A Welsh singer singing in Cornish, Gwenno Saunders is a rare talent… Written by Chris Parkin.
When she was still a teenager, Gwenno Saunders took off from her home in Wales on a tour of pubs around Cornwall, singing pop songs. There’s nothing unusual about that. And yet Gwenno managed to bamboozle her audiences with what would then have seemed like an act of avant-garde provocation on a par with self-immolation. “People were going, what are you doing?! What is this? Are you singing in… Cornish?!” recalls Gwenno, 20 years on. “It was totally ridiculous.”
But that was then. These days, pub-goers in Redruth might be more welcoming of Gwenno’s teenage radicalism. Cornish is now recognised as a minority language by the European Charter For Regional Or Minority Languages and, confirms Gwenno, “even the signs for toilets are in Cornish”. So, after the success of her 2014 album, Y Dydd Olaf, on which she sang in Welsh, Gwenno decided to finally make an album in that language’s Brythonic cousin, Cornish. Le Kov is the dreamily cinematic outcome.
Though a logical next step for Gwenno – who you might remember as a member of 60s girl-group revisionists, The Pipettes – this wouldn’t be the case for 99.9-plus per cent of the UK population. She grew up speaking Cornish and Welsh as first languages, thanks to her dad writing Cornish poetry and her mum studying Welsh. “My Cornish experience was the home. It was me, my sister and my dad making up stories and songs and just being silly,” Gwenno explains. “I had records like Brenda Wootton, Bucca and other Cornish folk bands, and imagined everyone in Cornwall spoke Cornish because every time we went there, all my dad’s friends spoke it, and I was like, ‘Oh, it must be a bit like Wales and there’s a Cornish heartland somewhere’. That’s what Cornwall was to me. It was this really intimate, homely feeling.”
In truth, only 1,000 people speak the language. So Gwenno has waited for the right moment to tap into this “other instrument, this other type of paint” that most people just do not possess. We’re glad she did. Inspired by the ancient history of 14th-century Cornish miracle plays called Ordinalia and the work done by Cornish revivalist Robert Morton Nance, as well as her own dreamt-up assumptions about Cornwall, Le Kov evokes a lost golden era. It brings the past to the present, with true stories and make-believe – and it has an otherworldly sound to match.
Y Dydd Olaf was a minimal effort influenced by the synthy post-punk of cult Welsh bands Malcolm Neon and Datblygu, but Le Kov is windswept, gauzy and bucolic: proggy, even. Gwenno and collaborator Rhys Edwards were bewitched by classic Cornish folk albums such as Bucca’s An Tol An Pedn An Telynor/The Hole In The Harper’s Head) and Brenda Wootton and Richard Gendall’s Children Singing; the melancholy of Breton music, the Celtic harp playing of Alan Stivell; the prog of Sweden’s Bo Hansson, and the psychedelic electronica of Cluster and Aphex Twin. It’s a heady mix.
Musical sorcery such as this doesn’t often go hand-in-hand with political acts. Nor do songs about cheese (Eus Keus?/Is There Cheese?) or gridlocked roads in the school holidays (Daromres Y’n Howl/Traffic In The Sun). But Le Kov doesn’t only express how much Gwenno treasures the Cornish language she’s able to speak; its support of otherness also makes it stealthily political. “History is written by the winners, but it also needs to be written by everyone else as well,” she says. “I’m driven by narratives that are lesser known, because they hold the secret. Particularly when the UK is having an existential crisis. There’s room to ask everyone their story, just in case someone’s got the key to a better way of existing.
“If you look at a meadow of wild owers, the idea that we’d only want one type of flower is insane,” she continues. “It’s the variety that makes the ecosystem work.” Le Kov is a magical addition to that.