting is limited in terms of the metre and fitting things in, so quite often you find yourself just trying to make words fit and then writing something that’s quite poignant. You can only draw on what’s going on, even if you try not to. With songs, you get to turn your experiences into whatever you want.
Was making a record that was much broader in scope a freeing experience?
In between ‘Yawn’ and this record, I’ve become a lot more confident in my studio space. I want to be able to sound like: this little dickhead’s got his own studio. The strings weren’t a full orchestra, it was two players. The kids choir was a full thing. There were about 12 of them that turned up in a bus, they were really sweet. It’s such a joyous thing when you hear kids sing; they don’t really give a shit about melody or the words or if they’re in tune. Some of the songs like ‘It’s Today Again’, having the kids sing on that was beautiful. The girls were all about a foot above the lads, so they must have been about puberty age. One of them had a Spiderman jumper on, so they were young…
Having the kids finish that song, which has quite a desperate, fragile undercurrent, makes it feel like there’s a positive takeaway. Was that the intention?
Well, what I’ve done there is an old writing trick called the ol’ switcheroo! I shouldn’t give these tricks away, I'll get kicked out of the musician’s circle… But the kids were a foil. It’s like comedy. I love Inside No 9; I love how that show is like a show within a show, Easter eggs and recurring themes. I love having in-jokes that people who’ve listened to you for a long time will get, so with ‘It’s Today Again’, it was a reaction to ‘Yawn’. “There’s something great about life / There’s something not quite right”. It’s like an anti-suicide song. “It’s today and I’m back again / There’s not much else to do” - it’s that mundanity of being depressed. So then you slap the kids on there at the end, make it a bit Christmassy, maybe John Lewis will take it! It just lightens it.
How were the kids to work with?
They all thought I was dead famous for some reason. Every single one of them got my autograph. When you listen to the album, it makes me laugh loads ‘cos we recorded the kids with two mics - one at each end of the room - and whoever was nearest to the right hand side couldn’t have given less of a shit. They’re singing whatever the fuck they want. Everyone else was largely in tune, but if you listen on your headphones there’s one kid just going for it. I was creasing up when I listened back, she was brilliant.
“It’s such a joyous thing when you hear kids sing; they don’t really give a shit about melody or the words or if they’re in tune.”
What’s YAWN Studios like as a space?
It’s affectionately known as Shabby Road because it’s a fucking dump, but it doesn’t matter. I only ever wanted it to be a step above a bedroom. I hate big studios when it sounds too expensive and feels too expensive. The mixing desk I use is the one they recorded all the audio for Brookside on. The finest Liverpool-based soap opera, and let’s not use the word opera lightly! This isn’t just shit telly, this is shit opera!
‘Iechyd Da’ is Welsh for ‘good health’ - where does the Welsh link come from?
My family are Welsh on my dad’s side. I’ve been learning the language for a long time. Our whole family [have a Welsh lineage] for centuries, but obviously I’m still English using the Welsh language and the Welsh are understandably very nationalistic in the way the English shouldn’t be. I asked a couple of my Welsh mates if I’d get shit for calling the album ‘Iechyd Da’ and some of them said they thought I’d be OK but that wasn’t enough for me so I spoke to Gruff [Rhys] and he said, ‘10 years ago maybe not, but it’s coming from a beautiful place so go for it’. That’s Gruff, man! You can’t argue with him.
You’ve said you used to struggle with being on stage, are you more comfortable in that environment now?
Oh, definitely. My first ever show on my own was in Manchester at the Castle Hotel to about 50 people, and I was so nervous it was a bad vibe. But then I made some stupid joke after the third song and it just lifted. People obviously then went, ‘Oh he’s alright’. And I’m like that as a person. I love a giggle.
What does success look like now?
Honestly, at this point in my life, I adore making albums but when they come out they’re kind of someone else’s problem. I want a little bit more of what other people have got [outside of music]. I like working in my studio, and it feeling like a proper job, and getting to stay at home. Success is being completely fulfilled creatively, but I’d love a bit more money, an extra £20k a year for a holiday.
This is where John Lewis comes in…
They’ve fucked me about for eight years! I’m forever getting down to the last three people on the John Lewis advert. One year they had me working on this pastoral string idea for the Hare and the Bear for about two weeks, and then all of a sudden Lily Allen’s singing bastard Keane! And I thought John Lewis was a company of the people! Two first names, I should have known…
‘Iechyd Da’ is out now via Domino.