Gwenno – Interview – 2015

Born and raised in Cardiff, Gwenno Saunders is no stranger to Brighton being the former front woman of Brighton’s The Pipettes. Since they disbanded, Gwenno has toured as a synth player with Pnau & Elton John and released her debut album Y Dydd Olaf, first on limited release with Welsh label Peski and then re-released by Heavenly Records this year. Her psychedelic electropop sound which is all sung in Welsh got a rave review from BrightonsFinest and has made us mightily excited for her co-headline show with H Hawkline on 24th September at The Basement. We spoke to her to find out more about her music.
Do you think where you live has influenced your music?
I think that everywhere I’ve lived must have influenced me in different ways, I’ve always lived in cities – Cardiff, Las Vegas, London, and Brighton. They’re all very different from each other but I suppose that they share a similar template. I’d love to live in the middle of nowhere someday too and I’m sure that would completely change my music.

Is there much of a music scene in Cardiff?
There is, and it’s incredibly varied. Cardiff’s population is growing which means that it’s changing all the time too, and I think that having some more established independent art spaces has helped to merge the music and art worlds again, which can only be a good thing!
What music were you brought up on?
Alan Stivell, Clannad, The Chieftains, Meic Stevens, BUCCA, Heather Jones, Y Trwynau Coch, traditional Yiddish music, Brenda Wootton, Billy Bragg, a lot of protest songs – The Internationale, The Red Flag etc . So loads of different music but no Anglo-American pop/rock at home, which meant that it took me awhile to figure out that landscape but also gave me a different perspective.
Can you remember the first album you bought?
Well, my Irish dancing teacher used to listen to a lot of 70’s easy listening music in the car on the way to class – The Carpenters, Lionel Richie, Mamas & Papas etc. and the song that really stood out for me was ‘Almaz’ by Randy Crawford and I remember going to Kelly’s Records in Cardiff’s Indoor Market to buy it. I just thought it was the saddest song ever when I was seven!
What was the first instrument you played, and when?
My Uncle taught me piano when I was young, and I really enjoyed it, and I learnt violin at school and got through to grade 4 on both but the Irish dancing took over for a while. I came back to the piano later on in my teens and it was lovely to re-approach it outside of the classical sphere so I suppose that some kind of keyboard instrument would be my favourite.
Do you still have an affinity with Brighton from your time with The Pipettes?
I really do! I remember arriving in Brighton around 2005 and going to a gig at the Volks on my first night. There were two guys dressed up as aliens playing electronic music and they were brilliant – I wish I could remember what they were called! I remember immediately feeling completely free to do anything and I really appreciated the confidence that musicians seemed to have to embrace the ridiculous. I was only aware of the more post-rock side of what was going on in Cardiff at the time so it had a huge impact on me.  People weren’t afraid to embrace pop music either, which I thought was fantastic. Funnily enough, when I moved back to Wales I soon discovered that a lot of performance art/music had been going on there for decades, it’s just that I hadn’t been aware of it. But I think Brighton helped me see that it was there.
The style of your music has jumped drastically from your time with The Pipettes to now, is this down to your time with Pnau & Elton John?
The chance to tour with Pnau was a brilliant one and it came about through my friend, Joe Harling, who happens to be from Brighton. What was great about it was that firstly, I was just a synth player and backing vocalist as part of the live setup so I could step right back and learn from them. Secondly, as Pnau, there isn’t an obvious concept so that to me it was incredibly free having come out of something that was so conceptually rigid. Both Nick and Pete are obsessed with sound and coincidentally I was starting to record my own stuff and going on my own sonic adventure so I learnt a lot during my time with them.
What made you start performing as Gwenno?
Well, when I was eighteen and I first started performing it was because I thought that the world needed more Welsh and Cornish language pop!
How would you briefly describe Gwenno’s music?
Musically, at my core I love a good song and what I’m trying to do is to create a sonic world around it, and to embrace different sounds from different places. I’m trying to find the balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar.
What are your main influences?
Childhood memories of music, 20th century avant-garde composers, The Weimar Republic, Welsh language post-punk, and boundary pushing musicians working in and outside of Wales today.

What inspires your lyrics?
The need to try and define the world that I see around me.

Tell us a bit about your newest release Y Dydd Olaf?
The album was inspired by a sci-fi novel of the same name, written by Nuclear Scientist Owain Owain and was published in 1976. It shares similar themes with Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World but has the added element of the protagonist being able to share the experience in a diary form as the overlords in the story cannot decipher Welsh. That solidified my own sense of purpose with the music that I was making when I came across the book, and helped me focus on creating my album.

What has been a musical eye-opener and how has it affected you?
I listened to a lot of Datblygu when I first joined The Pipettes and it had a lasting impact on me, it reminded me of the culture that I was from and helped me navigate in an unfamiliar world.
If you could work with any artist, who would it be and what would they bring to Gwenno?
I think that Brian Eno would be incredibly interesting to work with, I enjoy his theories and it would be good to learn from them and challenge them too!

If there is one artist everyone should listen to, who would it be?
It would have to be Malcolm Neon, a one man Kraftwerk/Visage machine from Cardigan who recorded most of his output during the early 80s in his bedroom.
What music are you listening to at the moment?
Ruth White – ‘Flowers of Evil’, Anelog, Julia Holter.

Do you get to go watch many gigs?
Datlbygu played their first gig in 20 years in April at a festival that we (Peski) curated for the Wales Millennium Centre called CAM’15 and that was pretty perfect.

What has been your happiest memory with music?
Probably making up silly songs in Cornish with my sister and my dad when we were little. One in particular, which we still sing on occasion, is a command to the red man at the traffic lights to go away or we’ll get violent which is set to a doo-wop melody. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds!
What are your future plans for the summer and after?
I’m heading on a U.K tour with the marvellous H.Hawkline in celebration of Heavenly Recordings being 25 years old and both of our albums being released this year. We’ll be at The Basement in Brighton on the 24th of September. So, come on over if you’re free!