On 10 Years of A Balloon Called Moaning

The Joy Formidable’s Ritzy Bryan talks the band’s breakthrough EP and their new double-album reissue of it.

Ritzy Bryan is the singer and guitarist for Welsh rock band The Joy Formidable. The group, which includes bassist Rhydian Dafydd Davies and drummer Matt Thomas, decided to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its breakthrough debut EP, A Balloon Called Moaning, a little unconventionally: a double-album reissue that includes an acoustic, Welsh-language version. It coincides with an acoustic tour with DeVotchKa, which began in the US September 20.
— Kyle Ryan, Talkhouse Contributing Editor

Just prior to the Joy Formidable and A Balloon Called Moaning, Rhyds and I had been in another band in Manchester, but we hadn’t written together in that previous band. Around this period, there was an awful lot of writing, a real splurging, and an awful lot of finding our way individually and our way together. I think Rhydian had maybe collaborated with more people than I had. I was very insular. I hadn’t really written with anybody before. We were really excited because we could feel like there was something special and intuitive, even in the first couple of weeks of playing and recording and showing each other ideas. 

But there was a real sense of butting heads as well. We’ve mellowed a little bit in 10 years, but back then we were intensely stubborn and passionate. We were trying to work through when stubbornness can become a virtue, finding that ground of not bending but bringing on other people’s ideas to actually enhance your creativity as well. 

Right at the start of A Balloon Called Moaning is when Matt joined us, so that’s when the real live sensibility had begun — that feeling of being a unit, getting thrown into the deep end together because we toured so much. Matt joined us on Christmas Eve, and from January 1 it was go, go, go from the touring perspective, and it didn’t really stop for the next six years. We did kind of dive right in, and in terms how much living together, sharing space, being together 24 hours a day. So A Balloon Called Moaning is all of those elements coming together and us going, “This is what we’re about.” This is the vibe of where we are at the moment and being assured and happy — almost like we’d done all of our figuring out behind closed doors prior to that.

That sense has shifted with every record, and then there’s moments when it comes full circle and then it shifts again. You see everything as being an unconscious reaction to what sometimes has gone before. Rhydian and I are still deeply stubborn and passionate, and we’ve learned over the years how to get the best out of each other, and that doesn’t mean being comfortable. We maybe learned to do it not quite as explosively as we did in the past. I feel like we’ve challenged each other at every moment with every record, with everything that we do. We’ll go and do a very production-based, experimental record, and after that we’ll be like, “Fuck this! We just want to get in a live room and make something a little more live sounding or a little more performance-based!” Then we’ll go from that and be like, “Oh no, we want to do something that’s more orchestral and compositional.” I definitely feel like the feeling of this band is that we’ve got to feel like we’re growing and changing and moving forward and never getting too rut-ish. Is that even a word?

Since the last record, I don’t want to say we’ve started having fun again, because that would somehow take away what we were doing prior to that. Maybe there’s a bit more “fuck it” mentality coming into things. I think we’ve always had an element of that. The way that we’ve always coped as a band is we’ve always been able laugh at things and pick ourselves up and deal with things in a British, stoic kind of a way. There’s almost a new phase of that that’s kicked in. I can’t talk for Rhydian and Matt, but certainly from my perspective, I feel the most relaxed and peaceful I’ve felt for a long time. I don’t seem to react to any type of news. Making music, I think you have to have thick skin to begin with — you have to be able to take judgment and brush things off and not be swayed by what people sometimes want to tell you or advise you. You have to know what it is you want out of making music. But I feel like there’s almost a second phase of that. I definitely feel quite peaceful and creative and happy to take whatever comes our way now. 

The 10-year anniversary thing is a lovely way to cap the year. This is what’s been the whole narrative of this year, is that there’s been so much writing and so many different projects on the horizon. Rhydian and I have both been working on separate solo records, and it’s been a lovely, open process as well. It’s not like we’ve been competitively doing these other projects or doing them under the cover of darkness because we’re frightened of broaching it with each other. We’ve been quite open of what we’re working on separately as well. 

It’s only really been in the last few months, we’ve been dabbling back and forth in the studio, we’ve decided absolutely, without any question we want to making another Joy Formidable record at the end of this year. It’s been a moment because we’ve been wearing these other heads and writing some stuff with side projects. There’s been a lot of creativity, which is wonderful, so we’ve been kind of skirting around the issue: Do we? Don’t we? Do we? Don’t we? Then finally a couple months ago, we just got so excited about some stuff we had in the vault from some of these sessions that we just decided to go all-out and make another record.

Over the last few years, we’ve been getting more and more into writing in Welsh. It’s been an interesting kind of thing for me, because Welsh is actually my second language. It’s Rhydian’s first.

My father’s Welsh, my mother’s English, and they settled in North Wales. Even though neither of them were Welsh speakers, they decided to send me to a bilingual school when I was about four years old. I went through the whole Welsh-language school system, even things like learning French in the medium of Welsh, which is a total headfuck. Even though it’s been with me since I’ve been very, very young, I just don’t speak it, certainly in my adult life since I moved from Wales. I feel pretty rusty in a lot of ways, and it’s been really nice to come back into that.

I see it as a natural process of maybe becoming more intuitive with your second language, and maybe really finding your lyrical voice. Maybe having the confidence as well to find your lyrical voice in a second language. It can take a moment. We’ve been dabbling over the years, and it’s become a part of the lyrical writing to me that I’ve enjoyed exploring. Then I guess it was a feeling that like, “Well, let’s just jump right in and actually translate these songs from 10 years ago in the medium of Welsh.” 

The thing that I didn’t expect was how evocative it would be actually doing the translation. First of all, it’s probably true in any language, but there’s a lot of syllables in the Welsh language. I definitely knew it was going to have its challenges, like it would in any language, to try to translate something. Obviously you’re trying to find that balance of it having the meaning, the same feel, the same sentiment, even if it’s not the most perfect translation. 

It brought back a lot of memories, that deeper cut of actually having to remember, “What was it was that I was saying 10 years ago? What was it that I was feeling?” Because I can’t do a straight up fucking translation. I didn’t expect that to be quite as evocative and nostalgic and maybe sentimental in moments as it actually was. I guess that’s just because it was more than just a straight rerecord or remaster. It was definitely some tussling with these with these tracks to actually get a translation that felt right.

I think it’s probably going to be one of the most challenging things we’ve done, in terms of the translation, because we wanted to do it really well. It’s such a beautiful language, but it can be quite difficult, poetic, lyrical language as well. It didn’t take me an afternoon, put it that way.

As told to Kyle Ryan

(Photo Credit: left, Timothy Hiatt)

Ritzy Bryan is the singer and guitarist for Welsh rock band The Joy Formidable.

(Photo Credit: Timothy Hiatt)