Gwenno: ‘The Wales that I love puts people first’
Tresor, the beautiful and hypnotising new album from Welsh singer-songwriter Gwenno Saunders is currently bewitching critics and fans alike.
The follow-up to 2018’s Le Kov, written and performed entirely in Cornish, follows the same formula, barring the Welsh-sung and stand-out track N.Y.C.A.W. (Nid yw Cymru ar Werth – Wales is Not for Sale).
Born in Cardiff in 1981, Gwenno has had a diverse and interesting career.
From a young age she excelled at dancing, attending the Seán Éireann-McMahon Academy of Irish Dance in Gloucester. This led to a stint performing in Lord of the Dance in Las Vegas, before a brief acting career.
In 2005, Gwenno embarked on a music career, joining retro pop trio The Pipettes. Following the disbandment of the group in 2010, she became a solo artist, her music becoming more synth-based, dreamy and psychedelic.
In tandem with her musician and producer husband Rhys Edwards, Gwenno won the 2015 Welsh Music Prize for her predominantly Welsh-language album Y Dydd Olaf.
Her father, the Cornish poet Tim Saunders, instilled Gwenno’s love for language and her Celtic roots, whilst her mother, Lyn Mererid, a translator and activist, provided the political awareness, socialism, moral fibre and grit that is evident throughout her lyrics and music.
Tresor, which means treasure in Cornish, has been well-received and could be the first Welsh (and Cornish) language album to hit the top 40 since 2000, this feat first being achieved by Super Furry Animals’ Mwng.
Influenced by themes such as global political chaos, language and motherhood, the album’s atmospheric and cosmic music often hides the strong political content of the lyrics.
“There were quite a few contrasting motivations and influences for making the album. It was written before the pandemic, after a long stint of touring our previous album, Le Kov,” says Gwenno from her Cardiff home.
“I’d done a few theatre and film score projects that had taken me out of my usual song-writing set-up, so it was really about wanting to pull it all back to something more intimate and direct.
“Exploring the Cornish language through music with Le Kov had been hugely informative and introduced me to a lot of incredible contemporary artists from Cornwall, so that expanded my experience of the language and its people.”
The songs for Tresor, written whilst Gwenno was in St Ives in 2020, were developed with Rhys Edwards in the living room of their house in Cardiff during the pandemic.
“It became clear that we were going to turn it into something quite gentle and comforting, sonically speaking. We were trying to create some magic out of the everyday, some surrealism within the confinement of our four walls.
“From a writing perspective, I really wanted to explore raw, personal emotions – desire, frustration, disappointment, joy. So much of my journey with exploring the Cornish language is to do with taking ownership over it, shaping it to be useful to me in expressing myself as I move through life as a woman, and a mother.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently, and something that I think that has
been a huge motivating factor with using the language is that it creates a safe space for me to be as vulnerable and intimate as I need to be in my creative expression.”
The latest single, the brilliant N.Y.C.A.W. (Nid Yw Cymru Ar Werth – Wales Is Not For Sale) rallies against the historical and contemporary repression and monetising of Wales.
“I had been toying for quite some time with using the phrase in a song,” she says. “What struck me is that when I write in Welsh, I immediately feel like expressing and exploring some form of protest.
“Cymdeithas yr Iaith (The Welsh Language Society) have been incredibly influential in my life, as my Mum, like so many mothers across Wales, was imprisoned twice campaigning with them for Welsh Language rights during the early 90s.
“I was interested in delving a bit deeper into the slogan and exploring what the core principles of it are. It goes beyond second homes. It’s about a rotten capitalist neoliberalist system that exploits the lives of ordinary people and encourages everyone and anyone to exploit others and behave badly given half the chance.
“The Wales that I love is a socialist one – it puts people first. It doesn’t turn itself into a branding exercise to cover up its institutional failings. I suppose this song is about saying – ‘remember the change we can make when we all come together and that we are all on the same side in the end.”
The cinematic video for the single was shot in Berlin, a city that has had a strong influence on both her music and lyrics. Not one to shy away from the political aspect of her art, filming in the German capital was a statement.
“Our good friend Steve Glashier, who I’ve done many videos with over the years, lives in Berlin, so that was one great reason to film there,” explains Gwenno. “But Berlin itself as a city has been a huge influence on both Rhys and I, culturally and musically.
“We also wanted to pay homage to the wonderful Fideo 9 music programme which ran on S4C in the 90s. It took brilliant alternative bands over to Europe to film their music videos. We were essentially saying – our hearts will always be a part of Europe!”
As a polyglot, the importance of language and the preservation of minority languages is a passion that runs deep through Gwenno’s Celtic veins.
“I always say this, but my lucky multilingualism only ever made me feel part of the world,” she says.
“It’s like that wonderful quote by T.E. Nicholas (Niclas y Glais): ‘Mae’r byd yn fwy na Chymru, rwy’n gwybod hynny’n nawr, a diolch fod hen Gymru fach yn rhan o fyd mor fawr’ (loosely translated as: ‘The world is bigger than Wales, I know that now, and thank you that little old Wales is part of such a big world.’)
“Growing up in Riverside in Cardiff, that was just something that you experienced from the get-go – that Wales was a multilingual, multicultural country and that we were part of the world and it was part of us.
“It’s been hugely influential on how I view the languages that I speak. I see them as part of a global family of languages that are all as unique as they are united.”
With minority languages defying repression, Gwenno is optimistic that both Welsh and Cornish will continue to thrive.
“I’m incredibly hopeful – you can’t not be,” she states. “What’s the point if you don’t feel positive? But it’s ok to express that you’re doubtful too, that’s a really important emotion to share and discuss.
“We always have to put our best foot forward with it of course, but what matters in art, in music, in my opinion, is that we express our doubts too, that we can critique things that aren’t quite right, that we can say when things are wrong. That’s why a band like Datblygu are so important to the Welsh language, they told you exactly why things were so shit and with such heart, but most importantly, through making brilliant music.”
Identity and Independence
Gwenno is a firm believer in Welsh independence and the importance of identity and all the complexities that come with it.
“I think it’s part of human nature to search for some form of identity, to want to belong to somewhere, to be someone who is part of something greater than oneself,” she says.
“With that desire comes a lot of complications and soul searching and it manifests itself in many different forms in the modern world too, beyond a ‘national’ identity of course.
“There is a radical, socialist, progressive English history and identity there, that belongs to the working class, that doesn’t need to find an ‘origin story’ in my opinion.
“So much of the projected ‘Britishness’ that comes from England comes from the ruling class, to justify their colonisation of half the planet, by imagining a romantic past that goes so far back in time that it can’t be measured. That’s nothing to do with identity, that’s just a power grab.”
She adds: “We are living on what we call Prydain Fawr – Great Britain – I feel quite strongly that ‘Britishness’ can be for the people of all the nations here.
“Kernewek and Cymraeg are linguistic descendants of the Brythonic language that was spoken across most of Britain at one time for example. That isn’t to do with the British Empire, that’s to do with people living on a patch of land that’s had the same name for a very long time, and it feels wrong to me that we should have to give up that description just because the most dominant force has decided to give it such a bad name.”
A mural of Gwenno adorns Cardiff’s legendary music venue Clwb Ifor Bach and overlooks Womanby Street.
It has become a focal point for like-minded supporters of Welsh independence, particularly for Welsh football fans for independence on matchday.
“Wales needs to establish its own laws again; it’s going to be pretty difficult without that,” says Gwenno.
“Cornwall still has a (dormant) Stannary Parliament with its own laws, as does Scotland. But for as long as we are part of the English law system then the English establishment will always be able to use those laws against Wales. It keeps happening to the Senedd again and again.
“I personally think that the conversation around a different political future for Wales needs to be linked with similar conversations across all of the nations in tandem.
“The UK is an inefficient, centralised system that needs to be abolished. So many people in England feel exactly the same way as we do in Wales about Westminster as an institution.
“England is so large that it seems to me that the population there needs to be on-board with the reorganisation of the UK politically for it to happen, realistically. I find that really exciting, because it establishes a healthy conversation around a new way of doing things where there is room for dialogue between nations, and everyone has an opportunity to be on an equal footing.”
Gwenno’s socialism and internationalism are integral to who she is and the art she makes.
She hopes that Tresor will help elucidate what is going on in the world, and how things can and need to improve. She is proud of the album and how it has been received.
“The response has been so wonderful. We’ve been completely overwhelmed by everyone’s kindness to it. Our hopes were only ever to make something as beautiful as we could, for the album to exist as a piece of music documenting a time and a place, that just so happens to be in Cornish and Welsh.
“Everything that has happened since its release has exceeded all of our expectations.”
Artist, polyglot, autodidact, socialist and activist. Gwenno Saunders is a national tresor.
Tresor is out now on Heavenly Records.
Gwenno will be on tour in September:
Saturday 3rd September – Manchester – Psych Festival
Sunday 11th September – Falmouth – Cornish Bank
Friday 16th September – Hebden Bridge – The Trades Club
Saturday 17th September – Leicester – Wide Eyed Festival
Monday 19th September – Brighton – Komedia
Tuesday 20th September – London – Village Underground
Saturday 24th September – Cornwall – Endelienta Arts Centre
Wednesday 28th September – Liverpool – District
Thursday 29th September – Birmingham – Hare & Hounds
Friday 30th September – Gwynedd – Neuadd Ogwen
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.