Ritzy Bryan, The Joy Formidable

What struck me most about my conversation with Ritzy Bryan--the lead guitarist, singer, and songwriter for The Joy Formidable--was the dichotomy of her creative process.  On one hand, it's an abstract idea: she uses words like imagination, inspiration, and mind, all of which are channeled through her stream-of-consciousness writing process.  And yet she explains all of this so well.  It's not easy to talk about vague concepts like these so concretely, but it's a testament to her intelligence and metacognition that she has such a handle on her creative process. Of course, it also helps that she devours books: the back lounge of the band's tour bus is a mini-library.

The Joy Formidable is legendary for their incessant touring schedule.  This means that Bryan does a lot of writing on the road, and she can't worry about finding that right moment to write.  She describes her writing process--even her actual words on the page--as "chaotic." Bryan never, ever forces the writing process; setting aside time to write, she says, will ruin her creativity.  And like any good writer, she recognizes that a large part of her creative process involves soaking up every part of her environment and finding inspiration everywhere, because, in her words, "there's so much variety, even in the most mundane day-to-day schedule."  As a result, her songbook is a "mixture of more fully-realized poems and very chaotic words: just word combinations, wordplay, and imagery."

Read my interview with Ritzy Bryan after the video.

What other creative outlets do you have?

I like to write in general.  Sometimes it's difficult to write on tour, but I like to keep a journal. I do a lot of different types of writing.  I have a good imagination for painting, but unfortunately the execution is not there.  Laughs.  It's all language-based for me.

You mentioned journaling.  How often do those topics make their way into song ideas? When you're writing in your journal, do you sometimes stop and think that what you're writing might be better in a song?

It's nice to look back on what I've written in a journal and reflect on the observations I've made.  It's interesting to see how I've thought about my surroundings and how certain things captured my imagination, no matter how big or small.  I can't possibly expect to recall all of my memories, especially during the chaos of touring. You meet so many people and have so many experiences on the road.  That's the beauty of the journal: I can go back and remind myself of the subtler moments.

But with the way I've always written, some songs are more like poems, with the music coming later.  So my songbook is really a mixture of more fully-realized poems and very chaotic words: just word combinations, wordplay, and imagery.  Lines that sound interesting. It's a collage of separate threads.  Those are the two extremes that sit side-by-side in my songbook.  It's symptomatic of what happens on the road.  I can see what happens as thoughts suddenly cross my mind. So many random thoughts scribbled down.  

It sounds like your journal is a story of opposites.  There's discipline and, as you say, chaos.

Absolutely.  It's reflective of where my mind is at that very moment on tour. I'm a big believer in never forcing the writing process.  It's one thing I'll never do.  Writing is a part of our band's lifestyle, and we never feel like we have to apply ourselves to it.  My journal shows the extremes: there are the serene moments where I realize a complete piece of work, then there's the randomness.  But it's hard to grab those little moments in time to sit down.  I'm very much a stream-of-consciousness writer. Chasing the spontaneity of a moment reflects my chaotic lifestyle. 

Is there a typical way that your songwriting process starts?

I'm actually quite flexible.  When we look back over the songs we've written, it's quite interesting to dissect the seed of every song.  It's varied.  We're a lyrical band and my background as a child---getting into music and getting into songwriting--with the wordplay, language, and poems, all have influenced my process today.  As far as my life goes, the words came first, then I picked up a guitar around age eight.  I was always intrigued by the words.

In this band, we've got tracks that started from beats and simple rhythms.  With a lot of the songs I wrote on the first album, the production was a writing tool.  The sounds of the instruments in a lot of ways led to the lyrics.  We built around those sounds.  Guitar riffs are also a good starting point.  

But I can definitely say there are differences between the first two albums.  There's a marked change in songwriting on the second album.  Yet even within the albums, all the songs have different starting points.  And that's great, because it keeps me on my toes and adds some variety to the writing process. One of my fears--and given my bandmates and the type of band we are, it's a fear that will probably never be realized--is that I would become so formulaic that I become creatively challenged. 

When you talk about how much you write outside of the band, I have to believe that all that writing makes you a better songwriter.  

Absolutely.  And that goes for the music side as well.  It's never about overanalysis or going in to write an album or song with any preconceptions or restrictions.  It's about just being in the moment.  And that's how I write as well and how I chronicle our journey as a band. It's amazing, just like you were saying, how, if you are consistent in your writing, you can look back on all those disjointed pieces and see thematic ties in how they all fit together. That's especially true if those ties didn't appear when you first wrote the words.  From an album perspective, it's gratifying to see how all the songs fit together.  

Writing is all about experimenting and enjoying the actual process, not feeling like it's something you have to do.  

photo by James Minchin

photo by James Minchin

So should you have to work at inspiration, or should you wait until the muse strikes? I have a pretty good sense where you stand on this. Does the quality of the art suffer if you force the process?

I think it does.  But it depends on your imagination and the way you soak up your surroundings, and the conversations and experiences around you.  You can find inspiration in the subtlest of things and the smallest details in life.  That's the challenge.  It's easy to be inspired by the big events, but the tough part is finding inspiration in the mundane.  It's not all about the big gestures of inspiration.  That's why we, as a band, feel so stimulated on tour.  There's so much variety, even in the mundane day to day schedule. There's a very personal and autobiographical thread that runs through our work: even when we're narrating or telling a story or deliberating something in writing, it's still coming from the writer's viewpoint.  It still gets tied somehow to the writer's own identity.  

If you're growing as a person, and if you're self-aware, thoughtful, and contemplative about your life and the people around you, there's constant inspiration without having to go out and seek it in the more traditional sense.  It's there even in the most mundane of things.  

Let's talk about your lyrics.  How much do you revise?

It really depends on the song.  I'm very much of the approach that you can make the music fit completely around your lyrics.  If your lyrics completely capture the spirit of what you want to say, then you leave them be and shape the music around them.  On the other hand, if it feels like the words are not quite complete or can be changed, you revise because the music has a stronger lead at that moment.  Sometimes I get very precious about keeping the words absolutely intact and shaping the music around them, though. But when I'm more precious about the music, that's really the only time I'll revise the lyrics. 

How important is environment to you?  Is there a time and place when you get your best writing done?

There's not really a specific time of day. And having done a lot of writing on the road, I'm pretty adaptable.  But if I've been on the road for a really long time and have written a lot, I need time to reflect on what we've been writing as a band.  That's the one thing I need.

For this album, we went to Sebago Lake in Maine for three weeks.  I feel like that's a good place for me to reflect and consolidate all my thoughts, and to make sense of the overflow of ideas I had on the road.  Going somewhere serene in nature always helps me think. There's no finer metaphor than being around nature. It feels like the best place to go because it's similar to where I grew up. I feel most comfortable there.  I'm a child of nature.

But it's difficult to say.  When you're really impassioned about the songs you write, especially when you've been on the road for a long time and you're hungry to get back to the studio, environment doesn't matter.  It's the same consuming fire in your belly whether you're in nature or an urban environment.  But I do think I do my best work away from people and distractions.  

Do you ever struggle with writer's block?

It's never been a struggle because I don't apply myself in that way to writing.  I'm always inspired when I sit down to write, and I'm very much at peace with the kind of songwriter I am and how I never force it.  I can go without writing for several weeks or even months, and I won't think about why.  It doesn't mean I'm not thinking or soaking up my environment.  I'm still reading and busy in other ways.  That time spent not writing is the time I spend collecting.  I'm at peace with that.  

Part of that is because we write so much on tour.  Not all bands are like that; some create that separation: they have two compartments, one for playing and touring, and the other for writing and recording.  That seems to leave you more open to writer's block because there's pressure.  That way of working doesn't feel natural to me, that process of designating time to write and of structuring creativity.  We're not big believers in following other people's schedules when it comes to writing because they have an idea of when you should be writing and recording.  We've never played that game.  It has to be natural for us.

How often do you struggle with a song, set it aside for a while, then come back to it and finish it quickly?

From songwriting all the way to tracking, we're in control of the process since we self-produce.  And we're very quick to move on and not dwell on a track for any length of time. That's not to say that we can't come back to it with a fresh set of ears.  But we abandon things very very quickly.  If you drain the life out of a song, if you even get to that point, you've lost your way with the idea and you should move to a better idea.

As someone who writes a lot, you must read a lot.  Who are some of your favorite authors?

I've been reading a lot of Jonathan Franzen lately.  All of his novels are beautiful, especially The Corrections.  What drew me to him originally was the craft of the writing. He's so detailed and observational, but yet it doesn't look like he's trying too hard.  He's very clever in that way. His social and familial observations are not overblown.  

And I actually read a lot of biographies.  I like anthropological books as well as rock biographies.  I have an English degree, so I love the classics of course.  I specialized in early Anglo-Saxon literature, but I also like Romantic poetry.  I also wrote a lot about Samuel Johnson when I was in school.  

I wish I had known this earlier!  One of my favorite literary biographies is The Friendship by Adam Sisman.  It's about the friendship between Wordsworth and Coleridge.

I'll have to get that!  I'm always on the lookout for good reads.  The back lounge of our bus is a mini library.  Laughs.  But I'm looking now for some new books.  I hate reading on a Kindle or any kind of e-reader.  It doesn't seem relaxing to me to stare at a screen.  

Also read my interview with Brian Fallon of Gaslight Anthem