While at her American home in Utah (and not yet on tour), Rhiannon “Ritzy” Bryan of The Joy Formidable talked with QRO. In the conversation, the singer/guitarist discussed new album Into the Blue (QRO review), their TJF Music Club, life during the pandemic (including canceling their winter tour), not being on the road with her bandmates bassist Rhydian Dafydd Davies and drummer Matthew James Thomas for the first time in over a decade, mixing Utah & Wales, how tour training helps with Zoom time zones, videos in bathtubs & rivers, and much more…
QRO: How have you been holding up during everything that’s been going on?
Rhiannon “Ritzy” Bryan: Just a lot of adapting, I guess?
It’s an interesting test, isn’t it, in terms of the external, and what you can’t control, and how you decide to handle some of that.
Obviously missing touring, and lots of change. Have to keep positive, keeping healthy, keeping well, keeping creative, still a lot of creativity going on. The music club has grown a lot in the last 18 months. Just throwing our creativity into those kind of things.
Still trying to find connection, right? Cause I think that’s one of the things that’s taken away, in terms of keeping connected, having conversations. Trying to build the community through the music club, since we haven’t actually been out & seen people. It’s a very complicated time.
We haven’t re-announced our dates yet, because we’re trying to navigate it all. Gotta make good decisions, try and find the truth in things, what’s right for myself and my bandmates. Challenging time, but trying to flow with it, I suppose.
QRO: Lotta tour cancellations happening – feels like March ‘20…
RB: It’s another wave of cancellations, isn’t it?
An artist of our size, as well, it can be a bit of a risky business as well. You know, you go out on tour, you get sick, and things get cancelled. Financial implications of that, also the health of everybody – there’s lot of considerations to take on-board. Being very thoughtful about it all.
The way we ended the year, we were obviously extremely disappointed by having to cancel the tour, so we kinda just threw ourselves into something really altruistic. We’ve been running this fundraiser trying to raise money for this charity [Turquoise Paw] that I’m really passionate about. We did an online show, a bunch of little auctions, really rare Joy Formidable stuff.
You gotta just think, “Well, I’m gonna be grounded in one place, might as well as turn it into something like a beautiful way to end the year.” If the plans have gone tit’s up… [laughs]
QRO: I’m worried about South-by-Southwest, as it’s coming up in March, and it’s had to cancel twice.
I believe you played 2019, the last time it happened? I remember trying to go see you, and I was stuck in a line (QRO recap) – you don’t do SXSW if you never get stuck in a line…
RB: I think you have to be pretty chill to enjoy SXSW. I think there’s always been this sick thriving on not knowing what it going to happen… [laughs]
So, that’s the ultimate version of that, isn’t it? Turn up, throw yourself on, go on & probably playing four other shows that day…
QRO: How much have you played live & in front of people since the start of the pandemic?
RB: We haven’t.
Because, I suppose the pandemic struck when we were naturally in a kind of a recording phase anyway. We had some dates in 2020 that started just getting moved, when the extent of everything was fully realized.
Our last show was in December 2019…
Which is so strange, because we’re band, I don’t think we’ve ever stopped. We were commenting, we don’t think we’ve had more than about three weeks off the road. Even during making an album, we’ve had a lot of things going on, ‘Oh, let’s go play that,’ then we come back to the studio and finish.
I’m not saying the pandemic is a way of doing it, [laughs] there are other ways of creating change, or questioning, or stepping back for a minute that doesn’t need a worldwide pandemic to do that. I kind of like just the switch.
It came at quite an interesting time for us. Because I loved making this last record. I’m finally realizing, ‘Oh, we don’t have to be so split between so many things.’ Like I said, I think a lot of bands these days, they’re wearing a lot of different heads, the way that the industry has developed, you have to have your eye on so many different things, that the traditional model of sending it over to your management or your label just isn’t really the truth anymore, you know?
‘Overwhelm’ makes it sound a little bit negative, but I think you can end up feeling like you lose sight of something along the way. I think we’ve always tried to make sure we don’t lose sight of the fun, and the creativity. I think you can definitely lose touch with yourself a little bit. You end up putting yourself on the backburner, you go like, ‘Oh, we’ve got all this stuff that needs to happen…’
So, there’s been something really much needed about making this last record. The change of pace, reflecting on where we are, the rhythm of the band. It’s a strange kind of, missing touring on one hand, but maybe feeling a little bit more peaceful about yourself in a strange way at the same time… [laughs]
QRO: You do tour a lot. I think of a lot of U.K. bands I love, who only play America maybe once on an album, or not even that, but you reliably play America quite frequently…
RB: Yeah, we do big tours, and we come back and do the other bits in between, and then we come back again and we do the deeper cuts in-between… [laughs]
Like I said, I do genuinely miss it. I’m looking forward to it hopefully, at some point, it coming back in. But hopefully now, integrated with a little bit more balance, as well.
I think it’s enhanced some of the creativity for us, over the last year, in terms of really figuring out the record that we want to make, the way that we want to put it out.
The music club has been the just the whole, in terms of keeping us supported, over the last two years. Can’t say enough about how that has given us a big ol’ help, boost.
QRO: I saw you in December ’19 at Rough Trade NYC – you were doing two nights of A Balloon Called Moaning (QRO anniversary edition review)…
QRO: How was making Into the Blue? Were you making it when the pandemic struck?
RB: We started it just prior. Like I said, our last date was 2019, and we’d already been demoing in north Wales around November/December time, in between the North American tour that we did at the end of 2019.
It’s interesting how then, thematically, it ends up growing into something… I think I was already kind of having a little bit of a moment of examining where I was at, and again, this sense of feeling that maybe I had been burying a lot of stuff in the chaos of the band. You kind of think, ‘Well, I’ll come back to that, I’ll address that at some point…’ [laughs] And you never do. Maybe you haven’t sat with yourself enough, maybe there’s things that you still need to heal from, or question, or change moving forward, or evaluate, I suppose?
It kind of felt like there was a transitional element happening just before the pandemic, and then, holy shit! [laughs] Boom! Now you are forced to sit and have those moments of reflection of where you’re at, where you’ve been…
It depends on how you decide to handle it, but there’s been the potential for quite a lot of anxiety, or figuring out what’s going on, or feeling like there’s a lot of uncertain what’s happening, what’s the truth, what’s the science? Untangling all of that, making sure that your loved ones are safe.
I just think it was really important for us, like I mentioned before, to just have something to really throw ourselves into. Making of the record, having no other distractions, it being about the record, I think it was really helpful in terms, I think, of some of the healing that I, in particular, was already going through.
And then on top of that, all the stuff that were external to that, being able to explore some of the feelings, still trying to feel strong & confident & working on yourself, because that’s kind of the root of it all. The theory is, it doesn’t matter what’s going on on the outside, that you have a basis for always being able to cope, and always being able to grow, I suppose.
We don’t think we’ve had more than about three weeks off the road.
QRO: Did you all have to quarantine together to make it?
RB: I’d forgotten about that…
Typical us, because we have stuff spread all over the fuckin’ world, [laughs] usually, we were like, ‘Oh, wow, some of stuff’s in America – we better go get it!’ Rhydian & I, we came over – I’ve lived in Utah on & off for the last eight years. We thought, ‘We’ll go & get it, it’s in L.A., and then we’ll come to Utah, and we’ll have a couple of weeks. Do a little bit of finishing the demo, and then we’ll go back to Wales, to be with Matt, and then we’ll knock it out…’
Somewhere in between [laughs] getting the stuff & coming to Utah, we went into lockdown! We went, ‘Okay, this wasn’t the plan…’
Definitely spent a lot of time with Rhydian this year, making the album together. We grew up together, we went to the same school, we’ve known each other since we were four years old, and we’ve lived together on several occasions, and bounced backwards & forwards. It was quite nice, kind of, going back into that. Kind of felt like when we were first starting the band, we were all living in close quarters…
And then obviously the challenge of like, well, ‘Fucking hell! We want live drums on this – how do we integrate that?’
You sometimes, when something is a little bit tricky, and you don’t have all the options and everything, sometimes it does focus your energy, and you kind of think, ‘This is going to work. We’re gonna make it work, and we’re gonna make it sound the best it’s gonna sound like this.’
I think it added a little bit of fire & tenacity through everything, because you kind of see your tour dates go up in flames? [laughs] You’re kind of like, ‘Gonna make something really special here,’ since it feels a little bit like what we’ve known as our livelihood, and the structure of our livelihood, seems to be getting severely fucked! [laughs] Like, ‘Let’s swap it up. Let’s adapt.’
The album we made pretty quickly, and then the music club is everything outside of what we want our body of work to maybe feel like. I love that side of things. I love crafting a record as well. I’m feeling like, thematically, it has a consistency, it has a story or a sentiment behind it, a moment in time.
But then there’s another part of my creativity that loves the music club. Because if I want to have a dabble with something a bit jazzier, or more dancey or something, be really quick, and I don’t have to fuckin’ pass it by anybody. Sometimes the whole traditional model of releasing a record with partners, it’s kind of nice to just “Whoosh”…
It kind of felt like there was a transitional element happening just before the pandemic, and then, holy shit!
QRO: And where did the idea for the TJF Music Club idea come from?
RB: That started way before the pandemic.
We’ve got two writers in this band, and sometimes our aesthetic meets beautifully, and other times, we wanna go in different directions. I think we kind of wanted what I just described, really: we wanted a place, our own platform where we could share things, spontaneously, as & when they came. And then it’s just really grown from there.
Like, we’ve developed this whole backstage area, and that’s where we have the ‘vault’ I suppose, our version of ‘the vault.’ And not just b-sides. We’ve been sharing things that could have made it on the record, but just felt like they had a little bit of a different flavor. And that’s where we have been hosting our shows & stuff.
And I just love the way it’s grown. Our fanbase has just been really thoughtful. I think they’ve realized some of the pressure for artists at the moment, when touring disappears, and they’ve been really supportive. And it’s been wonderful, like I said, to still have that sense of building that sense of community, that normally comes when you go out and see them in person. We are the sort of band that has always enjoyed interaction when we’re out on the road. We put on acoustic pre-shows, we like meeting people, we like hanging out. We’re not particularly elusive from our audiences! [laughs] So, it’s like, needed that from somewhere.
The main thing for me is, I just wanted to just kind of give people a place to feel happy. I just really have. Matt’s have been doing these encores. He’s as much a drummer as he should have been a stand-up comedian…
We wanted a place, our own platform where we could share things, spontaneously, as & when they came. And then [TJF Music Club]’s just really grown from there.
QRO: I was thinking this about the music club, that it let you do the best thing about your shows: the banter…
RB: [laughs] It’s definitely where we get to be as goofy as we want to be. We’ve seen it as where we can enjoy a bit of a playful side. Cause I just wanted to make people feel connected with music, and escape.
Like I said, I think some people are struggling at the moment, they’re struggling financially, they’re struggling with where things are going, their health, they’re missing people. There’s just been a whole range of challenges for people. I kind of just wanted to create, if you come and hang with us, this is going to be a safe, happy place.
Matt’s been doing these encores. I can’t even describe them – they’re really strange & surreal. [laughs] They’ve been really good. So, he’s been doing things that probably we would never have done – maybe should never have done!… [laughs]
QRO: If you’re doing them from Utah, is the time difference tough with the U.K.?
RB: I think that’s wonderful thing about having been a musician for a long time. I know sleep deprivation isn’t a great thing for your brain sometimes, but in terms of your stamina, in terms of your tenacity, and being able to stay up, and push through sometimes, and do things that are a little bit uncomfortable, I think musicians just do that… [laughs] ‘You’re not going to sleep for six weeks!’ ‘Okay…’ Doing something you love…
Even with the touring removed, like I said, it’s almost like you’ve been conditioned, something almost a bit athletic, where you go, ‘I don’t care what the time is!’… [laughs]
The Joy Formidable’s video for “Back To Nothing”:
QRO: Where did the idea for doing videos for all of Into the Blue’s tracks come from?
RB: Again, I think it’s all been this just wanting to throw ourselves into the whole album. I’m not saying a ‘distraction’ – definitely a little bit of a distraction, though, from everything that’s been going on, as well.
And also, with us being in lockdown, and maybe not being able to collaborate as much as sometimes we’ve done in the past with videos & visuals, I think it’s been an extension of just wanting to throw ourselves into another creative outlet. ‘Well, we’re at home, so we might as well learn how to do 360° video…’
Wasn’t the best idea, now, in hindsight – when we did “Back To Nothing”, we filmed it all in 360°, and then I realized that I’d never edited in 360° before. And nobody wanted to touch it! When you start collaborating afterwards, you’re like, ‘Hey…’ And they’re like, ‘Fuck off! I’m not looking at ten hours of 360° video…’ [laughs]
I feel like I’ve learned more things in the last two years then ever. Just because a little bit the necessity, and then a little bit of wanting to keep busy. Not ‘busy’ in a way where you’re not connected, trying to hide away from things. But just there’s been this really shape all the videos around the album with the same detail, the same feel as the music itself.
I love doing it. I’ve edited every single one of our videos this year. It’s good to kind of keep on working at things, seeing with every new one, change perspective.
Either that, or massive control freak – can’t figure that out… [laughs]
The Joy Formidable’s video for “Into the Blue”:
QRO: How was shooting “Into the Blue” (QRO review) in a bathtub? At least you were clothed…
RB: It was pretty wrinkly afterwards… [laughs]
That’s the one that kind of kickstarted it all. We were right in the middle of lockdown.
That was a little bit collaborative, because all the animation work with TRLLM.
It’s a nice little nod to, I don’t have very relaxing baths anymore. What do they call it? When your brain changes, when you start to relax sometimes, your creative mind kicks in? So, I am always – if I forget to take a pen and paper or something into the bath, I’m always getting out, “Fuck!” Melodies and things…
Like I said, it was a little bit of a nod to that kind of dreaminess that sometimes happens when your mind changes states.
I guess that whole song, it’s song about really embracing magic again, isn’t it? About being able to create a new reality for yourself, even when things seem difficult.
Lot of hours in the bath, definitely. Eight hours in lukewarm water.
Although it’s not the worst music videos we’ve done. “I Don’t Want To See You Like This” might go down as one of the fuckin’ weirdest outdoor shoots we’ve ever done. [laughs] So, we always compare it to that. We say, “Was it as painful as ‘I Don’t Want To See You Like This’?”
And nothing’s ever come close to that one, where the director actually glued proper bark on me with superglue!… [laughs]
So, that’s the measure of it, for now: ‘Is it as much as ripping bark off your face at three in the morning?’… [laughs]
The Joy Formidable’s video for “I Don’t Want To See You Like This”:
QRO: Did you damage your guitar, playing it in a lake for the “Sevier” video?
RB: It wasn’t an old guitar. It is one, as far as one that could be a bit sacrificed, [laughs] for the art of it.
It still worked after we did it, which was pretty amazing. Managed to kind of dry it out. That’s the good thing about Utah – nice & dry. Hang it outside for a few hours, all good again… [laughs]
Sevier is a river in Utah – we didn’t film it in the river, because I’d probably be in the Salt Lake Basin right now, because the river’s so fast-flowing… [laughs]
The Joy Formidable’s video for “Sevier”:
QRO: Why did you move to Utah? Was it just random?
RB: Very random…
In between the first two albums, my mum was going through a pretty difficult time, so I decided to take her on a really nice mother-daughter road trip, cliched, where we got a fuckin’ convertible, [laughs] did the whole kind of ‘Forest Gump’ through Monument Valley, all around the Southwest. Really explored.
And we ended up passing through this little town where I live now. It’s strange – sometimes you go to a place, and you kinda feel like you’ve been there before. Or it’s been in your imagination in some way.
I just felt very connected, and then I realized that I’d been living out of a suitcase probably for about six years – which is fine; I’m not bemoaning that, cause it’s a lovely life. But I thought, ‘It’d be quite nice to have a closet, wouldn’t it?…’ [laughs]
So, I just ended up buying it. It was very random. I just came back. Was lucky enough to have a little bit of money set aside from the first two records, managed to put down on a house here. I’ve been very happy. Made some lovely connections.
Love coming back here to write. I think it’s the perfect marriage of two places, because I spend a lot of time in north Wales as well, or at least I’m starting to again now, with the flights & everything changing. It’s just the perfect two worlds, because I love the landscapes of north Wales, and when it gets a bit grey & wet, here’s very colorful & blue… [laughs]
‘Well, we’re at home, so we might as well learn how to do 360° video…’
QRO: Are you ‘exotic’ in Utah, like speaking Welsh, or are there like Mormons from around the world?
RB: The more that I’ve dug in over the years, because I like being curious, I like talking to people, it feels like there’s a lot of Welsh heritage here. One of my best friends here, he can trace his Welsh lineage way further back than I can – he’s more Welsh than I am! [laughs] I’m kind of a mutt in comparison…
Where I actually live in Utah, it’s a fascinating melting pot of lots of different backgrounds & demographics. Cause there is a big Mormon community, there also is a big animal sanctuary.
There’s only six thousand people, so it’s small-ish, but it feels like a real kind of mix of people, all occupying this isolated space in the high desert. I love it here; I think it’s fascinating. I like hearing about everybody’s journey, what made them come to Utah.
But it’s a lot more diverse & kooky, I think, than somebody… Because when I talk to people, and tell them you’re in the States, they say, “L.A?” “No, Utah.” And they go, [makes face]…
But it’s fuckin’ beautiful! The hiking, being outdoors… Stunning state if you like wild life, if you like being outside, which I do. I love being sociable on one side, and then I like to kind of hide. [laughs] Kind of go between the two worlds. I like to kind of take myself away – you can definitely get in touch with the universe here, the vastness of everything.
Prior to the pandemic, I don’t think we’d spent more than three weeks apart in a decade…
QRO: And how are Rhydian Dafydd Davies & Matthew James Thomas doing?
RB: They’re great, thank you – still as ugly as ever, you know!… [laughs] They’re doing alright.
We’re looking forward to this year. We’re gonna be all back in the U.K. next month.
Like I said, we’re still trying to tread carefully with the touring. We’re still trying to make thoughtful decisions about when to put the tour on.
We kind of missed an anniversary. It was The Big Roar’s (QRO review) anniversary last year, and we were gonna do something for it, but figured we’d just push it into this year. I think we’re gonna do something really special, we’d like to record something. And if we can make it available for people to come see, then we’ll maybe try to do that, too. We’ll see what sort of restrictions are in place in Wales when we’re there.
We wanted to do something to celebrate that, because that was a big touring point for the band, and The Big Roar. And ten years together is pretty good going…
Hoping to spend more time together. We spend a lot of time online. I’ve spent huge amount of time with Rhydian, and then obviously keeping in touch with Matt.
We’ve missed each other. It’s been very strange. Like I said, prior to the pandemic, I don’t think we’d spent more than three weeks apart in a decade…