Gwenno – Interview 2018

Written entirely in Cornish, Gwenno’s new album Le Kov is an exploration of the individual and collective subconscious, the myths and drolls of Cornwall, and the survival of Britain’s lesser known Brythonic language. As one of the language’s few fluent speakers, Gwenno felt a duty to make her second album entirely in Cornish: to create a document of a living language, explore her identity and the endless creative possibilities of a tongue that has a very small surviving artistic output, despite having been around for at least 15 centuries.

Not only can she speak fluent Cornish, but also fluent Welsh and English, making a very rare thing indeed. Some will remember her as a member of the polka-dot dress wearing The Pipettes, the Brighton formed, kitsch meets 60s-influenced indie-pop band who were making some waves at the tail end of the last decade.

She is certainly an interesting artist, and she took some time out to have a chat with an intrigued Brightonsfinest.

Where are you?
Cardiff, my home city.

What’s it like at the moment?
It’s threatening rain, which is quite normal. Cold and grey. Not as windy as Brighton. It’s better for your hair. Brighton is awful for your hair.

You used to be in The Pipettes, didn’t you?
Yes, and I lived in Brighton for about three years.

How was the Brighton experience (apart from hair issues)?
It was a very different experience. Very different from Wales. Which is why I probably wanted to do it. Lots of opposites in many ways. Brighton is a free place, I think. It’s a place to express yourself, as you want to. There’s a real freedom of spirit in Brighton, which I love.

Basically, I got sidetracked with The Pipettes.

Was it fun? Did you like wearing matching outfits?
Ummm, it got a bit tiring towards the end! But it was a really unique experience. Lots of good things, but lots of frustrating things as well. As is life!

Le Kov is sung in Cornish. Your last album, Y Dydd Olaf was all in Welsh except for one song, which was also in Cornish. Why!?
I spoke Cornish at home, as well as Welsh. English is my third language. I found I had a lot of freedom, recording in Welsh. It was something that was close to me, more intimate. More familiar. And I thought it was a really good idea. I think that’s always an exciting place to be, when you’re creating. On a practical and creative level it was having another tool and wanting to use it.

So, let’s have some background then.
I was brought up in Cardiff, in Riverside, which is an incredibly multi-cultural part of inner city Cardiff. I was raised speaking Welsh and Cornish at home. I had a Welsh language education.

When I came back to Cardiff after living in Brighton and London I re-connected and went, ‘Ah, this is me. I should probably accept that, and that’s quite alright’.

So, your father is Cornish?
He was raised in St. Judes and that’s when he learnt Cornish. My sister and I can speak English and Welsh and Cornish to each other. And I’ve got a little boy who is two, and he speaks Cornish as well.

Yeah. And why not? As a parent you shouldn’t withhold any information back from your child. It’s been really nice and freeing to go, ‘I’ve got something. I can’t tell you what it’s worth. But, it’s worth you having. At least you’ll know I did not not give it to you.

Languages, they are good for the brain, apparently?
It’s fantastic. Do you speak any other languages?

No! That’s why I’m not very smart.
You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself!

Very, very few people speak Cornish. Is it recognised as an official language?
It is. Within the Council of Europe it’s recognised as an endangered language.

So what happens when we leave Europe?
This was the thing I was confused about. There are a lot of cross-European groups that have nothing to do with the European Union. And there a few of those when it comes to Cornwall, its culture and recognition of language. We don’t need to go into that!

Nevertheless, it’s not a language people would know or even have heard…
No. It’s brilliant! All my life I’ve had this language and anytime I have told people I can speak Cornish, they’re like, ‘What! What’s that? I didn’t even know Cornwall had a language’. It’s really odd when you tell someone about yourself, and they don’t understand it. I soon realised that is a good thing, especially when you’re making art. Art and music is a space where you can bring new things to the forum, and people are quite open to it, I think.

Do you get to speak to many people in Cornish?
I do, more and more. It became the reason I gained a lot more confidence. When so few speak a language it feels very fragile. ‘Oh, I mustn’t touch it, in case it breaks’. But actually you need to do the opposite. You need to use it, and be

There are only a few hundred speakers, apparently. But it looks like the language will survive, and kick on.
I think so. Even though there is no government funding for the language. But, there has never been. People have kept it alive voluntarily. I think the fact that it still exists, next to one of the biggest languages in the world, I think is incredible. It’s one of Britain’s indigenous, Brythonic languages, and it’s part of the narrative. We need to be looking around, and hearing everyone’s voice, however small.

Your previous album, which in English means The Final Day, was a concept album based on Welsh writer Owain Owain’s 1976 sci-fi novel of the same name in which robots take over the human race. Interesting topics and concepts!
The last record was quite dystopian. It was about the panic, about the way things were going, and I wanted to react to that. I would say this album (Le Kov) is more utopian in its vision. Imagining this sunken city, Le Kov, off the coast of Cornwall, where everyone can do what they like, as long as they are nice to other people, and have a good time.

It’s a little bit like Brighton, at its best!

Having too much of a good time in Brighton, probably.
It’s always hard getting the balance right.

There are quite a few of your fellow Welshmen on this album, including collaborator and producer Rhys Edwards, Gorwel Owen and Gruff Rhys of Super Furry Animals. What’s their Cornish connections?
Well, Rhys is my husband, so he knows quite a bit, as I don’t shut up about it. Gorwel is interested in folk. There are obviously old and ancient ties between Cornwall, Brittany and Wales, and we come from the same branch of languages. We’re like cousins, in a way.

And Gruff Rhys does a bit of a rap on ‘Daromres Y’n Howl’ (Traffic In The Sun)…
I had written this song about a traffic jam, and it evolved with Gruff’s input. I said if you want to sing it in Welsh, don’t worry about it. He said, ‘Oh no, I’ll sing it in Cornish’. He did one take, obviously. Because he’s brilliant. It’s a duet about a traffic jam.

I’m guilty! I always go to Cornwall in the summer…
Exactly! That is the one thing that is most annoying. I was trying to talk about tourism, but not be too aggressive.

Tell me about ‘Tir Ha Mor’ (Land and Sea). It’s a tribute to one Peter Lanyon, the St. Ives school painter, who learned to fly a glider plane in order to “Get a more complete knowledge of the landscape”. He died after crashing his aircraft in August 1964…
Yes. There was a documentary on BBC Four, The Arts of Cornwall, which was really good. He was annoyed about how Barbara Hepworth (world renowned sculptor who was based in St.Ives) got all the attention. It drove his art, to make a point, and included the history of Cornish people within his artwork as well, including the mining history. The presenter was like, ‘This wasn’t just anywhere. This was Peter Lanyon’s county. I was like, ‘Wow’. It was the first time I had heard the BBC not just referring to Cornwall as a county, which it doesn’t always see itself as. It inspired me. It turns out a lot of Peter Lanyon’s artwork is in my Dad’s poetry books, that were published. I loved the abstractness of his work. It made me feel that I could make a Cornish record that didn’t have to be a traditional record. I could make something that was emotive, and all encompassing, rather than one genre.

Jeff Hemmings