INTERVIEW: Gwenno

INTERVIEW: Gwenno


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“Those themes of technology, globalisation and cloning seem really relevant right now.” Welsh avant-pop artist Gwenno Saunders is talking about her wonderful debut solo album ”Y Dydd Olaf”(The Last Day) which was first released last year on Peski records; a newly remastered version was released last week on the Heavenly records label.

Returning to Cardiff in 2011, Gwenno took the title for her debut album from Owain Owain’s 1976 novel “Y Dydd Olaf” (The Last Day) which depicts a dystopian future where the robots have taken over the world through the use of medication. With parallels to insightful texts like Aldous Huxley‘s A Brave New World and Arthur C. Clark‘s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? it is told in the form of a diary written by a Welsh man who is trying to hold onto fragments of his identity as he faces mortality. Its prescient themes are of a future dominated by technology, a male dominant society and a very stealthy cultural supremacy in which a minority Welsh context is dominated by elites, corporate globalisation and technology that reinforces these inequalities. These grand notions chimed with the thoughts that Gwenno was having at the time and became the genesis for the postmodern narratives that would decorate the sophisticated synth-pop songs which made up her debut album, nine of which are entirely sung in Welsh with a final one in Cornish.

“It’s quite a dystopic story; he references ‘A Brave New World’ in the novel. I think what was really refreshing to me was he released it in 1976, I’d never heard of the book before and I found it on a blog called Babylon Wales  – it’s an amazing blog.” Gwenno remembers, “I am sort of interested in that idea of science within culture particularly Welsh language and it sort of fitting in with a lot of ideas I was having, and a lot of the themes; the album is inspired by the book, really, rather than a close copy of the narrative.”

Free from the constraints of being in a girl group, Gwenno crafts sophisticated suites of sound underpinned by pulsing Krautish rhythms, her home made synth lines like illuminations in the night sky and her floating, hypnotising vocals that are dipped in a Welsh lilt, it’s a beguiling and otherworldly mix that might be vaguely familiar of the likes of Saint Etienne, OMD, Can, and Chromatics yet is utterly futuristic and unique in equal measure.  In short she has created a bricolage of sensuous yet impactful pop songs to intrigue, provoke and delight, and one of the best Welsh albums you will hear this year: “It was about using different sounds. There’s this great little app on my phone I use to record ideas. I did a lot of recording around Cardiff and things like that, and field recordings going down to Bute town and the bay, recording different sounds, then layering.” The release has delighted us for a year or more and while the new Heavenly mix hasn’t altered the sound of the record it has enhanced it. It gives it an even fuller sound that each layer reveals itself on every subsequent listen. Gwenno explains that this was the intention “It was about creating a tapestry of sounds: a series of layers. I’m a huge pop fan and the production can be really intriguing in how it balances music melodies and samples, and you can go back to it and hear different things. It’s a combination of that and trying to add more to the songs in production as well.”

Following a sell-out run on Peski records, Gwenno’s new works started to catch the ear of those in the wider music public across the border: “We met up with Jeff Barrett as he said he liked my songs. It was just a conversation we had about putting the album out again. It originally came out last year(produced by Rhys Edwards) and was put together quite cheaply really .” She remembers, “It’s been remastered too, with Heavenly as well. It sounds a bit different a lot of the songs; it sounds different on vinyl, too. Mastering is like a science. It’s a strange thing because it’s a real balance of sound. The whole album now has more of a luxurious sound and more layers.” Despite numerous great releases – perhaps, though, not one since the Super Furry Animals released Mwng in 2000 has a Welsh language pop record broken through this barrier, but the majesty of her album and the faith shown in Gwenno’s recordings by Jeff Barrett and Heavenly Recordings will hopefully reward them both. There will also be a bonus CD of remixes of the songs that make up the album for those whose hunger isn’t satisfied. “We’re releasing a second bonus record of remixes of the songs too, featuring mixes of the songs by R. Seiliog, Islet and Andrew Wetherall, so that comes with the album.”
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Following a period as a singer in The Pipettes where she felt she was “playing a role that had already been written” and touring musician in the mid noughties when she returned home to Wales in 2011, Gwenno found a creative home in the Peski label, an ever evolving creative outlet for ideas and releases. This eventually led to the release of a series of EPs on the label culminating in the Welsh release of her debut solo album last year:  “I originally put it out on Peski but we’re working together as management now  and I always admired them. They have been going for a decade.” Gwenno enthuses “It was lovely to find a home of like-minded people coming back to Wales (in 2011) and to be associated to that. Plus, that relationship has evolved; we have a radio show on Radio Cardiff as well. We get together and we can find and share music, and there’s the CAM festival as well. It’s quite continuous and quite fluid. We’re just interested in pooling our different creative contributions. So you are engaged with a community of different musicians; it’s really nice to put out albums and collaborate in that way.”

Unlike the other songs on the album that take inspiration from the text, expand it and apply it to her own thoughts, “Fratolish Hiang Perpeshki” taps  directly into the narratives. Its mesmerising, illuminating, twilight pop resembles the sound of a comet hurtling across the sky like a disco mirror ball, both slinky and delightful, but the title isn’t even Welsh: “It’s gobbledegook that’s actually directly from the book, it’s towards the end of the book. It’s written in diary form. He’s gradually returning to a robot role through medication and when he becomes really disoriented he says ‘Fratolish Hiang Perpeshki’ over and over.  He goes into this twilight zone period and it’s that moment when your identity is disappearing.” Referring to the song’s breakdown, a synth-disco interlude drawing out a nowhere place that punctuates the songs trajectory, Gwenno notes “I was inspired by certain songs; there’s a dystopian feel to a lot of mainstream pop music at the moment. I was listening to a lot of singers and how they are influenced by African-American culture and are always overly soulful in a robotic way.”

“It’s a kind of replicant pop,” Gwenno remarks with affection, “It’s this idea of soul but it isn’t soul, and goes into this breakdown and then there’s euphoria, and there’s no reference to anything. There’s no reference to any other music either; it feels like robots are making the music.  It’s that sort of dead-eyed pop. So I put that break down into the song, this electro-pop interlude. PC music are doing it but in a really clever way. So it was that idea of appreciating dystopian robotic pop.” Gwnno compares this stylised nu-soul of 2015 with the work of the synth pioneers of the early 1980s “Also I think it’s the society that’s created it as well. Whereas in the 1980s there were more human beings involved in it – and I don’t say that’s a good or bad thing, because you should never be too nostalgic – but it was a different era.”

“Go to the heart of the machine to understand history’s destruction,” Gwenno sings on ‘Calon Peiriant’. These themes of technology, globalisation and cloning are threaded throughout the album; the debate that surrounds social media and its role in people’s lives. Is there a point where it begins to impinge on people’s identities, history of cultures and at what point does the internet become a means of control?  “It’s a weird thing in ‘Chwyldro’, which is the first song, I talk about living your life through your computer. (“Living the past on your computer/whilst there’s nothing left of the old buildings.”) I think the retromania has passed and we are moving into a new era now. Our lives being lived through computer has kind of stilted our relationships. And globalisation has informed that and how we don’t think about the past or our culture,  just the future.” Gwenno then turns to Cardiff civic planning, which is a strange clash between the old and the new and reflective of standardised high streets and ports around the world, that mix crumbling tradition with global consumerism that bares no relation to the cultural identity of place: “Cardiff town planning is strange; it’s odd – it isn’t the most thought out. I think that’s a pretty constant throughout the UK though, this sort of bay development idea is quite common. I remember going to Newcastle and it has a similar feel to Cardiff bay: this kind of idea of regenerating old ports alongside modern shops and restaurants.”

“You’ve got to be aware of the negatives and positives; we are so distracted by the future sometimes but you have to remember nature and tradition too. I was reading about the Bute family recently and they hadn’t really bothered planning out the town centre. There’s something quite nice about whichever suburb you go to in Cardiff, whether it’s Riverside or Pontcanna, it’s the same (Victorian) house really, whichever area you go to; there’s something quite nice about that. It’s this idea that as much care was taken as it spread out, I love what’s left of Bute street and all of that area. The Senedd and the Wales Millennium centre work really well, but then apart from that it’s weird, especially when I walk across the barrage it reminds me a lot of Perth. There’s something quite strange about the bay…”

“This song will be blasted at the next Conservative Party conference” was one of the statements that accompanied the singles first Peski release. ‘Chwyldro’ (Revolution) is a revolutionary song, like a twinkling capsule of polemic hurtling towards Parliament with a message that things are about to change, with a deliciously catchy outer shell that hypnotises and transports the listener.

“Cardiff, being an important town during the industrial revolution, it’s part of thinking about revolution and the industrial revolution. I was thinking a lot about the times and the technological and the information revolution and the idea that the foundation of society is changing; how the international dynamics are changing and how politics interacts with multi national companies. And how all of the corruption needs to be exposed. For example there was that period when documents from the Thatcher era were being exposed, documents from the miners strike and others coming out. Plus, I guess, The Scottish referendum too. But it’s about revolutions in general really…”

But Gwenno talks about how she believes the political sands are shifting already, and the revolution may already be under way: “Because of the Scottish referendum and how things are changing. That Mhairi Black speech was just the most incredible thing I have seen in recent times – for a twenty-year-old woman to be standing up and doing that, it’s really exciting. There’s that debate on EVFELs it’s like you (the Conservative government) don’t want to give Scotland further devolution but you don’t want the Scottish MPs to be voting either.” She comments before continuing to expand her thoughts, on the attempts of Westminster governance to cling onto a sense of dominance within the context of the UK. “That’s the issue in England, they  (Westminster government), are the dominant and the largest politically until they deal with their own identity: it’s difficult for everyone else. Because they are still clinging onto this idea of empire and clinging onto everything.”

“It’s difficult because I have found in Wales that it’s a very different situation. Scotland had their institutions for hundreds of years before they joined up with England and they never lost that. I don’t think we’ve ever had anything that’s ever established, but there were laws there (in Scotland) before the Magna Carta.” Gwenno continues, “Wales hasn’t been given a opportunity to set up its own institutions. In Wales, we’re still quite young in terms of our own governance. In England, Labour’s the only hope, and now with Jeremy Corbyn for example, who has come along. He reminds me of the 1980s and I’m quite nostalgic for that era.”

Wales, meanwhile, is in a different situation: a Welsh Labour establishment in power in the assembly that’s become rather lazy and lost the sense of pushing for more devolution as it struggles to come to terms with the powers it already has as a young institution. “Labour’s position in Wales, especially with the assembly, is lethargic; with Cardiff council, there’s something sloth-like about it, because we haven’t got our own media, for example.” Gwenno continues, before musing that the concentrated and centralisation nature of Welsh media could be unhealthy when it comes to expressing a democratic debate and diversity of opinion in the Principality. “I was reading a really brilliant blog about putting the BBC in front of the station, and he was saying that if it was another country, it would be illegal how much power the BBC has. Because we don’t have our own press, The Western Mail bash the assembly generally and we don’t have something people engage with. So we don’t have the political debate and we take on the agenda of (Westminster politics), I hardly see Carwyn Jones on the TV, for example. I’m worried. George Osborne, in the budget, was saying ‘I’m going to give 30 hours a month free childcare to working parents’ and that happens in Wales already! Because we don’t have our own press, people read that and think ‘I might vote Tory next time’ and I think that’s to do with the media. This idea that we do want a devolved media and we do want to decentralise the media; the BBC does some fantastic things but I think that it perhaps in a Welsh context and that isn’t always a healthy thing.”

In a similar vein to ‘Chwyldro’ is the delicate fluttering space shimmer of ‘Patriarchaeth’ a sweetly sung lullaby with a message: housing a narrative that bemoans the still pervasive traditional male dominance of Welsh society (“Patriarchy and your soul is under siege.”)

Informed by a deep lineage of 1980s underground Welsh-medium, artists including Malcolm Neon, Llwybr Llaethog, Datblygu and Ectogram, Gwenno accepts their influence upon her willingness to push boundaries and experiment but reflects that her work is oscillating in more accessible terrains. “I don’t know. I think what I do is pop really, so I can’t compare myself to them, but they definitely influence my confidence to embrace anything.” She concedes, before continuing, “It was really cool to play CAM festival as well with Datblygu who hadn’t played live for 20 years.  It was really great to pull people in with DJs and artists and Anne Matthews was talking as well; they’re all legendary figures in underground Welsh language music.”

But does she think that Welsh language music can translate to audiences beyond a Welsh audience? “I think Welsh language music does cross borders already, it’s quite a lyrical language really.Datblygu have fans all around the world, for instance” Gwenno counters, before pointing out, “I would say a high percentage of my audiences are English speakers first, but when I play gigs here and even in England, the Welsh songs get some of the best reactions. [Welsh language music scene] is like a lost gem really. It’s not just Welsh language acts too; there was the post-punk scene in West Wales and in Cardiff bands like Young Marble Giant‘s whose legacy still lives on today. We’re very good at celebrating folk tradition in Wales too, probably a bit too good.”

Gwenno’s just released her album which has been accompanied by a peak of interest in Welsh Outsider Pop, but she isn’t stopping there, with more singles to be lifted from the record and dates booked for this autumn, she even has a important interview of her own scheduled for Green Man.“I think there’s probably going to be more songs released off the album. I’ve got my Heavenly date with H Hawkline and loads of regional dates; I can’t wait for that, we’re playing Cardiff at the Welsh Clwb. Plus, I’m interviewing the Super Furry Animals at Green Man. “

Gwenno performs the following dates:

Friday 14th August – CARDIGAN – Caught By The River

Sunday 6th September – PORTMEIRION – Festival No. 6

Co-Headline tour with H.Hawkline:

Thursday 17th September – LEEDS – Brudenell Games Room

Friday 18th September – GLASGOW – The Hug & Pint

Saturday 19th September – NEWCASTLE – Think Tank

Sunday 20th September – MANCHESTER – Soup Kitchen

Tuesday 22nd September – LONDON – Oslo

Wednesday 23rd September – BRISTOL – Louisiana

Thursday 24th September – BRIGHTON – The Basement

Friday 25th September – CARDIFF – Clwb Ifor Bach

Saturday 26th September – BIRMINGHAM – Rainbow Club

http://www.gwenno.info/

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