Gwen Saunders is the multi linguistic musician bringing the Welsh and Cornish language to the mainstream. Get to know our inspirational artist at Rug Lane this month, Gwenno.
Gwen Saunders is one interesting woman. The Welsh musician, who goes by the stage name Gwenno, released her first album Y Dydd Olaf in 2014 and followed up this year with her first album in Cornish titled Le Kov.
She is the daughter of a well known poet and activist, growing up in a household that switched between Cornish and Welsh. She did Irish dancing from a young age and was a member of Michael Flatley's productions of Lord Of The Dance and Feet of Flames by the age of 17, even travelling to Vegas for the production.
Saunders joined the indie pop group The Pipettes in 2005 when the founding member Julia left. She continued with that for a few years and while keeping up her musical ambitions, she toured as a synth player with Pnau and Elton John in 2012. That same year she released a five-song Welsh language EP, Ymbelydredd, available on hand-painted cassettes. In 2013 she appeared on The Boy Least Likely To's album The Great Perhaps and then went on to release her first solo record a year later. The album went on to win Best Welsh Album at the 2015 National Eisteddfod and in November 2015 won the 2014–2015 Welsh Music Prize.
This year Gwenno dropped her sophomore album, described by The Guardian as "an exploration of Cornish identity, from feelings of post-Brexit-vote isolation, to calls to arms, to the status of minority languages. But casual listeners are unlikely to pick up on those themes (and the lyrics are sufficiently allusive that you need Gwenno’s explanations to get the point). It’s the melodies that will keep people coming back: purposeful and direct, but deliciously blurry, reminiscent of Broadcast in their creation of a psychedelia that looks backwards and forwards simultaneously."
The Financial Times said, "Having employed a language in her excellent debut that ensured only about 500,000 people would understand her, Gwenno Saunders takes an even more cavalier approach to audience engagement on its follow-up. The first album, 2015’s Y Dydd Olaf, was almost all in Welsh; now comes Le Kov, which is sung in Cornish. In the 2011 census 557 speakers claimed it as their main language. Saunders is in the tiny subset of Welsh Cornish speakers (her father is the Cardiff-based Cornish language poet Tim Saunders). Le Kov, which translates as “the place of memory”, treats it neither as a linguistic curio nor an embattled tongue demanding recognition. Instead the music — sophisticated psychedelia and krautrock in the tradition of Stereolab — imagines a cosmopolitan Cornish world in which old folkloric sayings are mixed with lines from a JG Ballard novel and a song pays tribute to the St Ives painter Peter Lanyon, who died in 1964 while surveying the coastline from a glider. Saunders sings in a breathy, coolly poised manner, as though on the soundtrack to a 1960s French arthouse film. “Daromres y’n Howl” is a tale of a summer traffic jam on the tourist-choked A30 set to an ironic motorik beat, like a Cornish translation of Godard’s Weekend."
In an interview with Clashmusic she describes,“Growing up we spoke Cornish at home as well as Welsh, so we never really used any English at all. Even now I don’t really speak that much English because I live in Wales and all my family speak either Welsh or Cornish, so apart from, you know, conversing in a shop or whatever, generally I wouldn’t be having that many English conversations....I find it really interesting how people from non-English speaking countries use English, and how they don’t necessarily think too much about why they’re using English and what it means. They’re just not conceptualising it...Robert Morton Nance, the Cornish revivalist, said ‘you wouldn’t want one type of flower to dominate the Earth’s surface, because then there would be no harmony’. It’s the same with languages and culture. There always seems to be this argument within the idea of cultural identity that we all need to be the same or something, and I just think that it’s our nuances that make the world more interesting and exciting.”
For Gwenno, it's more than just about the language though, “History is written by the winners and I must admit, my look back into the history of the Cornish language has been quite masculine, just purely because that’s how history’s been written” (Clashmusic).