Formerly with The Pipettes, Gwenno Saunders won the Welsh Music Prize back in 2015 for her solo debut, Y Dydd Olaf. Now, the excellent follow-up finds her singing in Cornish, and contemplating utopia in the face of Brexit. We gave the British singer-songwriter a call to find out more about the mystical world of Le Kov.

Having won the Welsh Music Prize for your debut, the reception must have surpassed your expectations?

Oh yeah, that was a massive shock. I’ve been making music for a really long time in different guises and me and my husband [Rhys Edwards] moved back to Wales and just got stuck in with what was going on Cardiff and across Wales musically. And I was rediscovering a lot of things that I grew up with. So the motivation for making [Y Dydd Olaf] was just making something that didn’t already exist.

That’s a real advantage of working in Welsh and Cornish – when you have a language that fewer people use you’ve got to make your own entertainment, and so your motivation for creating things is because they don’t exist. It’s a really natural, DIY approach to making music in general; you’re having to create content because it’s not there. And so, the fact that the album was taken up by Heavenly Recordings was such a massive added bonus. So when I was thinking about the second album I tried to remember all those motivations so I would make the right decisions. I was creating purely for myself. I’ve always wanted to make a Cornish record and so the first album gave us an opportunity to do that.

The final song on Y Dydd Olaf was in Cornish so this album does feel like a natural continuation.

Yeah, it was almost a deliberate thing. It hit home, like, “Oh god, that’s what I’ve got to do.” As far as inspirations like that – where you’re compelled to do something – it’s quite scary because obviously on paper it doesn’t look like the most naturally popular option. Because if someone’s willing to put your record out, I’m sure you can feel pressured to release something that you think the most amount of people would like. But then you’re probably imagining people that aren’t there so you might as well just concentrate on doing something that’s exciting to you.

Can you tell us about your relationship with the Cornish language?

My dad was brought up in Cornwall, so we spoke Cornish to my dad and Welsh to my mum. So when I actually went to Cornwall to visit my dad’s friends, they would all be Cornish speakers so I actually thought a lot more people spoke Cornish than did. I had a son in the period after my first album and started speaking Cornish to him, so I really just started taking ownership over something that I’d been given that was a bit of an anomaly and something that I hadn’t been fully able to explore geographically. I wanted to form my own narrative in the language, like, “Oh well here’s how I express myself through Cornish.” And also I was getting excited by meeting a lot more Cornish speakers, independently of my family.

How big is the community of Cornish speakers?

They say there are between 500 and 1000 fluent speakers and then there are 1000 or more that can understand phrases and have basic conversations. But it’s constantly growing and I love that about it. I’ve realized that I get excited about exploring the points of view that are less known or less familiar in general. You know, there’s this language that people don’t even know exists, and I’ve lived my life in this language fully. How brilliant is that? It’s worth celebrating, because the fact it exists at all is incredible, you know?

In terms of the structure of the Cornish language, does it allow nuance of expression that you couldn’t replicate in other languages?

Oh completely. Also, the Cornish language had a real renaissance at the end of the 19th and early 20th century. There was an artist called Robert Morton Nance, and he really started getting [the language] going, because up until that point people were looking at the language as something just to be documented. And the botanist Edward Lluyd too – a lot of people documented the language and phrases that were still hanging around. But then there was this conscious effort in the early 20th century, reflecting a lot of the Celtic revival that was happening in general. And obviously that came from Art Noveau and the Arts and Crafts movement of the period, because of this mass industrialization.

So anyway, a lot of the phrases and the words were from miracle plays that were written pre-Reformation, which really excited me because there’s a strong medieval element to the language that I speak, even though I’m using it in the context of the modern world. It was exciting thinking of all the people that were speaking Cornish in the 13th century.

What are the challenges of communicating in a language that so few people speak?

I personally felt particularly fortunate, because in my creative relationship with Rhys I’ve obviously dictated what the album is sonically to an extent, but he has produced the album and engineered it, and Rhys conjures up and creates a sonic landscape. It’s a really exciting way of communicating because you’re just creating a world that you can get lost in, and so it becomes about the music. My motivating factors aren’t really that important to the listener because it’s all there to be interpreted. I think there’s something quite nice about not understanding the lyrics because people can just get lost in it. It becomes more subconscious rather than something where you’re really listening out for a word or whatever.

Were there any reference points for the record?

Yeah, well we’d been listening to Bo Hansson, this Swedish 70s prog artist, and to Alan Stivell, who’s a Breton artist. He’s a harpist, and a bit more new-agey. And Clannad. And Brenda Wootton was a massive influence as well. But a lot of these were things that I’d been brought up with and that I’d rejected, by just being a teenager going, “Right, I’m going to find something really synthetic and horrible just to react against the organic, folky, rustic feeling of music.” So it was about coming back round and really connecting with that music.

I wasn’t brought up on Anglo-American popular culture at all. Like, extremely not. I wasn’t allowed to watch English television – which was stupid – so I had no idea about English bands for a long time. And I definitely rejected that when I was younger, but now I quite like that because it’s a different narrative, and another expression of living in Britain.

The album title, Le Kov, translates from the Cornish as “the place of memory”. What’s the story behind that?

Well, it’s an oddity really that I’m a Cornish speaker and I live in Wales, even though historically there are strong connections between Welsh and Cornish. They come from the same strain of Celtic languages. I’ve always been brought up in cities or lived in cities, so my experience of Cornish was quite different to if I’d lived in Cornwall, which is quite a rural place. So I was then thinking about how to contextualize it.

I started reading about Lyonesse, which is just past St Michael’s Mount, off the west coast of Cornwall. There’s a legend that there was a land there where King Arthur lived, and then it sunk under the sea. And then there was another story that on the north coast of Cornwall there was this city called Langarrow which was a state that got drowned because it was too debauched. So there are a series of stories of sunken cities within the Celtic world. And I was like, “Brilliant, my city! That’s where I live!”

I wanted to imagine this place where it was a utopia where everyone spoke Cornish; a place where this record could exist because it didn’t exist in the real world because my experiences of Cornish were an oddity. I was reading Situationist texts that imagined a city where people didn’t have to work anymore and it would just be a place for pleasure. That’s what Le Kov is: it’s a city that’s accepting of everyone just existing and being happy.

My last record was very dystopian and I wanted to react to that. So instead of imagining a future which is awful –which we’re kind-of living in right now – maybe there’s room to imagine somewhere really warming and beautiful and loving, which is actually my own experiences of the Cornish community. Hence why there are songs about cheese on the album. (Laughs) There are highs and lows obviously, but I just wanted to have a sense of celebration as well.

You tackle Brexit on “Herdhya”. Obviously Brexit is something that Cornwall did overwhelmingly vote for despite the fact they stand to lose out economically. That’s an interesting juxtaposition, don’t you think?

So many factors were influential in why things turned out the way they did. A lot of it has to do with the existential crisis that the UK is going through anyway. Right now the UK is like that awful person at the party who’s not willing to deal with their own problems so they’re just getting really, really drunk and embarrassing instead. (Laughs)

Obviously, we’re all responsible for that, but I think there is an awesome opportunity creatively to have different conversations. I enjoy having creative conversations that don’t seem confrontational. I mean, I don’t have the ability to write a Brexit album, talking about how awful it is and the bureaucratic practicalities and the bad media and all of that. But I think there is quite an exciting opportunity to raise different points about why so many of us have influenced the negative outcome, and the motivation behind that.

I adore history and I think a lot of the right wing rhetoric is that England in the Middle Ages was just English, which obviously has never been the case because we’ve always been incredibly multicultural. So I just felt this was a way of expressing that creatively and celebrating Cornwall’s international-ness. And people aren’t taught their own local history in school, because there is this dominant narrative which is propaganda, tied to an empire that doesn’t exist anymore. For example, I didn’t even know Henry VIII was of Welsh descent through my teaching at school, which explains a lot to me about the way Welsh history panned out.

But with you addressing those ideas in Cornish, Le Kov never feels didactic.

Absolutely! And that’s the thing! Because having this conversation, that’s why I feel really lucky and excited to do what I do. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t put it into music. It really is about escapism as much as it is about confronting ideas. That’s what’s so amazing about music; it works on such a subconscious level that you get lost in it and it’s much more pleasant than having a conversation, almost.

March 2018