Ahead of the November release of his much anticipated third album West Kirby County Primary, Christopher Torpey teamed up with the polymathous Bill Ryder-Jones to get under the skin of his home town and find out a bit more about what makes him tick.
West Kirby is a real sleepy, end-of-the-line town, where the slow ebb of retirement-age life trickles along in a stately manner, like the Dee Estuary that’s just visible on the horizon. There’s a comfortable air about the place, one of people just getting on with their lives – but what secrets does it have? I’m here to put this very question to BILL RYDER-JONES, Merseyside’s top musical dog and a songwriter who’s approaching the peak of his craft, for whom this particular environment has proved exceptionally productive.
As I’m sat in the café at West Kirby station waiting for Bill to arrive, forming a few ideas about his new album, West Kirby County Primary, and contemplating the aptly-named Cosmic News newsagents opposite, I text him to ask if there are any specific places in his home town that are significant to the album. I half expect some colourful character to come barrelling out of Cosmic News at any moment to rip down the screen of serenity and uncover all the oddballs and weirdoes that are hidden from plain view. “The whole village IS the record!” comes Bill’s reply, and it’s not until you listen to this record several times that you realise why this is so. West Kirby has a pace of life that suits Bill, an unhurried shuffle that allows him to block out any input that doesn’t matter to his creative process. It’s not an edgy or hip place; it’s just run-of-the-mill, middle-class suburbia. But everywhere has its story to tell.
As we stroll through the unseasonably glorious weather to Bill’s preferred coffee shop, he muses a little more on what it is about the place that inspires him so much. “I’m just dead interested in West Kirby; it’s home, isn’t it?” he says in his hushed voice as we settle in to seats alongside three women in the coffee shop’s smoking area, their warm greetings suggesting that Bill is a regular visitor to their secluded spot. “All the songs are about me and they’re all written about the last year – maybe a few songs talk about things that are a bit older actually, but my life is pretty much my mother’s house and my house. There are two bars and two coffee shops that I go to here – apart from popping into Liverpool, that’s pretty much my life.”
Apart from Bill’s band and former and current members of By The Sea and The Sundowners (who I bump into on the train over), West Kirby isn’t the kind of place that’s buzzing with creative and Bohemian types, but it’s not something Bill worries about. “Everything works fine here,” he says, almost in defence. “I don’t think I’d be happy anywhere any busier. People generally keep themselves to themselves [here] and it’s pretty standard of any village – but it’s also an amazing place. I sense there’s a lot of inverted snobbery towards people like myself, and I thought ‘I actually fucking like where I’m from and I don’t see there being anything wrong with it’ – and it’s a very good little place, actually.”
Any disruptions to this placid world are normally brought about by Bill: working from his home studio in a cleared-out bedroom in his mother’s house, he will often bring a trail of musicians traipsing to his studio in this quiet corner of Wirral as he works on a variety of commissions. The past 18 months have also seen him busy producing albums for other people, working with Hooton Tennis Club, The Wytches, The Lost Brothers, We Are Catchers, and with close friends By The Sea and MiNNETONKA. With all that music being created around him, I suggest that it must have been a constant source of inspiration to him when working on his own music.
“Yeah, of course – the production work has been one of the great catalysts of this record,” Bill agrees. “It’s less a sonic thing, though… it’s more about the energy of the people. And also there’s a magic that I’d totally forgotten about that we had with The Coral that I totally fell out of love with. Particularly with that Hooton Tennis Club record, you realise what it’s about; there’s a real beauty to a group of lads who are born in the wrong area, and there’s only four of them in that whole area who aren’t like everyone else, and they come together and create this little strange world that shouldn’t work – and doesn’t work – but because of those confines it gives them that unity and it works. Getting in a room with a band like that you realise that’s what they’re doing it for. I realised how important my little world was. There’s a real charm in it… When I was making If…, I think I got a bit snobby about the ‘four lads in a room’ concept because I was obsessed with where classical music can take you and, like, I had this big hard-on for pop music and the shortcut to emotion.”
The Bill Ryder-Jones that comes across on record can often feel quite introspective and melancholic, and though this adds to the touchingly tender music he creates, it’s quite misleading to the true nature of the bloke. Throughout our chat he’s warm, affable and lucid, and is happy to open up about a range of things – from his working process (“I think boredom and monotony are the worst things. Not getting the high you need from your creativity is what pushes people into doing silly things.”) to the instrumental projects he’s created with IMMIX and AdHoc Creative (“I find them more cathartic than writing songs about myself”) and even to what he might do in the future (“maybe I’d get into farming or something. But I don’t see myself getting bored with it”). This ability to open up has not always been something that’s come naturally to Bill, however, but with a little more confidence in what he’s doing he has embraced a certain amount of transparency. “I think after the last record I got over that,” agrees Bill. “[On] the first record I really didn’t want to engage in any of that conversation, but now it’s actually something that I quite like. It’s part of the world that I’m quite happy to promote, and you can find a way of showing parts of yourself, but you’ve always got to keep something behind.”
West Kirby County Primary – Bill’s third album – is an album about stories, and is very much a continuation of the method and style he perfected on previous album A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart. But it’s very much the relationships in the stories that fascinate Bill, and the small, tender moments – a look in the eye, a throwaway comment, a glance, a cock of the head – that come to life in his telling: or “turning stories into beautiful truth” as he sings in Wild Roses. “[The tunes are] always kind of story-based and are always about a specific thing, but I’m conscious of not overdoing what I’m talking about,” he confirms. “Sometimes I make a point of being very clear about what I’m trying to say, but what I enjoy is that kind of grey area. In the specifics of the lyrics I like to get a nice balance of putting someone in a place where they can picture me, but also leaving it slightly ambiguous and open to interpretation. I like just having that little bit of intrigue.”
Bill’s electric guitar is also back in the fold on this album – though anyone who’s seen him play live over the past two years will know that this isn’t a revelation. If… and A Bad Wind… showed us that he’s a knock-out songwriter when sat at the piano – but it’s with his trademark electric guitar that Bill is able to show off his genial flourishes. Lead single Two To Birkenhead opens with the line “Take me somewhere I’m not likely to forget,” and continues in the same vein of rollicking mischief of He Took You In His Arms and You’re Getting Like Your Sister from A Bad Wind…. The second half of West Kirby County Primary is where the album really starts to flex its muscles though, with three gems closing it out. You Can’t Hide A Light With The Dark doesn’t begin like a typical Bill Ryder-Jones track, but its strong bass and crisp melody complement his wonderful lyricism deftly as it unfurls in to one of his most complete tracks to date. This is a song that might pass you by at first, but will be one of those marker posts that Bill’s career is defined by. Then the closing salvo of Satellites and Seabirds may just bring you to tears: Satellites lilts with a gorgeous touch of organ, not overplayed, before breaking down in some classic Bill guitar fireworks, while Seabirds exemplifies the touching way he has of marrying-up fragile sentiments with heart-rending lyrics and delivery, and has a melody to die for. Like The Sand Band’s Dave McConnell, Bill has this knack of finding universal moments of reference in the spaces between what he’s singing and playing; he creates a moment where you know him and you think he knows you.
Another cherished musician who steadily built a catalogue of great music is Bill Callahan, and he’s an artist that Bill constantly draws comparisons to when considering his future. Bill has never been short on critical acclaim for his output, but there comes a time when he’s got to start thinking about repaying the time and resources his label, Domino, have put in to him. “Ultimately what we’ve agreed on is I just keep the quality up,” Bill says. “If I just keep making records that mean something, and I keep building this thing that I am, that it will – might – happen in the future.” West Kirby County Primary is another accomplished piece in a body of work that will be pored over for generations to come, and we should feel privileged to be living with this great, timeless songwriter in our midst.
West Kirby County Primary is released on 6th November on Domino Records