Gwenno Saunders: This is Cymru Calling

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The Welsh media landscape can be a grey and gloomy place.

A place of suffocating blandness. Of sports banter and traffic updates and Jason Mohammads – as far as the eye can see. But up in the sky above, there’s a twinkling light – a beacon of hope that’s emitting strange and enticing sounds.

It’s being beamed out by a radio show called Cam o’r Tywyllwch. It’s presented by singer Gwenno Saunders and goes out on Radio Cardiff each Thursday. You can hear it streamed over the Internet or find it on SoundCloud here.

Each hour-long show is like being taken on some kind of interplanetary journey. The music’s always rooted in Wales but along the way you’ll drift through odd, blissful and sometimes scary musical places. It can be soothing or joyful or just bats.

It’s mostly a mix of electronica and experimental music but you’re just as likely to hear an obscure Screaming Lord Sutch track from the 60’s. It’s one of the projects that singer Gwenno has been doing with Peski Records – who are about to release her latest single ‘Golau Arall‘ (Another Light). You can find Gwenno on Twitter here.

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Interview with Gwenno

What was Cardiff like during your youth?

I remember it being quite grey, there was a lot more brutalist architecture around and it felt emptier on the whole. We were one of two Welsh-speaking families living in Riverside for most of my childhood so I grew up as part of a more scattered community who shared the same language and culture, which meant that I felt that I had more in common with the second generation immigrants who lived in the area most of the time.

We lived in a ground floor flat on Despenser St when I was really young and there were a lot of prostitutes who worked outside, especially on a Friday night. I remember Lynette White’s murder case being all over the news and a young girl, Karen Price, was found rolled up in a carpet in one of the houses on Fitzhamon Embankment around the corner about the same time.

I was always quite scared walking past that house and quite determined that I wouldn’t end up that way. I did Irish dancing in Splott so I was around Irish families quite a bit and I got to do some community theatre at the Samaj Centre in Grangetown so I met a lot of people from Gujarat and Bangladesh through that too.

It was a multicultural city, in a post-industrial slump, and although the architecture’s changed and people have moved on (and new ones have moved in), I can still feel echoes of that Cardiff when I walk around.

How many languages do you speak and how did you learn them?

I speak three – Welsh, Cornish and English. My Mum taught me Welsh, my Dad taught me Cornish and I picked up English from everyone/where else. My parents spoke Irish Gaelic to each other sometimes, and seeing as I did Irish dancing as a kid it’s a shame that I never managed to pick it up, as it would’ve been useful when I was taking part in all those competitions!

Did you go to a Welsh medium school?

I did, Coed-y-Gof in Pentrebane and Glantaf in Llandaf North.

What was first record you bought?

It was a Randy Crawford album, which I got at Kelly’s Records in the indoor market. I’d heard ‘Almaz’ on ‘Charlie Power’s Love Hour’ on Red Dragon FM and I thought it was the saddest song I’d ever heard.

As a performer, can speaking minority language sometimes feel a burden – that you feel a responsibility?

That’s a complex question. I must admit that it has been a challenge over the years for me to figure out where the different languages fit into my creative life, which I think is pretty common for minority language speakers.

I’ve always gone back and forth depending on where I live and how much I use the language. Now that I’m back in Wales it just feels a bit odd for me to sing in English as I speak so much Welsh from day to day, and having had a long break from singing in Welsh and Cornish it’s just really exciting to be able to express the new ideas that I have in my mother tongue.

There is a certain sense of responsibility of course, but for me, it’s always about being confident enough to use the language that you have in whichever way you choose.

How do you feel about relative lack of attention that Cornish language/culture gets?

I speak Cornish most days but I’ve spent very little time there over the years unfortunately so I don’t know if I have any authority to say. I’ve met a lot of Cornish speakers on twitter etc. and I’ve learnt that there are a lot of people out there who are putting a huge amount of time and effort into raising the profile of the language and culture but it’s completely underfunded and I think that’s a major issue.

There’s a massive problem in that the government in Westminster won’t acknowledge Cornish history, and that trickles down to local government. Cornwall has a distinct territory with borders that haven’t changed for over a thousand years.

There’s a close identification of the people with their historic territory and their unique way of life, and with their culture, language and law. The Duchy holds archaic power over the land and profits from it without paying corporation tax (which could be reinvested) so I think the fact that the Cornish language and the Cornish identity exist at all is just a massive credit to all those people who are dedicating their lives to their heritage and their language.

How much of an influence has the Welsh music scene been for you?

It’s grown a lot over the last few years. I grew up in a predominantly English speaking city, Welsh was on the fringes in much the same way as Urdu or Somali would be, and I didn’t have any familial connections in ‘Y Fro Gymraeg’.

In fact, I often felt like it was something that I wanted to escape from as Anglo-American culture completely dominated culturally – and on top of that, going to a Welsh school when everyone else around you went to an English school just caused you a lot of trouble on a day-to-day basis.

It wasn’t really until I left Wales in my mid-teens and moved to live on the other side of the Atlantic that I began to really appreciate the music that had always been around, in the background, almost. It had been very faint up until that point but it was definitely there, and it was during that time that I had a bit of an epiphany.

From that point onwards I took more of an interest, which lead me to recording in Welsh when I was 18. I was still quite unfamiliar with the more underground music that had been made and it wasn’t until I joined The Pipettes and found myself far from home and questioning what my musical heritage was that I really started listening to Datblygu and Young Marble Giants, it was only then that it really all made sense to me.

Is there a Welsh performer you don’t think received the attention they deserve?

I’d have to nominate two, Malcolm Neon and Ann Mathews. They’ve both re-defined what singing in Welsh is and are both still a bit ahead of their time I think. If we’re talking a contemporary artist, then Geraint Ffrancon is the one, he’s created an absurd amount of music, some of which is here: http://ffrancon.net

How do you find the music you play on Cam O’r Tywyllwch?

We do a lot of research online, we’ve trawled through our own, and our friends’ music collections. We read a lot of articles and try and join the cultural dots that excite us, we try to find links to Wales. You just have to keep looking I think, especially when you don’t have a large archive to draw from. We are building a small one though!

How has technology changed the world of music? Has it been a positive change?

Overall I think it has. It’s given a voice to anyone who has access to the Internet, it’s meant that all the people who got overlooked the first time round because they were too niche or not commercially viable have been able to present their music to the world. I can also now immediately hear what kind of music people are making in faraway places I probably couldn’t ever visit, that’s amazing.

Could Cam O’r Tywllwch develop into a radio station – kind of Welsh Radio 6?

There’s a definite need for another, more alternative/left-field national radio station in Wales. One that represents the Welsh-speaking and English-speaking population, and in fact all of the other languages that are spoken here every day.

Imagine if there was a station that covered all of those things? Music, art, politics and culture – I think it’s completely possible. Radio Cardiff do a really great job of broadcasting the sound of a wide variety of the city’s residents, as do many other local community radio stations, it would be great to bring it all together into one station somehow.

Radio Cymru recently had a public debate about the future scheduling of the station and many raised the idea of a second station but I think the most important point that came out of that was that the BBC shouldn’t take responsibility for it, and I tend to agree.

We do need to really start thinking about creating and building on the idea of a devolved, more independent media in Wales, that’s the only way that we’ll get a service that is truly representative.

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How do you go about creating your music?

I collect a lot of field recordings over time, I put them all down and experiment with the frequencies and then I work on arranging them into something more structured. I’m really driven by sound, anything unusual to me or something quite mundane that I then try to use in an unexpected way.

I read a lot of books too and write ideas down and make notes, which inform a lot of my lyrical content. I take really long breaks from writing music at times, I find that this is necessary in order for me to re-evaluate what I’m doing.

I’m constantly trying to explore new ideas and I listen to a lot of other artists and composers and try to learn from them. I find that it’s a process of collecting as many ideas from day to day and waiting for that moment when you can turn them into something and they suddenly make sense.

What can we expect from your new album?

An amalgamation of the above! I’ve been reading a lot of Welsh language sci-fi from the 70s recently too so there’ll be a bit of that in there, theme-wise I should imagine.

y-dydd-olafI read a fantastic book last year called ‘Y Dydd Olaf’ (The Last Day) by a scientist turned novelist called Owain Owain. It’s about people being turned into machines sometime in the future and the main character writes a diary documenting it all in Welsh so the machines can’t understand it. I liked the idea of a language being able to protect you, and the blur of where a human being ends and a machine/computer begins.

What do you think the future holds for Wales and Cornwall?

As long as interesting discussions about history, politics and identity keep happening online and more and more people get involved in that discussion and start turning those ideas into action then I think both Wales and Cornwall have a brighter future.

There’s still a huge problem with regards to believing that we can self-govern, we don’t get the chance to dissect and discuss political thought in a public forum often enough, which is at odds with our more politically organised industrial past.

Both countries have a long history of taking a stand against their oppressor and I think the Internet has helped to remind us all again about that. Scotland’s vote is crucial; the fact that it’s happening at all will open a lot of doors for Wales and Cornwall to gain more powers.

I see a need for every one of the countries that make up these isles to have the power to choose their own destiny, we need to move away from a centralised government that has no interest in what’s happening on the periphery.

Cornwall is perhaps where Wales was in the 50s, albeit on a much smaller scale, you only need to look at the way the language was deleted from all road signs for the Olympic torch relay, and the Cornish flag ripped out of the hands of Andrew Ball whilst taking part to see how critical the situation is.

Wales on the other hand does need to engage with and re-evaluate its political self a bit more, and considering how many incredible leaders we have produced over the centuries I’m confident that we’ve got it in us to nurture and hold on to the leaders of the future.

How can people keep in touch with what you’re doing?

I’ve got a single ‘Golau Arall’ (Another Light) coming out on Peski early February which you can check out here www.peski.co.uk. If you make any experimental music you should send it to camortywyllwch[at]peski.co.uk so that we can play it on our radio show which airs on Radio Cardiff every Thursday between 9-10 and there’s also a show which goes out on Resonance FM every Sunday between 5-6 for the next 6 weeks.

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