Gwenno talks ‘Tresor’: “My relationship with the Cornish language has been evolving”

We chat to the former Pipettes singer to discuss her third record, which is shortlisted for the 2022 Mercury Prize with FREE NOW.

The fact that Gwenno’s third album ‘Tresor’ has been shortlisted the 2022 Mercury Prize with FREE NOW is an immense achievement in itself, but even more so when you discover this is the first time an album sung entirely in languages other than English has appeared on the shortlist.

Much like her previous album, 2018’s ‘Le Kov’, ‘Tresor’ is predominantly sung in Cornish, the Celtic language that was previously declared extinct. Having grown up surrounded by the language - thanks to her Cornish father, the poet and journalist Tim Saunders, and her Welsh-speaking mother who successfully campaigned to have Welsh named the country’s official language - it was after the success of ‘Le Kov’ that Gwenno was credited by the Cornish Language Board as helping to bring about an increase in the number of people taking Cornish language exams in 2018. Unsurprisingly, her latest album is already surpassing its predecessor’s achievements, and the rugged, rustic earthiness of its production, matched with the wondrous beauty of its compositions, are a fine match for the contours of land that the record represents.

Ahead of the 2022 Mercury Prize with FREE NOW, we caught up with the former Pipettes singer to talk about the album.

‘Tresor’ was shortlisted for the 2022 Mercury Prize with FREE NOW - congratulations! Tell us about what being shortlisted means to you.

It’s incredible! It’s brilliant and surreal; I mean, I’m on a list with Harry Styles! It’s the first non-English language album [ever to be shortlisted], so that’s huge, I think. I’m really happy to be the first and I hope we’re definitely not the last. What’s been fantastic has been to get to this point having not compromised. This has been a decade-long collaboration between myself and Rhys [Edwards, her producer/husband]. When we first met, we sat in a pub in Soho and we wrote everything down in a list – I don’t think the Mercury Prize was on it – but we had this mission. Rhys is from North Wales and I’m from South, but we’re both very passionate about the communities that we come from and that they should have a place in the landscape of popular music – or at least marginal, independent popular music! The fact that we’ve reached here, it just feels really validating and encouraging. It’s such an obvious thing, but the more you are expressing what you are, the easier it is for other people to understand you.

Was part of that list in Soho ten years ago that you would focus solely on making records in Welsh and/or Cornish?

Yes, but also we just wanted to make records that we wanted to hear. Records that recognise the influences of the music that we love, from Welsh and Cornish language artists, but also from international artists too. We’re not an isolated community of people, everybody is interconnected. It was about being very confident about this music being as good as anyone else’s, because music is an international language. It’s about being confident about your differences as well. If it’s good, it’s good, and that’s all we’re focused on, making good records.

It would be easy to think that you were carving yourself into a niche by making albums almost entirely in Cornish, but actually isn’t it the case that it might have helped to make you stand out as well? There’s always that idea that the universal is contained within the specific.

I think so, and especially with the Cornish language. Because I’ve always spoken the language, I’m seeped in the language and the culture, and it was always so inspiring to me. My attachment to it is very much based on inspiration, the magic and surrealism of your home during your childhood, the wonder of the world. And what excites me about art is the sense of discovery, so I was also confident that there would be other people that are as curious as I am. People have different needs from music, that’s what’s so incredible about it, and it’s so expansive that it doesn’t need to be narrowed down.

You travelled to St. Ives to write the songs on ‘Tresor’, which you didn’t do for ‘Le Kov’. How do you think that changed the final album this time?

My relationship with the language has been evolving. After ‘Le Kov’, I’d gotten to know a lot of Cornish artists, and my whole thing with the language is that it needs to grow with me. I really wanted to force the language to be useful for me, having been through the process of becoming a parent, and being aware that it was now my responsibility to be the sole source of this language for my child. I felt, with Cornish, that there were experiences to do with being a woman that hadn’t been explored before, because historically a lot of what is out there is manuscripts from the Middle Ages and a lot of the text was written by white, middle-aged men. There are texts written by women, but generally they talk about Cornwall as a country, rather than from a personal perspective. So, those were the driving factors, I wanted to make something very emotional. If I’m emotional expressing myself in a language, that expression of desire comes through.

“I wanted to make something very emotional. If I’m emotional expressing myself in a language, that expression of desire comes through.”

How much are you consciously making it sound like there is a geographical location in your music? It often feels like you can smell the air and hear the wind of Cornwall when listening to ‘Tresor’.

That’s Rhys’ huge interest, musical landscape. He creates a lot of the sonic bed that you hear. He’s from Anglesey, which is very rural and unique, it has a certain detachment from the mainland. There are a lot of Iron Age settlements and burial mounds there, it’s where they reckon the Romans rounded up the Druids and murdered them when they arrived. That’s a big part of his musical expression, and it’s something that’s always been of interest to me, because I am interested in this idea of a Celtic landscape. That’s what’s fascinating about Cornwall as a whole, it’s always a mishmash of a lot of different expressions and energies. Particularly using a language that’s lesser known, you’re constantly conscious that you’re creating your own world. That’s what excited me the most about the language, there is some form of renaissance happening and people are drawn to it, because it’s something that was almost lost but it was not fully lost, and it belongs to people to use, and it allows for the creation of other worlds.

Do you think about the people that are not going to be looking up the translations of the lyrics and are going to miss the meanings of these songs?

My challenge is always about being able to communicate, regardless of whether someone can understand what I’m saying. I so happen to have a language that not many people speak, and it forces me to attempt to be a better musician. Even though lyrics are so important to me and they’re a driving factor in how I write, I don’t necessarily think they need to be important to anybody else. And again, it comes down to that sense of discovery, because if you do want to find out more, my website has all the lyrics on there. If you don’t, hats off to you. If you can’t enjoy it as a piece of music, I’m not sure how much value it has anyway.

It seems from the outside that there is a really tight core community of artists and historians in Cornwall keeping Cornish culture thriving. You were involved in Mark Jenkin’s brilliant cult 2019 film ‘Bait’, for example. Is it true that the community is that close?

Yeah, I wouldn’t make these records if there weren’t other people making great art or sustaining the language over the past few decades. We all feed into each other. There is a great confidence in Cornwall because of how active it has been historically, with trade and industry. That feeds into the identity. It’s such a historically and culturally rich place. The border is the oldest continuous border in Europe. It’s always had a sense of it being its own place. In the modern UK, it’s assumed as part of England, but in Cornwall, certainly from people I know, that’s not how it is. And historically it isn’t, it was a land grab. There is a political element to wanting to celebrate the language’s existence, a language allows you to form different relationships and have a different perspective on the world.

On the political theme, the one track on ‘Tresor’ that is not in Cornish is ‘N.Y.C.A.W.’, or ‘Nid yw Cymru ar Werth’, which translates as ‘Wales is Not for Sale’. Was there a specific trigger for the writing of that song?

It’s an important slogan that was coined in the 90s against the rise of second home ownership, which is a global problem with gentrification. The song really is about trying to remind myself and anyone who is listening that we are all on the same side. In the digital world, there is a lot of division and a lot of pointing fingers at each other, hence why the left is collapsing at the moment. I was lucky to have been an 80s kid in the political hotbed that was South Wales, where there was a huge amount of human rights campaigning. I’m a firm believer in socialism and that there is a need to unite, it is the only way we can make any sort of change. Everyone deserves and should demand the right to exist as they want to be. The song comes from that really – if we’re not going to all gather together and fight against neoliberalism, then we’re f**ked, basically.

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