Music

The Coral co-founder Bill Ryder-Jones on beauty, sorrow and psychedelic new album Iechyd Da

The acclaimed songwriter turned to a kids' choir on new album Iechyd Da

Bill Ryder Jones

Bill Ryder Jones. Image: Marieke Macklon

When times are tough and hope has faded, sometimes there’s only one thing left for a musician to do: break out the kid’s choir. “It’s the most joyous sound you can hear,” says Bill Ryder-Jones. “The sheer joy of kids shouting their heads off, not even caring about being in tune.”    

The Merseyside singer-songwriter, composer and producer’s new album Iechyd Da (Welsh for “cheers”) is a magical mystery tour of raw human emotion five years in the making. It was written during the pandemic, a period that was “incredibly triggering and really hard” for the former guitarist with The Coral, who struggles with mental health issues stemming from acute childhood trauma. 

Something that Ryder-Jones recalls noticing during lockdown, on walks to his studio from his home in the Wirral town of West Kirby, was the eerie quiet when he passed the local school. “That hit me quite hard,” he says. “And I remember feeling a bit upset by that. And I don’t know what it meant.” 

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One thought led to another, and years later while recording We Don’t Need Them – a soaring “rallying cry” for anyone whose parents, like his own, couldn’t be everything they needed them to be – he realised exactly the finishing touch the song needed. Well drilled by their choirmaster, the kids from Bidston Avenue Primary School duly sang their hearts out on that plus two other Iechyd Da tracks, at a session in the reverberant surrounds of Bidston Observatory, an experience which Ryder-Jones describes as “absolutely beautiful”. A little bit of lost hope was suddenly restored.  

“There was one really cute little girl, totally away with the fairies for the whole thing,” says Ryder-Jones, “just belting out the maddest stuff – basically whatever she wanted to. That makes me smile every time I hear it.” Afterwards the kids ate their packed lunches and, reluctantly (the teacher made them do it), queued up for autographs. “One kid comes with a Coral CD and says, ‘My dad loves your band!’ Fucking little shit,” he laughs. 

It was with multi-platinum selling neo-psychedelic pop adventurers The Coral that Ryder-Jones was first transported out of West Kirby aged just 16, on a rapid rise that saw the band score piles of critical acclaim and chart success before some of them were even old enough to drink. It was far too much too soon for Ryder-Jones (the weed, especially). He was never sure he wanted to be a musician in the first place, and by 2008 he’d quit The Coral, vowing never to play again. But an attempt to go to university instead lasted only a few months. “Couldn’t cope,” he says, “had a breakdown, had no money. And then Laurence from Domino phones.” 

Ryder-Jones credits Laurence Bell with helping rescue him from a terrifying downwards spiral, after the Domino label founder heard some of his solo home recordings on MySpace (specifically a song about self-harm called “Tonight a Knife”), and asked Ryder-Jones if he wanted to make a record. “What else could I do?” he says. “I was very agoraphobic; I had an undiagnosed dissociative disorder. I didn’t feel I had many options. Now here I am, 14 years later. I’m still doing music. It’s a strange one.” 

With Domino’s support, Ryder-Jones has been able to beat his own path. His debut solo album, 2011’s If… was a lushly orchestrated imaginary film score for Italo Calvino’s 1979 novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler; 2015’s West Kirby County Primary recalled the hushed, bruised voices of Elliott Smith and Bill Callahan. His last album, 2018’s Yawn, was a set of slanted and disenchanted electric guitar songs channelling Red House Painters and Duster.  

On the cover of Yawn was a photograph of Ryder-Jones’s older brother Daniel, aged four or five. Daniel died in 1991, aged nine, on a family holiday to Ramsey Island in Wales. He fell off a cliff. Ryder-Jones lives with PTSD and the “indelible” impact of that tragedy not only on him, but on his parents, now divorced. “My mother is a wonderful, strong, fantastic, loving woman,” he says. “But she is still absolutely consumed with the death of my brother. And I live with that in a very real way.”  

With that in mind, you could perfectly well expect Ryder-Jones to swerve all thoughts of childhood in his music. And yet, here’s Iechyd Da – a Beatles-y psychedelic pop carnival full of majesty, misery and wonderment. In the sweeping “This Can’t Go On”, Ryder-Jones excoriates himself for his weaknesses and bad habits, at one point calling out heartbreakingly for his dad with the words “I’m feeling like a little boy”. “Nothing to Be Done” loudly laments another relationship crashing down around his ears, and questions whether this might be the one that finally finishes him. And yet, in there too are the uplifting likes of “It’s Today Again” and “How Beautiful I Am” – songs written as if to remind Ryder-Jones that he’s loved, and that he can still see and feel joy and beauty when he tries.  

Iechyd Da is a record full of the good and the bad, living side-by-side in constant tension. Ryder-Jones was reluctant to let it go when mixing ended. It’s been his “best friend” through some tough years, and he’s unashamed to admit he listens to it a lot (“we all love the smell of our own,” he jokes).  

“Every now and then when I’m feeling a bit, you know… Like, for example, I’m leaving the house to walk the 15 minutes to the studio, and I start to have a panic attack and I have to call me ma to calm me down. You feel quite shit about yourself after that. So, if something like that happens, I’m more than happy to stick on “I Hold Something in My Hand”, and go ‘oh yeah, I did something there’. That makes me feel good, you know?”

Icheyd Da is out now on Domino.

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