Gwenno: seeking solace

With new album Tresor, Welsh experimental pop artist Gwenno is once again turning to the language and folklore of Cornwall for creative and emotional inspiration

There might be ghosts in this piece. 

When I first spoke to Gwenno Saunders on a warm May afternoon in North London, it wasn’t that the evidence of our conversation was deleted or corrupted, so much as it felt somewhat intercepted. Captured by unknown hands. Long stretches of static greeted me as I played back the recording later that evening, the near silence interspersed occasionally by the clear sound of her laugh, or a Cornish word coming into brief focus, unbound from context. 

While there’s surely an easy explanation as to why the first attempt at this interview would be resigned to some unsalvageable scrapheap – one that (probably) doesn’t involve the supernatural – it really sounded like a fragment from a low-budget folk-horror film. We try again shortly after Sea Change Festival in Totnes, where Gwenno’s stripped-back set at St. Mary’s Church was the weekend’s highlight.

“Everything happens for a reason,” she laughs, reassuringly. “Seriously, this whole record has been really fucking weird.”

Tresor is Gwenno’s third full-length studio album, her first in four years and second to be written almost entirely in the Cornish language of Kernewek. It’s one of her many mother tongues, an endangered dialect deep in a revivalism that her last album Le Kov had a strong hand in shepherding. It’s a language innately her own, but her relationship with it is still that of a foreigner’s. As her music nestles into a steady drift of self-discovery, meandering through blissful psych-pop and gentle synth-based ambient that whispers with the intrigue of sounds heard through an open window, she’s aware that her presence is a welcome intrusion, but an intrusion nonetheless.

Gwenno’s journey to St. Ives in January 2020 felt different to the times she’d been before, knowing that she wanted to document it somehow. “Normally I have a reason to be there,” she explains, “you know, something to do with the community there, like if someone’s invited me to play a gig. But this time I was imposing myself with my own schedule. I’m quite sensitive to that. I wasn’t invited.

“I was staying in an artist cottage; it was a pilchard’s loft at 3 Love Lane, which is down along,” she gestures instinctively to some illusory cartography of St. Ives. She speaks about it like home, with the warmth of familiarity and fondness of experience. “And this is the immediate contradiction,” she says. “St. Ives has an issue with being turned into an artist colony. It hit me when I was there that I was only visiting. I have the Cornish language, but I’m Welsh. I wanted to write in Cornwall and see how I felt about it. But so much of my exploration of the language is to do with trying to get to know the people and the place better; here I was turning up unannounced.”

The first song on Tresor is a direct picture of 3 Love Lane. ‘An Stevell Nowydh’ directly translates to ‘The New Room’; it’s the opening scene of a record that’s almost totally grounded in time and place. “It’s really an existential crisis to go into a community and say “I’m here now!”, when there’s a stark realisation of the responsibility that your role carries.” Gwenno laughs, “you’re not going to find answers by swanning in saying “it’s me!” You’re on your own, especially with regards to your own identity. You’ve got to work that out for yourself. And Cornwall’s also a really tough place. People whose only experience of it is going on holiday see it as relaxing and pleasant, but I’ve never felt like that. It’s a tough life. The landscape kind of grabs you, it doesn’t offer you a warm hand and invite you in. The love you can find there isn’t kind; it’s quite arresting, it raps you on the shoulders.” 

But for all her feelings of misplacement, as soon as Gwenno arrived in St. Ives she ran into some old friends, spending her time writing music in between all-dayers at the Sloop Inn. “I feel like I had a super classic, creative week. You know, [the] local artist being kicked out every night at closing time, getting fresh sea air in the morning, having existential cries over breakfast,” she smiles. But it was an overwhelming time for her, too, acutely aware of her need to genuinely interact, greet the place and its histories on a level.

“It really felt like there were a lot of spirits around,” she explains. “When I’m in Cornwall creatively, I’m really conscious that I find the masculine and feminine energies really extreme. More so than in Wales. Wales is obviously a very industrial landscape, with a history of very clear gender roles, but as a whole I feel like there’s an effeminate element to art and collective conscious identity there. When I was writing in St. Ives I felt like there was quite a masculine energy that I was really interested in, but that clashed with a really feminine one in artists – Monica Sjöö would be an example, Ithell Colquhoun – who were really interested in the Earth mother, the spirit, the divine feminine, which seems to come out more from people in Cornwall.

“I felt like every ghost [of each place] was saying ‘What do you want?’ I don’t know. I’d just made this decision: I brought everything and the kitchen sink in a massive red suitcase to this place. I felt very insecure and lost, so a lot of my time there was spent working through those emotions. This pursuit I have in the Cornish language is entirely emotional,” she concedes. “I dress things up academically to hide the reality that I’m just searching for emotional connections. And obviously in January 2020 in St. Ives when no one was there, there wasn’t anyone to connect with.”

Tresor is remarkably more conversational than Gwenno’s previous work. If Le Kov was a flag-in-the-air statement of a renaissance in the Cornish language, Tresor makes Kernewek sound like something you’d overhear on a train platform amid converging sounds of bustling strangers and communities. The translations are desperate and searching at times (“How many hours until you understand me? / Is this place real?”) and thoroughly mundane at others (“Fancy a cuppa?”)

“I’m such an introvert,” Gwenno says, pragmatically, “it’s why Cornish is absolutely perfect for me. There’s something I can lose, and I become more vulnerable in it. I can disappear into the language sometimes. Your ego’s not important here. Music is a useful thing for everyone. When you’re younger it can all be very ‘I’ve got something to say! I’ve got something to say!” but as you get older,’ she shrugs, “I just want to create and not try and do a hard sell.”

In not pushing its didacticism (bar one song called ‘N.Y.C.A.W.’, translated in full as ‘Wales Is Not For Sale’, that still – would you believe – sounds like a song about Cornwall and the housing crisis), Gwenno has created a Cornish album that’s really just an album. She tells me about Phoebe Proctor’s Kernewek poem about fancying a boy in Penzance. 

“She wasn’t going ‘Save the language!’ She was just saying ‘I really fancy that boy over there, I wonder if he’ll notice me.’ For me, those intimate moments are much more powerful than any big slogans. The domestic, the everyday, noticing the value in small things, especially now we’ve been home so long and those domestic things feel bigger… that’s what I really love in songwriting.”

“I do keep thinking that this is going to be my stark record,” she says, addressing how accessible the album feels despite its language barriers, “barren like the moors. I’m a huge fan of Nico; her kind of expression, the austere minimalism, is still something that I absolutely love in art. But Tresor obviously wasn’t supposed to be that record. It started off like that before the pandemic, but once the pandemic came, we were all seeking comfort. It became more important for me to seek beauty and a celebration of imagination in a non-confrontational way… To seek solace. It would have definitely been a starker album sonically if the pandemic hadn’t happened.”

The starkness instead comes in the form of a 22-minute film and companion piece to the album, written, directed and produced by Gwenno, complete with the same name. 

“The album and the film are as important as each other,” she says. “Getting to do the soundtrack for the film was so much fun, too. It sort of feels like a home movie – an experimental film from the ’30s. A lot of times 8mm film gets used as a mood thing, like in music videos there’s a distorted or wobbly scene to try and be vintage rather than precise, but I liked the idea of using Super 8 to film something properly. I was just trying to celebrate the humour and ridiculousness of life; it’s not too serious. Life is really serious but you’ve got to be serious about enjoying it as well. The film is full of joy. It’s ridiculous, really. Life is ridiculous.”

The film follows Gwenno as a young girl watching the miners’ strike in her living room to scenes steeped in surrealism, yet totally grounded in Cornish mythology. She stains her lips blue with wode, smears it as warpaint under her eyes, across her cheeks and follows a red-hatted imp she calls her ‘instinct’ in copycat costume and dance. Through the woods. Up barrows. She ballets a stilted jig on Bryn Celli Ddu by drone-noise and sparse percussion, until they reach three doors – an image taken from The Mabinogion – where two are closed and one faces Cornwall.

Even when there’s no direct collaboration, it feels like there’s a spiritual kinship between Gwenno and her friend, the filmmaker Mark Jenkin. There’s a physical and spiritual disconnect on Tresor between what’s seen and heard; the overdubs track it like a silent film scored in its own language. It’s similar to how Gwenno feels in Cornwall: she’s there, but not to stay. It’s not her story, and yet it’s one that she has an absolute right to tell. 

Martin Ward is a fisherman in Jenkin’s own film Bait – which Gwenno recently scored – played by Edward Rowe, angered by the easy commodification of his coastal village. His in-film lookalike – an archetype of modern Cornish masculinity – lingers over a few seconds of Gwenno’s film, superimposed on a shot of the waves crashing shoreward, as if to warn her that he’s watching her portrayal of Cornwall, there to call out any mistruths. “The song that I was playing in that scene is called ‘The Fisherman’,” Gwenno adds. “I haven’t put it on the record but it’s a seductive thing. A ghost of this man comes in through the window, disappears, and then the female character turns into a fish and vanishes into the night. It comes back to mythology and shapeshifting. I want people to laugh at it.

“There’s also less symbolism in Wales because of the reformation and non-conformism,” she says. For her, the film has become an act of almost nationalising an image-based culture. “There’s just this idea of a blank space before you reach God,” she says. “Human beings are very visual creatures. And it’s the same with Methodism in Cornwall, where you get rid of all the superfluous unimportant parts and just do life – do it austere and do it well. But you need that stuff. You have to claim these images before capitalism sells them back to you. Capitalism is bombarding us with images because someone decided we didn’t need them.”

Among the bigger pop moments on the album sits room to explore this wealth of Cornish symbolism and imagery. The standout tracks lean into a willfully indulgent, hallucinatory space, where ambient sprawls through questions of identity through postcards home – Tintagel, the Smugglers’ Coast. ‘Mên-an-Tol’ is haiku-esque in its brevity, but has a four-line translation that leaves you breathless with Gwenno’s helplessness, even once reverted to its original Kernewek: “It’s completely obvious / That I’m incapable / Of escaping / From this.”

“I’m constantly pulled between two spaces in wanting to explore more ambient and abstract ideas sonically and really loving songs,” she says. “There’s always a clash in those two things.” She adds that while she’s contributed found sounds to the last couple of records, her partner and musical collaborator Rhys Edwards applied more of the landscaping. “It just naturally happened on Tresor that I was a lot more hands on in the studio,” she says. “Particularly with ‘Mên-an-Tol’, it feels like my landscape. I’m there but I’m not trying to be there. There’s a bit more space. I’m trying to reach something quite instinctively.”

“What I love about Cornish is its robustness. I think that because of the way it sounds, because of the way it reflects the people who use it to live on that landscape, and because of its history it somehow gives me this parallel world to explore that’s both got the depth of human experience and is floating on top of it at the same time. It gives me huge freedom, and because it’s so attached to my childhood and imagination and creating other worlds…” she trails off, looking upwards for the words to come, “you can dig deeper into your unconscious when you use it for many practical reasons, because I have that faraway-ness to it. There’s a huge mystery to it as well as it being a practical thing that I use every day.

“Of course,” she finishes, “it is also really important to me that Tresor is seen as a Cornish album. It’s an experience that I had within the language. Music is for lots of reasons. You need to work out all the different ways a language can be used. Can you feel stuff in it? Can you long for something? Can you be frustrated? Can it be everyday?” Gwenno sighs. “It’s an odd thing trying to work out where within it you feel most comfortable. You’re always trying to have a conversation but it’s trying to know where you sit within that conversation. There are big pop songs on Tresor, but I like being the wallpaper too.”