"If I wrote songs thinking about how they’ll be received, I’d be The 1975": Bill Ryder-Jones on his accidental new album

The Merseyside singer-songwriter has reimagined last year's 'Yawn' as a collection of heartbreaking piano tracks

“There’s something on your mind…” So sings Bill Ryder-Jones on last year’s stellar album ‘Yawn’, a collection of melancholy, Smashing Pumpkins-inspired grunge ballads threaded through with breath-taking lyrics. He’s talking about himself in the latter, of course, and across 10 lush tracks Ryder-Jones explores sexuality, mortality, mental health and more.

The former The Coral guitarist has established a rich solo career as a singer-songwriter adept at dealing with difficult subject matter (‘Daniel’, from last album ‘West Kirby County Primary’, is a devastating song about his brother’s death, which occurred when he and Bill were children). Now he’s remade ‘Yawn’ as ‘Yawny Yawn’, the distortion stripped away, the songs reimagined as hushed piano ballads all the better for making out those beautiful lyrics. ‘John’, in particular, is even more heartbreaking than before, the narrator addressing a character who’s left (“I’m still wearing your T-shirts most days / It feels better… If we’re together, even in that way”).

NME chatted to the singer-songwriter about the new record, his love of drag, working with Arctic Monkeys and not envying The 1975.

Why remake ‘Yawn’ as a piano-led album?

“That’s a tricky one to answer. It’s one of those things that snowballed a little bit. I was gonna try and sneak it out on my Bandcamp without my label knowing because I do that quite a lot – I’ve got about 40 covers on there. They’re up there for free and if people want to donate to the pocket fund… But I showed it to the boss and she was like, ‘This is really good!’”

Who is the album track ‘John’ about?

“Ah, now – you’ve really buggered me with that question. I didn’t really need it! The idea was for it to be like a ‘Dear John…’ letter [an old-fashioned term for break-up messages] – that’s how an idea for a song starts for me; it doesn’t start with a melody – and then I thought, ‘Maybe we don’t know whether the person writing the letter is breaking up with them or John has passed, or any of the horrible circumstances that lead to the end of a relationship’. What I like is that that song’s not about John at all. When you split up with someone, you do miss them, but what you really miss is the validation that you got from them.

“Now, what’s awkward is that my Dad is called John and my mother’s still in love with him and he left her.”

It’s still quite unusual, even in 2019, to hear a man singing about a man…

 “Yeah. Maybe. It doesn’t occur to me.”

On the album track ‘There Are Worse Things I Can Do’ you sing, “There are worse things I Can Do / Than go with a boy or two.” What’s that song about?

“RuPaul’s Drag Race. My sexuality is something I’ve never felt was of any interest. That was never something I ever wanted to engage in. It’s not something I ever fucking think about a great deal. I certainly wouldn’t consider myself bisexual. I’ve fallen for men; I’ve been with a couple of men. I like women; that’s my bag. But I got into RuPaul’s Drag Race and realised that [drag] is a legitimate art form. There’s incredible beauty, and it has every push and pull that every art form has.”

So did that get you interested in drag generally?

“Well, then you watch [seminal New York drag documentary] Paris Is Burning and realise that what’s amazing about drag is that it popped up in the same place as hip-hop, at the same time, from two incredibly similar ethnic groups who are coming from completely different angles. All of whom want to be seen and appreciated but have different ways of expressing it. And if anything I think drag has dated better and done more for the world. Hip-hop and drag are the most street-powered, humanistic, fucking punk movements I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Bill Ryder Jones

Bill Ryder-Jones at Glastonbury

“In Drag Race… you get these stories: ‘I was born the way I was born and all I’ve ever known is that people hate me for it and have told me that I’m wrong.’ It affected me so much. One day I was watching Grease and Rizzo sings, “There are worse that I can do than go with a boy or two”, which, for a film set in the 1950s and made in the ‘80s, is an amazing message for 2019.”

I had no idea that film was so ahead of its time!

“It’s fucking sound, man. If you have a dick, as long where you put your dick wants to have your dick in it, it’s all fucking fair game, d’you know what I mean?”

You once described yourself as a “northern lad with a guitar”, which is a fairly straight scene, so it’s lovely to hear something more progressive

“I have two types of followers: I have introverted people who struggle to get out of their bedrooms and listen to the songs for that, and I also have some lads. For a moment I felt a sense of duty – I figured, if I can stand up there and say, “There are worse things in this world / Than some make-up and some pearls”… Normally I’m quite critical of myself – I’m well aware of my privilege – but that’s one of the few times where I’ve stepped out of just moaning about the unfortunate things that have happened to me and actually said something positive. There’s also stuff [on ‘Yawn’ and ‘Yawny Yawn’] about impotency and lack of sex drive.”

You’ve also said, “I’ve done some terrible things”. You’re being pretty hard on yourself there, surely?

“Well, OK, but I think that’s a good way to be.”

What’s “terrible”, though? 

“I’m not going to go into it with the fucking NME! But I have used the death of my brother, my addictions, to reel in certain people to make them feels certain things for me, to use them for my own benefit, to sleep with them. That’s dark fucking shit, you know? All men do; all men use what they’ve got to get what they want. I find that despicable and I don’t do that any more.”

When you write about difficult or taboo subject matter, do you to have take a deep breathe and convince yourself to go through with releasing the track and performing it on stage?

“If I ever got to the point where I was writing songs already thinking about how they’re going to be received, I’d be the 1975. No offence to them! I’m not saying I’m not a careerist – where I am now is good; a little more success would be great but any more than that would be too much. And there’s nothing I can say in a song that would be as bad as things I’ve said in person.

“I’ve said things in private, in the past, that could end my career. But life is a journey and people should get second chances.”

Your fourth album is called ‘West Kirby County Primary’ and both ‘Yawn’ and ‘Yawny Yawn’ use photographs from your childhood as their artwork. Do you still long for childhood?

Yeah. Doesn’t everyone? I miss my childhood. I don’t remember it; I have no memories of it. The photo for ‘Yawn’ is one of the most significant things that I’ve seen. I live with two boxes underneath my bed filled with photos of my childhood, which I know inside and out because when I’m sad I look at them ‘cause I wanna connect with my brother, who I don’t know. There must have been a connection – I knew him for seven years – so there’s a hole I want to fill. But then our former babysitter sent me that photo [of Daniel, which became the cover of ‘Yawn’].

The artwork for ‘Yawn’

Picture yourself at 33: you’ve seen every picture of your brother that exists and then someone says: ‘Here’s a new photo’.’ It’s like: ‘That’s my brother, who I recognise, but it’s very new to me, so that makes it very foreign.’

Why don’t you remember your childhood?

“I was seven when my brother died and I went into a catatonia thing, I have a handful of memories up until 13. About two years after that I started smoking a lot of weed, so there are a lot of gaps, you know? But what I do remember is happy. Right now I’m in a very specific, intense kind of therapy called EMDR – Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming – which is about recovering lost memories from childhood. It’s more prominently used for children who have suffered sexual abuse but in my case it’s used for post-traumatic stress. You work at re-finding these memories and then you process them as an adult, rather than as a child.”

Do you miss being in a band?

“I don’t miss being in The Coral. Being in a band is a very strange, unhealthy and hindering dynamic that I would never wanna be in ever again. Now I have my mates who play my music, and I love them dearly. I don’t ever want to have play someone else’s songs ever again. I love The Coral – we’re good friends, although I don’t see Lee a lot, and they’re fucking great lads.

“If one of them called me and said, ‘I’ve fucked up – you’ve got to help me bury a body’, I’d be there with a shovel. But despite me having a dissociative disorder, I am by far and away the most sane of that group of men. They are all – with all the love in the world – fucking bonkers. And also playing those [The Coral] songs was hard. I didn’t love those songs for a long time.”

You worked on ‘AM’ and toured with the Arctic Monkeys. How did it feel, being part of that machine?

“I wouldn’t want what the Monkeys have got. I’d turn into a massive twat. I already have that side to me; I don’t have a man ego – I’m not a dick swinger – but if I do a run of shows and they go well, I will think I’m the fucking shit. If I was someone like Al [Alex Turner], someone that big, I can’t say how what would affect me. I can’t imagine it would affect me well at all.”

Did you enjoy the experience, though?

“I enjoyed [working on that album and its tour] ‘cause I love the lads and I love the band. I also loved boss hotels and being paid a good few quid to get pissed and come onstage to play three fucking tunes. But – and this is me in a nutshell – after two nights at the Zenith in Paris I caught the train back because I’d rather support The Pastels and Lightships at Islington Academy [laughs].”

– ‘Yawny Yawn’ is out now on Domino Records