It was on the last day of February that I first caught the quirky promo video of ‘An Stevel Nowydh’, the lead single from Tresor, the third full-length solo LP by Cardiff-based Gwenno Saunders, an album finally set to reach the shops on Friday, July 1st.
Here at last was a welcome early sign of the Spring to follow, the sight of this acclaimed electronica artist, producer and chanteuse in boilersuit and druid’s garb high-kicking her way around the back streets of Downalong St Ives, West Cornwall – breaking down those metaphorical barriers and doors, letting the light in, after a restorative tea party with a difference in a neolithic cave – certainly one to quicken my step.
Then, 10 weeks later, with Summer ever closer, came a promo video for ‘Tresor’, online a few hours before our long-planned conversation, the new single and title track of an album like 2018’s Le Kov recorded mainly in Cornish, as opposed to her 2015 Welsh language debut for Heavenly Recordings, Y Dydd Olaf.
Described as a ‘scrapbook of sorts’, the latest promo was collected from a week recording in St Ives in early 2020 and subsequent lockdown days back in Cardiff, including Super8 clips from Gwenno’s Tresor film, shot by Clare Marie Bailey, starring her friends Edward Rowe (Bait, The Witcher) and Pinar Ögün (Keeping Faith, Fflam) as Anima and Animus, taking a similar collage approach to that she uses writing with co-producer, musical collaborator and partner, Rhys Edwards.
“We record everything at home, without the time restrictions of studios and session musicians. It’s a very DIY approach and I think this video reflects that honestly.”
That promo also reflects her growing interest in film and ‘the intersection of music with visual components, evoking a dreamworld from another time, surreal and sensual, saturated with light and colour’.
There’s also a short film for instrumental ‘Men an Toll’, this time involving lots of Bronze Age stone hugging from Gwenno, giving me the impression I might be in for the sort of interview I enjoyed with Julian Cope in 2015, full of reference to fogous, ley lines and standing stones.
Besides, maybe it was the surrounding ancient scenery causing us reception issues as we abandoned a Skype call and hopped over to WhatsApp. Was she back in the Far West of England per chance?
“Ah, no, I wish, I’m in Cardiff at the moment – nowhere as mystical as that, unfortunately!”
While Y Dydd Olaf (The Final Day) tackled technological alienation, Le Kov (The Place of Memory) took on the idea of homeland and proved more international in outlook, presenting the Cornish language to the world and giving it an unprecedented platform as she toured Europe and Australia in her own right and as a support to Suede and Manic Street Preachers.
A performance of ‘Tir ha Mor’ on Later with Jools Holland helped spread the word, TV debates on the subject following with the likes of Michael Portillo, Jon Snow, and Nina Nannar, interest in learning Cornish (Kernewek) reportedly soon hitting an all-time high.
Gwenno, recently turned 41, was a solo artist singing in Cornish and Welsh long before her winning spell with The Pipettes, the indie-pop outfit best known for 2006 hits ‘Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me’ and ‘Pull Shapes’, and that year’s We Are The Pipettes LP.
Her formative years were spent as an Irish dancer, leading to tours with Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance and Feet of Flames productions, Gwenno later acting in Welsh language soap opera Pobol y Cwm, and even hosting her own S4C programme. She also toured as a synth player with Elton John in 2012.
But she was always keen on promoting the protection of minority languages, drawing on her upbringing as the daughter of Welsh and Cornish language activists. And while her first solo LP won the 2015 Welsh Music Prize and also the Best Welsh Album at Wales’s National Eisteddfod, it’s worth noting that the last of its 10 songs, ‘Amser’ (Time), was in Cornish.
In fact, Cardiff-born Gwenno – who also co-hosts and co-produces a radio show in her home city – grew up thinking Cornish was every bit as much a living language as Welsh. That wasn’t the case, but in time there would soon be a revival, and she saw it as important as a fluent speaker to help celebrate the survival of Britain’s lesser-known language in that divisive age of Brexit, keen to speak out on the importance of respecting and forging links with other cultures, no matter how small.
In 2018 the Cornish Language Board claimed Le Kov contributed to a 15% increase in the number of people taking Cornish language exams that year, with Gwenno becoming a Bard of the Cornish Gorsedh the following year for ‘services to the Cornish language through music and the media’.
Now, with Tresor (Treasure), she’s shifted the focus on to her journey of rediscovery after becoming a mum, this time exploring domesticity and desire, reclaiming the body, working out how to exist as herself as well as care first and foremost for someone else … in her case a son, now six.
Musically, the influences on the new record span from Ryuichi Sakamoto to Eden Ahbez and William Basinski, on an LP as psychedelically tinged as her previous work, yet this time targetingthe unconsciouswhile exploring the power of the feminine voice, inspired by the Cornish landscape and how it asserts itself in ‘presenting a richly melodic counterpoint to a place and people known for rugged survival and jagged edges’.
As for the title song, Gwenno sees the dreamy ‘Tresor’ as questioning what makes us human and our conscious choice to either have a positive or negative impact on our environment and everything around us.
“We live in a chaotic world and what impacts on our ability to make positive decisions is largely circumstantial. The song is about trying to connect with our ability to do the right thing at a point where everything is in flux, in crisis, and the foundation of our society is changing.
“How do we connect with our responsibilities and instinct to commit to the collective in a largely individualistic society? ‘Tresor’ is an homage to an older, analog world, the soundtracks to European cinema, and a final fair farewell to the 20th Century.”
While I was in Lancashire and Gwenno was in Glamorgan, we started our conversation in Cornwall, where the writing process for the new LP got underway, pre-lockdown.
“It was really strange, I’d gone down to St Ives in January 2020, and I’d been doing a lot of touring, a lot of collaborating, I’d just done a live score of Mark Jenkin’s Bait film, and I’d done a theatre production, so I really wanted to take stock, just go back into the unconscious a little.
“The last record I wrote, Le Kov, was entirely in Cornish, but based on a distant place, really, somewhere I learned about from my Dad. I’d grown up speaking the language, and it was my take on that experience. But when I went down to St Ives, over that period making that record, it introduced me to a lot of artists in Cornwall, and I got to know people much better.
“That was part of the reason I made it – I really wanted to make that connection, wanting to work out what that was. That opened up a whole new world, a community of artists, so I felt confident enough to maybe go to Cornwall itself, whereas Le Kov was written in Cardiff.
“I was like, ‘How would I feel if I went to Cornwall and wrote the record there?’. I thought I was going down for a week and wouldn’t see a soul – this was January, pre-pandemic. But when I got off the train, I bumped into a friend straightaway, ending up having this really warm and welcoming week, seeing quite a lot of people. That was really reassuring and fed into the record.
“It was about how that would make me feel, writing, and wasn’t the isolating experience I thought, because I’d got to know quite a few artists and people since writing Le Kov. And not wanting to repeat myself, I just wanted to be driven more by the unconscious, desires and frustrations rather than be too somatic with my songwriting, just letting the music lead the way.
“That was a big part of it, and I explored a lot of universal themes through the language, because I was interested in the emotion of first-hand experience of feeling something in Cornish, rather than writing a record about the language that was sort of pseudo-academic – less of an essay or presentation, more, ‘This is how it feels when it’s alive’.
“So there’s the frustrations and there’s the joy, and all those things, and it’s more of a day-to-day intimate album.”
You clearly had ideas beforehand, but I wondered if the melodies predated the words, or the other way round. Because you clearly have to explore different rhythms, writing in another language.
“Yeah, when you write, you’re working at it, then moments of inspiration come to you. And I was very conscious of … for example, I stayed in an artist’s studio in St Ives, in the last area of Cornwall where there were fluent Cornish speakers, and I’ve always felt quite connected to the place anyway. And because it was January 2020 and the dire situation with regards to (ermpty) second homes, I felt there were quite a lot of spirits involved in the process.
“I always feel like that, and with ‘Tresor’, the song, you’re very conscious that life and death are the same in terms of when people leave their traces. So many of the souls that are part of every album I make tend to be from other centuries, but I feel they’re completely alive. I was pondering that a lot because, for me, people that like – and it’s probably because they’re not close family to me – I don’t see the death, because they’re still there, and I think that fed into the spirit of the album. So it felt less conscious.”
There’s certainly lots of rich imagery in your videos, like the Celtic crosses and focus on past civilisations in that part of the world. Which brings me to Edward Rowe, the actor best known to some as his comic alter ego, Kernow King, now known too for his role in Bait. Was that the first time you met him?
“Ah, that was amazing, but I knew him before. He’d come to shows and we crossed paths a few times at festivals. It was him and a good friend of mine, Pinar (Ögün), from Turkey, and she’s a really special person. I created this short film, with that imagery part of the film. It was great to be able to be a casting director, and I definitely wanted those two to be together because of what they represent.”
As you put it yourself, you’ve taken that collage-like approach with the video in the same way you do with your music. And there are plenty of sound collages in your work.
“Yeah, that’s how I make records with Rhys (Edwards), and how things come together. Everything’s a scrapbook. It comes from everywhere. We don’t go into studios to record our music, so everything’s collected along the way, like this big bag of sound! It’s about piecing it all together, and I wanted to create a visual interpretation of the same thing, which is exactly how the record’s made.”
You mention a love of European film, and there’s definitely a ‘60s film feel on the title track, reminding me in parts of Jackie Lee’s ‘White Horses’ and John Barry’s Midnight Cowboy title music.
“Yeah, we were listening to a lot of Eden Ahbez. And it was strange that it just came out in the song, which is one of those where you feel it was already written. And it’s probably the most conventional song I’ve written in a really long time.
“We’ve also listened to a huge amount of Ennio Morricone, and with Fellini being part of it, and a lot of European cinema … because we’re really obsessed with Europe, desperate to be part of it still! That feeds into it, and, y’know, we feel European, so there’s piano from Vienna, soundscapes from Venice … We don’t explore our own culture because we want to be insular, we explore it because we want to be part of the world!”
It seems that you’ve always had that internationalist world view. You speak a few languages, not just English, Cornish and Welsh, but Spanish as well, and I understand your Dad speaks Breton too.
“Yeah, it’s always been about as many cultures as … y’know, being very aware of the diversity of culture and how exciting that is. Even within Britain, the amount of different cultures that feed into the experience and how joyful that is, and how brilliantly colourful that makes the world.”
You certainly seem to bring that joyfulness into your songs and accompanying videos, such as when you’re high-kicking your way around St Ives, as if breaking down doors and freeing those spirits. I was also interested by you writing about the Men-an-Tol standing stones, not least having sought those out on a walk before now, and being struck by their serene feel.
“Oh, it’s such a special place, and I was struck by how peaceful it was and a feeling of contemplation. And so much of the record is about where those spiritual foundations crossover into Christianity, and a lot of my film is to do with where that clash happens and them coming from a very similar place. And in Cornwall as well, because the Cornish language revival is a lot to do with Celtic Christianity, whereas there are huge other elements of Cornish culture that are very inspired by paganism and Neolithic elements.
“There’s a lot of different spiritual ideas happening, and I think they’re all part of the same pot – I don’t think it’s ‘either or’. But I find it very interesting that we’re trying to work out what our spirituality is. I think people are drawn to these things more and more. And it’s not just a passing trend, I think it’s because we’re searching for meaning, and we always will. We think we’re a secular society, but I don’t know if not having any spiritual meaning is possible for human beings, because we’ve always searched for it. So I was interested in those themes, how valid those ideas are, and how wonderful they are to give you that inner peace.”
When the world locked down, part-way through making Tresor, you headed back to Cardiff to carry on working, juggling that with family duties.
“Yeah, we were home-schooling and recording, and Rhys was playing drums, bass and guitar. So there were lots of elements. Obviously, everyone had very different lockdowns, so that’s kind of a reflection of it, but the point really is that I’d written this before lockdown, so was kind of anticipating something, a need to stop, a need to reflect … before anything was known about what was going to come next.”
Before I heard anything from this LP, I was surprised to see Gwenno chatting to Michael Portillo for his Coastal Devon and Cornwall walks series on Channel 5, on a windblown headland in Tintagel, talking about her music and the Cornish language, and how elements of her work fit those amazing landscapes. Not as if I’d ever have put money on seeing her have an amiable chinwag with a former Government minister who served under Margaret Thatcher.
“Neither would I! They do tend to be random events that happen, and I’m sort of open to it, because I have these opportunities to have conversations with people that I never thought I’d ever cross paths with!”
A discussion followed about us warming to Michael Portillo in more recent years, wondering if the current Government lurching so far to the right made him seem more centre-ground now … or perhaps he’s just mellowed with age. Gwenno put it down to the idea of people being better at one thing than another, a sign that we ‘don’t have the best society’, which brought us on to the current Government.
“The politicians we have now shouldn’t be in that job. They can’t do that job! Beyond them being hideous, they’re clearly not in the right job. That’s not what they should be doing.”
True. If Boris Johnson was just some dusty old academic, I might see humour in his bumbling rogue and eccentric character demeanor … his grandiose passion coming over …
“Yeah. He needs to be in a job with no authority … but not Prime Minister!”
In Robin Turner’s …Believe in Magic, the story of Heavenly Recordings, the label’s co-founder, Jeff Barrett, who first met Gwenno when she was supporting Gruff Rhys on his American Interior tour, wrote, ‘How many people are lucky enough in life to find themselves working with an artist who, when you say, ‘Have you started thinking about your second record yet?’ replies, ‘Yes, and it’s going to be in Cornish’. I count myself as a lucky bastard to have met Gwenno and to be working with someone who feels that they can work with our label and do that. When she told me she was making the record in Cornish it was a nice moment. My mother was Cornish and I’ve had a strong affinity with the county ever since I first went there.
‘I knew that we had a really good chance with Le Kov because, quality of the music aside, there was a story there. There’s an intelligence, a thought process and there’s a concept. All brought together by a highly articulate artist. Her concept was a unique thing. Nobody else had done it. I’m not saying nobody’s made a record in the Cornish language, but nobody has made a record in the Cornish language after making a record in the Welsh language after having been in an English language pop group.
‘I’ve got nothing but massive respect for Gwenno. She’s not a commercial artist. She’s an artist, and a successful one. She pushes herself and challenges herself every step of the way. She makes art. I’m properly in awe of her.’ Jeff Barrett
There can’t be too many record label bosses who would go with that notion, and see the bigger picture, the true worth of such a venture.
“Oh yeah, and what I’m really interested in with music, because of my background and probably my age as well, our musical experiences that impact us are partly in real life, partly from our community, and partly from records. And for me, music experience hasn’t just been about the records I listened to. It’s about the socialist choir my Mum was in, the hymns people have sung through the centuries that I’ve learned, it’s a live show experience, or it’s a folk song someone’s passing on. I’ve never seen recorded music as being the only musical outlet, but I’m very interested in how all that translates on to records.
“I see records as documentation of a time and place, like documentary making. I see albums as sound documenting. I’m always interested in that, and I think it’s an idea I’m trying to evolve into in terms of what gets drawn into that recorded music. For example, the reason I’m a huge fan of Enya is because she’s translated centuries of history of music into recorded sound. That’s where the progress is, and I find that concept really interesting.
“But it’s not just recording it as you would hear it. So much of music recording is to do with process. We don’t try and capture a recording of something that’s happened in the room – we’re interested in processing that music into something that’s recorded not just ‘as is’.
“Whereas folk music is documented as it’s sung – which is brilliant. I love all that – it’s about the music of a time and a place and how it’s processed into recorded sound, which is different to when you hear a choir singing ‘The Internationale’ on the street. It’s about different musical experiences.”
Was your childhood spent between South Wales and Cornwall?
“We didn’t have much money, growing up, so didn’t really go on holidays. I went to Cornwall a few times, but just to visit my parents’ friends who were Cornish speakers.
“I started Irish dancing when I was five – my Dad speaks Irish as well – and that was my opportunity to travel. I’d travel for competitions, so I’ve always travelled with something I’m doing. And I always quite liked that – you felt less of a tourist because you were going to do something that other people from that place were doing. That’s definitely had an influence on my motivations for travelling, and I feel that’s a driving factor for making music as well.”
On the first record, there was one song in Cornish, and on this one, there’s something of a Welsh call to arms on ‘NYCAW’, short for ‘Nid yw Cymru ar Werth (Wales is Not for Sale). Your Welsh roots are clearly important to you. Is this you and Rhys following Catatonia’s lead nearly a quarter of a century earlier on ‘International Velvet’?
“That was a slogan devised in the 1980s by the Welsh Language Society. There’s a tradition of artists using their slogans, taking another look at it. There was a band called Datblygu (Develop), led by David Edwards, who recently passed away, and they did a song called ‘Dimm Deddf, Dim Eiddo’, which is another slogan (No Act, No Property).
“The reason our song (‘NYCAW’) came together was because of a classic record label conversation. Jeff (Barrett) said to me, ‘I think you need another single’, and Rhys and I were so furious! We were like, ‘Our album is perfect, what are you talking about!’. We were so angry that we wrote and recorded it that weekend as a response, and were like, ‘If you want a single, we’ll give you a single about death to neoliberalism and capitalism, and the fact that if we’re thinking about any future country in the UK, it has to be a socialist one!’.
“So in a way, Jeff really contributed to that. We could have just gone, ‘You know, we’re not doing anymore,’ but we were so furious … The record in general is not a protest, but that’s definitely me getting back on my soapbox! And I can’t help that – that side is in me. I want to make observations, y’know!”
Conversation followed about afore-mentioned iconic Welsh language indie outfit, Datblygu – favourites of legendary DJ John Peel, the first Welsh language band he truly rated – and how I saw their first show outside Wales in 23 years in late 2016, an UnPeeled show at The Continental, Preston. And that led to Gwenno telling me about the April 2015 festival she helped put on in Cardiff, David and partner Patricia Morgan’s first show since 1993, a year ahead of the All Tomorrow Parties festival appearance in Prestatyn, North Wales, that preceded the pair’s Lancashire visit.
“David thanked us after the gig, because he really enjoyed it. Because we’re artists and performers, we know what you need as an artist when you go and play – you need to have your soundcheck then you need people to leave you alone, stuff like that. You need that time, and it was so lovely to be the promoter and try and make that experience for Pat and David as easy as it possibly could be under the circumstances.
“I think they only played for 25 minutes, but it was brilliant! A band like Datblygu are so important to so many people. When you play shows, there’s an element of chaos, and particularly when they were touring during the ‘80s and ‘90s, their gigs were hard, as they are when you’re any sort of underground DIY artist, and that chaos has such an impact on your mental health and state of mind.
“But there they were on the main stage at the Wales Millennium Centre, where they should be! This was how elevated Datblygu have always been, and that’s where they should always be, in my mind. And the anticipation was incredible, as some people hadn’t seen them for 30 years. It was amazing, with people of all ages and all generations. And I’m just glad they had that run.”
Regarding your own indie-pop past, alongside your sister, Ani, in The Pipettes, you’ve clearly both moved on since, as have the rest of the band, but will there ever be another record or live shows?
“I dunno. Rose is doing stuff with Graham Coxon now, Becki’s a music teacher, in professional music development in Manchester, Bobby’s a writer … Everyone’s doing different things.
“It was such an interesting experience, and gave me a really good grounding in understanding Anglo-American culture, something I hadn’t been raised in. Everyone had such different tastes in the band, seven people where no one agreed on what they liked apart from maybe a good pop song. But it was also a reflection of a time and place, and I can’t imagine how you’d reimagine that for it to be progressive.
“And it’s about progress, isn’t it? You do things because they’re interesting. The Pipettes were interesting to me, and I was very curious about it. I was like, ‘This is fascinating, it’s so bold, so blatant, and I can’t believe the cheek of it!’.
“I’m a massive introvert, so it was like, ‘Oh my God!’. I think that’s why I struggled with it, because I wasn’t a natural entertainer. I always felt I was the miserable one and couldn’t quite be as fun as I should be. I just couldn’t do that.”
It’s interesting how you talk about your brief spell trying to understand Anglo-American culture, as if that’s some crazy sub-genre, minority path, or niche interest.
“Yeah, totally! It was just curiosity! But I learned a lot about bands I didn’t know about, playing catch-up in my early 20s. There are brilliant elements, clearly, musically as well, in terms of that canon. But I think the older I get, I feel my roots become more fully formed.
“I live in Wales, and that’s been home for a long time. My world is very Celtic. It’s that perspective on the world, and the more I dig into it, the more I get out of it, and the more I see the connections, you know, even people like William Morris … it all ties in. I think it’s always been about an alternative to the way this island evolves, and what the soul of it is, and I think we’re all looking for alternatives, because the world’s gone a bit mad.”
True. And if nothing else, Word has it you increased the take-up in Cornish language exams. That’s something to be proud of, surely.
“Well, I always say this, it’s nothing more than the hard work of everyone that’s been teaching Cornish for the past few decades. I only started making these albums because I felt there was somebody there. I was responding to the energy of a community growing, not trying to represent it in any way.
“All of a sudden I could feel and see and hear there were other Cornish speakers around. And everything I do feeds off a community really. Musically and culturally, everything I do is grounded in that.”
Are your parents still doing their thing, creatively?
“Yeah, my Dad never stops. He’s writing poems every day. He’s constantly writing and publishing work. And my Mumn’s still going in the choir …”
Will that be the case with you in a couple of decades?
“Definitely, I think it’s the curiosity and it’s about the journey, following your nose, seeing where that takes you. Having the Cornish language led me to very unexpected places, and that’s exactly where I want to go. And that’s what life’s about – when you’re sat there at the end of it, you kind of want to go, ‘Well, that was fun, and slightly ridiculous!’.”
Having your son most have been another learning curve.
“Well, it’s been a big part of this album, because in our society motherhood is very … the thing that struck me when I became a mum was how unfair society was being run. My inspiration generally comes from my family and my roots and all that early years’ experience. It really does. I draw from it constantly, because I’m interested in how that impacts you as a human being in positive and negative ways, culturally or emotionally. And those first few years are beyond important.
“If that’s not right … it all stems from that. That was always part of my work, and I think Tresor was me trying to get a grip on who I am again, remembering that, because you give yourself up physically as well, for children, happily and wilfully, but coming back to yourself takes a very long time. It certainly did for me. It was so much about that, going, ’Oh, yeah, I remember you!’”
Sorry, I interrupted. You were about to mention your Mum’s path.
“Oh, she’s still singing in the choir, and they’re going over to Catalonia to commemorate the people from Wales that went over to fight in the Spanish Civil War. A few members of the choir and family members were over there, a lot of people from the South Wales valleys going over to fight the fascists.”
It seems rude when this LP’s yet to land, but what about the next one? Perhaps that could take a flavour of the International Brigade struggle, your own Homage to Catalonia, or maybe it could be steeped in Breton history, or signal further returns to the Cornish or Welsh languages?
“I don’t know. My interest is in conveying the spiritual element of the collective unconscious. It’s something I’ve started on, and I think musically I would love to try more. I started it with ‘Men an Toll’, and I’m aspiring to find the spiritual element in music, because I think that’s the part I respond to the most in music myself. But I’m not sure what that is yet.
“It’s a journey, and you follow your nose. I’m maybe just trying to learn new ways of doing things, and I’m always open to try things.”
Following last weekend’s Sea Change Festival appearance in Totnes, Devon, Gwenno is set for further festival sets at Port Talbot’s In It Together tomorrow (Friday, June 3rd), and Kidlington’s Kite Festival (Sunday, June 12th), before July record shop dates to officially launch the new LP at Manchester’s Piccadilly Records (Friday 1st), London’s Rough Trade East (evening, Saturday 2nd), Bristol’s Rough Trade (lunch, Sunday 3rd), and Brighton’s Resident Music (evening, Monday 4th).
Then comes September’s UK headline tour, alongside more festival dates, starting at Manchester’s Psych Festival at The Ritz (Saturday 3rd), then at Hebden Bridge’s Trades Club (Friday 16th), the Wide Eyed Festival at Leicester Academy (Saturday 17th), Brighton’s Komedia (Monday 19th), Shoreditch, London’s Village Underground (Tuesday 20th), Endelienta Stone Barn Arts Centre in St Endellion, Cornwall (Saturday 24th), Liverpool’s District (Wednesday 28th), The Hare & Hounds in Birmingham (Thursday 29th), and Neuadd Ogwen in Bethesda, Gwynedd (Friday 30th).