“Like An Island is inspired by personal experiences, it’s a lot about relationships and the emotional roller coasters that go with them. There’s a lot of times when I’m being angry at myself as well as other people or like coaching myself, like a pep talk, there’s a lot of introspection with this record. They mostly come from that guttural feeling I suppose.”
Sarah Howells is talking about her debut LP Like An Island under her solo moniker Bryde, brooding, and confessional this is her most intense work yet, like Sharon Van Etten or Cat Power her songwriting displays a maturity and directness that balances vulnerability and self- empowerment with a steely determination to throw light on the darkest corners of personal heartbreak and struggle.
Mixed by Catherine Marks (Wolf Alice, PJ Harvey and St Vincent), and mastering by Mandy Parnell, musically it juxtaposes moments of intimacy with noise, with its stripped back guitar and drums crashing into crescendos that mirror the songs emotional turmoil, these loud and quiet dynamics at times echoing artists from the 1990s, but shot through with a stark minimalism, an eye for detail and invested with Howell’s haunting, intensely personal vocal tone that strips down pain, self-doubt and self discovery at every corner: “I’m going back to my roots musically I was in a rock band as a teenager,” notes Howells. “I was influenced by ’90s grunge stuff when I was playing in it back in the ’90s. I really wanted to come back to the electric guitar. it started off it was just going to be an EP then it grew and I was just enjoying the freedom as a solo artist you can be a little bit more flexible with your sound. Until I started Bryde I feel like I didn’t really embrace the guitar it was more a means to an end but now I really enjoy playing it live.‘
The timing was right for Howells who is a talented songwriter from West Wales who I have been aware of for over a decade, I was first struck by her folk influenced work as Halflight she then moved onto working as part of duo Paper Aeroplanes who crafted impeccable Americana tinged pop sounds. In 2016 she started Bryde a project that grew out of her writing solo for a new EP and has blossomed into a series of releases, shows, and eventually a debut album. The timing couldn’t have been better with a revival in 1990s sounds and reformations of acts like Belly, Breeders and Slowdive, but it turns out that was just a coincidence: “New bands are coming out that sound like Nirvana now and they weren’t even around when they were out. It wasn’t even planned I was writing and suddenly all of that ’90s influenced stuff came back into fashion and acts like Slowdive and Belly were coming back…”
Opener and standout ‘To Be Brave’ unfurls from spindly guitars and haunting vocals stand like a calm amongst the storm, about how we paint on a brave face when your world is crumbling, into a gracefully empathic anthem to those who are going through dark times, Howells calls it a “a soft squeeze of the hand to many friends who have, like me, been through many a dark period and put on a brave face and just got on with it. It’s a comment about how we all live out certain episodes of our lives in such a public setting these days that I feel we almost edit them to appear flawless, nothing but smiles.” Howells explains that catharsis often inspires these songs, there’s a need to express them almost like therapy, to see a way through as she examines her own self doubt and struggle and gives it a universality: “It’s quite depressing but we all go through moments when we feel shit really, it can be quite a dark moment, sometimes it is cathartic to write about it, it’s not always like that. But sometimes with the best songs there’s this real need to get it out.”
‘Desire’ tackles our need for instant gratification, online and in real life and how our desires are often not what make us happy, wrapped up in a fierce simmering rock song, it’s another example of how she peels back the layers of the human condition “When writing the line “smother everything” I was actually imagining these temptations as a kind of veil that can leave us blind to what’s right and stuck in a cycle. We’re drawn to sugar coated things that underneath are bad for us. It’s about desires as things or people we want and can’t often resist despite knowing they will bring us nothing but regret.”
With sexism and inequality of representation in the music industry still in the spotlight after the #metoo campaign, Howells is pleased that the tide is turning, albeit slowly, “We have to force the issue to make sure there’s more presence and to make sure its more equal, people are just more aware now. I used to let things slide, when you think back when I was in bands when I was 16. And we would just accept there was only one female voice on the radio out of five songs played. The language around female musicians has changed too with objections to the use of the words ‘female fronted band’ being phased out, as people attempt to give an equality of language and coverage to both genders. I guess we’re just more sensitive to it I try not to be angry about it. It’s kind of necessary if you go through the period of when people have to tiptoe around it then it becomes really natural not to say the wrong thing, its just relearning.’ She hopes things are slowly changing “My friends and I were talking about this the other night and there’s a female playlist on Spotify so, on one hand, they’re making an effort to highlight female musicians. But it’s also like why can’t you be in the main list with everyone else you have to be in your own list?”
Howells started her own label Seahorse to release her new album and is releasing some records by her female friends, but as she explains it wasn’t intended as a political point “It was actually not intentional that it was all women on it, but to be honest I feel like starting a label was trying to make a difference in that world, so it was more about women like me just going out there are doing it. I feel like there are loads of women releasing great music already, it was more than I wanted to create a label because I knew I could and because I was already doing it myself, the people on it are my friends and they were around me really. So I would definitely not, not release male artist .”She laughs.
“I like all sorts of different genres, I’ve never been able to make something cool, I’ve never been able to contrive it to sound a different way but it just comes out how it comes out. I am influenced by certain things, but I would never go out of my way to make it sound ‘cool’.” Explains Howells, when discussing her songwriting process, which is reassuringly homespun “It was all written at home, I didn’t really write in the studio I didn’t go into a defined idea of how I wanted it to sound except the ones written with the band, they grow that way. Things like with drums I haven’t got a defined idea of what I really want, they were all written with just a guitar and with a few I have an idea how they will sound with the band, and the drum fills and take ideas off other people. I played most of the instruments myself apart from the drums.”
Each song bristles with a dynamic that’s just on the precipice of rocking out at times with the urgent relationship melodrama of ‘Less’ or ‘Peace’ they do, but this is just how the songs naturally come out not a preconceived idea: “When I write them I think I can tell when straight away. I know when a song is going to be heavy or loud, or how the guitar will sound. I really like folk music like Bon Iver but I also like rock stuff like the National and bands the Crocketts before they were the Crimea. I like both things equally and I don’t want to fully commit to either really.”
They say we are are the summ of our influences and sometimes they are not alwaays obvious ones, Howells is a fan of a wide spectrum of sounds that have fed into her writing. “I like loads of different things and use that dynamic, it’s just how it comes out, but how could you not be influenced by the things you listen to. Not that I would ever dare to try and sound like them, I have listened to Radiohead my whole life so how can it not influence you? I really love Scout Niblet and people like Ben Howard I’ve been listening to his second album recently. I get compared to Laura Marling and I don’t really listen to her much though.. “
The loudest song on the album ‘Peace’ punctuates the tracklists more enveloping moments, a snap shot of calm after emotional turmoil “’Peace’ is about the warm glow of two drinks and real connection with another person. It’s about the end of anger and the settling calm after a storm. Being able to be entirely yourself and still be liked. I had to make it the loudest track on the album because if something’s not a little subversive.”
With streaming now the dominant means of distributing music it still feels like artists are trying to find a way to be heard and to get a fair share for their music, Howells is aware of the shifting landscape but has found a way to embrace it to suit her work. “Everyone’s making it up as they go along to try different things, I’m kind of glad we released EPs and singles because we spent so much time on it. I just wanted people to be able to give a bit of time to each song. But then you can listen to it as an album too, it’s laid out in a way that totally makes sense too’. The worry is as great as streaming is for the listener its actually devaluing music, Howells thinks there are two sides to this coin: “I use both vinyl and streaming. The internet is great for discovery but it’s changed the music industry in a way that we can’t go back and that’s scary in a way, people don’t appreciate music for what it is now, sometimes because there’s so much of it you can listen to anything.”
There was a recent report that talked about the average listen to a track on Spotify is 10 seconds; is this changing the way artists write music specfically for the platform? Howells is both aware of it and wary of it affecting her voice: “It’s a game and sometimes I catch myself thinking what would be my streaming hit and I don’t ever want to be in that frame of mind, to be honest. I’ve been on playlists which are good, I’ve been lucky with the album that ‘To be Brave’ got playlisted and I was happy for that to be on there. But with playlists, you wonder if people are listening all the way through or if it’s just background. I think sometimes if you release less online sometimes and then when people hear you live they know the song as they have had the chance to absorb it on Spotify, so it’s about not flooding the market, less is more in that sense.”
Bryde plays Latitude, Boardmasters, Y Not and Standon Callingamong other festivals this summer.
Expanding their work from records to the live circuit, Bryde’s label Seahorse are showcasing an all-female line up at Camden Assembly on 31st July with Warchild and Ticketmaster.
Like An Island is out now on Seahorse Music.
Purchase Like An Island: http://www.smarturl.it/likeanisland
Bryde Live – tickets here: www.brydemusic.com