The Joy Formidable – "Whirring"

When Welsh rock trio The Joy Formidable resolved to record the follow-up to last year’s critically praised debut, The Big Roar, the band did not settle on a studio in New York, Los Angeles or their home base of London. Instead, vocalist/guitarist Ritzy Bryan, bassist/boyfriend Rhydian Dafydd and drummer Matt Thomas decamped to a cabin in the woods of Maine. Bryan said her band, which kicks off a 2012 tour with two sold-out shows at The Independent next week, enjoys being in nature, be it the wilderness of New England, or the Arizona desert, which the trio discovered when they first came to the Unites States.

“I’ve always had a thing for really odd landscapes,” said Bryan in a recent phone chat from the United Kingdom, as the busy band prepared to return to America for the fourth time in about a year. “We thought (the American Southwest) was a magical place; it’s so different from North Wales. I’m the only one who can hack the heat out of the three. We’re all quite pasty, but I was better prepared.”

The budding success of The Joy Formidable follows two experiences Bryan does not relish discussing. Half a decade ago, she decided impulsively to leave her home in North Wales. “I needed to be somewhere else really quickly. There was something happening in my life and I needed to get away,” she said, without offering details.

Through Craigslist she found a job as an au pair for a family in Washington, D.C. “This (job) was so not an obvious choice,” she said. “I like children, but I’m not particularly maternal.” A solitary year followed, during which Bryan learned how difficult taking care of strangers’ children truly is. “I wrote an awful lot in that time,” she said. “I was quite isolated where I was living.”

After a year, Dafydd, a childhood friend, called Bryan and invited her to join a band he was playing in. She jumped at the chance, but that experience didn’t go so well, either. That band collapsed from infighting in 2007 after only a few months, an experience that left a bitter taste in her mouth. “We dread even just thinking about (the past),” she said. “There was a lot of emotional baggage; there were a lot of control issues. You can be passionate about what you are doing and still be on the same page.”

Dafydd and Bryan returned to their hometown of Mold and began writing songs together. Their ‘90s shoegaze-meets-grunge sound took shape. Multiple layers of fuzzy guitar, distortion, shimmer and other textures yielded songs like “Cradle” and “Austere.” When Thomas replaced original drummer John Stahley, he brought elements of metal with him, earning the band comparisons to the Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth and The Pixies. The trio recorded and produced the album themselves in Bryan’s bedroom, and released it in January 2011.

Breakout single “Whirring” began to pick up radio airplay and got noticed by Foo Fighters’ front-man Dave Grohl, who heard it on the radio. Grohl Tweeted that it was the song of the year and invited The Joy Formidable to open for the Foo’s last fall.

The trio’s big roar makes it easy to overlook that the diminutive Bryan is not only the band’s lead guitarist, but its sole guitarist, and The Joy Formidable can pull off its layered sound live.

Bryan scoffs at the idea that being a female lead guitarist in a rock band is notable. “Sometimes it feels like a trend in the music industry – a trend for the female front-woman,” she said. “It’s kind of patronizing. For me, it’s about the songs being good, male or female. I love women in bands...that stand up on their own accord. The more women who pick up guitars, the better.”

The Joy Formidable wrote much of their second album on the road and gave themselves only three weeks to record it Maine, finishing it just two weeks ago. “We wanted solitude, and we wanted to get back to nature,” Bryan said. “We didn’t want a phone signal.” Unlike the first time around, many of the songs on the album were conceived on an acoustic guitar or a cappella, which Bryan called a fruitful experience – one that resulted in a “very confident” album.

Bryan said the band’s wall of sound is only one aspect to its music. “It’s not just volume, but dynamic and passion,” she said. “It’s evoking emotion and challenging people and making people feel something.

“You can only truly have a powerful sound if you have a contrast to (loud), which is being fragile and having range.”

Follow writer Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter and RomiTheWriter.tumblr.com.

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