Since releasing their sweeping second full-length ‘Wolf’s Law’ in 2013, Welsh trio The Joy Formidable have had a bit of a rough time of it. In between labels in the UK, and putting in the hard yards touring the States, the North Wales natives decamped back to Mold in 2015 to record the more sombre, reflective ‘Hitch’. That album was soaked in the strains that were weighing heavy on the group after eight years of relentless hard work.
Now, energised by a burst of creativity and the grand surroundings of the Utah wilderness, The Joy Formidable are back with their fourth album ‘AAARTH’, a more concise record that leaps out of the speakers, grabs you by the scruff of the neck and hurls you into a world of colour and chaos.
“This album is really a transformative one for us,” bassist Rhydian Dafydd explains. “We wanted to catalogue a different chapter in our lives, and this one definitely did that. There was some personal stuff going on, which I won't go into but it was sort of traumatic stuff. I think we needed to sort of shed the skin a little bit.”
‘AAARTH’ (named for the Welsh word for ‘bear’) harnesses the primal natural and human energies that have always provided inspiration for the band and traverses terrains that encapsulate the many faces of The Joy Formidable. With swirling rockers (‘Dance of the Lotus’), soaring anthems (‘The Wrong Side’) and the stately arpeggiated piano of ‘Absence’, this is a record that blends different tones to create a dizzying mural of sound and song. The different styles toss the listener from side to side, but this is a band who are assured enough in their craft that they never lose control.
“With this record, it's almost pieced together like a collage,” explains Rhydian, who has had a hand in the band’s visuals since their early days. “That was with the lyrics as well; it's not just a narrative, there's a stream of consciousness to the lyrics and grabbing moments as they happen, all these fleeting moments. And I think we often look to nature for symbols for what's going on internally.”
“It's very wild,” vocalist Ritzy Bryan says of the Utah landscape where she has spent the past year finding inspiration for the new record. “It feels like true wilderness. North Wales has an element of that where you can kind of get away, and get off the grid, but not compared to Utah. It has to be somewhere between enjoying the isolation, and being quite smart because you can get lost and you can fry in the sun quite easily,” she laughs.
Growing up in rural Wales, Bryan and Dafydd have always incorporated nature in their art.
“I still have that childish sense of wonder,” Ritzy confesses. “I can see something beautiful in the same view over and over. I’ll find myself on hikes and having my breath taken away, and it feels like the purest sense of joy to me. That and music. I'm kind of lucky in that respect; those are the two spaces that I feel real sublimity and happiness kicking in.”
“Initially with this record, it was a bit of a struggle you know, what's the voice? What are we trying to say?” Rhydian, the band’s resident pianist and cover artist, reveals. “We pushed through it, and kind of it felt like a bit of a rebirth.”
“I was noticing that I wasn’t writing and I didn’t feel interested in writing…” Ritzy remembers slightly sorrowfully. “And that’s the first time that’s ever happened. It was a big deal to get over that, and I think when we opened the blinds on that again, let the light pour in, there was something about it that had an even better energy. An element of relief and excitement and really feeling it again.”
That spurt of inspiration produced not just the 11 tracks of ‘AAARTH’ but another album’s worth of material that’s being released to fan club members over the next year.
The main album is arriving on a new label, Hassle Records, taking some of the strain the band shouldered in self-releasing ‘Hitch’, which was hit by distribution issues that had some vinyl orders arriving a year late.
“Oh god yeah, that was very painful,” Rhydian recalls. “What makes it frustrating is when there's stuff out of your control. We were shouting and screaming for about a year. So we shared the fans’ frustration, we were really, really disappointed.”
“It definitely shaved about a year off our lives I think, that whole debacle,” Ritzy sighs before perking up. “I feel like we've found some kindred spirits there, which we haven't always found in the UK. It's nice working with people who are tuned in, and they're passionate about this band. And they're not imbeciles!”
Although they’ve strayed geographically from their Welsh roots, with Ritzy living in Utah and drummer Matt Thomas bouncing around Somerset, the band have never left their Gallic heritage behind, releasing a series of Welsh language singles over the past few years.
This time around they’ve gone one further and opened the new record with a fierce metal monster ‘Y Bluen Eira (The Snowflake)’, which centres around a looped Welsh spoken word intro and a tectonic guitar riff.
“There’s still this kind of fascination with Wales and the Welsh language, and we’re excited to share that with people. It’s Rhydian’s first language, it’s my second language,” Ritzy explains.
Despite often not knowing much about the Welsh identity, Ritzy says their American fans have proved receptive to learning about the country through the band’s music.
“They love it! They ask for copies of the lyrics, and we’ve had a few people try to translate bits of Welsh, send us little messages in Welsh. It’s very, very cute.”
“We have a very musical following,” Rhydian adds. “And there’s nothing quite like hearing the mother tongue of an artist.”
Back across the pond, and with the mortal coil being a closed loop, the circle of life has dictated that TJF will once again support Foo Fighters in the USA this autumn, having previously been invited out by Dave Grohl while touring ‘The Big Roar’.
“At least we know we’re gonna have a nice time, that they’re not motherfuckers!” chuckles Ritzy. “We know what we’re getting into and we had a great time with them last time. In the backstage area there was a lot of camaraderie, so we’re looking forward to all that again.”
Before those stadium sets, they have their own tour to focus on, with a Main Stage slot at Reading & Leeds greasing the wheels for headline shows stateside as the trio unleash their new material on audiences.
“We bring it wherever we play because first and foremost we get off on the music,” Rhydian remarks. “It's like - not a battlefield, but we completely lose ourselves when we play live.”
“The perfect show is when you can lose yourself, and you’re not even aware of the crowd,” Ritzy concurs. “The last thing you want is to be self-aware of what’s going on around you. We can play tiny venues, and big arenas and the set doesn’t change, the energy doesn’t change.”
That energy which Ritzy, Rhydian and Matt derive from their music is what’s kept their show on the road through ups and down, twists and turns, and despite the occasional disagreement over song structures and touring schedules. “We definitely clash heads and always have done but with respect you know,” Rhydian acknowledges.
This time around the two songwriters used the album sessions as a tool for healing and reconciliation.
“We were aware that we were both a bit fragile and we needed each other,” says Ritzy. “And that we were going to bond and support each other with this album, instead of pushing and pulling. Some of the things that have happened with us over the past decade, they’ve been quite affecting on a personal level and sometimes have been quite good in terms of driving the band and having quite a lot of passion, fire and anger.”
“But some of that can end up being quite destructive on a daily basis,” the singer admits. “There’s that idea of taking the good bits of those moments and turning it into something that’s easier to live with. Without getting too comfy!”
“Focussing that energy and transforming it is important because otherwise it’ll kind of eat you alive,” warns Rhydian.
“The creative process and some of the melancholia that comes with that it can be quite hard to live with, and it can be quite hard for people around you as well,” Ritzy confirms.
Tearing their hair out in frustration at the industry, overcoming internal tensions and shaking their heads in disbelief at the state of the western world, The Joy Formidable’s response is their most cohesive and well-rounded release yet. ‘AAARTH’ packs into its eleven tracks everything we’ve come to love about TJF along with much more. There’s a vitality, a presence and an earnestness to these recordings which is hard to ignore; it doesn't harm that the songs are being performed by three musicians at the top of their game and totally at ease with each other.
“It's almost pushing yourself to be in the now,” Rhydian offers by way of summing up the intent of the record. “Isn't that so important? We're in such an age of anxiety, and anxiety comes from thinking about the past and the future too much. I suppose you've got to have some aspect of that but its so important to be in the now as well. And have a sense of hope as well, there’s always hope,” he adds earnestly. “It isn’t all doom and gloom, and the media might try and paint it as bad all the time, but there’s a lot of good things to be shouting about as well.”
Rarely ones to do things quietly, The Joy Formidable are back on steady footing and ready to roar back into the spotlight with their most evolved album to date.
Taken from the October issue of Upset. The Joy Formidable's album ‘AAARTH’ is out now.
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