By Christine Leonard
CALGARY – It’s been over a decade since The Joy Formidable first poked its head out of the Snowdonian landscape of Mold, Flintshire. Originally performing with Manchester’s Tricky Nixon and then as Sidecar Kisses, the dream rock duo of Rhiannon “Ritzy” Bryan and her then beau Rhydian Dafydd Davies first formed The Joy Formidable back in 2007. Their lofty alt-pop EP, A Balloon Called Moaning came forth at the end of 2008 and ascended the UK charts throughout 2009. Recruiting kindred spirit Matthew James Thomas (who replaced Justin Stahley) later that same year, the trio signed to Black Bell Records and Canvasback Records (a division of Atlantic) and began hammering out their dark versus light LP, The Big Roar, in 2011. The compelling Wolf’s Law (2013 Atlantic) and road album, Hitch (2016 Caroline) further established the band’s notoriety on both sides of the pond and set the stage for their latest offering, Aaarth (2018 Seradom). BeatRoute caught up with the busy band who has been on tour promoting their incredibly colourful post-shoegaze meets existential-pop album across Europe and now North America.
BeatRoute: How has your identity as Welsh artists influenced or been specifically represented in your work?
Joy Formidable: I think more than anything it is important to be authentic. To be yourself. Then you show what makes you unique, and yes, your roots/culture is of course part of that but it also goes deeper than borders. That inevitably draws attention to your culture anyway. You capture these two identities if you are authentic. We don’t go into the writing with a Welsh agenda, but I do think our upbringing is evident in the music. Some songs really sound like North Wales to me.
It is a very unique identity here in this part of North Wales. There is a real interesting mix of people and maybe that lack of a simplistic identity (and sometimes lack of musical opportunities) led us to tenaciously finding who we really are, kept us open and made us want to better things and give opportunities to other artists when we can.
Being bilingual and admiring the Welsh language has also probably played a part in the love of language in general, the poetic, the importance of lyrics and being a sophisticated storyteller, toying with meaning, form and representation. Growing up surrounded by beautiful rugged and colourful and mysterious mountains tied with quiet also let our imaginations go wild and create worlds. Being a little cut off can push you to look inside and appreciate nature, which definitely features in some of our songs.
Lastly, politically speaking and AFTER the writing…drawing attention to North Wales and Wales as a whole is important as it can get overlooked, which is why we started our label ‘Aruthrol’ to show all the talent we have here.
BR: What core elements do you find have remained consistent from album to album?
JF: The three of us are the constants! We are happy for each album to be a new chapter as we want to grow as artists and people and challenge ourselves. The passion and conviction, the lyrical, emotive and visceral have remained. But how we reach that musically ebbs and flows, as I think it should. So, there are new surprising elements all the time. What has also remained is the love of the instruments, the guitar, bass and drums and the exploration of their possibilities. We have also explored intensity through many forms and instruments, but still love the distorted guitar.
BR: How do you conceptualize your role as storytellers and entertainers?
JF: The songs are certainly very personal and to some could maybe seem cryptic, but we like to invite the listener to really go deep as there lies richness. As with the music, it is important to have light and shade and keep your eyes open — so the personal often entwines with the social and outside. We believe there is always something to fight about, to move forward to a better version and that there is always hope (and part of that is recognizing and critiquing too).
We have moments, like everybody, and then we snap back. I think that’s why nature also plays a part in our songs. Elements of nature reflect what is going on internally, but it takes you outside yourself as well as pushes you to be in the moment if you appreciate it. And having read stories like The Mabinogi growing up it is hard not to see creatures signify something other than themselves sometimes. Hence AAARTH!
BR: What are your thoughts when you look back at A Balloon Called Moaning and how The Joy Formidable has developed over the years?
JF: Oddly enough, making this album felt a little like A Balloon in its playfulness and its bursting vibrancy. We were uninhibited and enjoyed experimenting and applying non-traditional approaches to sounds and construct. We were building songs on A Balloon through layering repeated motifs almost like lullabies and allowing that create rhythmic displacement. I think we developed and matured that over the years to include all sorts of approaches. Longer works, shorter works, performance-based jams, more traditional structures, esoteric compositions, intimate performance based songs, atmospheric pieces, linear pieces. We want to master our art and ourselves and pushing is how you do that. I think we do that shift with each record. The shift on this record maybe would be more use of short layers, samples, synths, vocal effects and the use of eastern scales.
BR: What are you most proud of with regards to your new release?
JF: After a challenging period, we regrouped renewed and I believe we have taken ourselves to new territory while still staying true to ourselves as a band and voice. I am proud of that tenacity. Some songs will definitely be a challenge to play live because they were pieced together through many tiny fleeting layers, but we will enjoy that challenge and we see the live side as another discipline that has to stand up in its own right. Today I’ll say ‘Caught on a Breeze’ because I love the bass line and rhythmical side to it. Y Bluen Eira and Cicada are so much fun to play and when we nail ‘All in all’ that will be special. That was a difficult ambitious song that will be no doubt an equal challenge to perfect live, but we’ll relish that. I’m honestly looking forward to playing them all!
BR: What was in the inspiration for Aaarth, which I understand translates as ‘bear’ in Welsh?
JF: The album deals a lot with transformation and healing and the bear is often seen in many cultures as a symbol of strength and wisdom. It is also a scream. We needed a release. We all need a release right now I’d say! And lastly, we feel the title encapsulates the freedom and playfulness of the record. I’d say self acceptance, recognizing the shadow, renewal, love, energy, turning dark energy into something constructive and empowering, awareness and passion are common threads.
BR: What is the story behind the songs “Y Bluen Eira” and “Cicada (Land at Your Back)” from your new album?
JF: “Y Bluen Eira” talks about the ease of grouping and labeling people, it’s prevalence and its dangers. We need to tread very carefully here because understandably emotions are running high. “Cicada (Land at Your Back)” is a song about feeling lost and letting go and it conjures up the mystical influence we felt when we recorded it in Utah. The album deals with rebirth and it is a strong theme in this song. We wanted to start again like people do in tribal drug ceremonies. We are almost watching ourselves from a bird’s-eye perspective or in this case from high above like a bug. It’s quite psychedelic!
BR: Finally, please tell us about how you utilized your mobile studio to create your latest release.
JF: The last record captured the live chemistry. We knew we wanted something very different with this album. We used the computer as a writing tool much more, toying with everything in pre and post, making the mix this ever-moving beast. Working with a mobile studio did encourage us to think outside the box, because it allowed us to be spontaneous and grab fleeting ideas and moments and reach intimacy in another way. We wanted to celebrate the guitar also, fuck with it and stretch it and having the laptop with us all the time enabled this. We wanted to let go of any inhibitions and see what happens.
The Joy Formidable perform October 27 at Fox Cabaret (Vancouver)Fox Cabaret, The Joy Formidable