As she prepares for this week’s rescheduled Mercury Music Prize ceremony, Gwenno Saunders talks to Craig Austin about her nominated Cornish language album, Tresor, the escapist power of pop music, and the artistic freedom that comes with being a multi-lingual outsider.
‘It’s an impossible task, really’, Gwenno tells me, in the days leading up to the rescheduled Mercury Prize ceremony for which her most recent album Tresor has been nominated – ‘You can’t really make music into a competition because everyone’s pursuing their own thing. But it does create a conversation, what with so many records being left off the list. From a Welsh and Cornish language perspective, being the first nomination not performed in English, there’s a bridging going on there that’s really encouraging. The focus being on making records that can be good enough that they can simply become part of the furniture, regardless of whether they happen to be in my own spoken languages. The idea that they can become part of the whole stew of music that happens across the UK and Ireland’.
The decision to reschedule the original award ceremony was made as late as it possibly could have been, the nominated artists having already begun to assemble on the night of 8th September. ‘Everything was fine’, Gwenno recalls, ‘Then around midday we began to hear the first whispers about the Queen, people beginning to speak in hushed tones. We were waiting for some kind of announcement at the start of the 6 O’clock News, but that didn’t happen. So, we were all dressed up, ready to go and in the main room, only to be told that it was cancelled and that everyone should drink up and go home’. ‘Which is something’, Gwenno says with a grin, ‘you don’t really tell the music industry, so everything was swiftly grabbed from tables. A lot of bottles got demolished – maybe too quickly!’
‘My views on the monarchy are well known’, she adds – ‘But with hindsight, they did make the right decision because it just wouldn’t have got any coverage whatsoever in the days that followed’. On the day of the state funeral, Gwenno played a scheduled show in Brighton, a fair and reasonable decision in the eyes of the venue and paying punters, yet one that might easily have been viewed as a political act given the hyperbolic slipstream of state-sponsored patriotism that swiftly ensued, creating a real sense of cultural lockdown across the UK. ‘It did affect my life’, she says – ‘In the same way that it affected everyone’s lives given the way that the UK is organised, both politically and socially. But I was pleased that the promoter didn’t decide to cancel it’ – she tails off – ‘…as it would have been a really awkward one for me’.
We live in a post-Cool Cymru world these days – a lazy tabloid term at best, and one that ultimately undermined the late-90s Welsh music scene as much as it celebrated it. Not least because of the music press headlines that routinely sought to brand the Welsh language with the hot iron of novelty. ‘It still is, in many ways’, Gwenno says – ‘Treated as a novelty, I mean. But that’s not the view of the audience. When I perform in England, where most of my live shows take place, people come because they enjoy the music. There’s no novelty element for them; it’s the music, not the language in which its performed, that draws them’. It’s a conviction that this writer can corroborate, having recently witnessed the artist perform a selection of songs in both Cornish and Welsh at a packed in-store show in a suburban London record shop. An audience that was drawn by Gwenno’s music, but which was nonetheless happy to be conducted by her in the collective singing of Eus Keus? Its lyrics derived from one of the oldest surviving Cornish phrases, it’s a song about cheese that has long-since transcended its subject matter.
It was to Cornwall in early 2020, specifically to the western outpost of St. Ives, that Gwenno retreated for Tresor’s initial gestation period: ‘There were a lot of spirits around, I think. I wanted to create something very emotional, very personal, quite an intimate experience. And this was before the pandemic, or any real notion of it, had happened. Historically, St. Ives has always been an artists’ colony, a centre of creative thinking’, Gwenno explains. ‘It’s also one of the last places that still had Cornish spoken as a community language, given that it’s so far west. I have friends there and I just really wanted to write a record in Cornwall because Le Kov (her first Cornish language album) had been written in an urban environment, in Cardiff. I was imagining Cornwall at the time and though I’ve since got to know Cornwall, and the Cornish people, so much better as a result of making that album, I wanted to truly connect with it; to understand what my position is in that landscape – because despite having this deep love and respect for the people, the place and the culture, because of my upbringing, I am still an outsider’
An outsider? Despite the sizable cultural impact that Le Kov and Tresor have had? Despite an all-time high increase in people learning Cornish being directly attributable to the influence and cultural impact of Le Kov?
‘I call myself an outsider out of respect. I haven’t had a Cornish experience. I haven’t grown up in a rural area that’s been flooded by tourism. I can emphasise deeply with that because it’s so similar to what’s happening in Wales, but I would never be able to claim that experience. My experience is an urban experience which is completely at odds with Cornish as a language as a culture now, even though it was a very industrialised place in the past’.
‘As an artist, you’re always an outsider’, Gwenno asserts – ‘And I’m more and more comfortable with that role, the older I get. It’s quite a privileged position to be in as you’re constantly observing from the outside. I feel on the outside of most things but that’s because I’ve had such an eclectic mix of influences on me, from my upbringing. And I think it’s served me well. I even Irish danced for two years! I was always looking for a place that I felt that I fitted within. It’s the reason I joined (her former band) The Pipettes – I thought maybe I should just be part of the great massive Anglo-American thing. Before quickly realising that I couldn’t be because I was simply too Welsh!’
‘I don’t think anyone ever feels anything enough, and there’s such a focus on it at the moment’, she continues. ‘I think we’re not all one thing, or the most thing you can be either. It’s something to accept and I think it’s the thing that bridges us – the range of different influences and culture that we have. It’s why I’m so glad I grew up in Riverside in Cardiff. It’s what that place is all about – a multicultural, multilingual experience. People who’ve just arrived, mixing with people who’ve been there forever. I’m Welsh, but I’m not just Welsh. I have this other language that gives me a different perspective as well. We can focus so much on national identity, that someone must be the “most something” to be the most valid. I don’t claim that myself, and I completely disagree with it’
We talk about N.Y.C.A.W. – Wales is Not for Sale, Tresor’s unambiguous stance against the rise of second homes. A song whose theme connects Wales and Cornwall both emotionally and politically: ‘It’s very difficult for me not to be political, to be politicised when I’m singing in Welsh because of historically what the music has been. I’m interested in that because when I’m singing in Cornish, I lose myself completely – again, because of this distance between me and the place and the people. It’s a lot to do with things that have almost been lost, but not completely. They’re like these artefacts that have been left lying around and can be reassembled in lots of different new ways. That really excites me – there’s an immediacy to the Welsh language and how I feel about using it that isn’t so apparent in Cornish because I’m conscious that there are fewer people who can understand what I’m saying. As an introvert I can really get lost in it. There’s a mysticism to it, the repetition of
words, the magic of words. There’s an energy around the Cornish language that really seduces me. I can project quite a lot on to it and reveal my most intimate hidden feelings through the language. The responsibility is different in terms of who can hear me. There’s an escapism to it. A different function. I’m not making these records out of some sense of duty. That’s a huge burden to have and I’m not sure that creates the most progressive art. I’m making them because it’s interesting and exciting to me’
We are living through a historically miserable age, one in which the importance of such escapism – especially through art – has never felt more vital. ‘Tresor was never meant to be a political record, or a record that was making a point’, Gwenno states. ‘Rhys (Edwards) and I simply wanted to make a record that was as beautiful as it could possibly be. In an age where there’s so much shouting going on, there’s real value in things existing for their own sake and beauty being this really very powerful thing. Particularly in music, beauty is especially important. I don’t necessarily need music to reflect the problems of the day. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in terms of class and music – especially the music that’s historically been created in the UK. People who previously had easy access to art schools. Places where they learnt to elevate the everyday’. ‘The best art doesn’t just reflect the lived experience’, Gwenno continues – ‘It elevates the lived experience, it helps to make sense of it, and its heart-breaking that so many doors have been closed to working class artists over the years. People who no longer feel they can elevate their everyday, simply because they no longer have those opportunities, because it’s so miserable. There’s a huge chunk of society missing from the cultural conversation at the moment’.
So how do we go about changing that? ‘Aside from getting rid of the Tories? Aside from getting rid of the UK? The cultural and musical landscape are so much poorer for it. You don’t get the vitality of the excitement of accessing something that once seemed out of reach and turning it into something that reflects life or death’.
‘Which is what art is’, the artist reflects – ‘at its best’
Tresor is out now on Heavenly Records.
Craig Austin is a Wales Arts Review Senior Editor.