Gwenno Mererid Saunders is a Welsh musician, sound artist, DJ and radio presenter with a strong interest in both pop music and the song form. Singing in Cornish, the language she learnt as a child, her second album, 2018’s Le Kov, which translates as ‘the place of memory,’ is a gorgeous widescreen suite of nostalgic futurism, where psychedelic electronic pop collides with space age melodies and motorik rhythms. She’s returning to Australia in March following a previous visit in 2017 where she toured in a duo, so we took the opportunity to have a chat about the artificiality of current day pop music and signing in a language not very many people understand.
Bob Baker Fish: Can you tell us the band makeup, because I imagine when you came here as a duo it would’ve been more electronic?
Gwenno: It was, and now its bass, drums, guitar, synth, voice. It’s got a lot more oomph too it (laughs), slightly more vibrant, so it’s going to be really good to come back and play a full show.
Bob Baker Fish: It’s a very different experience isn’t it, playing as a full band?
Gwenno: Absolutely, you know I got to the point where I really wanted to move to the music, and when you’re playing and pressing lots of buttons and worrying about triggering lots of tracks there’s less chance for you to be intuitive, and get more into and it’s been a great thing to develop over the last year or so.
Bob Baker Fish: I wanted to ask you what is it about music that continues to move you. You’ve been making music for quite a long time…
Gwenno: I remember when I started making music not knowing how to make music or what I could make. Knowing that I didn’t know anything. And I knew absolutely that it was something that I was never going to fully understand, or fully get to grips with. It was a like an endless cave of treasure that I was never going to get to the bottom of, and that’s always been my motivating thing really, just knowing how small as a single human I am in this big cave of sound. Because sound moves around, and what’s fascinating is that when its attached to human beings it changes and it changes in the way that it reflects that human’s experience or that society or that community, there’s a great flexibility to music that fascinates me and its constantly evolving and its constantly changing. So you’re never ever going to get to the bottom of it and I think that’s what makes it so magical. So I can never ever get bored of it because it never stays the same.
Bob Baker Fish: You can never really feel like you’re an expert.
Gwenno: Exactly! And I love that. You’re never ever going to get to hear everything or know everything, and I think that’s pretty exciting.
Bob Baker Fish: My experience is I find myself listening to a certain kind of music or a certain artist, and I think to myself ‘Well this is it, this is the greatest thing ever, I’m not going to need any other music ever again.’ And then a few months later I’m off on a different tangent.
Gwenno: Exactly. I think its what’s so amazing about music, particularly pop music, because it can encapsulate so much within the song in this very concise way. And I think that’s very exciting. It’s a reflection of a time and as a communication tool, I think you can’t really get better than music.
Bob Baker Fish: I’m interested in what your understanding of pop music is, because when I think about it I think about a certain disposability, but you’re talking about it with a real sense of wonder, can you talk a little bit more about that?
Gwenno: It’s a strange thing isn’t it, at the moment. Because capitalism has created, pop music at the moment is very different to what it was, that’s what’s really interesting in a sense, is that the pop music that’s being made now is very different to the pop music that was being made twenty years ago. And it’s quite fascinating with contemporary pop music at the moment that there aren’t any references – I think I find that interesting. It’s this post internet, we’re not referencing anything that has happened before, and I think that’s what I really like about music – a sense of understanding through the music that’s being made what the artist likes, and what they’ve been listening to and what they’re interested in, which I don’t think you really get from contemporary pop music. It just sounds like someone is really good at the computer – which is an art in itself. I suppose when I say pop I mean a song, and there’s room for a good song, the standard is a bit strange at the moment because if you don’t know your history how are you going to better it.
Bob Baker Fish: You describing it as not being fixed to any past, and it’s a sort of inward looking present that actually started to make me feel excited about contemporary pop music. Maybe I should be listening to it.
Gwenno: No, absolutely, there’s some music that is literally reacting to this digital world…well what’s excited you in contemporary pop then?
Bob Baker Fish: I don’t know any, I think that’s the point.
Gwenno: I think it’s because we’re old. It’s a strange thing, because it’s all sonic which is interesting. What I find really interesting about contemporary pop as well is how synthetic the track is and how over emotional the vocals are always, in this really strange way that has to make up for the fact that there is no soul there. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, because I’m interested in synthetic music, I’m not rubbishing it. I find that counterbalance fascinating. You’ll never get that cool vocal anymore. For example that was what was so interesting in the 90’s even with dance hits, some of the vocals were super cool even though the music was electronic. And I know there was a lot of soul samples, I’ve not heard that nonchalance vocal for a long time on a pop song.
Bob Baker Fish: I’m assuming American Idol is the culprit.
Gwenno: Yeah, I think the idea of the singer has definitely left its mark and its kind’ve dull.
Bob Baker Fish: It’s all autotuned and pitch corrected which is kind’ve dull too I think.
Gwenno: It’s just how over emotional it is; I’m like ‘my god just chill out.’ Just relax, be a bit cooler, you don’t have to pour it out. But each to their own and obviously its popular. It’s just think that there’s room for other things apart from that, but what’s happened is that because of the algorithms its become more and more narrow hasn’t it. It’s an old cynical thing to say that everything sounds the same but I think we are in a very strange place with late capitalism and risk and what sells records. I’m talking about major labels, obviously I’m not talking about…but there are gems in there as well…
Bob Baker Fish: Where do you think you fit in to that?
Gwenno: Uh, well, that’s the thing because I’m such a huge pop song fan. I don’t know I think I’m doing my own thing. I think I’m just exploring other things using what I’ve got. I mean I always try and write pop songs – it may be in a language that not many people understand but that’s what I’m trying to do, to normalise the idea that those songs come from anywhere. But I don’t know, perhaps I haven’t thought about where I fit in.
Bob Baker Fish: Well if you’re trying to create pop music I’d be suggesting you shouldn’t be doing it in a language that not many people can understand.
Gwenno: Yeah but I think the best pop music surprises you and the best music surprises you, and obviously that’s what I’m interested in that, and I think that language is one way of exploring different avenues and it creates different palettes and as a songwriter it makes you write differently, it challenges your habits bad and good to explore the melodies and the ways of putting songs together as a template of song structure and layers and instrumentation. At the end of the day it’s an exploration isn’t it. You do a little bit I think as an artist and just put your head down and be in your own world exploring your inspiration really and I think that’s all you can do at the end of the day.
Bob Baker Fish: I guess getting meaning from music, a listener gets that on all different levels depending on their personality and experiences. Some people will be honing in the lyrics, others will be honing in on the emotional connection they make to the melody and others will be really be connected to the context. As an artist you can’t really control that can you?
Gwenno: No I don’t think you can, you can only do what excites you. I work with Patrice Edwards on the records; between us we explore various things and learn a lot from each other. I’m really interested in the simplicity of a song and directness and you’ve got to create complexity to counteract that, and that’s something you can do with the arrangement and the sound and that’s something that Patrice is really good at exploring. It’s interesting because I think your arrangement and your choice of sound is like you’ve got this room, the room is your song, you’ve built your walls and the roof is on, and then you’ve got to make sure the interior is exactly as you want it otherwise the room means nothing at all. That’s why its interesting when he creates the sonic elements of arrangements around the song, you’ve got to make sure you’ve chosen the right sonic palette.
Bob Baker Fish: Is that the way you both write? That it starts quite simple?
Gwenno: It varies. Some songs I will suggest quite a lot of arrangements. Some I will suggest some of it. Some I will have written a song and its just a matter of putting in an arrangement in terms of adding intros, outros, middle eights, working out the rhythm of it. There’s flexibility about the way we work together but it’s quite interesting because it changes all the time. I really enjoy the creative partnership because you learn so much working with someone often. You can get to a point where you communicate and the other person understands and that gives you confidence as an artist that you’re being understood. Again it’s that never-ending journey of trying to understand what you’re trying to do.
Bob Baker Fish: In regards to choosing to sing in Cornish do you feel a certain responsibility given that so few people speak it these days? As a preserver of language or to use it in a new way?
Gwenno: Do you know what? It’s an odd thing when you speak a minorities language, there’s always a tiny part of you that does feel a part of responsibility because you’re aware of the fragility of it, but as an artist I don’t think I do in that sense because I think I’ve got to be honest that my main motivations in writing in Cornish were very selfish. I was so excited when I actually realised very late on that I had this palette that not many people have. I was like ‘this is amazing’ that’s my interest in other peoples music is hearing something I’m not familiar with. I’ve sat on a pot of gold here; this is a whole new world that not many people know exist. When you’re making music this is the most exiting thing, it’s the context, it’s the ideas, it’s the motivation, it’s the expression. It’s getting away from the homogenised idea of what we all are – which we’re not. I was motivated by how excited I was that I was finally competent enough to use something that is mine, that has been given to me and to use it for my own means and create and explore that. So I wasn’t thinking about the responsibility of anything, apart from being excited.
Bob Baker Fish: That seems like a really pure way to approach it.
Gwenno: If you’re an artist you’ve got to have that freedom. And that can be in a lot of different ways. You’ve got to find that creative freedom. That can be harder in different circumstances, like if you’ve been commissioned to do something where you’ve got to find that freedom within a structure, than you would be if you just sat on your own and had written a song. But that lack of structure could also be frustrating because you haven’t got a clear point to reach. But you’ve got to old onto that.
Bob Baker Fish: I’d like to finish up with a strange question. Do you think in Cornish, or can you think in Cornish and is it different to thinking in English?
Gwenno: Yeah. I often say the Cornish word for something because I can’t remember the English words. And the same with Welsh. I never talk to myself in English. I only talk to myself in Welsh and Cornish. Welsh mostly. That’s a weird thing to say. “When I’m talking to myself, often on my own it’s in Cornish and Welsh.” (laughs).
GWENNO TOUR DATES:
MELBOURNE: Wednesday 6 March at Melbourne Recital Centre.
ADELAIDE: March 8 + 9 at WOMADELAIDE.