A City instrumental to her political Welsh language LP, ‘Y Dydd Olaf’.
Hometowns are like family members – you can slag off your own, but nobody else’s, not even in agreement. To say: “Yeah, maybe you’re right, it does feel a little rundown around here,” you might as well have said: “The only thing that smells worse than your mum’s cooking is your dad.” That’s not on.
Gwenno Saunders has a love/hate relationship with Cardiff that is familiar to all of us, that ultimately stems from frustration at unfulfilled potential. The council keeps flattening buildings, having fully embraced a new-is-always-better approach to city planning, and Saunders worries about that a lot. When she meets me direct from my train to Cardiff Central, she voices her concern as soon as we’ve said hello to one another. She gestures towards the bus shelters in front of the grand station. “They’ve never really known what to do with this area, and now they’re going to build a BBC headquarters here. I’m worried it’s going to look like a government outpost building, or something.”
Gwenno has offered to give me a rough tour of Cardiff – a city I’d never been to, and one that has greatly influenced her debut solo album, ‘Y Dydd Olaf’, released for a second time this month, following a limited pressing at the end of 2014. As you can probably guess, it’s a very Welsh record – only one track isn’t sang in Saunders’ mother tongue, and that track (the closing ‘Amser’, written as a poem by her father some years ago) plumps for Cornish over English. Sounds like it might be an album of trad-folk performed on upturned barrels, but ‘Y Dydd Olaf’ (which translates as ‘The Last Day’) takes its musical cues from the breezy side of 1970s krautrock, Broadcast’s tempered neo-psych and Welsh electronic artists like Malcolm Neon, Geraint Ffrancon and R. Seilog. “I was wanting to find an industrial element in Welsh culture,” Saunders tells me, “because what frustrated me in the past was that I don’t play the acoustic guitar; I don’t sing nicely these conventional songs.
“I liked that krautrock was European,” she says. “I loved that, because we’re so bombarded by American culture. And rhythmically, not being a huge rock fan, it was the motorik beat that got me.”
We walk down Cardiff High Street to the city’s castle and a statue of NHS founder Aneurin Bevan (“The pointy man”), as Gwenno references Welsh literary and historic figures that I pretend I’ve heard of. She’s well read on architecture, too, and is eager to show me the brutalist St. David’s Hall – a concert hall that “should book more interesting things than it does.” If ‘Y Dydd Olaf’ was a building, it would look like St. David’s Hall – a retro-futurist vision of a practical, modern world.
‘Y Dydd Olaf’ takes its name – and a fair share of inspiration – from a 1976 science fiction novel by Welsh nuclear scientist Owain Owain. His Y Dydd Olaf is a dystopian tale of robots taking over the planet and turning humans into a race of clones. Like George Orwell before him, and, more similarly in plot, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, the accuracy of Owain’s imagined future society is alarming as we drift through what is essentially a faceless city centre. Owain wrote his book in diary form, in Welsh – a language the robots are unable to decipher. “It’s a truly inspired way of expressing the power and importance of cultural diversity in an increasingly globalised world,” notes Saunders. She’s spoken Welsh all her life, which puts her in the 20% of the country who know and speak their own language. I’d be proud of that, too, and Cardiff, she tells me, has been slow to celebrate its national identity through language. “It has really grown, though,” she assures me. “You hear Welsh in the street now. I remember when we used to walk around when I was little, my mum would be like, ‘shhhh, listen… someone’s speaking Welsh’, and it would be a really exciting thing.
“More than one language is great for you anyway,” she says, “regardless of what you think the value of that language is. It is of value because it’s part of your identity and where you’re from.”
Inside St. David’s Hall we’re asked if we’re here for the gypsy and traveller convention. We’re not, but Gwenno asks if we can go upstairs to have a look. She grew up surrounded by Celtic culture, in a household that played traditional Irish music, as well as Welsh protest songs and Cornish and Breton artists. Gwenno’s mother has sung in the Socialist Street Choir for 30 years, and she would teach her daughter anti-apartheid songs as a child; her father is a Cornish poet and linguist, which has furthered her respect for endangered languages and cultures. (Just 200 people now speak Cornish – Gwenno and her father are 2 of them). She has one younger sister, and says that her childhood in the inner-city area of Riverside “was almost like being brought up in a cult.”
“I wasn’t brought up on any English music at all,” she says, “and I didn’t really like pop music when I was little. I remember when everyone got into Kylie and I was like, ‘urgh, it’s horrible!’ And then, as I got older, all the posh people in school listened to Brit Pop, and I thought I’m not going to listen to that, because it’s really white and really boring and I can’t see any sex it in. I was 14 – where was the sex? So I got into really bad slow jams, like Jodeci. Cardiff is a bit of a slow jam city, even now. On the radio station we’re on [Gwenno hosts an experimental music show on Cardiff Radio with her husband Rhys Edwards, who also produced ‘Y Dydd Olaf’ and released it the first time around on his label Peski Records] all they play is slow jams – R Kelley, Brandy, Mary J Blige. It might as well be 1992.”
She half jokes that she was always mad at her mum as she had to play catch-up in her teens. “People at school were saying Oasis are just copying The Beatles, and I didn’t know who that was. It would have helped my credibility if I had known who David Bowie was at the right time.”
A rebellious student who hated school, by the time she was 16, Gwenno was itching to leave Cardiff and got the opportunity to do so in an Irish dance show. You’ve probably heard of it – it’s called Lord of The Dance. She saw it as nothing more than a way out, and moved to Las Vegas. She had a good time, for a time, and found sanctuary in electronic music when she wasn’t feeling so great about the world’s strangest city.
“I’d go to this club called Utopia,” she tells me, “off the strip. It was where all the people who worked in the hotels went. It was probably quite terrible music – euphoric house and trance, and all of these terrible things that were happening in America at the time – but from then I always wanted to make electronic music, and it was the things that I related to the most.
“It was when a lot of the Welsh bands came through that I thought, they’re from Wales! We’re part of the world as well! We’re not this ‘other’, which, culturally, Wales was. ‘This desert business is getting a bit boring now – I need to come back.’”