The name Ruarri Joseph is a familiar one to many folksters. A solo artist with a quartet of critically acclaimed records spanning the length and breadth of the word ‘folk’, Joseph has earned a reputation as a sharply lyrical songwriter who’s shared stages with the likes of Seth Lakeman, Steve Knightley and David Gray.
A man with wanderlust in his soul, Joseph has strained at every turn to keep his songwriting fresh, and unshackled by easy labels. Now, fully five years after his last solo record, Joseph has emerged with new band William The Conqueror. A union with regular bassist Naomi Holmes and drummer Harry Harding, the new project is a break from Joseph’s usual rustic tones. Embracing the broad banner of Americana, William The Conqueror pulls influences from both sides of the Atlantic to give new verve to Joseph’s songwriting process. And though they’ve only emerged from the shadows in the last months, already it seems they’ve struck a bounteous vein.
GIGsoup’s Matt George Lovett caught up with the band, just after their Cambridge FolkFestival set (a long-awaited first for Joseph). Cokes in hand, the band discussed the motives behind the bold new project, along with the nature of Americana, the perils of being boxed-in, and fashionable facial hair.
So ‘William The Conqueror’ is a bit of a change in style from what you’ve done in the past. Where did that begin?
Ruarri: Feeling boxed in maybe? I’ve always felt like I fell into the folkworld accidentally. Because I had a great beard and an acoustic guitar. So I got invited off with Seth Lakeman, he introduced me to Show of Hands and then before you know it I’d built an audience. But they were a folk audience. Which wasn’t the worst thing in the world of course, it kept me afloat, but I always knew that creatively that wasn’t strictly me. So we started William The Conqueror as a way to branch out. These guys [Naomi and Harry] played in the band before, under my name. So in between touring we’d get together and play this other stuff I’d written just for fun. It started out that way at least. Now we’re here!
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Was this new ‘Americanized’ direction of the sound something you were consciously crafting or did it just happen naturally?
Ruarri: It was pretty natural I think. Just by being patient. It was three of four years ago when we started doing it, though at the time we didn’t tell anyone. We were called ‘William The Conqueror’ so people wouldn’t figure it was us. It’s purposefully ambiguous, it doesn’t suggest what the music could be. Plus you’ve got to have a big pair of cojones to play under the name William The Conqueror, it changes the way you write!
Naomi: Yeah, we have to bring it!
And in terms of the songwriting itself, you [Ruarri] are the main songwriter, but do you guys [Naomi and Harry] bring your own style to it?
Naomi: It depends on the song really. So sometimes Ruarri has a very specific sound in his head and sometimes it’s a bit…
Ruarri: Sometimes I’m wrong.
Naomi: Exactly. It really depends.
Ruarri: I guess that’s the cool chemistry between the three of us. We’ve all come from very different musical backgrounds. The song is always the king. The song sits in the middle and we all bring whatever we feel might work with it.
Harry: A lot of the actual development comes from quick soundcheck jams and running ideas over night by night.
Ruarri: Yeah. We don’t actually live anywhere near each other so we don’t rehearse…ever! So our soundchecks are our rehearsals more often than not. You have to find time wherever you can! But weirdly I think from doing that, having that high pressure environment, knowing you don’t have long to play with something. It’s a very energetic way of writing things!
Given you kept it under wraps for so long, it seems to be going pretty well now it’s finally out in the open. There’s a bit of momentum behind it.
Harry: I think it got to a point where we were having way more fun doing this than the stuff we were doing before. Just because it feels way more free maybe?
Ruarri: When it’s your job to make music in a certain kind of genre, you’ve always got that at the back of your mind. “I hope they like this” you know. But who’s they? I don’t know these people. So on the one hand you’ve got to really respect your audience and on the other as an artist you need to be free to express yourself.
So you’ve also got the new album, ‘Proud Disturber of the Peace’, coming out next week. How do you feel about that?
Ruarri: Relieved! We’ve been sitting on it for a long time. It was recorded in stages, starting a couple of years ago.
Naomi: But it was finished before Christmas. Like, actually finished.
Ruarri: It’s one of those things where you think it’s finished when you first do it. You’re happy with it and you start trying to find a way to release it. But whilst you’re doing that you keep tampering with it. So it’s been almost a two and a half year process of adding stuff, taking things away, bit by bit. It’s quite a nice way to make an album actually. Given you only get once chance to do a debut.
So judging by the content we’ve heard already, it seems like a lot of the material dwells on nostalgia. Looking back at childhood, and lots of travel imagery. Moving away. Is that right?
Ruarri: Yeah definitely. In terms of content, certainly since becoming a ‘professional’ musician I was only writing about what was in front of me. It’s the easy thing to do. You live your life, you write about it. So with this it seemed like a good idea to go back and revisit my childhood. I had a pretty weird childhood, a lot of interesting things happened to me as a kid. But I’d never actually written about it.
The song ‘Cure’ in particular stood out. What was the genesis of that?
Ruarri: So my last solo album was dedicated to the loss of a friend. We toured that album for about three years and every night I’d give context for the songs. Tell the audience what it was about, because I wanted to do justice to the things. When I started ‘William’ in between touring that stuff I really wanted a break from that. So I thought if I write about stuff from my childhood that’s so idiosyncratic and so deeply personal to me, I won’t be able to say where the song comes from. Apart from little nods like ‘This is for my Dad’ and so on. But to begin telling you what these songs are actually about, we’d be here for hours! So they’re deliberately meant to be vague. It’s nice I think for people to pick out their own meanings from them. Because what those words mean to me, it’s never going to be the same for any other person in the world. Every single word in a sentence means something different to that person.
With this Americana ‘movement’ if you want to call it that, this move amongst UK audiences to more rootsy, unprocessed music, what are your thoughts on that? What d’you think it causing it?
Harry: Ed Sheeran.
Ruarri: I suppose the label ‘Americana’ used to conjure up the idea of country. So we went to Nashville last year, the Americana Fest, and that was very heavy on the country side of things. But Americana is actually very broad. It’s blues, it’s rock and roll, country, gospel, it’s all sorts of things. So I think in many ways over the last few years it’s become the main alternative to the ‘mainstream’. On the one hand you’ve got your Radio One stuff, beats and samples, and then there’s everything else. Anything that’s authentic I suppose; just a band driving round with their kit in the boot. I suppose there’re enough of us now driving the motorways that they can’t ignore us anymore!
So with the album about to come out, what’s next? You going to take a breather?
Ruarri: Nah, we can’t afford to stop! We’ll take a break at Christmastime but apart from that we’ll keep rolling. We’re booked in to start recording the next album in October, touring in September and November and back on the road in January.
‘Proud Disturber of the Peace’ is out on the 4th August 2017. The track-listing is as follows…