Formidable in sound, formidable in name, female-fronted three-piece The Joy Formidable return with their fourth record ‘AAARTH’. Since their emergence ten years ago from North Wales, their herculean sound has seen them not only climb the charts, but climb the Glastonbury line-up to the exalted Other Stage – not to mention seeing them tour with great fanfare around the world. We spoke to bassist Rhydian Dafydd about what to expect from ‘AAARTH’, with its release coming up, as well as tapping into his thoughts, wisdom and advice about the music industry we’re contending with today.
The name ‘AAARTH’ for a record immediately poses an array of questions; the answers lie in the concepts and intentions The Joy Formidable have for their album, a conscious step in a new direction: “‘Aaarth’ actually means ‘bear’ in Welsh.” Rhydian explains, early in the morning from Utah. “We were always fascinated by folklore, myths and stories. Being out here in Utah, you definitely got a sense of that. We recorded quite a lot of the record here, where Ritzy is based; you’re surrounded by all these red rocks. It just feels very mystical. We’ve always been drawn to these symbols and nature and what it says about us. The bear is a symbol for bravery in many cultures – and we kind of feel like on this record we had a tough year in many respects – so this one was like a rebirth. The mystical element ties into that a bit. It’s about rediscovering ourselves again, as you do when you go through a difficult period. I think that comes into it as well: wanting to be brave and sticking to your vision, which we always have done. We love toying with language as well: Welsh is my first language, and we knew we wanted to incorporate more of that into our record. It opens on a Welsh track this time. We also see it as a scream, an exaltation, and in many ways, we need that primal scream as a type of catharsis, healing and moving on.”
The Joy Formidable’s sound is steeped in a heady mix of psychedelia and peddle-to-the-metal rock. With every track fierce, lightning in a bottle, what can fans expect from the release of ‘AAARTH’? “We like to do something different for each album. Each one is like a different chapter in our lives. We approached it differently. The last album, for instance, was just us in a room capturing our performance and what we do live. This one we see much more as a collage; we see it as very colourful and we wanted it to be very experimental, with fleeting moments coming in and out – not necessarily being parallel to what you’d be doing in a performance. Even when you’ve got the part down, we liked just messing around with the sound of it: distorting guitars, basslines with the vocals, drum machines and samples. We embraced that whole thing, that whole mentality of having fun with it again and really enjoying that process. We see it as quite a different album for us, actually. We want that as artists. We want that growth.”
The Joy Formidable have their reputation as one of the most distinctive alternative rock bands right now set in stone. Their success is indisputable, regardless of how you’d define it. Rhydian reflected on their success and place in an ever-changing music industry: “In this day and age, I do think it’s rare for bands to be sticking around for more than ten years, depending on what level you’re at. I know it’s really hard for bands nowadays – especially working-class bands. I’ve seen a lot of great, talented people being unable to sustain themselves. I could go on a massive rant about why that happens. This corporate world that we’re going into, where streaming services are making billions and artists are making next to nothing: we need to change that. As I say, there are some great people out there, but if the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ isn’t there to help them do what they want, then you’re cutting off a massive amount of cultural representation and talent. We didn’t come from a huge amount of affluence, so we do feel proud to be navigating our way through this, ten years on. More than anything, we still love music. I don’t like some things about the music industry, there’s a lot of dickheads out there, but we can’t forget there are a lot of good people. You’ve got to still have a passion for what you do. When we get on stage we still have the buzz and the chemistry that we did ten years ago.”
Being in a female-fronted band, with Rhiannon “Ritzy” Bryan as lead vocalist and guitarist, it’s easy for bands of The Joy Formidable’s ilk to be pigeon-holed, and instantly compared to the likes of Wolf Alice, without bearing much resemblance to them at all beyond the dynamic: “Being a three-piece rock band with a female singer, people say “Oh, Ritzy should be more like Courtney Love!” But no! We’re being ourselves. There was a time when a frontwoman would have to be a diva, or a “bitch” – either that, or she was very twee, and there was no in between. But now I hope that we’re embracing a much wider spectrum. Surely that is the thing: you want to go and see something that’s unique, not something comparable to something else. But that’s the nature of the industry: making everything into a soundbite. When we were starting out, things were very difficult. A lot of these big company guys are set in what worked in the past, not what will work in the future. More than anything we need to educate people to support their local scene, particularly by buying directly from the artists. There’s still a mentality that there’s a lot of money in the music industry. It’s not about being greedy, but everyone needs to live.”
The dream for many is doing what you love, and making a living from it. How do you cope with the trials and tribulations of melding work and pleasure together? “Deal with the things that are in your control. Unfortunately, in the music industry, anything goes. Doing something doesn’t mean you get anything in return. You can’t be in control of the way other people treat you. Take time out to be kind to yourself, which is healthy to do in any line of work. In today’s age I feel like we’re suffering more with anxiety than ever. We can’t switch off from the internet. Taking time away from it lets you reinvigorate yourself.”
There is the belief that your location has a sink-or-swim influence over your success as a creative. Coming from North Wales, a place not regarded for its music scene, how challenging has The Joy Formidable found the path to mainstream success? “I think it depends on the individual more than anything, but I definitely think it’s a massive travesty that certain places are overlooked. Particularly coming from North Wales, there’s an added difficulty to it. We have an odd identity. There hasn’t always been a massive network to support the talent out there. We’ve been doing our label now for a few years, so we can champion that now, giving other bands from Wales a bit of exposure. I think you could say there is still a class element to this idea that everything is centred around London. Things seem to be changing now that London is so unsustainable. We moved to London when we started getting our band off the ground in a live sense, but that was because our drummer was from there. Frankly, you have more opportunities to do gigs down there because there is a culture of people there who really want to see them. We need to change the whole thing. There are some areas that are notoriously difficult to even get them bothered to go and see shows – that’s a massive thing right there. I don’t feel the playing field is very level. Big up to you guys for drawing attention to it.”
Working as a musician, or any creative field – something that relies greatly on self-motivation and resilience – can be physically and mentally exhausting. What advice would Rhydian offer to an aspiring musician based on his experiences in the industry? “That’s a good question, and sometimes difficult to answer” he said. “I think for me, it’s about being clear about why you’re doing it. If it has a tinge of wanting fame, it can be a bit of a slippery slope. The thing that has carried us through is the passion for the music that we create, and therefore your belief in it needs to be unwavering. You will get ups and downs in the music industry, no doubt, and though you get that in all walks of life, with this industry in particular there’s not much justice. I would say more than anything, go for it 100% and give it everything. There’s a very delicate balance about listening to your head and your heart, and keeping your eyes open. You need to concentrate on yourself rather than copying anyone else. When we started out, the internet was there but it’s become a much bigger tool now. If you can master all of that, it’s very handy. There are ways of bypassing the massive companies now because they’re very slow, and I can see people making livings by themselves. The trouble is you still need money depending on the level you want to get to. It depends on how you define success, really. Success for us is doing the music we want to do and managing to make a living off it, as opposed to selling out stadiums but hating what you write. Be clear on what you want and believe in it. Belief is absolutely everything.”
The Joy Formidable’s fourth studio album ‘AAARTH’ is set to be released 28th September, 2018.