Songwriter Interviews

Rhiannon Bryan of The Joy Formidable

by Dan MacIntosh

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The Joy Formidable frontwoman explains how their songs are constructed and breaks down key tracks in their catalog.

The Joy Formidable: Rhydian Dafydd, Rhiannon Bryan, Matt Thomas

It's already been a decade since The Joy Formidable came whirring out of the small Welsh town of Mold. This power trio - lead vocalist/guitarist Rhiannon "Ritzy" Bryan, bassist/backing vocalist Rhydian Dafydd, and drummer Matt Thomas - creates quite the ruckus, especially live.

Bryan and Dafydd write The Joy Formidable's songs, which while oftentimes loud and rhythmic, many times touch upon highly personal matters. Bryan is just as likely to sing about the aging of her beloved English grandparents as she is to tell a tale about a troubled relationship. The band's music is both powerful and flexible, which is one good reason why the comedic rap group The Lonely Island smartly sampled the band's biggest hit, "Whirring."

Songfacts caught up with Rhiannon one hot day at the Pasadena Daydream Festival in California. This was a festival curated by The Cure that attracted a large crowd of black-clad goths. Many of these diehard fans looked like they were going to melt away under the summer sun. Not so with Bryan, though, who performed with reckless abandon and then conducted our interview with lively focus and gentle humor.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Have you heard The Lonely Island's "YOLO," which samples your song, "Whirring"?

Rhiannon Bryan: Yes, I did hear it when it first came out. That was a few years ago.

Songfacts: What did you think?

Bryan: I was really happy and excited and kind of bewildered about how they picked up on it and sampled it. I think the first kind of connection is that Matt, our drummer, was such a Lonely Island fan. He was the person in the band who was playing their videos on the bus when we were touring, so it was an honor.

Songfacts: It's kind of like when Weird Al does a parody of a song. A lot of artists are honored.

Bryan: A lot of it's really nicely done. Occasionally, someone will take a piece of your music and put it in a context where you think about it a different way, but I thought it worked.

Songfacts: I hope you'll take this the right way. I'd never seen you perform live before today, and you're so much better live then on your recordings. Is that a compliment?

Bryan: I feel like, when we made our third album, Hitch, we made a very live album because we were holed up in North Wales, and all the sessions for that were very true, very live. We just left the tape running. It was that kind of aesthetic.

It's an interesting thing with each album. What is it you want to show? What is it you want to focus on with this album? With this latest album [AAARTH], it was more studio built. It was a little bit more experimental. I like the live side of things. It's a very honest presentation of the music, isn't it?

If you were saying, "You're much better on record than you are live," that would annoy me. Ah, fuck! We can't actually play this! So, I refer to both in different lights. That's always the most freeing, liberating part of the band: when the three of us get together and we're playing. It's very rock star-like. It's a show. Where's it gonna go?

Songfacts: Did they warn you not to jump around so much in the heat? What's the hottest it gets in Wales?

Bryan: I don't think it gets hot, ever.

Songfacts: So you don't know what it's like to lather on sunscreen?

Bryan: We put on a lot of sunscreen, even if it's not hot, because we burn quickly. We've played shows in lots of different places. We were just in Mexico, and it was very hot there.

Songfacts: Do they know your music in Mexico?

Bryan: Yes!

Songfacts: How cool is that?

Bryan: I'm always delighted. We always include the bilingual element in our set. We grew up in a little, tiny village in North Wales, where it was hammered into you that it's going to be hard leaving North Wales.

Songfacts: You still live there?

Bryan: Yes. I live there a lot of the time, but we move around so much with touring, so it's been a wonderful thing to play all over the world.

Songfacts: And the internet, love it or hate it, but one of its beauties is that you can be anywhere and discover music from all over the world. I'm old enough to remember buying records based upon their covers, just because they looked cool.

Bryan: I do that all the time. I'm always fascinated. That feeling of something tangible and the lyrics and actually feeling it and giving a go and being curious. That's what music's all about. I feel like there's so much now, which is a wonderful thing in one way, but sometimes it's hard working it all through and actually finding something to listen to that really connects and makes you feel something.

It's an interesting time because there's a lot of music. A lot of times, what's in the mainstream that's alternative isn't what's connecting with me. Sometimes I have to be a little more curious and I find things outside that, but there's so much great music. One of the things we've been finding recently is there's a lot of great music out of Wales. I don't know if you've come across that yet, but there are some really great Welsh DJs and they're very open minded, very eclectic, and play lots of different things. I just realized the breadth of great music coming out of Wales.

Songfacts: Let's talk about songwriting. How do you normally write your songs?

Bryan: It's always Dafydd and I. Dafydd plays bass in the band. It's always been the two of us, and it's really evolved. We're 10 years together this year, and I feel like it's moved and shifted and grown in lots of different ways. We're now at this point where we're quite intuitive: I can bring a song to the table, and he will take it somewhere really interesting, and vice versa. The last album we just wrote, I have memories of what was the root of that song and where it went from there. So, over ten years we've created this intuition where we both really enhance each other musically. It can come from a riff on guitar. It can come from a bass line. Some drums. A live setting.

Songfacts: Do you write on guitar?

Bryan: Yes, all the time.

Songfacts: You're very much a strummer.

Bryan: It's nice when we can just strip it back to that as well. I feel like some of our albums it's about getting back to the roots of the song, with hardly any instrumentation. Some of them start like that. The latest album, production started the songs, as well. I think that's the beauty of 10 years together: You never want to get too formulaic. I think that's when you start to get bored with it.

Songfacts: That's when the dreaded solo albums happen.

Bryan: You think so? We kind of all have solo albums coming out, but it's not a symptom of being tired of what we have been doing. I feel like we've kept ourselves on our toes, which is one of the important things about this band: to go with whatever somebody's bringing to the group.

Songfacts: I'd like you to talk me through a few of the songs that best represent the band. If you had to put three songs on a headstone, which songs come to mind and why do they mean so much to you and the band?

Bryan: The first would be off the first record, "The Greatest Light Is the Greatest Shade." I felt that was the point in the band where Dafydd and I were really starting to build this really special chemistry in terms of writing together. Just because, just very concisely, he'd written that - all the music - as a demo in one night, and I came back to find he'd written all of it musically. He left, and when he came back, it was fully constructed, lyrically.

Songfacts: Do you write all the lyrics?

Bryan: I do.

Songfacts: What's another song, since we're constructing this imaginary tombstone.

Bryan: The last song on Hitch [2016], "Don't Let Me Know," which is all lyrically Rhydian. He'd had a sad year - there were so many things that happened to him that year. He'd come to live with me and we were making this album together.

There was just something about the performance of that song. I was really feeling that emotion and pain. So, even though I'm the one that's singing it, and maybe I can't fully grasp all that he's written, but that was a really sad session. Really special. I think there was real emotion when we put that song down as a demo. And the demoing process for this band has always been that, what we put in the demo many times ends up on the album. We don't go back and record too much.

Songfacts: The song "Whirring" is the hit. Please tell me about that song.

Bryan: I think it was born out of a lot of frustration. We were living in London together. The background to it, something was happening in my life where I really felt misunderstood. I felt like no one was really listening to me or understood how I felt. I felt quite lost.

"You make me sleep so badly, invisible friend." There were sleepless nights feeling like I've not really connected.

Songfacts: When you sing that now, do you still feel those same feelings?

Bryan: I feel like the meanings change. I think it's been a healthy period in some ways to have gotten past it. It connects in a different way, you know. On the live side, there's still that excitement of that track. Over a decade, the meaning shifts or moves, but you don't lose that first feeling of it.

Songfacts: Tell me about the song "I Don't Want to See You Like This," which you played today.

Bryan: That was a song that celebrated my grandparents. It's about the process of aging, getting older.

I was really close to my grandparents. They were really fun, open Northerners from England. Very ordinary, down-to-earth, working-class people. They had a big part in my childhood. Seeing their days getting shorter and shorter made me really want to live in the moment with the time we had together.

October 3, 2019
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Photos: Timothy Hiatt (1), Sarah Jeynes (2-4)

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