That first album prompted many favourable comparisons, although Ruarri is cautious about being pigeonholed. “I think somebody once said ‘Dylan, had he grown up in Newquay’ [that was NME], which you can only take as a compliment, but any Dylan fans are going to give you a listen and go ‘what are you on about?’ Similarly, with Atlantic Records, they tried to sell me as the 'British Jack Johnson', presumably because I live near the beach. But again, no disrespect to Jack Johnson, that's not who I am. You're almost turning people away. If they're going to listen to you because of that, then they're going to be disappointed."
After his first CD, Ruarri Joseph decided that a contract with a major record label wasn’t right for him, so he recorded his next album independently. "I read somewhere once that I left Atlantic over a dispute because of creative differences. I think that's the story people have tried to paint. I don't recall that being the way it happened.” In 2009 there was a third studio album and in 2012 a fourth, Brother, which was a tribute to his friend Matt Upsher, who died in a surfing accident. I ask how his songwriting has evolved over the past decade. "I went through a time of being very pragmatic around it, certainly with the last solo record, poring over the lyrics and poring over how it came across. It wasn't an album that was for me; I wanted it to tick the right boxes for everybody that knew Matt."
The intensity of Brother, combined with its popularity, led to what was billed as the Ruarri Joseph Farewell Tour last year. “I felt like I needed a break from those songs. I'd sung them so many times over the course of three years and I didn't want them to lose meaning”, he tells me.
So Ruarri Joseph the solo artist is gone… and Ruarri Joseph the person has adopted a new identity. It’s William the Conqueror who’s currently touring the UK and will be visiting Union Music Store on Record Store Day this month. But is William the man or the band? "I like the ambiguity", Ruarri/William tells me. "Sometimes it's appropriate for it to be me and sometimes it's appropriate for it to be the band. That's just the way it happened. When I first started performing, I was William because I was doing it on my own, but then other people joined."
The name was chosen initially so that Ruarri could perform ‘secret’ gigs of new material whilst also touring under his real name. “William the Conqueror seemed like a name that was pretty far away from Ruarri Joseph and wouldn't raise any suspicions that it was me.” It’s not the kind of name I’d have expected a modest chap like Ruarri Joseph to have chosen, I suggest. "There you go. I was right." Since being chosen, the name has taken on more significance. "I realised that Ruarri Joseph had only been putting albums out since he had become a dad. I thought it would be cool to write about my life before that, about my childhood and growing up. William the Conqueror was the kind of name I probably would have given myself as a kid; that insane confidence that you can do anything, go anywhere, the world is your oyster.”
As William the Conqueror, Ruarri Joseph is finding songwriting much easier than he did under his real name. “In becoming William, it was a case of letting go and almost subconsciously writing the songs; having something in your mind and just seeing where the guitar takes you or seeing where the pen takes you.” He’s already written enough material for a trilogy of albums. “Maybe one way of looking at it would be that my eight years of being a solo artist have been like a kind of training or a PhD. I feel like I've found my voice since becoming William. The songwriting process makes much more sense to me now; it's like a faucet that's opened up. The energy that you have when you're young, when you first start, it's certainly something I've enjoyed trying to tap into again."
So far William the Conqueror has just released an EP, while the first full-length album is nearly finished. The band currently consists of drummer Harry Harding and bass player Naomi Holmes, who'd been in Ruarri’s backing band. “We have a nice chemistry when we play. I've enjoyed writing with their strengths in mind.” The EP is available digitally, on CD and on a 10-inch vinyl record as well. “I’m very excited about that, not least because my friend Tony Plant has done the artwork. It's a bit of a dream to have it done. That's a really lovely idea, to think that somebody is going to take a physical copy of your record and go to the trouble of putting it on. That's the way it should be. You want people to listen to it properly."
What music is on Ruarri’s turntable at the moment? “I got into Tom Waits around the time of CDs, so I have everything on CD but not on record. JJ Cale on vinyl is a winner every time. Bowie's Blackstar hasn't really been off the turntable since I got that. A phenomenal record. I'm a little bit out of touch. Maybe it's because I have the kids kicking around with their things which don't necessarily please my ears, so I retreat into the things I know I'm going to like."
Yet despite his striving for the perfectly-crafted song and the perfectly-produced album, Ruarri remains a big fan of live music. “When I started, playing a gig in a pub where I didn't have to do anything other than turn up made it all about the music. There's no better way to figure out whether a song is working. It's like a comedian trying out a joke. Playing live is absolutely essential to figuring out who you are as an artist.”
Which brings me back to my question about who ‘William’ actually is. After 45 minutes on the phone I think I have an answer. As far as I can tell, William the Conqueror is the man Ruarri Joseph didn’t get a chance to be. “I kind-of fell into the music thing accidentally. It was this crazy whirlwind thing and I never really found my feet with it all. This time round I feel like I know what I'm doing and what I want. I’m really enjoying it. The gigs feel really fresh. I've kind-of forgotten the Ruarri Joseph songs.”
Record Store Day is on Sat 16 April 2016; live performances by visiting artists at Union Music Store start from midday. unionmusicstore.com
This is an extended version of an interview first published in Viva Lewes magazine issue 115 April 2016