There were so many artists to enjoy at Focus Wales, one of the nation’s premier music showcase festivals. Among them, a host of Welsh country and Americana artists and bands, most of whom I had the opportunity to see and hear over the course of the three days. And from the psychedelic country of Melin Melyn to the soulful sounds of Albert Jones, via the country-pop of Rosey Cale and the outlaw Americana of Little Folk, what was clear was the breadth and depth of talent emerging across Wales.
On the more traditional end of the country spectrum, but by no means confined to it, was another artist who I was delighted to discover through Focus Wales: Bryony Sier. She was kind enough to sit down with me for a short chat about her experience and her music career so far. Although she already has three EPs to her name, she is still a relative newcomer to the live music scene. And as I chat to her, it becomes clear that she has been on a real journey to get to this point. No sooner had I begun, by asking her about how the festival has helped her as an up-and-coming artist, she reveals that ‘I do have a bit of anxiety as a musician’. As a result, when she visited last year for the first time, ‘I sort of went to my gig and that was… it’. Twelve months on though, she feels like she’s ‘grown in that space of time…. My music’s changed and I feel stronger as a performer…. It’s really helped me to gain a bit of confidence really’.
That confidence has taken her out of her base in the Valleys – Merthyr Tydfil to be exact – to finding herself ‘mostly gigging now in Cardiff and in Newport’. She has been to London too, and admits that ‘I’d like to travel further’. She has no plans to move though, for the time being at least:
‘I love the countryside…. I love Wales. It’s quite nice and peaceful. And… with Merthyr, it’s quite a close-knit community so everybody knows each other’
One of the benefits to coming from such a community is the support that she and others – ‘like Florence Black and Pretty Vicious’ – receive. It perhaps makes up for the lack of opportunities to gig closer to home.
Despite the community support, she has recognised that, to build an audience and promote herself, she now has to look beyond her geographical location. To this end, she has recently taken up vlogging, which she describes as ‘a distraction’. From what I’m not sure, but if I were to guess, I would probably say her anxiety.
‘It helps me to get more confident in front of a camera, and… at the moment I’m trying to find out who I am so it’s kind of… helping with that too’
As part of that process of self-discovery, she has also experimented with different sounds.
‘In the beginning it was just country. Pure country. I had a strong lilt to my voice. [Then] I sort of went from country to folk – more country-folk – and then I started doing blues as well, so that was involved in it. But now it’s like folk-roots, a bit of country-pop…, and I’ve just written a dance song’
It is interesting that such experimentation has not led her to find a specific sound that defines her. Instead,
‘what you find as an artist [is] you change with time. In my opinion, I don’t think you can put a label on some music because it does just change, and that’s what I want to do. I just want to keep changing all the time basically – just learning and developing… and creating new sounds’.
Like Kacey Musgraves, Ward Thomas, et al, Sier wants to have the freedom to explore different ideas and sounds. She is your typical modern country artist – putting the song first, holding to the ideal of three chords and the truth, but allowing herself to be influenced by that which lies outside of the traditional confines of the genre. Not that she can escape it altogether. One of her most important influences, apart from her family, is Johnny Cash. Listening to her latest EP Captivity, it is hard not to recognise the impact of the great man’s music on her own.
‘When I was younger, I’d basically be sat in the car with The Eagles and Neil Diamond on and stuff. I didn’t like Johnny Cash back then…. I’d be like, ‘What is this? What’s he talking about [on A Boy Named Sue]’. But now – oh my gosh! – I heard him again when I was older, and we had Vintage TV on, and I could hear this voice and I was like, ‘Who is singing there now?’ There was like a dark holler to the voice. And I sat through this entire documentary of Johnny Cash and I was obsessed. And then I watch the film ‘Walk the Line’ and after that became more obsessed…. His music definitely inspired me’
I bring the conversation back around to her anxiety. Knowing myself how important it is to speak about it, particularly in Mental Health Awareness Week, I wonder if she can share some of her own experience with it.
‘So I didn’t know what anxiety was. I think it started in high school, and then it just got worse. And I thought after high school, because it was such a horrible environment, I just thought after that, ‘Oh, surely now things will get better’…. But then it actually just manifested and [although] I talked to my mam about it… I just kept it to myself. So I go to college and would be like constantly on edge. I was doing performing arts funnily enough. That doesn’t make any sense really, does it?! But I just always felt like pushing myself…. I thought, ‘I want to try and change now. I want to make new friends’ and things like that. It didn’t work out that way, but it was just really bad timing. I finished the performing arts course. I did another course then – music – which was better because there were like 16 people in the class…, but I still would come home just in tears because I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so worked up. But eventually it got to the point where I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore’, and I just felt something was wrong. And I went to the doctor then and they basically mentioned anxiety to me and that’s how I got out of it. But for so many years I just buried it because I thought… it was just nerves. But it was so much more than that. Even after they told me what it was, college was like a big barrier because obviously, from school, like a similar type of environment with so many people, just crowds in general, that’s why this [coming to Focus Wales] is hard because it’s just packed with people and I was like, ‘Where do I look? What do I do?’
‘I’ve still got the anxiety. I don’t know whether it will ever go away. But I recently became a Christian and that’s helped me a lot really. I know there are other ways people can go, but that was my… refuge in a way. And now I just think, everything’s for a purpose. And I just think I’ve been given the gift of music and I just want this to help people. Because I know that anxiety is so hard to explain, and it’s got so many layers to it…. It’s like you’re living in your own head. That’s the hardest thing. So, I think, it’s working your way out of that. But I don’t know if I ever will.’
It’s inspiring to hear her desire to turn her experience into a positive – to help others who are going through similar, to know that they are not alone – by using the ‘gift’ of music. It’s a gift that she sees as being given her by God. Her new-found faith is certainly present on her latest EP Captivity. It will also form the basis of what will be her next EP Identity. It seems that the parallels with Cash don’t just stop at her musical sound. Like that sound though, she doesn’t want to be boxed in by a label.
I end by asking whether, going forward, she feels pressure to categorise herself, as either a Christian music artist, or an artist whose music just happens to include Christian themes. She admits:
‘I think it’s going to be difficult because I have written some worship songs but it’s separate from my secular music. But then I have got songs like ‘Holy Ground’, ‘Lions’ Den’ [which have] faith elements in them… but they are very subtle’.
Like the grand old debate about what constitutes “country music”, what constitutes “Christian music” is perhaps, ultimately, a question without a clear-cut answer. I suspect that Sier doesn’t really care. Instead, she believes that ‘God has given me the opportunity to do this’, ‘to reach people who really feel like they can’t go on anymore – they’ve hit rock bottom – because that’s where I was’. In that regard, she will perhaps emulate another female country music artist who has managed to transcend this obsession with categorisation, Philippa Hanna. She certainly has the talent and motivation to do so. And as she gets a firm grip on her anxiety and her confidence continues to grow, I suspect there’ll be no stopping her. Bryony Sier is determined to be a person free of limitations.
Interview by Gaz Williams