words Lamont Abramczyk
All images provided courtesy of PIAS.
Trading in her polka dot wardrobe for a more contemporary aesthetic, Gwenno has passed the threshold from British indie pop sweetheart, into an influential solo artist. Her debut album, Y Dydd Olaf, explores contemporary political and social Welsh issues, while embracing her own native language.
Her approach to song writing has changed quite dramatically over the past decade. A former member of the Pipettes, Gwenno was initially confided to a brief that was set by founding members of the band. Songs such as Pull Shapes, and Your Kisses are Wasted on Me served more as dance floor anthems, with lyrics pertaining to dance, and teen frolicking.
Gwenno has since come into her own, both lyrically and melodically. Y Dydd Olaf consists entirely of Welsh Language songs with the exception of “Amser (Time)”, which is sung in Cornish. Gwenno prefers to sing in her own native tongues, sighting it as feeling more comfortable and intuitive. She finds it exciting to explore the scope of what she can do with it sonically. For her, it’s a method of communicating more truthfully and directly. When asked about the significance of performing in these languages Gwenno says, “There have been a couple of incidences over the last few years where I’ve been at a gig and the singer has been singing in their native tongue, whilst not in their mother country most of the time, and I’ve felt the impact that it’s had on the audience. As music lovers, we want to be challenged and I think having more linguistic diversity enriches us.”
Gwenno’s appreciation for linguistics comes at no surprise, stemming all the way back to her parents. Her father, Tim Saunders, is an accomplished Cornish poet and linguist. Being raised in a Welsh household that spoke Cornish gave Gwenno a unique perspective on the world. The Cornish language was native to Cornwall (UK), and is today considered a minority language. A 2011 UK census revealed just over 500 citizens use it as their first language. Gwenno states that, “Different languages allow you to communicate different emotions with their variety of expressions – they are also more importantly, tied to the land, culture and the people who use them and I’ve appreciated that lesson from both my parents even more so as I’ve gotten older. The words and language that people use tell you so much about a person and it gives you such a fascinating insight into identity and history. That perspective has influenced me greatly when it comes to my own artistic path.”
Y Dydd Olaf lends its title from a 1976 sci-fi novel by Welsh author, Owain Owain. Gwenno sights the plot of the novel as a “battle for humanity against capitalism, totalitarianism, and a globalised identikit world.” The book is presented as a series of journal entries, describing what’s going wrong with the world following the invasion of robot overlords looking to turn everybody into clones. The journal is presented in Welsh because the robots can’t decode it. “That, to me, was as much about the survival of a minority culture as it was about any cultural identity which one feels is important and valid and worth cherishing,” says Gwenno. “It felt like the message was to value the good, to celebrate the positivity and to be conscious and self-aware enough to not allow systems to take over which are only beneficial to the few. I blended those themes with a few of my own – accepting where you’re from, patriarchal society, and the power of nature over us all.”
Tracks on the album explore various themes centered around the current social and political state of Wales. Gwenno explores the conservation of minority culture, and the crisis and clashes between new and old societies. “Chwyldro” is a song celebrating revolutions, particularly referring to the ever-changing Cardiff landscape. It focuses on a clash between the town’s humble beginnings, and the council’s ambitions for it to be a future finance centre. Gwenno sights short-sighted town planning as a concern for many universal post-industrial towns. “Patriarchaeth” explores technology and how it can be used to create awareness of sexual inequality in minority cultures, while “Calon Peiriant (The Heart of the Machine)” stirs caution towards these same technology innovations, and the fears of being monitored by government and corporate identities.
Enlisting the help of producer husband, Rhys Edwards (Peski Records), Y Dydd Olaf embodies a lo-fi, almost psychedelic electronic undertone. Its synths fluctuate and echo throughout the album, complementing Gwenno’s soft vocals. Piano accompaniment can be heard on tracks such as “Chwyldro”, where it abruptly chimes through a steady bass undertone. It can also be heard quietly resonating through closer “Amser”. Most tracks on the album follow a frequent design: a steady build upon a vocal or rhythm, crescendo, and fade. However, the body of the music itself flows fluently and helps to convey the mood expressed in Gwenno’s lyrics.
Following the reissue of Y Dydd Olaf last week, Gwenno’s hitting the road. She has multiple festivals lines up in the UK including Port Eliot, Greenman, Festival No.6, The National Eisteddfod, Gwŷl Crug Mawr and Caught by the River Teifi. In September she’s embarking on a tour with Heavenly Recordings label-mate, H. Hawkline.
Gwenno is creeped out by careerist politicians.
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