A character, a mythology, the flicker of a younger self, William the Conqueror is many things, but in simplest terms it is the name of a band put together by songwriter Ruarri Joseph, alongside his close musical conspirators Harry Harding (drums) and Naomi Holmes (bass) in the Winter of 2015.
Bleeding On the Soundtrack is the second in a trilogy of autobiographical albums which began with 2017’s Proud Disturber of the Peace — a sublime record that captured Joseph’s early life in rural Cornwall; the long, fearless days spent stirring the quiet hum of village life; the glory of bike rides, den-building, rope swings; the dappled half-light of memory and imagination. Joseph and his band playing with a similar musical impetus - joyful and boundless and bold.
Bleeding On the Soundtrack addresses a less idyllic period in Joseph’s life - the confusion of adolescence, addiction, divorce, upheaval. The time when life shadows and turns, when, as he puts it “you’re always at a crossroad, constant junctions where you have to make decisions”. It carries hope, humour, sorrow, honesty. It has an extraordinary musical diversity that somehow spans roots, folk, grunge, and boasts production by Ethan Johns. It is his finest collection of songs to date, amplified by quite stunning performances from Harding, Holmes and Joseph himself, as they recorded live over the course of twelve days at Real World Studios in Wiltshire.
Joseph is older and wiser now, his writing fuelled by a life that has taken him from Scotland to Cornwall to New Zealand, and back once more to the West Country to raise his own family. Along the way he pursued a music career that flirted with both major labels and independents, gathered a devoted live following, but never quite caught flame. “I’d had all this frustration playing as ‘Ruarri Joseph’ but feeling detached from who I was supposed to be,” he says. “I was somewhat lumped in as a folky singer songwriter, which helped pay the bills, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing.”
William the Conqueror began as a temporary plan – not so much a band or a pseudonym – as a way to play live with new material in between Ruarri Joseph albums. And yet it unleashed his songwriting: separated from his own name and identity, Joseph found that the songs he wrote as William the Conqueror “were bizarrely more personal than anything I wrote as Ruarri Joseph.”
These are not straightforward songs. Rather they are intimate lacings of half-recollection and new revelation, episodes, images, music, not narratives. “I’m trying to decide what’s true, and what I’ve embellished for the sake of the story,” says Joseph. “My brain doesn’t operate in a linear fashion – especially when looking back on a youth I wasn’t paying attention to, that seems so distant. When I try to remember that time they’re kind of vignettes, pressed together, rather than being a structured tale.”
The idea of a trilogy came to him early. “I like working in threes,” Joseph explains. “Hermann Hesse has a book of essays called My Belief in which he talks about the three stages of life being innocence, disillusionment, and faith, and how the cycle of life brings you full circle back to the start. It seemed like a good model for a collection of albums about the same thing from three different perspectives.”
Bleeding On the Soundtrack, then, concerns itself with disillusionment. As life at home became more turbulent with his father’s alcoholism, the teenaged Joseph didn’t want to recognise his parents as human beings with flaws and contradictions. Rather than face it, he found escape through music, listening to Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan, playing the guitar, distracting himself with early romances.
It would take him years to confront the events of that time, and the songs on this album are the remarkable, unflinching result – misguided worship and romanticised visions of death pervade the title track itself, while Looking for the Cure deals with the cruel psychology of addiction.
“I’ve written about it my whole life but I don’t seem to have taken it head on,” he says. “I’ve always touched on things, or skirted around the issue. But that’s what Bleeding on the Soundtrack is — it's not leaving anything out, digging deep to try and cleanse myself of it all.”
The album holds lighter moments too of course — the stumbling romance of Thank Me Later and Sensitive Side, the celebration of brotherhood on Be So Kind, the strangeness of life’s obstacles and re-routings on Path of the Crow. There is a kindness and a gentleness to many of the songs - The Burden, for instance, views those years and the father-son relationship with the warmth and wisdom of experience. It is a song so tender that there are even moments when it catches Joseph unawares - “it still sneaks up on me when I play it sometimes,” he says.
And with them a musical exploration of sound, too, roots rock meeting blues, Americana, at points a kind of warm soul. It is a reflection of the band’s desire to never be labelled as one thing, a refusal to fit into any genre, to always keep moving. To make music, perhaps, that is distinctly William the Conqueror: joyful and boundless and bold.