While some records are laboured with full stops, some are born from a hypothetical If… Bill Ryder-Jones’ first solo album is one such record.
Written as a tribute to a cult novel and recorded as a film soundtrack, If… is never all that is seems. Inspired by Italian avant-garde author Italo Calvino’s postmodernist novel If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, Ryder Jones’ masterfully-woven soundscape asks the question that few musicians dare to: how do you sustain the magic?
“The book was given to me at an important part of my life and really sums up a period for me,” Bill reveals. “I guess the theme that’s central to the novel is something I’d always felt but never really summed up myself. It talks about influence and inspiration and how it’s often the initial burst that really gets you and after that it’s all downhill.
“With music it’s the way a song hits you first time that’s important and how once you learn the chords, then it loses its magic. The hardest part is learning how to maintain that ambiguity in something that has to have a definite ending.”
The quest for ambiguity is an apt one for Bill Ryder-Jones, whose musical career began in 1996 when he joined forces to become 1/6 of psychedelic folk-rockers The Coral. The band quickly courted feverish attention from fans, critics and fellow musicians alike (Noel Gallagher regularly saluted Bill as one of his favourite guitarists and Graham Coxon is considered both friend and collaborator). Though Ryder-Jones left the band soon after the release of their fifth studio album Roots & Echoes in 2007, his arrangements on the record indicated a promising talent for instrumentation - most notably his John Barry-style string arrangements on the track ‘Music At Night’, which spectacularly captured the spirit of a host of sixties screen classics.
If Roots & Echoes was the precursor, then If… is most certainly its successor. Taking its cue from Abel Korzeniowski’s off-kilter soundtrack for Tom Ford’s acclaimed film A Single Man, If…’s influences are eclectic and diverse. From modern cinema composers like Michael Galasso (Seraphine) and Clint Mansell (The Wrestler, Black Swan) to psychedelic sorcerer Syd Barrett, Nick Cave and nineties Welsh indie-psych disciples Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci. Speaking of the latter, Bill reflects, “they're the band I relate to more than any other I think. Where I grew up looks out to Wales, so listening to their songs really reminds me of my childhood.”
The record’s production was equally inclusive as musicians, friends, parents and even the Liverpool Philharmonic pulled together to make If… a reality. Such was the display of affection for the record that the recording process was relatively painless. As Bill puts it: “it was lovely seeing just how many people were keen to be involved.”
And as for production: “There’s a not a lot of that…” In Fact, If… was batted around all over Bill’s home town of Liverpool looking for shelter: “A few bits in my mum’s house, some in Elevator Studios, some in the Scandinavian church in Liverpool and some in the friary in Everton Valley.” Whilst the non-instrumental tracks were laid down in Liverpool’s Grade II listed warehouse Elevator Studios, the Liverpool Philharmonic settled under the protective rafters of the Friary, Everton. There, title track ‘If…’ took shape alongside fellow instrumentals ‘The Reader (Malbork)’, ‘Enlace’, ‘The Flowers #3 (Lotus)’ and ‘Give Me A Name.’
The leap from lead guitarist to instrumental composer has been a challenging one and Bill is quick to admit that the road hasn’t always been easy. Yet with Italo Calvino’s novel providing him will the necessary markers and signposts, the album’s pulse soon developed a natural rhythm of its own making.
As Ryder-Jones explains: “I tried to balance it out in the start, tried to make it true to the idea but make sense to people who aren’t fussed about the concept. In the end I thought, fuck it, I'll just make it how I like and it'll make sense to me.
“I ended up writing a couple of tracks for each chapter and picking my favourite. It was pretty simple. Once I'd decided to not really care about how the album flows it was easy.”
Just don’t ask Bill for his favourite track – his opinion changes on a regular basis. At the time of writing ”’The Reader (Malbork)’ is the one I enjoy listening to most. There’s a track called ‘Give Me A Name’ that I’m proud of too. I love it all really…”
In this respect, If… exists as a living, breathing record in its entirety. The quest for singles is a futile one. Where the record truly captures the listener’s ears is in its effortless ambiguity. And so we finish where we began…
With his first solo composition unleashed, thoughts now turn to his next two projects. And what better way to counteract the naturalism of If… than with a soundtrack for a psychological revenge thriller entitled ‘Piggy’? As for “the other one”, Ryder-Jones remains tight-lipped. But rest assured “both read brilliantly and I’m really, really excited.”