Gwenno: ‘The tragedy is that the whole of the UK needs to change because it’s run so badly’

Artist discusses her new music recorded in the Cornish language, her Celtic roots and remembering Lord of the Dance

When she was a young woman, straight out of school and eager to see the world, Gwenno Saunders hopped on a jet plane with the Lord of the Dance.

“I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to say about Michael Flatley,” she demurs. “I think I signed a non-disclosure agreement when I did my contract. That was 25 years ago, going on. I don’t know ... Yeah, interesting.”

Gwenno’s memories of the Lord of the Dance tour, in which she danced in the chorus line, are vivid and vibrant, even if the Welsh-born, multilingual singer is not permitted spill the beans on mulleted maestro Flatley. And it’s clear that, to a small but not insignificant degree, Lord of the Dance helped make her the artist she is today — a musician proudly and profoundly informed by her Celtic heritage.

“I was only 16. It was a first time away from home. It was brilliant,” says Gwenno — the name under which she releases music — over Zoom from the converted attic of the home she shares with her husband (producer Rhys Edwards) and their six-year-old son.

“I saw so much of Germany. I saw so much of northern Europe. I saw Australia. I lived in Las Vegas for a bit. I got to see all of these places and settle in these places, in a way. Be there for a week or so in each city. So it was such an incredible opportunity for something that was a hobby. I was never sure what I was going to do with it [Irish dancing]. I loved the music. I did Riverdance as well a bit later. What a brilliant, quite random experience.”

“Brilliant” is a word that can likewise be applied to her new record, Tresor. It is an ethereal delight, blending Cocteau Twins and Enya with elements of krautrock, psychedelia and vintage indie. It is also sung entirely in Cornish — tresor meaning treasure in the Celtic language, which was at one point close to extinction yet is today in the midst of a renaissance.

“It’s not a language that completely died out. It definitely faded away from community use,” she says. “A few families kept it going. It had its initial revival in the late 19th century and early 20th century. And again in the 1970s. It’s constantly growing and evolving. It’s fascinating to experience it and observe it. You see the flexibility of language and how much it changes with each person that takes to it or starts using it — it moulds itself into something else.”

Her experiences with Cornish have taught her about the “fragility” of a language, she says. And the robustness. “The way words hang in the air and don’t want to disappear. A lot of it is in the place-names anyway. And in Cornish words that have evolved into the Cornish-English dialect.”

Gwenno grew up in Cardiff and sees the world through a prism of Celtic-ness: for her the Irish Sea, bordering Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man is the “centre of the world, really”. One of her biggest regrets, she elaborates, is never learning Irish. Her father, poet and journalist Tim Saunders, spoke Cornish to her throughout her childhood. He was also fluent in Irish, which he’d picked up from Raidió na Gaeltachta.

“My dad grew up in north Cornwall. He’d tune into Raidió na Gaeltachta and listen to the radio dramas. He taught himself Irish — when he was six or seven. And he learned Cornish at the same time, from his schoolmaster. So he always had this connection with Ireland. He did Celtic studies at university. He did journalism: he wrote for Lá in Belfast [an Irish language newspaper that ceased publication in 2008] for a long time. That’s how I got into Irish dancing, which is quite random, but obviously gave me a job when I was 16 and allowed me to travel the world.”

Even without the Michael Flatley factor, the 41-year-old Saunders has a fascinating life. Alongside her poet father, her mother, Lyn Mererid, is a Welsh language campaigner and translator and a member of a socialist Welsh language choir. In a 2018 interview with the Guardian Gwenno revealed her mum was arrested on several occasions for “vandalising the Welsh Office” (Westminster’s outpost in Cardiff). “My mum was always complaining about being in the house and having to look after the kids,” she said at the time. “I think she really quite looked forward to going to prison, just to get a break.”

Gwenno herself is a graduate of the Seán Éireann-McMahon Academy of Irish Dance in Gloucester. Post-Lord of the Dance, she briefly acted in a Welsh language soap opera and hosted the cookery show Ydy Gwenno’n Gallu ...? With her sister, Ani, she also sang with all-woman trio The Pipettes, whose doo-wop influenced 2006 hit Pull Shapes offered the charts a brief moment of respite from the landfill indie hordes. All that and she’s played keyboards with Elton John.

Celtic identity has always been the context in which she has seen herself as a songwriter. She is, however, wary of approaching the Celtic world as a homogenous entity. History has wrought huge differences.

“Wales is industrialised. Cornwall is industrialised. Brittany, not so much. Ireland, not at all. And so I think that the musical influences are so different between those countries. I find that really interesting.”

She is surprised to hear the Irish language is not universally cherished in Ireland. That there is, indeed, a great deal of internalised hostility towards it, occasionally tipping towards post-colonial self-loathing. That continuum of cultural cringe obviously intrudes on many facets of Irish life, from soccer to music. With language it can, on occasion, feel especially pronounced.

“There’s always pushback everywhere,” she notes. “The way the world is structured at the moment is if something doesn’t have a clear monetary value, it’s not valid. That’s across the board. And language is unfortunately a victim of it as well as many of the things that are important.”

Wales was lucky to the extent language was bound up with the country’s development in the 19th century. “The industrialisation of Wales was integral to a big workforce coming together using the Welsh language within work. People that came to work in the industrialised areas of Wales became speakers, too, through that experience. That was massive. Obviously, we didn’t have the genocide that happened in Ireland, which is such a big part of why the Irish language hasn’t had the same journey as the Welsh language. And Elizabeth I had the Bible translated into Welsh. It was either that or everyone was going to stay Catholic.”

Gwenno is passionate about language and identity. However, it would be a mistake to see Tresor as an activist’s project. It is, first and foremost, a fantastic pop record. This was important: she didn’t want it to be merely an act of cultural restoration. She had already demonstrated Cornish could exist in a contemporary pop context on her previous LP, 2018′s Le Kov. For Tresor she wrote from the heart, exploring subjects such as motherhood, feminism the state of the world. It just so happens she is singing in Cornish — a language as alive as any other.

“When you have languages that are less widely spoken you do feel a sense of collective responsibility over them,” she says. “Quite a lot of the time, music in those languages tends to consider their status a lot. I had done that with Le Kov, which explores the history of the Cornish language from my perspective. What I wanted to do with Tresor was use the language as I do day-to-day.”

The goal was to make something fully alive, she continues.

“I’m not an academic. I’m not a linguist. Cornish is the language that I have. And I wanted to explore songwriting and music in a very instinctive and maybe more personal, intimate way. Rather than it be about itself in that sense. For me, it’s a living language. It’s one I use every day. Every language is a tool. I wanted to see if I could convey emotion through songwriting, even if you don’t necessarily understand what I’m saying.”

Before we go, I note many in Ireland were surprised Wales and Cornwall should opt so emphatically for Brexit. There seemed a contradiction between the two nations’ sense of themselves as a place apart and distinct from England and their vote to leave the EU and thus add fuel to the Brexiteers and their ultranationalist delirium. Gwenno’s response is that, as with so much else in life, it’s complicated.

“They did a study on the voting demographic in Wales. And what they found was that, in general, people within Welsh-speaking communities tended to vote to Remain. I find that really interesting. What that is saying to me is that the influence of UK media plays a massive part. If you think of communities in northwest Wales, for example, west Wales, mid-Wales, they’re not as influenced by British media — because we have other forms of media. Generally, if you’re Welsh-speaking there is a certain distance between you and UK politics.”

That isn’t the case in Cornwall. The vote there cannot be seen as anti-European so much as a response to decades of economic neglect. Push people so far and they will feel anything is better than the status quo.

“There’s extreme poverty in Cornwall. And in Wales. That was a big factor in terms of people having nothing to lose and being asked a question. The tragedy is that the whole of the UK needs to change because it’s run so badly.”

Burning through her conversation is a belief in the importance of language. It’s represents who we are and how we interface with the world. And with Tresor, she is eager for Cornish to be regarded as a valid way for a woman in the 21st century to express herself.

“You don’t want it just to be the language of your childhood. It’s the language of the now for me as well. I’m a mother. I’m a woman. I wanted to express those perspectives through music and through words.”

Tresor is released on Friday, July 1st

Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about television and other cultural topics