Bill Ryder-Jones

Chalk, Brighton.

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“Over the years my music has lost a bit of its hope I reckon,” says Bill Ryder-Jones. “It were important for me to make a record that had more hope in it. Even by my standards the last few years have been rocky, but I’ve chosen to soundtrack it with more positive music, you know? I love this album. I haven't been this proud of a record since A Bad Wind Blows in My Heart.”

In many ways Ryder-Jones’ latest is something of a kindred spirit to the record he made a decade ago. “There was something there that I wanted to return to,” he says. “To make a record that sounds like where I'm from. I reference quite a few songs from it - sort of easter eggs.” It’s also been an artistic peak that he’s been determined to match ever since. “I've always been very hard on myself for not bettering that record, really” he says. “It's been an issue for me.”

While he may rightly hold his second album in high regard, that’s not to overlook the stream of accomplished and celebrated releases that have come before and between, from the imagined soundtrack of If… to West Kirby County Primary to Yawn – and its follow up Yawny Yawn – Ryder-Jones’ work has been met with reverence and acclaim. In a gushing 5* review of Yawn, the Guardian praised its “effortless intimacy.” Nevertheless, Ryder-Jones can’t help but think back to his 2013 album. “Bad Wind… has got that perfect mix,” he says. “It's me, I'm young, it's very hopeful, I’m quite positive on it. I think these records live together.”

However, a re-hashing of the past this is not. Iechyd Da is Ryder-Jones’ most ambitious record to date. Beautifully produced, rich in scope, at times joyous, grand and sweeping, at others heartbreaking, intimate and tender. “It’s my most produced record,” says Ryder-Jones, who from his Yawn studios in West Kirby has recently been producing the likes of Michael Head, Saint Saviour and Brooke Bentham. “It’s basically me carrying on with myself again, but this time around I’m a bit more competent as a producer, so I’m looking at songs with that head on.”

Sonically, it is a deeply adventurous record featuring samples, strings, and a kids choir. “I was listening to a fair bit of hip-hop and I love how those pieces of music are built and put together, more thematic than melodic; it’s a strange relationship, something that I’m quite familiar with” Bill laughs.

The opening ‘I Know That It’s Like This (Baby)’ pays homage to Gal Costa’s ‘Baby’ by sampling the track and then using it as a springboard to dive into and explore a since-ended romantic relationship that was soundtracked by that very song. It’s a smart, multi-layered, meta piece of songwriting that unfurls slowly, with Ryder-Jones’ stripped-back vocals offering up dreamy melodies and doo-wop harmonies, before ending in soaring, engulfing strings as we reach the end of the relationship and the voice of Costa floats in the background like a ghost from the past.

It sets the tone for a record that is rooted in love, loss, pain, heartache and often a deep darkness, but one that also frequently ends up in places of profound beauty, hope and joy. “For a while I was out of myself,” he says, “I was losing myself.” ‘This Can’t Go On’ captures Ryder-Jones out in the pitch black of night, walking the streets, feeling lost, empty, and “on my way to a breakdown” he says. The resulting song however, is a towering piece of music that is bold and expansive, laden with strings, existing in a seamless duality with some of Ryder-Jones’ most vulnerable, exposed and tender lyrics. “??I feel like a little boy,” he sings at one point, an admission in vivid contrast to the almost triumphant music that carries those words. Similarly, ‘Thankfully for Anthony’ is a devastating piece of music that captures a particularly troubled time for Ryder-Jones but is dripping in beauty and bursting with a quietly celebratory spirit – as he lovingly sings “I chose love” it feels like a magnificent victory.

Lyrically, Ryder-Jones is in potent form. At times he celebrates directness, being more open and honest than ever, while other moments are more complex and multi-faceted. He’s always able to seamlessly balance sadness with stunning beauty, and sly self-deprecation with palpable gentleness. Here Ryder-Jones has the ability to turn a simple turn of phrase into something loaded with pathos and profundity. ‘It’s Today Again’ he says is about “being trapped in the anxiety and misery of a breakdown or a break-up, where it just feels like every single fucking day is the same.”

Similarly, the simplistic yet moving phrase of ‘If Tomorrow Starts Without Me’ – which has a cheeky little nod to Lou Reed’s ‘Street Hassle’ via the strings - is something that’s been rattling around in Ryder Jones’ head for decades waiting for the right moment to be released. “It contains probably the oldest lyric I've ever written,” he says. “Which comes from when I was about 15 watching Eurotrash. There was a Thai sex-worker reading from a diary and she just read the words: “what if tomorrow starts without me?” I just loved it. It's always stuck with me.” However, it takes on a whole new meaning and level of emotional weight in the context here. Contemplating what the next day may be like if he were no longer here to experience it, Ryder-Jones delivers heartbreaking line after heartbreaking line. “As I’m fading into blue, let’s just hope that somehow I’m with you” he sings over music that radiates a buoyancy and gentle breeziness that once again plucks hope from torment.

Due to the deeply wide-screen approach to making this record - one that has Mick Head reading over an instrumental one moment (‘...And the Sea…’) to sampling strings from a 1978 disco cut the next (‘This Can’t Go On’) - Ryder-Jones even got children involved. “I just thought I'd throw the kitchen sink in and get some kids as well,” he says. “It was such a sweet day with them - quite moving. It's quite funny when kids sing because you can tell they're just tapped into the energy and not the sound.”

However, as their voices ring out in unison on the closing moments of ‘It’s Today Again’, they feel perfectly aligned with an album that contains so much of Ryder-Jones in it. Their placing on the album almost mirrors some of his fondest memories of school where they would sing Beatles songs in place of hymns. “Making this album has been my whole life for about three years,” he says. “I don't feel 39, I don't have kids, and my inner child is always out knocking about. I can't get away from that. I don't know anyone who wasn't obsessed with their own childhood. For a lot of people, you can't get away from that, you know? I can't.”

As an extension of that - and as ever with Ryder-Jones’ work - there’s a palpable sense of place at the heart of the record. The album artwork depicts a painting of a moonlit, pastel pink house in the Scottish fishing village of Crail. “That painting was so beautiful and it reminded me of safety and home,” he says. “I think with this record, I want it to be like a home, where people can come and feel safe, like my favourite records are for me.”

There’s also a connection to Wales. The name of the album Iechyd Da means good health in Welsh, while the album’s closing ‘Nos Da’ - a beautifully woozy lullaby - means goodnight. “My love of Wales has always been there,” he says. “Half of my family is from there, I lost my brother there, all my childhood holidays were in Scotland or Wales. It's just a magical place with an incredibly beautiful language. Although I did have to go to Gruff Rhys and ask him about calling it this as I'm still very much an Englishman - he OK'd it.”

Making this album has been a process that has been endlessly rewarding for Ryder-Jones, both creatively and personally, as he finally accepts that he’s made an album that has bettered one he’s been trying to top for a decade. “It's been incredible making this,” he says. “Despite all the life stuff that's happened, it has brought me immense happiness. I've always railed against it when people ask if making a record is cathartic but I’d have to admit that this one really was.”