We first saw Bryony when she was just 14 years old performing at the Globe in Cardiff. What struck you back then was just how good her original songs were and she had a guitar style that was already extremely promising. Since then she has progressed as a performer and songwriter, taken part in the Forte scheme and released some excellent tracks including the most recent single “We’re All Sinners”. This interview was conducted by Kevin McGrath who has been a long time supporter of Bryony’s.
What is your first musical memory?
I can remember singing in my nan’s garden a lot when I was younger. I used to put on little shows and sing ‘Mr Sun’ from the programme Barney. My first performance in front of a live crowd, was when I had to sing a duet of ‘Make Me A Channel of your Peace’ for my junior school’s Christmas concert.
I believe that it was your aunt who first taught you guitar? Are you from a musical family?
My aunt first taught me guitar, when I was 12. I never thought I’d learn the guitar, as I was more interested in learning piano. But that didn’t really work out. My aunt could see how upset I was with some issues I was facing at school, including bullying, and she asked if I’d like to have lessons. Every Saturday I would take my guitar down my nan’s house and it would be the highlight of my week. I fell in love with the instrument and found I had a passion for it. I then went on to self-teach the fingerpicking style of playing by watching different YouTube videos and practicing constantly. I’d say my family are very musical. I grew up surrounded by singers and guitar players. My cousins were in bands, my aunt was a singer-songwriter and guitarist and my mam could sing. But I never thought I would be singing and playing guitar at a later stage in my own life.
Winning Merthyr’s Spread the Word Literature and Arts competition in 2012 led to you working with singer-songwriter Amy Wadge. That must have been a crucial learning experience for you?
Having the chance to work with Amy was great fun. She recorded some of my first demos and I got a taste of what it was like to create in the studio and have some of my songs mixed and produced. It was also insightful to have Amy’s feedback and guidance whenever I brought a new song into the studio with me. Winning this competition also brought about new opportunities to work with Young Promoter’s Network, which led to more gig opportunities and opened new doors for me to develop and grow as a musician.
With the Redhouse and Theatre Soar now firmly established at the heart of the community and the Merthyr Rising festival further boosting the town’s cultural profile, it seems that you are in the right place at the right time. Are these exciting times to be working out of Merthyr?
I feel that Merthyr town has really come together in developing a music scene, through the use of the Redhouse, Theatre Soar, The New Crown Inn and festivals like Merthyr Rising in particular. There always seems to be something going on, which is encouraging for emerging artists and already established musicians. It gives people who are just starting out, a platform to stand on. I got to play Merthyr Rising festival this year and it was very special to play a hometown gig. The support was amazing, and I felt proud to have been a part of the experience.
Other young singer-songwriters from the town, such as Kizzy Crawford and Delyth McLean, have made rapid progress in recent years. Have they played any part in inspiring you, in giving you confidence that it’s possible to find an audience for your music?
I’ve never been on the same bill as Kizzy Crawford or know her personally, but I have heard great things about her and know that she has made amazing progress in her career. I like that she’s different and has a cool style to her music. She is clearly a strong female individual, who has worked hard and has gained credit over the years for her song writing material and many musical gifts. I know Delyth on a more personal level, as we were on the same song writing boot camp with Amy Wadge. I loved her voice as soon as I heard it, and how it captured an emotion. It’s great to see that more women are emerging in the music industry and I think both of these musicians offer something unique for audiences, especially as they can sing in both Welsh and English. This targets a wider audience. I don’t speak Welsh myself, but they have inspired me by showing determination to follow their dreams and continue doing what they love.
Having benefitted from your participation in the BBC Wales Horizons Launchpad scheme and the Young Promoter’s Network, do you feel part of a musicians collective?
I think more than anything, the best collective is when musicians come together to support one another. I love supporting people who play music, because I not only love to sing and play myself, but I also love listening. Music is such a powerful tool and has the power to move a person. You can get inspired from almost anything. Whilst gigging, you obviously meet with other musicians on your travels and I feel that this is when artists come together to support one another’s work.
You’re routinely described as a country/blues singer. Does that tell the whole story?
While I have a bit of a country lilt to my voice, I don’t want to just be branded as another country singer. My music changes all the time, from folk, to pop, to Americana and to gospel. In the studio, I recently worked with Brad Griffiths from Pretty Vicious and he brought the rock element to one of my tracks, which worked well. I’ve also written another song called ‘ID’ which sounds like it could be made into a dance track. So, I’m never stuck on just one genre. I like to explore my options and see what suits. It really depends on the song itself really and what kind of vibe I’m going for.
In a recent interview with ‘It’s all Indie’ you described Johnny Cash as a ‘massive inspiration.’ What makes you identify so strongly with the ‘man in black?’
I was never the biggest fan of Johnny Cash’s music growing up. When I first heard ‘A Boy Named Sue’ I remember me and my brother finding it quite funny, because to us it didn’t make sense at the time. It’s only when I got older, I started listening to his lyrical content and meaning behind the songs. I remember my stepdad had a documentary on about his life and I was drawn to it. He was singing Folsom Prison blues and I felt so inspired afterwards. I just love his dark, hollering voice and his way of story-telling. He’s the reason I got into the whole gospel, country/blues style of music.
What made you decide to bring Lee House on board as the producer of your latest EP Captivity?
I like working with new people and every producer you meet is going to have a different take on a song and do something different with it. I had heard of Lee House from being on the Forte Project and I just thought I’d get in touch to discuss the possibility of working together.
Captivity is your third EP, following on from Crossroads and Babylon. How does Captivity differ from its predecessors?
I’d like to think that each EP shows growth and development, offering something that’s different from what I’ve done previously. From Crossroads onwards, I feel like my guitar playing has developed and my song writing. For a long time, I couldn’t write about some of my experiences because they were so personal and that terrified me slightly – I think it was the thought of having to share some of my deepest, darkest emotions and feelings to an audience, exposing part of myself in a way. However, by the time Captivity came around, I was finally able to write with complete honesty and vulnerability because I had started opening up to people about what I had gone through and this helped me to open up in my song writing.
At an emotionally – charged gig in Pontypridd recently, you introduced a number of new songs by explaining that they dealt with issues such as anxiety and in one case, suicide. Is the fact that you addressed the Linkfest audience in such an open way related to a recent interview where you said, ‘I want to help people who may be going through a difficult time through my song-writing. If my music can reach people and they can relate, then that is all I’m aiming to achieve?’
The Linkfest gig was a very intimate space with an attentive audience. I therefore felt confident enough to discuss some sensitive topics with the crowd, as I feel like mental health is not spoken about enough. Lots of people are turning to suicide, as a way out. I have been in a similar position myself, in which I didn’t see the point of existing when I was struggling to leave the house most days and constantly having dark thoughts go through my mind. I feel strongly about speaking out, now that I’ve been through it and I’m no longer going to suffer in silence because I’ve done that most of my life and I want to reach out to others who have been in a similar position. I want to give them some hope and let them know that they are not alone.
To develop that point, you were kind enough to send across the lyrics to those songs, some of which you have yet to record. The lines from ‘ID’ – ‘Thoughts about perfection and how it took over my life’ and ‘Not Alone’, where you sing ‘When the voices get too loud and you can’t hear above the crowds.’, perfectly illustrate the times in which we live – where one in ten teenage girls is being referred for specialist mental health treatment?
For so long I would put up a wall in front of other people, giving off the impression that I was fine. I was too embarrassed to admit how I really felt under the surface. I was one of those 1 in 10 teenage girls that was suffering and dealing with mental health issues. I’ve struggled with anxiety and body image insecurities since High School and it all stemmed from bad experiences in my teenage years. My honesty might not be what some people want to hear, especially if it resonates with them or somebody they know, but I’d rather be writing songs that mean something and could help someone, than writing songs that lack meaning. Looking back at some of my older material, I’ve noticed that the content of the songs didn’t really mean much to me. These new songs have strong messages and statements throughout and each tell a different story. One song might be about anxiety, another might relate to body image, which is another factor that impacts so many young girls and boys in todays society. With the media constantly promoting how we should look and what defines perfection/attractiveness, this places a great deal of pressure on the youth and how they view themselves.
The other theme that seems to run through the newer material is religion.
I became a Christian last year, but I don’t believe that it’s a religion as such, because I see it as having a relationship with God. I don’t try to push my beliefs on anyone through my song writing, but God has helped me with my anxieties since coming to know him and I have mentioned this in some of my songs.
You’ve played a considerable number of live shows over the past eighteen months or so, including some interesting support slots with the likes of Joncan Kavlakoglu, Rick Wakeman and Carter Sampson. Is it always a positive experience?
Opening the show for Rick Wakeman was definitely a positive experience for me. I’m a fan of Rick’s piano playing so it was surreal being there, getting to hear him live and meeting him in person. I think with each experience, it’s going to bring something different and you learn something new every time. I take all gig experiences on board, even if some are tougher than others, I never see a gig as being a negative experience, as it’s all part of my growth and development. I get stronger every time.
Being on the road obviously helps to promote your music, but does live performance top songwriting or recording for you?
I love all three elements. But I’d say song writing and live performance are two of my most favourite things to do, so they are equally at the top of my list. Nothing beats singing live and receiving a positive response afterwards. You get to connect with people. When people say that they enjoyed what you did, or liked a particular song, it’s extremely rewarding. With song writing, I get to go into my own little bubble, away from the world and into my creative space. There are no limitations or a time limit. I’m free to explore and create however I feel, which is the best part.
You’ve played your first gigs in London. Did they live up to expectations?
I’ve only played in London twice and it was different to what I’m used to. Obviously, it’s a lot busier and there is a lot going on. The venues I played at, were restaurants, so not exactly music venues as such. It was still an adventure for me to travel down there and exciting to be gigging outside of Wales. I hope to be doing more of this in future.
You usually wear a hat on stage and now a cute little hat logo is turning up on your CD sleeves as well. What’s with all the hats?
I’ve always had a quirky sense of style. I like mixing and matching different clothing and trying new things. When I was on the Forte project, I had some one to one meetings with Spike Griffiths, who directed me and helped guide me towards finding my own personal style for the stage. I took inspiration from the bowler hats that I saw and so, I’ve been wearing them ever since. I’ve spent this past year, designing my own logo and I thought that the hat brought a quirky element to it.
We’ve discussed some of your powerful new material, will those songs be forming the backbone of a Bryony Sier album anytime soon?
I’ve recently been back in the studio, recording some of my new tracks with Tim Hamill. I want to keep releasing music now, to keep the momentum going. I’m planning on releasing some singles for the new year and curating a mini album, consisting of maybe 8-9 tracks altogether. I’m writing all the time, so it’s just a matter of getting those songs out there.