The UK was a pretty diverse place for thousands of years,” Gwenno reminds me. She’s phoning from her home in Cardiff and we’ve just started what will be an alluring half hour discussion about ancient languages, lost cities and longing for equality in the current political climate. ‘Le Kov’, Gwenno’s latest album, is written entirely in Cornish – a language that fewer than 600 people speak. It’s an other-worldly record made for dreamers and escapists and it makes for the perfect background music to this article, if you’re looking for something to listen to.
Gwenno was born in the Welsh capital and is fluent in Cornish, Welsh and English. Her father, a Cornish poet and linguist, passed down his native tongue while her mother, a Welsh activist and singer, gifted her daughter hers. Gwenno’s first record, 2014’s ‘Y Dydd Olaf’, is written almost entirely in Welsh apart from the last track ‘Amser’, a Cornish poem authored by her father and a foreshadowing of what to expect of her sophomore release.
“I feel really, really lucky that I’ve got another tool in my toolbox,” Gwenno tells me about her ability to speak two of the six ancient Celtic languages. “I love records that I can’t understand to be honest. I love language, so I can’t say the lyrics aren’t important to me because they are, but there’s an escapism to listening to something you don’t understand. There’s an abstraction to it.”
On ‘Le Kov’, Gwenno not only uses the words of Cornwall, but draws inspiration from its landscape, its people, its history and myths. Working with long-term collaborator Rhys Edwards, she creates a mystical soundscape on the record which quickly transports its listeners to her sunken metropolis; her sanctuary city.
“Sonically, the sound palette is different when compared to Welsh because Cornish is a darker sounding language and I’m convinced it’s because of the landscape.”
Think rocky beaches, jagged cliff faces and green fields, not dissimilar to our own.
“I’m really interested in how language informs the landscape,” she continues. “And how landscape informs the language.
“I’m interested in creating a sonic world which is definitely something that Rhys, who produced the record and worked on the album with me, does. He creates other worlds. I think there’s comfort in it. Even though I’m indirectly directly political in the lyrics, it’s the contrast between those two elements that I’m quite interested in.”
Unless you’re one of the few remaining Cornish speakers, you’re going to have to take Gwenno for her word when she describes the themes on the album. ‘Le Kov’ translates to ‘a place of memory’ and is as much about ancient recollections as it is about those of her upbringing.
“It was my exploration of childhood in a way. I just thought there was something quite interesting about the fact that not many people know about Cornish. Languages each have their own history, I thought it was a good idea to explore it in this time because lots of things are going on in terms of cultures becoming more homogenised and I think that there’s always a story to be told in every language. Those stories get forgotten when a language dies.”
Another theme evident throughout the record is identity, a topic especially relevant in recent months. Track three, ‘Herdhya’, directly references the post-Brexit vote isolation that many experienced.
“You know, that’s why I created ‘Le Kov’ because I’d rather live in a sunken city under the sea then here, right now… What’s frustrating is the political system is so disconnected from how the people feel. I think as a creative person you feel that it’s so important to create and document because you feel quite powerless apart from the conversations you can have through your art or your music. There is a value in the heightened awareness that you feel when you engage with a piece of art that inspires you.”
We talk about ideal worlds, and specifically what Gwenno’s looks like. How does life work inside this sunken metropolis?
“It’s about equality for me,” starts. “That’s the biggest heartbreak in the world – even though we are all equal, we’re not. We’re not given that same opportunity. And the tragedy really is that it doesn’t have to be like that. I think people make better decisions when they get treated with respect.
“It’s human nature to create chaos and get things wrong but I think because of the way organised religion has affected us, it’s made us think that we’re above nature, but nature has organised itself so much better than us… With bees or with ants, they’re pretty well sorted, they’ve got their patterns and we still haven’t worked it out.”
Gwenno relates to Britain’s minority groups. Although she speaks English, her first language is almost extinct. There are at least 300 languages spoken in London, and about 100 in Cardiff I learn, and she empathises with those who solely speak a non-majority language on the island, understanding how isolating it must feel.
“Language creates community and it creates links. It takes four and a half hours to get from North to South Wales, a journey that should take two, because our transport system is horrific, so the fact that we have a common language, I think it links us. We’re certainly not linked geographically because we can’t reach each other.”
Before ‘Le Kov’, Cornish was a language Gwenno spoke at home but had never explored in the same way her debut album had allowed her to explore Welsh. She relished the freedom working with an ancient language gave her, finding it much easier to stop overthinking and just let go.
“With minoritised languages you do perhaps not feel as confident in using them because you worry that they’re fragile or you don’t have the right to use them in case they break. Owning it and taking it on, I found that really empowering.
“Artistically, it allows you to switch off and really focus on catering to yourself when you’re writing, not being subconscious in any way because you’re sort of locked in with it. You have to imagine someone understanding you, and maybe they won’t, so that allows you to really focus on the music. It sounds stupid, when you’re writing songs obviously lyrics come into it as well, but I love that feeling. When I perform the songs, I know the majority of people are just listening to the sounds. It confirms the connection of what music does which is the most important thing – how international a language that is.
“I’m part of three different cultures and you’d think, ‘Oh Cornish, Welsh, English, they’re all from the same place’, but it’s like you’re stood in a room looking at the same object from different angles. It gives you different perspectives, especially when you have languages that co-exist in the same place and have parallel histories. It’s quite grounding.”
October will see Gwenno back on Irish shores following her performance on the Other Voices stage at this year’s Electric Picnic. She’ll play the bank holiday weekend’s now older and wiser Metropolis Festival, returning to the RDS for year four with a new over 21’s age policy. The gig will mark the last night of her European tour, kicking off in Berlin in late September, hitting Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, Milan, Stockholm, and Copenhagen before a number of UK cities and finally Dublin.
“It’s going to be noisy; a massive wall of sound with songs about cheese and land and sea and losing language. It will be a bit serious, a bit ridiculous. I’m just really excited to play again.”
Gwenno plays Metropolis Festival October 27.