“i feel like a new artist” — sarah howells, brydeBack
Jennifer Lee O'Brien
The music artist known as Bryde will travel soon to Paris to play for a crowd at La Flèche d’Or, a venue in the city’s 20th arrondissement. Her first single, Wait, was recently shared on the French music blog Little Lions with a favourable review. That brought Bryde her first following in France under her new moniker. “It will be nice to be able to play for some of them,” she says.
The music artist known as Bryde is Sarah Howells. She’s one half of indie-pop duo Paper Aeroplanes, was once a trance singer under her own name, and is a former member of rock band Jylt. Bryde is her newest project, a darker actualisation of the artist’s musical style, which has been compared to the haunting tones of P.J. Harvey and London Grammar. The cover art, an image synonymous with Bryde, shows a shallow tin of shoe polish that looks more like a black tin of paint. Bryde has compared this illusion to the kind of deception in relationships that dominates the subject matter of her latest release, Help Yourself.
“When an audience is small, the lyrics feel louder,” she says. “Sometimes it’s like, oh god. This is honest.”
The first time we met Sarah Howells was on a Sunday, backstage before a Paper Aeroplanes show. Sarah was sitting on a black leather sofa wearing a black t-shirt with the words CHEE$EBURGER, FRIES & A COSMO printed on the front. She offered us wine in a plastic cup.
The first time we met Sarah was also the first time we heard a Paper Aeroplanes song called Multiple Love. When she sang Multiple Love, we cried. The last time we cried to a song, publicly, was in 2009, in a dorm room to a recording of Rufus Wainwright singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, feat. special guest off-licence vodka. Like Leonard and Rufus, the combined effect of Sarah’s lyrics and voice cast a marvellous sorcery on this human’s psyche. Sarah’s honesty is infectious.
We met Sarah again a year later, at the Hoxton Hotel in Shoreditch, three weeks before her show at La Flèche d’Or and two months before her US tour. She had agreed to be interviewed with the warm anticipation we’d expect when reaching out to a long-distance family member or old housemate. She arrived at the Hoxton wearing a t-shirt with a Mermaid printed on the front. When we play back the recording, the first thing we can hear is her laughter.
When Sarah isn’t playing shows, touring, promoting and planning, she’s writing. Writing is Sarah Howell’s catharsis, a word that seemed to surface again and again in our interview. Later, we discovered that she’d only used a variation of ‘catharsis’ three times. This, we decided, is because Sarah’s art is so close to her soul that a casual chat with relative strangers is just another opportunity for self-expression. Sarah lives her art honestly; it is as involuntary and ordinary as her next breath.
Sarah was born in Pembrokeshire, South West Wales; she describes it as “coastal, rootsy and really removed from city life.” She began playing piano at the age of seven, and is classically-trained to Grade 6. She hated practicing, but remembers wanting to be good. Her grandmother was a great pianist, but never had the opportunity to go professional. “She’s the reason that I’m musical, if it’s genetic at all,” says Sarah.
When Sarah became impatient playing other people’s music, she began to write her own. We ask what these first songs were like.
“Teenage angsty,” she replies, laughing.
It was a teenage angsty era. When Sarah formed a band with her best friend Nia George, they had started listening to emo and nu-metal and learned to play guitar. Eventually they invited two boys from their music class to join, and named the band Jylt. They played school assemblies and gained a local following, and when secondary school ended they toured the university circuit, signed a record deal and released their first single.
“It was amazing, we had the time of our lives,” says Sarah. “We loved each other like a family. Everyone else we knew went off to uni and we carried on playing, touring around in a van driven by our crazy manager.”
And then it all changed.
“People always say this about people that die, but she was genuinely one of the nicest people,” says Sarah. “We thought she’d get better because no one dies of leukaemia when they’re twenty-one — that’s not supposed to happen.”
When Nia fell ill, the band continued working. Their close friend Richard Llewellyn filled in for Nia as the band gained momentum, so that when she was better, she could jump right back in.
“The music industry, even at that level, makes you feel like you can’t stop. Like it’s this never ending treadmill. And sometimes, that’s a very great thing,” says Sarah. “But it can make you feel like stopping is detrimental to your career, which is not true at all. It’s definitely not true when you’re eighteen-years old.
“I kind of wish we had stepped back a little bit but I carried on. When she went I wanted to write more anyway, because I had so much to write about. It was cathartic. It’s always cathartic,” she adds, picking up her coffee cup. “Whatever is happening I put into song.”
Was it hard to keep working? we ask.
She pauses, thinking. “I know I just said that treadmill thing. The treadmill is the business and touring, but the writing isn’t work; it definitely wasn’t at the time. So I carried on writing. I felt even more inspired to write after that.”
Paper Aeroplanes released their first album in 2009. It was called The Day We Ran Into The Sea. BBC’s Wales Adam Walton has described listening to the album in his car and crying. “Something within the music… had reached inside me like no other song has recently, and bled me,” he wrote.
The band was formed by Sarah and Richard, who had been writing together since Jylt.
“The emo phase had died out in me,” says Sarah. “The name came from a song we wrote called Paper Aeroplanes. We didn’t like the song we’d come up with but we loved the idea, the lyrical sound of it.”
Paper Aeroplanes released their second album in 2011, We Are Ghosts, recorded in Richard’s flat. The band toured Europe and parts of the UK before the launch of third album Little Letters in 2013.
“You Don’t Really Feel Famous, You Just Never Do”
Between touring and writing, Sarah was travelling the world. Her vocals had been picked up for a trance track, and when that became a hit, she was in demand to record more. She recorded with some of Europe’s biggest DJs and was flown to sing at festivals and shows in Moscow, Trinidad, Ukraine, Canada and Malta.
“It takes a whole different approach, but I embrace it because I believe performing and singing is basically what I’m here to do,” she said in an interview with Wales Online.
Paper Aeroplanes played London’s Union Chapel on the 20th of November 2014 after twelve months of shows. They announced upcoming gigs in Switzerland, Paris and Amsterdam. In 2015 they played their new album Joy, at SXSW in Austin, Texas.
Was there a moment when you started to feel famous? we ask.
“It’s all grown very gradually,” says Sarah. “You almost feel like you know the people that come to the shows.
“Once someone tweeted that they spotted me on Victoria Station.” She laughs. “That was really weird. You start hoping you remembered to put makeup on every time you leave the house. We were once in a queue at half-eight in the morning on a flight home from Hamburg to London and someone asked if we were Paper Aeroplanes.
“You don’t really feel famous, you just never do.”
Sarah prefers playing to a larger audience. The emotions are still there but, somehow, the lyrics feel further away, distributed among the crowd. Sometimes, depending on her mood, the emotions will all come rushing back. Bryde is Sarah’s new project; a new alter-ego. But Bryde is also still Sarah Howells, just as honest as she’s always been.
“It’s the exact kind of music I always wanted to make,” she says. “Paper Aeroplanes has been an incredible collaboration; it’s always going to have someone else’s influence. This felt more pure.
“It’s really personal. It needed to be just me to write this stuff.”
How do you characterise the music? we ask, an ill-advised question.
“I guess it’s dark, and a little bit angry,” she says. “There’s an anger that I haven’t really touched on before. I’m not an angry person, but I wanted it to be a bit more direct.”
“And I think,” she begins, then pauses. “I feel like more of a feminist than I ever have before. That’s about saying that it’s still not equal, it’s still unfair and we still have a long way to go.
“I don’t think it’s difficult in the music industry to be successful as a woman. I just think there’s a slant on things — the things you say, what you wear. That feels different. Although,” she adds, “it’s better than it’s ever been before, certainly since when I was fifteen.”
What’s changed since then? we ask.
“People aren’t as quick to label you as being an angry, pissed off woman anymore,” she says. “It’s like you’re allowed to vent about stuff because it’s real, and people get that it’s real and they don’t see you as some kind of bitter person, when you’re not being bitter. You’re being honest about stuff that happens to people.
“I guess you never want to sound like you’re complaining — certainly I don’t want to complain because everything is great for me, generally. But that’s part of the trouble as a woman. You don’t want to feel like you’re just being stroppy. Men are never called stroppy or bitter — not really. They’re allowed to be grumpy and angry.”
She laughs. “It’s really good to have an angry song. Help Yourself is the angriest song I’ve ever written. It’s so cathartic to have created something you can put all your emotions into and release them, in a healthy way.”
The music artist known as Bryde will soon be playing Help Yourself at La Flèche d’Or. After that she will be touring UK venues, then will begin her American tour in New York, going on to Nashville and Los Angeles.
But today she is in London, eating baked eggs, spinach and ricotta at The Hoxton Hotel. She is confident and calm. She will continue to make music, as she always has; it’s as natural and involuntary as her next breath.
“I feel different,” says Sarah. “I feel like a new artist. I’m enjoying that it’s new, and people are discovering it for the first time.”
Originally published in The City Talking: London, issue 01