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IN CONVERSATION: Y Dail “I had songwriters as gods”

When I talk to Huw Griffiths about the debut album from his bilingual project Y Dail (The Leaves), he is in the final weeks of his English Literature and Welsh degree. A tense time for any student, what with dissertations and final marks to nail down. But the vibe on Teigr (Tiger) itself is the exact opposite, the flipside if you like. Fresh and bright, a sweet relief, chockful with delicious alt pop gems, creaky 80s keyboards and buzzy guitars, intelligent often surreal lyrical imagery and storytelling underpinned by joyful melody.  There’s a curious 60s pop producer maestro Joe Meek oddness and eccentricity in there too, Griffiths sneaking a sideways surreal squint and wink at the world.

It was wonderfully obvious when debut single ‘Y Tywysog a’r Teigr’ (‘The Prince and the Tiger’) popped up in late 2020 that Huw has a wide and unblinkered listening palette. He credits his parents’ open mindedness for that, and yet he’s his own man with regards creative consumption, recalling teenage trips to HMV of a weekend, eagerly digging through the CD racks in those pre-vinyl boom times. The unashamed pop love is instinctive and inherited, the 20-year-old explains over zoom from his parents’ home in Pontypridd, South Wales, following passions and soaking up sounds when growing up in a rural area just over fifteen minutes from Cardiff on a good day.

‘I don’t have a lot of prejudice in terms of what I listen to, which I find with a lot of people that’s the case. I developed a respect for people who can write pop songs, whether it’s Borderline by Madonna, Venus by Television, which is a pop song, The Beatles, Stones, The Everly Brothers, doo-wop.’ Add further emotional investment in the works of Cate Le Bon, Wings, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci and Euros Childs solo, Super Furry Animals, and  Prefab Sprout’s Paddy McAloon, combine alternative literature and poetry into the mix and that goes some way at least into explaining Y Dail.
‘I had songwriters as gods, to aspire to,’ he says of his early teens, focussing in on McAloon. ‘The things he does with harmonies and chords having surprising elements in all his songs but also what he does with language. As a songwriter you have to have language that is fresh, and startling.’

The name Y Dail is, in part, a homage to West Coast garage bands like The Sonics and The Leaves, but Waldo Williams’ 1956 poetry collection Dial Pren (Leaves of the Tree) is the primary drive. A quotation from the Old Testament in Welsh, he explains. It’s worth asking, did he read the Old Testament for his course, or own pleasure?
‘Just for kicks, you know,’ he shrugs, smiling. ’It’s strange and quite trippy, like it’s on LSD.’

Huw has spoken of his interest in the ‘glamour’ of language. It is reading Southern Gothic writers like Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, poets Dylan Thomas and  Sylvia Plath, modernists Marianne Moore and Hilda Doolittle, who alarm with their writing, he says. Lyricists like Tom Verlaine,  and more recently Aldous Harding, add to the romance of it. ‘The way she uses language,’ he enthuses of Harding. ‘I thought, “what the hell is going in here”. I was bowled over by the Warm Chris album. When I was writing the last songs for the album that was a yardstick for me. It’s verbal Cubism, you’re taking a situation or experience and you’re distorting it and portraying it surrealistically, which is what I try to do with songs.’

All this conflicts with the wholesome teenage Huw, the songs on Teigr claimed to be powered by Jaffa cakes and tea. The album is a ‘feverish coming of age story’ he adds, written in his mid to late teens in his bedroom with a Jazzmaster and a Spanish flamenco guitar from a car boot sale. And trusty Garageband software. ‘The album has the energy of growing up and being young, discovering things. The mixture of knowing what you’re doing and also not knowing what the hell you’re doing.’ 

The Y Dail we’re getting to know today emerged from a school band, playing shows in village hall, chapel, school. When members left to go to university elsewhere, it naturally shapeshifted into a solo project, then a live duo with Griffith’s multi-instrumentalist sister Elen. Now Y Dail has bloomed into a full band. The early singles like  ‘O’n i’n Meddwl Bod Ti’n Mynd i Fod Yn Wahanol‘ (‘I Thought You Were Going To Be Different’) – which made us at GIITTV bring Track of the Day out of retirement – and the glam pop of ‘The Piper Pulled Down The Sky’ won Y Dail a session with Huw Stephens on BBC Radio Wales and heavy mid-week rotation on 6 Music. ‘I was in lower sixth when Marc Riley was playing us which was really cool. I couldn’t believe it was happening.’  

There are unexpected twists and turns in amongst the high level of energy on Teigr, out this week. ‘Dyma Kim Carsons’ has the OTT melodrama of 60s girl group records in its harmonies. Literature has a substantial part to play – it’s a Y Dail song after all – this time thanks to William Burroughs. ‘I discovered him and read everything he’d written, at much too  young an age,’ Huw laughs. ‘I was going for a Syd Barrett psychedelic pop thing with that one, with fittingly weird subject matter!’ Teigr’s producer Kris Jenkins had a few of Cate Le Bon’s guitars hanging around in the studio – as you do – so it felt rude not to use one on the song. ‘I remember having a pinch me moment.’ 

We get that sense of Y Dail’s energy and instinct serving him well. A cowbell also in the studio, was picked up and used on ‘You Don’t Have To Be Blue Forever‘. ‘I was listening to Revolver at the time , the Taxman cowbell and I remember thinking, “we have to try a cowbell on one of these tracks”. And it worked.’
With ‘Clancy’, it sounds like he’s gonna rock out on that one, big time. It was, Huw says, his go at writing a punk song, but also 70s pop. ‘It’s very glammy.  I wanted to do something loud. It’s got triple-tracked rhythm guitar on it through a vox amp. A bit Stooges, you know?’

Recent single ‘My Baby’s In The FBI’ is yes indeed flavoured with the alien ghost of Joe Meek (‘a twisted pop effort’) but young heartbreak explored in three minutes. That, and ‘Whizz Kids’ have the romanticism and melancholy of loss, estrangement. Further dark contemplation is in ‘Tennessee Skies (1956)’ imagines a former lover, old friend of Elvis Presley’s back home in Tupelo, wondering and wishing if she can rescue him from the fame holding him captive. The pedal steel on that courtesy of AhGeeBe’s Rhodri Brooks adds to the sense of loss, the comfort of the country music that helped make then break Presley. ‘The sound of pedal steel is like heaven. A surreal sound.’  

Huw has a second album written already, he reveals. A young man with a lot to say, and unafraid to find full myriad of ways to convey it. That Teigr is coming out on CD has a charm to it, the sound carrier of so many of the albums, singles that helped to form the album itself. Linking back to those days scouting HMV for teenage tunes. Coming full circle. Ready for the next.

Teigr is released on 5 April via Community Work Records.

Live dates:
06.04 – No. 1 Harbourside, Bryste / Bristol 
31.05 – The Moon, Caerdydd / Cardiff
03.08 – Llwyfan y Maes, Eisteddfod Genedlaethol
05.08 – Caffi Maes B 
23.08 – Tŷ Pawb, Wrecsam / Wrexham

God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.