Bill Ryder-Jones: From The Wirral With Love

Guitarist, songwriter, and Evertonian Bill Ryder-Jones, once of The Coral, speaks to Julian Roberts about the hesitancy behind making his first record, Tuesday night football, Liverpool's ongoing tribalism, and falling in and out of love with music.

Bill Ryder-Jones is staring across the River Mersey, one hand deep in his jacket pocket, the other clutching the ends of a roll-up. Across the water, in the mild, late-afternoon quiet, two liver birds stare back, standing proudly over their city and their river. The boat from either Belfast or Glasgow passes by – it’s hard to tell which.

This stretch of murky brown water separates Liverpool from the Wirral, a small peninsula that jettisons out from the English mainland. It is a patch of land that Bill Ryder-Jones, originally lead guitarist in The Coral and now a singer-songwriter in his own right, proudly calls home. The 10-minute trip across the water into town is one he hasn’t done since “pff, God knows when”.

He finishes off a hurried last drag of his cigarette and we turn to dash for the ferry. The boat is adorned with bright, iridescent stripes; a signature showpiece for the vessels on the Mersey. On the deck, it’s littered with oak-look benches arranged in a V formation at both front and back. All are empty. Bill clambers up the rickety metal staircase towards the back of the boat and takes a bench at the side, perching on the backrest with his feet on the seat in front.

With a roar from the motors and a gush of smoke from the twin chimneys, the ferry lurches off from its dock and swings itself around towards the other side. Suddenly, Bill stops in his tracks. Where before he had been a picture of calm, his personality both disarmingly and effortlessly funny, he is now edgy and nervous. His eyes are wide with worry, his skin a pale white. His demeanour, fretful and anxious, is alarming.

He stands up abruptly mid-conversation and puts his hand to his mouth, darting as quickly as possible to the shelter inside. He pulls a foil sheet of medication out of his pocket, grabs a small pill out of it, and stands under the cover with his eyes fixated on a specific point on the floor, doing everything he can to force it down his throat. He stands there with his hand up as if to say; ‘give me a moment’. Not knowing what to do, I just stare uselessly, before, in one long sigh – forced as much as breathed, a bodily convulsion of relief – he says “sorry mate, I was about to have a panic attack.”

This, over so many years, is something Bill Ryder-Jones has become accustomed to. With The Coral, his rise to fame was meteoric. He joined the band at the tender age of 13, and they released their debut album in 2001. Dreaming Of You and In The Morning would go on to become the group's biggest hits, firing them to the bright lights they’d always dreamed of. Bill was just 19. When he left school, he didn’t start a 9-5; he played, toured, and recorded around the world. He was, on the face of it, living the dream.

In 2005, his world started to turn upside down. He took some time off from the band for personal health reasons before quitting permanently in 2008. He moved home – his stage fright had become crippling, his agoraphobia untenable, and he could see no other option. He moved back in with his mother, and for a long time spent nights sleeping in her bed by her side. It was, undeniably, the lowest moment. He wasn’t to know that at this point he had developed a mental illness that was yet to be formally diagnosed.

With his life up in the air, ungrounded and absent, he moved with his girlfriend to Guastala, a small town in the Po Valley just outside of Parma in Northern Italy. In this village of 250 people, in a flat landscape of slow, descending fog that rolls towards you like a dust cloud of drizzle and damp, he had some time to think. It’s a different world to Merseyside – he needed to try and get his head in order.

As we step off the boat in Liverpool – Bill a calmer, more jovial version of himself five minutes previously – I ask him if, throughout this tumultuous decade in his life, he had ever fallen out of love with music.

“You fall out of love with all things at some point in your life, don’t you? When I left The Coral, I didn’t play music for about two years. It was just a bit too hard. That was actually the time that I got back into football. It filled a void. It’s strange; you can’t deny the power of walking up the steps of your stadium and seeing all those people. It’s a powerful thing. And music is equally that, and it’s about feeling a part of something, a community that can dictate your mood to a certain extent, where certain things are out of your hands. That’s why people like football really, because if you’re in the stadium you can claim the victory that those millionaires have actually fought for, just by paying some money and shouting at them.”

“Football and music are really similar. I just don’t think it’s easy to bring them together now because of this new breed of football bands. No offence to Kasabian and Oasis, but it’s the wrong side of football that they’re appealing to. That’s just what’s happening now. In the 80s the two worlds fused a bit better, but I think Britpop just brought out the worst in both football and music.”

“So, did you ever fall out of love with football, then?”, I ask.

“Oh mate, every other weekend since I was about 9!” he laughs, grinning shyly under a waft of ruffled blonde hair. “But no, I’ve never properly fallen out of love with it. I still love watching football as much as I ever did, but it changes the older you get. At the end of the day, football comes down to who you decide you’re supporting when you’re 9 or 10, and sticking with that. Unless you’re a shit bag. As an Evertonian, all you ever want is just something good. Something good to cling on to.”

“I still love football, I still think it’s a fucking amazing game, but I almost prefer watching other teams now. The tribalism and the hatred that I’ve grown up around between Everton and Liverpool fans is crazy, over what is really only meant to bring people together. Music is the complete opposite of that.”

It says a lot about the way he looks at football; an obsession, but nothing sentimental. He prides himself in forgetting about a game the moment the final whistle goes. If they win, good, if they lose, he misses Match of the Day. Nothing more gets to him than that. Bill, who was born in nearby Warrington to a family from Lancashire, had never quite known who to support growing up in the Wirral. One day at primary school, his friend told him he should support Everton. For better or for worse, he listened to his advice. Maybe this is where he gets his sense of humour from.

Before we met, I’d asked him if he could bring along an old Everton top of his, to which, in the typically sharp manner you very quickly come to expect of Bill, he responded; “what am I, a child?! Who even still has them knocking around?” The best he could do was a crumpled shell suit adidas track jacket, navy in colour with lighter blue stripes down the sleeves. He describes it, quite proudly in fact, as ”the most colourful thing I own”.

You feel like you get to know Bill without having ever actually met him. Such is the intimate power of his music, laid bare and open in front of you; the rhythmic document of a far too often tortured soul. His words and singing style are the cornerstone; lyrics breathed, almost whispered, as if he’s sat right next to you and talking directly to you. The listening experience is intimate. But writing these personal ballads wasn’t something Bill had previously had a longing to do.

“I left The Coral to be out of music. Full stop. I didn’t want a career in music at all, and in fact I needed to be away from music. That’s why the word solo artist still grates me. It creates this image that I saw a better career for myself, when I didn’t. I took time away from music, and didn’t know what to do so kind of panicked and did an access course at uni to read History because it’s the only other thing I’m interested in. And I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t leave that band because I wanted to pursue my own songs. I didn’t have my own songs.”

“The first thing I made after that time off was a favour to a friend who’d made a short film. He just wanted five pieces of incidental music with cellos. Domino got in touch and wanted to put that out, so then at that point it was like, well if they like that maybe I’ll do more stuff like that. The first album kind of wrote itself. My next idea was to write a piece of music about each of the most important ancient rivers in the world. I was fuckin’ out of me mind at the time.”

“Surprisingly, no one was that into that idea. I wrote two proper songs, and I sent them to Domino – because I got the feeling that they weren’t mad keen on the rivers idea – and they freaked out over them and I kind of just pursued it. When I’d finished the album I didn’t really want to put it out. I was panicking thinking of all the lads from The Coral laughing at it when they heard me singing.”

Bill makes his music sound like an accident. If it is, it’s an entirely enviable accident. He has a natural gift for songwriting; heartfelt, poignant lyrics soothe themselves over flowing guitar melodies, embraced by the cadence of his soft Merseyside accent. His latest release, Yawny Yawn – piano covers of his fourth studio album, Yawn – might be his best yet. To be honest, it will probably make you cry.

Earlier that same day, I met Bill for the first time in his hometown of West Kirby, a small, homely seaside town hidden away on the far Western tip of the Wirral, about ten miles from Liverpool. We met at Yawn Studios, the recording and rehearsal space that Bill co-owns and runs. Over the past few years, it has taken up the majority of his time and money. In this narrow room – patterned maroon carpet across the floor, empty cans of Gordon’s Gin and Tonic strayed on top of amps around the room, guitar rack on one wall, hollowed out piano on the other – he has recorded not only all of his own albums, but also produced a host of records from local bands and beyond.

He has only just returned from playing at Glastonbury and, by his own admission, is still recovering: “It was great! Well, what I can remember of it was great...” The night after, he supported Elbow in Halifax, but for Bill, the party hadn’t stopped. By all accounts, he could barely hold it together. In the following days, he received a lot of criticism online for his performance. “Social media can be pretty brutal” he says, “but it was very unprofessional of me.”

His clear embarrassment speaks a lot of the man; many others might just brush it off as an occupational hazard, one bad performance in a year of great ones. He took to social media to sincerely apologise to his fans. His warm character and engaging personality, both in his off stage mannerisms and also his on stage persona, which can often feel like you’re being treated to a stand-up set in between tracks, are instantly likable. They’ve led him to build up a strong following of fans across the country. After Halifax, their support was invaluable.

We take a walk around West Kirby, stopping for a few pints in his local pub and wandering past his childhood home, before eating chips and curry sauce at the town’s premiere chippy, Marigolds. The contrast between the songwriter, defined by his soft, sombre ballads about touching and even heartbreaking personal subjects, and the man opposite me stealing my chips was, for some reason, not something that I had expected. To be honest, I had expected someone who takes everything a bit too seriously – this was a breath of fresh air. But, everyday, Bill lives with a very different side to himself.

Down on the seafront, as he smokes a cigarette in a worn out sun-stained shelter, I ask about the faded inked remnant on his hand. Imprinted on the bridge connecting his thumb and forefinger, a scrawled, self-administered tattoo simply reads Danny. It is a tribute to the part of Bill’s life that, one way or another, still informs and influences everything he does.

When Bill was nine years old, he was on holiday with his family in South Wales. His older brother, Daniel, known simply as Danny, wandered too close to the edge of the cliff, and fell. It is, for a nine year old boy, one of the most scarring incidents imaginable. Years later, in 2011, Bill was diagnosed with depersonalisation derealisation disorder; a dissociative disorder that manifests itself by making one feel detached from oneself. This impossible moment, years and years before, was the trigger for it.

“Well, I still haven’t processed it on any meaningful level. This is why I have the dissociative disorder, because when Daniel died and I went into shock, he was more or less wiped from my memory, so I grew up with this hole and this fear. That’s why I have panic attacks like what you nearly saw. Whenever I feel threatened, my body reacts and part of my brain will still react in the same way that a child would when they see their brother die.”

“I’d never been formally diagnosed with PTSD, which I should’ve been many years before. The reason I’d left The Coral was because of my mental health problems with anxiety and depression and agoraphobia, and all the fun things that come with it; substance abuse and self-harm and all that nasty silliness. It was only really when I went to uni that the dissociative stuff kind of happened.

“It’s a weird thing, dissociative issues. It’s great in children when you go through trauma, because it protects you and you just go into a state of shock. Part of your brain just doesn’t want to process or can’t process what’s happened so it just goes ‘no’. You just kinda float through. Your brain turns off and you’re left in this wilderness, and nothing feels real. A lot of people talk about literally being able to see themselves from above. In my case, I don’t recognise myself in the mirror. At all. The first episode I had after my diagnosis I fully believed I was in some Sims type computer simulation. It’s saving you from your emotions.

“Your emotional intelligence is what grounds you to the world; your relationship with your parents, your friends, the people you love, your football team. Once that cord’s been cut – and it’s cut to stop you from hurting – you’re left asking questions about this place that you have no answer to. And you come up with all types of deranged theories about it. I have no doubt the amount of drugs I took in my teens had something to do with it, and it’s still something I have to take medication for everyday. After fifteen years, I’m still trying every different type of therapy to understand why my brain just will not let us get on.”

The latest therapy Bill is trying helps subjects to process memories that have been left unhealed, rotting away as dark, traumatising scars on their mind. The idea is that through bilateral movement of the eyes you awaken both sides of your prefrontal cortex, and can therefore access memories that lay dormant and attempt to process them as an adult not a child. You’re dealing with memories that are indistinguishable between real and fabricated, diving deep into your subconscious. For Bill, the therapy might be the most effective yet, but he is well aware that it is in his nature to fall back on a defence mechanism he taught himself in his teenage years.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that when I started this therapy I was gunna go on a couple of benders, and I’m not surprised that I stayed at Glastonbury and got fucking wrecked for two days. It’s my kick back, and I’ve always done that when shit gets too much. Just get fucking wrecked. It might not be the best, but it’s better than some people. I’ve never turned to violence and you see that a lot with people with PTSD.”

“I was 21 when I had my breakdown, and then it was 2009 when I got involved with Domino and 2011 when I got my diagnosis. That’s when I got medication sorted out which made things a lot better. As is the way with medication, you lean on them but then you don’t actually deal with what’s happening. You find coping mechanisms to deal with the things that medication can’t.”

“I think that’s why we fall in love with things like music and football. They’re stirring. They give you something that isn’t available on tap. That’s why people get into drugs because they are available pretty much on tap. Football can do the same thing, remove you from yourself for 90 minutes, there’s a bigger thing happening and the whole world doesn’t revolve around you for a minute.”

It is amazing that, when all of this is happening to Bill, 22 people kicking a ball around still matters, and still helps. It’s that moment, the one that ultimately connects music and football; the ability of both to displace you from your day-to-day life. For that song, that set, that album – that goal, that match, that tournament – you are engrossed in something totally out of your control. They allow you a moment away from being you.

After spending an afternoon with Bill, it is clear that the power of both music and football is, for him, at the very centre of his continued and ongoing recovery. Not only in grounding him to his life, but also as a constant coping mechanism – a different way to understand the world. In his open and honest self-reflection, he has put them on a level playing field.

“When I write music that’s the most beautiful moment, and it’s the best coping mechanism. But same with football. No doubt about it the best day of my week is Tuesday because that’s when I play five-a-side. If I can’t do Tuesday night football then I’ve got a right mouth on, I get right mardy. It does something to you, playing it. I can still remember the best goals I’ve scored at five-a-side, they maybe don’t mean as much to me as my favourite songs I’ve written, but it’s not far off. That feeling in that moment, they’re not dissimilar. You know you’ve written a good tune and it lasts longer because you can play it again and again. But that feeling on the pitch...”

Written by Julian Roberts, with photography from Peter Franklyn-Banks. First published in STILES Issue 2.