Gwenno (full name Gwenno Mererid Saunders) is an extraordinary exponent of electro pop who won the 2015 Welsh Music Prize for her album Y Dydd Olaf, which Pitchfork described as ‘a crucial minority language record’ and ‘one of the best British debuts of 2015’. The album, entirely in Welsh except for one song in Cornish, was released on local label Peski, including a limited edition version on cassette, then re-released on Heavenly Records, and is based on a 1976 Welsh science fiction novel by Owain Owains, Y Dydd Olaf which describes a dystopian, robot filled world in which Welsh speakers survive being turned into clones by robots.
Gwenno is part of a growing number of Welsh language artists who were first covered in a book by Californian academic Sarah Hill, who learned Welsh and now lectures in popular music at Cardiff University. The book is called ‘Blerwytirhwng?’ (‘Where Are You Inbetween?’, the title of a song by Super Furry Animals) The Place of Welsh Pop Music’, and stops in 2000 with Super Fury Animals’ Welsh language album Mwng, which was released on the Creation label and reached no. 11 in the UK top 20, the biggest selling Welsh language album ever. Mwng was re-released in a deluxe version, including a live concert and the EP Mwng Bach, in 2015 to celebrate SFA’s 15th anniversary. Another important group in the pre-2000 Welsh language movement was Tystion, a bunch of male rappers who used the local vernacular, and once performed with John Cale on viola, whom Gwenno supported last June at the Festival of the Voice in Cardiff. More than a million people speak Welsh, including Cale, through his mother, and it is the national language of Wales, but it is still very much a minority language. Gwenno’s mother, Lyn Mererid, sings in a socialist street choir called Cor Cochion Caerdydd or the Red Choir of Cardiff. Gwenno grew up in the Riverside area of Cardiff, which she has described as ‘one of the poorest areas of Cardiff, [but]is rich in a multitude of cultures, being a home to people from all over the world. Brought up as a Welsh and Cornish speaker I fitted right in, you very rarely heard any English being spoken on the streets of Riverside, even today you don’t. I was lucky in that I grew up in Riverside which is probably one of the more multicultural areas of the city and so speaking Welsh meant that I had a lot in common with the Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Somali communities who also had a culture and language that was apart from mainstream English language culture. So I felt confident that I was different, but not so confident in my Welsh-speaking identity because there wasn’t much Welsh around in the area during the 80s and 90s. Fast forward to 2012 and all of a sudden I hear Welsh being spoken on the streets, in shops, on buses and so I’ve come home to a Cardiff that is more confident in its Welsh language identity so it just felt completely right to write about Cardiff in my mother tongue’. Gwenno now currently co-produces and co-hosts a Welsh radio show on Cardiff Radio titled “Cam O’r Tywyllwch” (“A Step Away from the Darkness”) with her Peski Records colleagues. They also ran also the CAM ’15 music festival in Cardiff, which took place in April 2015 and featured the first live performance in over 20 years by Welsh music post-punk pioneers Datblygu. And Gwenno has a special relationship with Cardiff’s Spillers Records, who claim to be ‘the oldest record shop in the world’, dating back to 1894!
Cornish is even more of a minority language, spoken by only about 600 people, and it recently had its UK government grant cut. Gwenno’s father speaks and sings in Cornish, being the noted Cornish poet and linguist Tim Saunders, and she comments that a few Cornish speakers emigrated to Australia to work in tn mines. In December 2004 Gwenno filmed the song “Ysolt y’nn Gweinten” by Celtic Legend for Classic FM TV, which is claimed to be the first video produced in the Cornish language, the text having been written by her father with music by Cornish composer and ex Gary Numan keyboard player Chris John Payne. In 2003 Gwenno’s performance of the song Vodya won her the People’s Choice award in the Alternative Eurovision Song contest in Friesland, in the Netherlands, where she represented Cornwall.
But she wasn’t always a Welsh and Cornish singer; in fact she went through a period of rebellion against her parents and joined the Brighton-based manufactured British 60s pop the Pipettes, with whom she stayed for seven years, her younger sister even joining the group as well, and touring with them to Australia. Gwenno also came to Australia with Michael Flatley’s Lord Of The Dance show, trading her Welsh and Cornish background for an Irish Celtic one, and came here again in 2012 with Australian techno group Pnau, along with Elton John, with whom she played synthesiser, so she is nothing if not versatile. ‘Touring with Pnau gave me a lot of space to really solidify what I wanted to make next music-wise. They’re just incredible people to be around, so focused but completely open to every creative possibility and that was really refreshing. It’s been really nice to take a step back and watch and learn how other artists do things’.
She cites Beth Gibbons, Nina Persson and Sarah Cracknell as English language influences. ‘It was the first time that I heard women singing on the radio that seemed intelligent and that didn’t sound like they were pandering to anything genre-wise or were bothered about using their sexuality to get noticed. It was like a breath of fresh air!
Gwenno plays Sydney’s Newtown Social Club Thursday October 13. More information here.