The Joy Formidable on Welcoming Uncertainty and Moving Into the Blue

Music Features The Joy Formidable
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The Joy Formidable on Welcoming Uncertainty and Moving <i>Into the Blue</i>

“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,” Nietzsche once sagely observed. And from her remote hideout in the Utah desert, reclusive Welsh alt-rocker Ritzy Bryan can totally relate. Isolated as she was—along with Rhydian Dafydd, her bassist in The Joy Formidable—during the pandemic, she dodged the coronavirus bullet and all its attendant ennui, and actually managed to thrive during the process. The band’s new Into the Blue set, their fifth, is as tough as nails, and one of their most inspired efforts in an already-colorful 10-year career. And it’s difficult to discern which comes off more compelling—her soothing, layered aquamarine vocals or her conversely scratchy, scarlet guitar work. From the tumbling eponymous opener, the disc keeps growing in intensity, until it’s bludgeoning like Black Sabbath (“Farrago,” the whisper-sung “Gotta Feed My Dog”), grinding with punk/industrial fervor (“Only Once,” “Bring it to the Front”), and even achieving a Cure-majestic crescendo with “Back to Nothing” before it decompresses with the gentler closer “Left Too Soon.”

Bryan, who spends most of her time in America now, has also learned some basic survival skills that have carried her group through the new singles-oriented Spotify era. The music business is declining, and wily artists have to think on their feet to remain vital, especially when stripped of any possibility of touring. Ergo, DIY-style, she and Dafydd created their fan-friendly TJF Music Club, which caught on in a big way over 2020. With an annual subscription, the lucky member gets six exclusive live-streamed concerts, each featuring a special encore curated by drummer Matthew Thomas, from his overseas base. “And there’s been a variety of them,” Bryan details. “He’s been writing his own songs about conserving trees, and doing covers of reggae songs.”

“We’ve allowed him to explore his comedic side even more, and that’s been nice to see,” adds Dafydd of the Music Club, which also offers a dozen new Joy Formidable songs per year, plus more rare content, collectible merchandise, backstage access and even a credit on band albums. A limited vinyl edition of Into the Blue was just made available to TJF insiders, which sold out in 12 hours. “And what’s been really nice about it is that it’s given us a chance to connect even more with our fans, our following,” he continues. “And even from a technical point of view, we just wanted to have one place, instead of people having to go to loads of different places, where it feels all fractured. And we noticed when we’ve been putting these shows on that people are really enjoying that connection.”

Bryan wholeheartedly agrees. “That’s the one thing that’s been so important,” she says. “That connection, during a time when we can no longer go out and see people in a live setting. And the [TJFMC] response has just been amazing, and it’s what’s kept everything ticking—it’s what financed the record and what kept everything going for us this past year.” And she’s continuing to grow stronger; she’s only begun to push the possibilities on where such an elite, members-only concept could go, content-wise. But for now, she and Dafydd are content to pause, catch their breath, and gather more strength with a calming chat.

Paste: So where, exactly, are you guys right now? What city?

Ritzy Bryan: We’re in Utah at the moment, but it’s technically not a city—we’re in a little town in Southern Utah just outside of Zion National Park. I’ve been here for nearly eight years, and it’s kind of been my sanctuary outside of touring. But this has been my most uninterrupted visit, due to lockdown, and being here over the past 12 months, it felt like a home finally. But the past 12 months, it’s been like a different world—there’s been so much sadness and so much uncertainty, but for us, the amount of writing it produced was phenomenal, and I love everything that we’ve done here. I mean, obviously, we’ve always written a lot around every writing session, but particularly with this one, there’s been something about not having to juggle touring and making a record, so it’s the first time that it’s been two separate on this album. And I think it suited us. I really think it worked.

Rhydian Dafydd: Ritzy lives here, but I don’t. But I’ve been coming here for quite a few years now, because we write here a lot and we both really do love being here. So it seems that we were stuck here during lockdown. We were only meant to be here a month or two, but obviously, it worked out fine, because there are worse places you could be during a lockdown, right? And it’s especially nice when you’re touring a lot and that pace in life is quite chaotic, to come here and be surrounded by a lot of space, beautiful nature, and really nice weather, which is very different from ours in the U.K. You can actually get some sun here—it’s a nice contrast to Wales. And it’s funny how places grow on you. In Wales, we’re used to a lot of lushness and greenery because it rains a lot. But here, it can seem quite barren, it can seem like being on Mars. But then you get used to that, and you start to see things within that. And over the past year, because of Covid, I spent more time here than ever, so I was doing a lot of walking and running in the canyons, so it doesn’t matter where you are, right? Everything’s relative, and things grow on you, and you start to see things that you obviously didn’t see to start off with. And it’s been really interesting for wildlife. We’ve had some hikes where we’ve seen some really amazing creatures—snakes, tarantula hawks, big spiders. And the tarantula hawk supposedly has one of the most painful stings in the insect world, although they’re beautiful things to behold, and just massive.

Bryan: Yeah. I posted a picture of a tarantula hawk last year when I was in Arizona, and all the comments were like, “You’re too close!” I was just admiring how beautiful it was, but everybody was like, “Get away! Keep away from it!”

Paste: But something happened out there in the wilderness, during the pandemic, because this is your most inspired work in ages. Like something lit a fire under you both.

Dafydd: Yeah. And we do mention that, that we didn’t start out talking about the pandemic. It’s a very personal record, but with that, of course, there are some outer things that have gone hand in hand with some of the stuff that we’ve been personally talking about. So yeah—that was a firing up of sorts. I mean, usually we’re fired up whenever we’re writing, but yeah it just completely flowed out of us in this past year, and we’d been really going full tilt with the Music Club, as well, and lots of online shows. And withe club. Members get 12 new songs per year, so we’ve written a hell of a lot. And that’s a great place to be for us, 10 years in—where we’re still creative together, and there’s no shortage of ideas, and we’re still loving it.

Bryan: I guess the thing for me is, we were always kind of feeling like it was quite difficult, on some levels, as independent artists, prior to the pandemic. We were already seeing, in the last decade, how things were changing—some things that were more empowering, some things that were less empowering. But the one thing that’s always been in our control—besides the touring side of things—the one thing we’ve always had to turn to with every new record, is how it gets taken away from you. So there was something about this adaptable new time that kicked in with the writing. When things feel very different and uncertain, I think that there is room for actually thriving in that vortex. Instead of being anxious about it? Fuck it—what could we do about it? But one thing we could do was throw ourselves into a lot of writing and evolve and grow the Music Club and keep our creative selves going in that sense. So I think there’s a real defense of that on this record, like, “Yeah—fuck this!” And you know, just before the pandemic hit, the general vibe from promoters was that ticket sales were the lowest they’d ever been, just across the board. It was already feeling like there were less and less people going out to live shows every year.

Paste: Obvious question here: “Gotta Feed My Dog”? Do you both have dogs?

Dafydd: I help out with them—we’ve had a lot of fosters over the past year, which has been good to be able to do that, since we were basically rooted here. And Ritzy’s been doing a course in animal behavior, as well. That’s probably your main passion, right?

Bryan: Oh, animals—yeah. But I’ve always fostered a lot of dogs. This year, because we’ve obviously been in one place, I think we did 19 in 2020. I seem to have had a lot of little four-legged creatures come through the door, so I thought I should learn to speak their language a bit more, whatever that is. So I thought I’d do an animal behavior course, and a regular behavior course on top of that, as well. And it’s been really interesting—it’s just learning, isn’t it? And it goes back to this question of what can you actually control at a time when things feel a little bit like they’re out of your control. So I thought I would do some of those things that have been on my bucket list for ages, but every time I go to do them, it’s like, Oh—we’re going on tour for six months! Which is fine, as well, that’s always been a huge part of our lives. But I think I’ve come to like dogs much more than people.

Paste: I would agree. They have no agenda.

Bryan: Well, this one that I’m fostering at the moment does. He’s working on an angle all the time. I think he’s a dachshund mixed with a Jack Russell, two of the most testosterone little-dog breeds that have ideas of grandeur. So with fostering, especially raising puppies before they get adopted, there’s not much sleep and a lot of shit. Because in the beginning, the mother cleans up after them and keeps everything nice and clean. But after two weeks? Not so much. And we’ve had a lot with neurotic issues. This one at the moment has a biting history, so it’s got aggressive- and fear-related issues. And we have a pug here at the moment, and he’s got separation anxiety. It’s been like The Joy Formidable orphanage for troubled dogs here.

Paste: What’s “Chimes” about?

Bryan: Let me think about the chronology on that one. We had just started making the record, and I was going through a lot of change. I was going through a breakup, and I had to move—it was one of those big moments where you draw a line in the sand and you have to get moving on. And it felt like I was kind of struggling with moving into the next chapter, and there was a whole week where I felt like I was being given little. I dunno, maybe because I was feeling emotionally quite sensitive, I was being shown little symbols in life, about not allowing it to hurt too much or kind of find some inner strength to get back on the horse, if you like. And I have a set of chimes that hang at my house that my granddad bought, and it’s pretty much the only thing that I have here from him. And it felt like they were ringing, every time I’d sit out on the porch and I was feeling low. I felt like they were attuned to me, in a way, even though there was no wind. There was a whole month of these little things that connected me to him that kept happening, so it was just a wonderful life moment, where you felt some sort of guardianship, or there was something out there telling you to keep your chin up. And that actually is very relatable to my new partner, who is all about symbols and clocks and the illusion of time.

Dafydd: And to be honest, I think the album hits on some of that, which is about connection, and that we are not disparate—we are all connected, in all manner of ways. And it talks about the spiritual side of that, and other sides, but I think “Chimes” does hit on that symbolic theme, of signals, possibly, from the universe. One of my best friends lost his daughter recently, and he said, actually, “You know, I’m seeing these white feathers falling.” And I was with him, having a drink, and a white feather fell between us. I’ve seen little things like that quite a lot over the last couple of years. Ritzy’s grandmother died recently, and she had a bit of a pitch-in, and the next day, a dove came down in her garden.

Bryan: You sound a bit wacky, don’t you? But I was telling him that on the day my grandmother died, there were nonstop pigeon anecdotes—like every member of my family on her side in this 24-hour period had nonstop pigeon anecdotes. And the next day, these two doves showed up in my garden that I’d never seen before. And because I’m a bit wacky myself, I like seeing meaning in things. So every time I go out to feed them in the morning, I say, “Hi, grandma and granddad!”

Paste: This would lead to our ultimate question. From Bob Dylan to The Doors, there’s traditionally a deep spirituality in the desert. Have you felt that?

Dafydd: And it does encourage you sometimes to investigate that part of yourself. Partly, of course, because you don’t have so much of the modern constructions when you’re out in the spacious areas, so you wind up investigating yourself sometimes.

Bryan: I’ve probably learned more in the last 12 months than ever before, because sometimes I felt a little bit caught up in all that hectic side of music, with the touring and everything, because you even realize it sometimes, 12 months have just disappeared. And not to say that it’s been beautifully spent, and you’ve had all these experiences. But I felt in the past that I haven’t had a lot of time to really sit with myself. So there have been times where I haven’t been where I am, or where I wanna be, and when I was at that point that I mentioned, just before writing “Chimes,” things hit you in a bit more of a heavier way because you haven’t sat with yourself. You haven’t taken responsibility, or maybe you haven’t been kind to yourself for a long time. So I think there’s been more growth, or I’ve changed more in the past 12 months because I’ve had to live with myself a bit more. And I’ve met somebody, as well, and that’s been very unexpected. Because up until 12 months ago, I was thinking that I was gonna be very happy to be by myself, for a very, very long time. But again, meeting someone in Southern Utah? I didn’t expect that! So it’s quite rare when you meet someone who really challenges you and brings a new perspective into your life—I feel like I haven’t had that before, and I haven’t really had the time for any relationships, either.

Paste: So are you in any big hurry to hit the road again? Or are you happy just staying put?

Bryan: I think we’re a little bit torn, on some level. I mean, absolutely, we wanna go back out and play live again. We haven’t announced any dates, but we have some dates on hold at the moment. But in an ideal scenario, I’d like to be able to go out and still have all the closeness. So I don’t know if I want to go out and have restrictions, where we can’t even hug each other and get close. We normally do a lot of pre-shows and backstages, so I feel like when we go out on the road, we really connect, and we’re cuddlers, as well—we get out there and we meet people and we listen—we tell stories and we hear stories. I want it to go back to that. I don’t want it to feel like everybody is second-guessing themselves. So I think that’s why we haven’t jumped into anything. And there’s also a social consciousness, as well—we want everything to feel right. Are we adding to the problem? Where is the truth in where we’re actually at, in terms of being over this hump? And what’s our position on making sure that everybody can have a great, safe experience? But the bottom line is, we’re really looking forward to going back out again. And we’ll be there as soon as we feel like the time is right.