BN1 Chats with GWENNO

“Other ways of being”: the transformative power of music and a language that refuses to die

The Mercury Prize shortlist invariably features a diverse range of artists and styles, but in a first for the prize that celebrates the best albums released by UK and Irish artists, this year’s list includes an entirely non-English language album: Tresor by Gwenno. It’s a dreamy, transporting album of sultry psychedelia and is sung mostly in Cornish with one track in Welsh. It’s a well-deserved accolade for an artist who has been pushing boundaries and forging a truly unique artistic path, combining elements of ancient folklore with messages of hope for the overthrow of late stage capitalism, and creating a transcendent musical world where it really doesn’t matter that you can’t understand the words. 

When I speak to Gwenno Saunders over Zoom, I ask her about this dynamic of a listener experiencing her music without understanding the words – and seeing as there are only 500 fluent Cornish speakers in the whole world, this will likely be the case. “I really like music when you can’t understand the words and lyrics,” she tells me. “Elizabeth Fraser is one of my favourite singers and I think she just excels at communicating. I mean she’s an exceptional genius of a singer and songwriter but I think it’s trusting that that meaning exists. It’s transcending lyrics in a way.” 

This mention of the Cocteau Twins singer is the first of many references to other artists and thinkers Gwenno admires and is influenced by in a fascinating conversation that touches upon Aphex Twin, neolithic stones, existentialism, secularism and the capitalism realism of writer Mark Fisher. It’s clear that she’s passionate about exploring as wide a spectrum of cultural experience as possible. The Mercury Prize nomination is another widening of that range, giving her the opportunity to share a stage with headline artists like Harry Styles, Little Simz and Sam Fender. Financially, The Mercury Prize is a rare levelling of the music industry playing field. All that is needed to enter is a £175 entry fee. She says it’s “wonderful” to be nominated, “it’s one of the only awards where it’s not based on your budget, which I think others are, because it’s a bit harder to get anywhere near the more mainstream awards. From a very DIY artist perspective, it’s incredibly helpful just to share a platform like that with other artists that have done so well.”

Gwenno originally found musical success here in Brighton with the noughties girl group revival band The Pipettes. Though this project was worlds away from the depth and direction of her solo work, she enjoyed the chance to have a bit of fun and try something new: “I just learned a huge amount, because I was in a band with a lot of people who had some very varied musical backgrounds and interests. It was quite a unique situation that I managed to throw myself into… What appealed to me about it really was this idea that the concept was so strong and I was always interested in conceptual things in various art forms, and things with a sense of purpose. So it was a great schooling in getting to understand how music works all together when you’re trying to do something deliberate.”

After the group disbanded in 2010, she went back to Wales and was once more immersed in the Welsh and Cornish languages she grew up speaking. This return to her homeland made her re-evaluate what she wanted to do. “It was a bit of a full circle moment, I suppose,” she tells me, “And a chance to lay down foundations and roots creatively as to what I wanted to pursue for the rest of my life. Because I think as an artist you need to work out what those foundations are and then you get on that journey and then it’s an endless journey. I tried out a lot of different things with different projects that weren’t my own, and so it was a moment of clarity, of going, ‘well, if I was going to do my own thing what would it be?…What’s the artistic pursuit here? Where does it become endless conceptually?’”

This strong sense of artistic purpose was apparent even from her first solo album Y Dydd Olaf, which came out in 2014 and was mostly sung in Welsh, with one song in Cornish, a musical rendition of a poem by her father, who had taught her the language. Her second album Le Kov was entirely in Cornish and gained widespread acclaim for bringing awareness to the language, which at the time had just had its education funding cut by the UK government. 

An Stevel Nowydh – Gwenno – by Claire Marie Bailey

Releasing music in a language that’s spoken by so few people has the potential to alienate, but this clearly hasn’t been the case. Rather, it has shown that there is still interest in these regional languages and a desire to stop them dying out. Cornish became extinct as a living community language in Cornwall at the end of the 18th century but somehow managed to endure. “It sort of just survived without any help,” Gwenno says, “so it makes it really exciting to think, god, this language must really want to live. Because no one’s helping it here and everything’s against it, but for some reason it really wants to exist, like there’s a robustness to it. And I think, gosh, that’s really interesting as a sort of entity because all languages have, I think, their own spirit and their own personality. I see them as living things and they’re all different from each other.”

As such, Cornish holds a more personal, private character for Gwenno, and allows her to tap into more emotional lyrical themes than Welsh, which is a public language and still widely used. “It gives me the intimacy to share my deepest emotions, and being an introvert it’s great because I don’t feel like I impose too much on the listener by doing that, which is something I’m really conscious of. Because I think music’s the tool to express those emotions…I feel like there’s a real magical element to where the language is at the moment that I’m taking full advantage of as an artist because it just gives it a sense of intimacy and I suppose it’s just in quite a unique position as a language. It’s very malleable and useful.”

Listening to Tresor, it can feel like private, magical things are being sung, that maybe you’re not even supposed to know the meaning, or maybe that you can almost grasp the meaning without understanding the language. The songs at times feel like rituals, like primaeval forces are being summoned, a rift in the space-time continuum being opened. At other times, like the folky Anima, it feels like we have broken on through to that older time and are voyeurs watching an ancient rite in action. 

Gwenno was actually raised in a very multicultural part of Cardiff amongst Somali, Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities, and Cornish was only spoken in her house, so she has a truly unique perspective on the culture. Though she went to St. Ives to write the songs for Tresor, she has no real lived experience of Cornwall itself. For her, the language is separate from the place. In many ways, this is a similar experience to the people speaking Arabic, Bangladeshi and Bengali whilst living their whole lives in Cardiff. They were given those languages through a random chain of events, passed down from parents. And there is something to be learnt from the fact that a language is being used in a new context.

“Generally, in the anglo sphere people would question the point of speaking a language that so few people speak,” she explains, “but there are other values to it. And I think particularly in an age of such huge change, which is happening regardless of whether we wanted what’s happening to happen or not, it’s trying to find positives in the change and I think that perhaps looking at the other languages, the indigenous languages that we have in the UK, but also all of the other languages, the global languages that are integral to communities that have been here for many generations as well, it allows you to imagine other ways of being.”

It’s that combination of the transformative power of music and the experience of hearing a new language that make the album so full of tantalising meaning and symbolism. The themes and ideas of the record are expanded upon in a short film made in collaboration with a filmmaker from Anglesey called Clare Marie Bailey. Excerpts from the film can be seen in the video for An Stevel Nowydh, the first single from the album. Shot on grainy Super 8 film it features Gwenno wearing a tall pointed hat designed by Lally Macbeth, a founding member of prehistoric revivalist group Stone Club. Inspired by the Padstow ‘Obby ‘Oss, it’s a striking red, a colour which pervades the film, as well as Gwenno’s last two album covers, both of which feature her wearing a red dress. I ask her about the symbolism of this colour. “I’ve been wearing red since Le Kov. I was really inspired by Peter Lanyon’s artwork and he’s always got a strip of red [in his paintings]. I guess it’s blood, it’s life, isn’t it? And it’s such a good colour on film as well, and there are obviously socialist connotations. So a lot of it’s to do with the symbolism of the left, you know, the red flag.”

The 22-minute Tresor film will be shown at the beginning of her shows on her upcoming tour and will feature a score of new music she recorded on her own. Gwenno tells me she’s excited to be performing again with a full band. After a couple of years where playing in a group has been a risky prospect, especially in the form of a month-long tour, she feels she can now finally throw herself into the idea of being in that situation again, amongst people, expressing.

Tresor means “treasure”, and this treasure, she says, is “how we express ourselves artistically as human beings. It’s such a valuable thing and it tells us everything about the time and the place that people have lived in and I think it’s very easy to dismiss that as anything that’s of value and it was just trying to say, well, it is really valuable.” But also, in the song Tresor it becomes “our ability as human beings to make decisions that don’t impact negatively on each other. It’s that aspiration to wanting to make the right choice by others as well and trying to work out what the foundations are of our society.”

That social conscience is also reflected in the song N.Y.C.A.W. which stands for “Nid Yw Cymru Ar Werth”: “Wales is not for sale”. This was a slogan made popular in the nineties as a protest against the influx of people buying second homes in Wales. The song itself is a rallying cry for people to come together and fight against the free market individualism represented by capitalism. 

Reflecting on Mark Fisher’s observation that we can see the end of the world sooner than the end of capitalism, Gwenno says, “what excites me about being part of these much smaller cultures – that are not unique, because there are many of them – is that I think they are where perhaps alternative ideas can come from. Because when you’re so far on the periphery of the centralist system that’s dictating everything and making things worse, and also when you are in no way benefiting from it and or ever have, I think it’s easier for you to see alternative ways of doing things. So I think that’s what I took from [Fisher’s book, Capitalist Realism]. I’m really positive about the fact that I’ve seen people organise themselves differently and whether it be geographically or linguistically or culturally, that probably gives you access to a positive outlook with a potential for a different outcome. So it’s quite exciting.”

Communication and community are key to Gwenno’s output, whether that’s through musical collaboration, political activism or the championing of regional languages. It’s invigorating to see an artist balance real messages and deep, powerful symbolism with a pop sensibility. Also, more than anything, it’s refreshing to hear a perspective that’s full of positivity for what we can do as small communities of people, whether that’s Wales or Cornwall or indeed somewhere like Brighton. 

Gwenno plays Brighton Komedia on Mon 19 Sep

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