Song and Story: Angharad Jenkins
On the twenty-third of March 2020, everything changed for Angharad Jenkins. For over a decade, she had enjoyed an illustrious touring career with the Welsh folk band Calan, playing the fiddle to tens of thousands of people across the globe.
The five-piece, described as “power-folk” by Folk Wales, have won multiple awards for their soaring, stomping compositions. But with the whole world seized by the panic and trauma of Covid-19, all of that was in flux.
“It changed my whole outlook on my career”, says Angharad, cradling her cappuccino. We are sitting across from each other in a dreary service station café just off the M4, having travelled inland to a village on the north-western periphery of Swansea.
Angharad lives in the heart of the city, but as I will learn, her work has a propensity to take her on the odd adventure. Today, I am but a waypoint on her journey west to deliver a session for a school in Cross Hands.
When the Prime Minister announced the first of three nationwide lockdowns, Calan were anticipating the release of their sixth studio album, Kistvaen, with a huge thirty-date tour booked to promote it.
“It disappeared overnight”, Angharad says, remembering her unforeseen slump into solitude. Before, she was part of a team; a united front engaged in unearthing traditional music from Wales’ rich cache of song and story.
Together, they would delve into old books and archives, obsessive about nurturing the bardic tradition of their homeland. She had never written lyrics before, preferring to consider her voice a conduit for the glut of historical material at her disposal. But with her ensemble out of reach, she tells me, “my whole approach changed”.
On the second of May 2023, now boldly styled ‘ANGHARAD’, the first single from Jenkins’ new alt-pop project appeared on streaming services. With its memorable hook and blazing brass melody, ‘Because I am a Woman’ is a sharp retort to those who branded her unambitious for desiring a family as well as her career.
“I realised I’ve got all these things I want to say”, she says. “Why can’t I have both?”
I ask Angharad what it was like to turn her hand to pop, after a lifetime of classical and traditional music. For her, it is about breaking out of the box and defying self-fulfilling prophecy.
Her two musical personas keep her interested and excited about her music making, solidifying her reputation as a ‘musical chameleon’. She tells me the songs that work are the ones with strong melodies – the pop songs.
“It’s what we’ll be singing in care homes”.
Angharad’s second solo single, released on the sixth of June 2023, is ‘Postpartum’. It is dark, dissonant, experimental, and presents a refreshing angle on the duality of motherhood. Over a resolute rhythm section, Angharad lists the ugly and often painful facets of the experience.
We see her eschew her usual bright and melodic vocal performance and deliver the lyrics in a monotonous drone, as if to drive her exhaustion home.
The song is honest, relatable, and important. It is not hard to imagine a mass of women in the throes of catharsis, shouting “get off my tits” right back at her.
This is why she does it. As part of Live Music Now, a Welsh community arts initiative, Angharad facilitates workshops which aid caregivers in writing personalised lullabies for their children.
The workshops provide a safe space for women to speak candidly about their difficult and often traumatic experiences of new motherhood.
“My motivation now is connecting”, she says. “I feel far more useful as a musician when I’m in a room with eight mums, seeing them grow, develop, feel better”.
As a young virtuoso, her work with Calan was a free ticket to see the world, but it was impersonal; performative; formulaic.
Growing her family meant finding a way to restructure her priorities, whilst keeping her music in the vanguard.
Folk is still a salient feature of her creative output, evidenced by the new album Calennig, meaning ‘New Year’s Gift’, which finds its home on her Sienco record label.
The record is a collaborative effort between herself and jazz pianist Huw Warren; a reimagining of the ancient Plygain carol tradition wherein the centuries-old sermons-in-song are treated with openness and creativity.
Whilst Angharad’s voice – pure, direct and assured – stays true to the original melodies and lyrics of these carols, Huw’s distinctive harmonic accompaniment takes these songs to new sonic realms.
“I feel so lucky to be playing with him”, Angharad beams at me. “He’s intuitive. He gives the words and melody space, letting them shine”.
The album opens with a controlled rivulet of Huw’s piano in ‘Awn y Fethlem’, which carries the listener to a primitive Welsh landscape. Angharad’s ambient bowing then swells gently beneath the keys and rises to pre-eminence within the piece.
I ask her about the distinct, resonating sound of her instrument, which could almost mimic a cello in pitch.
“I’m actually playing an octave violin”, she tells me. The bespoke instrument is made by Tim Phillips, a master craftsman based in Powys. “You wouldn’t find this in an orchestra”.
A week later, I have the pleasure of seeing the fruits of this collaboration live in the warmth of the Dora Stoutzker Hall at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
Accompanied by a clutch of Huw’s supremely talented jazz students, these songs are transformed once again. In this new iteration they are a different beast, elevated by the boundless improvisational skills of Huw and co.
At the helm, Angharad earns her colours whilst remaining authentically herself, further proof of her ability to both subvert and honour Welsh music traditions.
Calennig was released on 1 December 2023.
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.