‘Tresor’, the beguiling third album by Welsh artist Gwenno, is a love letter to the language and folklore of Cornwall. Celtic identity, embracing electronics and a mixing desk that once belonged to Martin Hannett all play their part in her colourful journey

David Bowie once remarked that growing older is “an extraordinary process whereby you become the person you always should have been”. For alt-folkster and pop outsider Gwenno Saunders, the long and winding road to finding her true musical identity has been particularly scenic, from dancing professionally in Las Vegas to acting in soap operas, hosting radio shows, making films, flirting with pop fame and even sharing a stage with Elton John.

More recently, the 41-year-old has made a trio of sublime solo albums in both her mother and father tongues, Welsh and Cornish. Her latest, ‘Tresor’, is a psychogeographical homage to the language, landscape, people and folklore of Cornwall. If it sounds like a homecoming of sorts, that’s because it is, at least on an emotional level.

“I was raised with Celtic mythology above anything else – a Celtic sense of identity within Britain and Ireland,” she explains from her Cardiff home. “I view the world through a Celtic prism, and I feel like the older I get, the more that becomes part of my identity. As you age, you run around less and and start digging deeper into your psyche, and ‘Tresor’ is very much about that – exploring the unconscious collectively and in the individual as well.”

‘Tresor’ is partly a musical and lyrical scrapbook of Gwenno’s visit to St Ives in early 2020, shortly before lockdown began. It follows her acclaimed 2018 album ‘Le Kov’, which was credited by the Cornish Language Board with boosting Cornish language exam entries by 15 per cent and earned her the title Bard of the Gorsedh Kernow, a long-established cultural organisation that seeks to safeguard Cornwall’s Celtic heritage.

On ‘Le Kov’, her use of the Cornish language that she learned from her father, the poet and linguist Tim Saunders, was something of an intellectual statement about the enduring vitality of a minority Brittonic tongue once deemed extinct. With ‘Tresor’, her mission was less cerebral, more personal.

“My intentions were to be driven by emotion and feelings, rather than anything studied,” she says. “I’d got to know Cornwall, I’d got to know people there, so from a songwriting perspective that was the aim of it this time. Also, to capture the emotion and atmosphere of being in St Ives, which was a more physical and immediate experience than a memory passed down. I’m interested in the flexibility and vastness of the Cornish language for expressing lots of different things.”

Recording albums in minority languages that have long been devalued and marginalised by the dominant Anglophone culture may seem like an inherently political act. Gwenno’s mother, Lyn Mererid, is a translator and activist who runs a socialist street choir called Côr Cochion Caerdydd, aka Cardiff Reds Choir. But she is wary of her own records being viewed as direct statements.

“I come from a very politicised background, with my mum and everything,” she says carefully. “So it’s part of my identity to know that there’s always class struggle, cultural struggle and power struggle. But, with ‘Tresor’ particularly, I think what I’m interested in is whether I can create a record that just happens to be in Cornish. Can I create a record where you listen to it and think, ‘Ah, that’s really beautiful’?

“I create sound because of the nourishment I get from music. So this is all about celebrating music as an inherent part of our human experience – a form that transcends all politics. It is so useful in so many different ways. I can’t think of another art form that does what music does in terms of its flexibility of expression.”

That said, there is one overtly political song on ‘Tresor’ – ‘NYCAW’, a spiky Welsh-language rant based on the slogan, “nid yw Cymru ar werth” (“Wales is not for sale”), the battle cry of a growing protest movement against unaffordable housing and second homes in Wales. But Gwenno insists that even this lyric is much more in the sardonic tradition of post-punk Welsh bands like former John Peel session regulars Datblygu, “self-scrutinising rather than pointing fingers outwards”. Treating music as a vehicle for political messages is too reductive, she argues.

“The thing about music is that it’s almost a magical thing. It’s far more powerful than how it’s commodified in capitalist society, so from that point of view, it is political in general. Capitalist societies try to control music, religious societies try to control it and dictatorships try to control it. Music is inherently politicised in any situation because it’s so powerful. That’s quite an abstract answer, but it’s a vast subject.”

Although ‘Tresor’ is awash with indie folk, singer/songwriter sounds, lyre harp chimes and acoustic jangles, Gwenno’s sound has always been heavily electronic at heart. With her long-time studio collaborator and life partner Rhys Edwards, she crafts albums DIY-style at home in Cardiff, building tracks from found sounds and tape loops, all filtered through a portable analogue mixing desk that once belonged to legendary Factory Records producer Martin Hannett. For ‘Tresor’, the duo cite late American songwriter Eden Ahbez and composers Ryuichi Sakamoto and William Basinski as key influences.

“The recording process is very electronic,” Gwenno affirms. “That was one reason we wanted to mention those artists, particularly in terms of Basinski for tape loops and, sonically, for the disintegration of sound. Because of the way the project is presented, it’s not always clear how electronic it is, but when you make music electronically, it’s always a tug of war between the elements. I have the keenest interest in sound, but I’m from the 20th century, so an older analogue time still shapes how I hear and view music.

Photo: Claire Marie Bailey

Gwenno’s journey to her current prize-winning electro-bard status has a rich, colourful backstory. Growing up speaking two rare languages, and attending Irish dancing classes from the age of five, she grew accustomed to feeling like a “weirdo” outsider. A “directionless” teenager, she dropped out of sixth form after just two weeks.

“I get bored very easily,” she laughs.

But showbusiness came knocking when she auditioned for Irish dance icon Michael Flatley’s company, landing roles in his ‘Lord Of The Dance’ and ‘Feet Of Flames’ shows. In a bizarre reversal of most musical careers, she started out playing Las Vegas in her teens.

“I was a real troublemaker as a teenager,” she reveals. “But I’d been doing Irish dancing since I was little because my dad speaks Irish and we had Irish friends. It was 50p a class every Friday. So then I auditioned in Dublin for ‘Lord Of The Dance’, and it was a life-saver because I was really not having a good time of it in Cardiff. I was just desperate to escape. I got into the show and was shipped to Las Vegas, which was quite a culture shock. But that was where I first really got into electronic music – there was this great club called Utopia and we’d spend the whole weekend there. A lot of the girls were from Belfast, and they’d been clubbing for years.”

Implausibly, dancing in Vegas led Gwenno to the eureka-style epiphany that her eccentric singer/songwriter dreams were actually not so crazy after all. Between shows, she hired a piano and started working on her own music.

“That was quite a big turning point. I was just very bored doing someone else’s dances. I was onstage every night thinking, ‘I want to say something and I can’t!’. So that was where the spark started in terms of how I wanted to express myself musically. Obviously it was a big glitzy show and I felt, ‘If this can happen, anything can!’. I was Irish dancing at home and everybody thought I was a weirdo, then all of a sudden it was a career. So I was like, ‘Of course I can sing in Welsh and Cornish, because this has happened!’.”

Inspired by the growing fame of bands like Catatonia and Super Furry Animals, and the opening of the Welsh Assembly, Gwenno left the bright lights of Las Vegas to return to culturally buzzing Cardiff in the late 1990s.

“All of a sudden, we were part of the world, and that made me want to go home,” she recalls. “I was just following my nose. I’ve never really had a plan, apart from extreme intrigue.”

Back in Cardiff, Gwenno amassed a pretty impressive CV for somebody with no career path. Alongside her embryonic forays into Welsh and Cornish-language songwriting, she landed an acting role in the long-running Welsh TV soap, ‘Pobol Y Cwm’, then on S4C, and later hosted her own show for the same channel.

In 2005, she joined postmodern retro-pop collective The Pipettes, singing lead vocals on their biggest hit, ‘Pull Shapes’. Her younger sister Ani, aka Ani Glass, joined the band three years later. With their archly nostalgic riffs on vintage girl-group tropes, The Pipettes were an educational experience for Gwenno, who had been raised largely on Celtic folk music.

“I hadn’t been brought up with any of the Anglo-American rock canon,” she says. “It wasn’t played in my house, so I literally had no idea about any of the bands The Pipettes were referencing. It was like going back to school. It was also quite a nice antidote, because by then everything was so miserable in Wales and The Pipettes were the complete opposite – so frivolous. No integrity, no credibility – it was just about going, ‘Fuck it!’.”

After the group disbanded in 2011, Gwenno balanced her own musical projects with session work, which is how she ended up playing keyboards on Elton John’s ‘Good Morning To The Night’ – his chart-topping, dance remix collaboration with Australian electropop duo Pnau.

“Through a friend, I was randomly a session keyboard player for Pnau when they were remixing that record,” she explains. “I was even onstage with Elton in Ibiza and it was amazing.”

Ultimately, however, Gwenno’s brief flirtations with mainstream pop taught her that she was not cut out for superficial, tabloid-sized stardom.

“No, because it was quite extrovert, and I’m an introvert,” she laughs. “I’ve realised recently that I’m such a goth!”

There has always been a lush, dreamy and cinematic quality to Gwenno Saunders’ music, and never more so than on ‘Tresor’. ‘Kan Me’ is one of the album’s most unabashedly lovely tracks. A traditional Cornish “May” song, it was written for Falmouth-based film director Mark Jenkin’s terrific new hallucinatory folk-horror, ‘Enys Men’.

She and Jenkin are friends, sharing deep roots in the language and folklore of Cornwall. Gwenno has previously performed her own live soundtrack to his feted 2019 debut feature, ‘Bait’, and recently directed her own short film to accompany ‘Tresor’, a trippy, costumed pageant featuring regular Jenkin cast member Edward Rowe, aka Cornish comedian The Kernow King.

Gwenno draws deep parallels between Wales and Cornwall, from the shared Celtic cultural heritage to the more current economic struggles. But after 40 years of living in Cardiff, she accepts that her musical sound paintings, depicting her lyrical fatherland, will always be at one remove – love letters filtered through the yearning gaze of an eternal outsider. Never quite feeling at home, she says, is actually a gift for any artist.

“It’s almost like there’s a window between you and that place,” she muses. “Your nose is up against the window, yet it’s not your experience. But I’m obsessed with Cornwall – particularly the language. I’ve always spoken it, and it was like this weight I was carrying around all my life. I always felt, ‘What am I supposed to do with it?’.

“So music has helped me work it out because it’s not completely alien. It is mine, but it isn’t geographically mine. To be honest, there’s something about how it makes me feel like ‘the other’ that I enjoy, because feeling like I’m on the outside helps me to see things better. As an artist observing from afar, having distance is quite a good way of analysing a situation. So that’s part of it. Being on the outside, being the oddity. I’ve always felt like that anyway.”

‘Tresor’ is out on Heavenly Recordings

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