Welsh artist Gwenno is returning to Australian venues but as part of her debut solo tour this October. Previously a member of The Pipettes, she also toured as synth player with Elton John and Australian dance duo Pnau back in 2012.
But the last couple of years Gwenno has been working hard on her solo venture, and her debut album Y Dydd Olaf was released just last year to great acclaim. Inspired by the novel of the same name by Welsh writer (and nuclear scientist) Owain Owain, Y Dydd Olaf translates as “The Last Day” and imagines a disturbing future of brainwashing robots.
Set against a complex backdrop of ethereal electronic music, Gwenno wrote and performed the album almost entirely in Welsh language. Aside from one song in Cornish, which is the language spoken by her father, the poet Tim Saunders.
Ahead of her shows in Australia, we caught up with Gwenno to talk about the album and breaking down the language barrier in music. We did also talk about where to get awesome Welsh cakes in Australia, but that bit’s off the record!
We caught up with Gwenno shortly before she touches down in Australia for what is to be her maiden solo voyage here. She tells us all about her new record, Y Dydd Olaf, expressing herself through her first language and homogeny in music today.
HAPPY: This is your first solo tour of Australia, are you excited to come back – to come to New South Wales even though it looks nothing like South Wales?
GWENNO: I’m excited, I’m really excited! That’s the thing, me and my husband were watching a program about Australian arts on the telly the other day, and you forget that it’s New South Wales. Obviously it’s this different place of course, but you know – it’s like South Wales but it’s new!
HAPPY: I did always wonder, but actually I just found out why – apparently when Captain Cook sailed up he thought that the cliffs and headlands reminded him of the coast around The Gower.
GWENNO: Nice! Amazing…
HAPPY: But on a more serious note you’ll be showcasing your album, Y Dwdd Olaf. It seems that the response so far has been incredibly positive?
GWENNO: Yes – unexpected really, because we made the record in our bedroom. It reached a point where we were just making it for ourselves – and that’s something I’m desperate to keep a hold of because I think there’s a freedom in not having any expectations on a response at all. You’re just in the moment and that’s all it was really; it was an expression of all the things that we wanted to say, and the sounds we wanted to make. Then all these things have happened around it and it’s just been incredible, getting to tour Australia; and I’ve toured quite a bit internationally. When I made the album, my main thing was ‘I really want to express myself in my first language, that will make me feel good to do that and I know I’ll be excited by it’. And actually it’s challenging in that if the music is good enough then it wouldn’t matter what language it was in. Music is essentially the language; there are things that we all love but we can’t understand. Even lyrics in English you sometimes don’t know what they’re saying, but it doesn’t matter! So that was really empowering, to make albums in perhaps a different language to the dominant one within my own culture. And then people can appreciate it, which is incredible.
HAPPY: It must have been quite freeing to have autonomy over both the music and the lyrics on the album, but how did writing in Welsh affect the creative process?
GWENNO: I think I’ve developed my lyric style – and my voice actually – on this album, which is weird because I never thought that would happen. When you have minority languages, you’re a bit more precious with them; you don’t want to get things wrong. Or I was anyway. It’s almost like this delicate thing that you don’t want to break, but once I got through that barrier I was like ‘Well, this is my language and I can use it how I want’. You become less self conscious, and it becomes this really freeing thing. They’ve done lots of studies to prove that actually you aren’t different people in different languages, which I’m sure is right. It’s just your relationships to people that make you feel different in different languages. But I definitely felt that there was something that I could express differently, and I don’t know how but I definitely found my voice using a different a language.
HAPPY: Stylistically you lean towards electronic music, do you think it’s easier to present minority languages in that genre? Rock and pop have such a sing along culture, maybe electronic music lends itself a bit more as it’s more about the music, and not necessarily so lyrically focused?
GWENNO: Hmmmm I do wonder… I was reading a great article about the Spanish music scene in LA in the 60’s, there was a track in Spanish that was a real hit. Obviously Spanish is a massive language, but it did well in the English speaking world as well. It was really catchy, and you know how you get those novelty hits? Remember that Macarena song? There are songs that break through in mainstream style – and I think that’s a huge challenge. If you could write that kind of song, I definitely think you can write a singalong thing. There’s a real joy in singing something that you don’t understand. If you’re singing in a group of people or listening to records, there’s something quite fun in that. I don’t know if I have that ability to write something like that but you could! There’s an ethereal element to my music, it’s a dreamlike thing – I don’t come from rock at all.
HAPPY: Coming to Australia, obviously there is a similar situation to the UK where English has dominated the indigenous languages. But we are seeing more coverage of musicians recording in those languages…
GWENNO: Really? Wow!
HAPPY: Yep, it’s great to see – hopefully the industry is beginning to embrace indigenous culture more, with festivals like Boomerang and more artists recording in their native languages.
GWENNO: Thats so amazing to know! I would love to know more about that – of course the situation in Australia so incredibly different, but that’s really really really exciting. For indigenous culture to be brought more into the contemporary scene in Australia, I think that’s incredible.
HAPPY: It feels like those artists and making more of an impact that they might have previously. In your experience, do you think audiences and media are opening up to music that is more multi-cultural?
GWENNO: Because we have access to everything, I think people’s tastes have become more eclectic. They might always have been but in the past it was slightly harder for people to find records in different languages. You had to really go out and look for it. But I think people are more curious to find a variety, because as a music fan you just constantly want to be challenged and to hear something exciting and new to you. You’re also conscious as well, when you’re on your computer, how varied the world is culturally and linguistically as well. You can listen to music from other countries and not have to go into any new situation really – you can do it from your living room. Because the world is becoming homogenised, the way that we’re all pulled into social media, monitored and controlled, people are looking to vary that a bit. Subconsciously I think we’re all aware that we’re being pulled into this one way of thinking and existing. I feel like local culture becomes more important then, because that’a your identity.
HAPPY: It’s interesting what you say about how, despite this world culture that is very much at our fingertips, we are becoming kind of homogenised. I know that your album was based on the 1976 novel, Y Dydd Olaf, which speaks about that restriction in communication and brainwashing. Did you feel that the story was prophetic?
GWENNO: Ah it was, it was incredible! It was actually written in the 60’s, I did a talk recently with the author’s son. Owain Owain was actually a nuclear scientist, he worked at a nuclear power plant for years. And he was really aware of things that were being hidden in terms of the dangers and how manipulated the population was in terms of the news it was given and things like that. It was flabbergasting that the book had been written in the mid to late 60’s. I read it a couple of years ago and it was what’s happening now. But he had such a deep understanding of culture and of science, and that doesn’t always happen. People touch on things and science fiction is a brilliant genre for that, but because he was a scientist he had all the facts. Everything became truer in a way.
HAPPY: To put it quite generally, we are facing worrying political developments all across the world. Do you think music is going to become more overtly political or at least move in that direction?
GWENNO: I don’t know, I think music that people like… ah it’s so difficult to tell! Obviously the beauty of music is that it suits all moods; not all music has to be political, and not all music can be frivolous. And it can be all of those things. There’s as much value to songs which, sometimes you’ve had a horrible week you just really want to dance, or you really want to cry. There’s this really personal story, and there’s a much value to that as to something which makes you think ‘Ah I must go read that book’.
HAPPY: It can be escapism, and take you away from a situation, or it can really hammer it home I guess?
GWENNO: Yes, and that is the beauty of music really. Personally I think I’ve found my own voice and what I’d like to express. There are things that I want to keep looking into, my particular interests. That was my breakthrough really, since I stopped writing songs about personal relationships and I thought about the relationships of the society that I live in. For me, that was a massive breakthrough because this is what I talk about everyday. I don’t talk about feelings, I’m not that person – I’m the person who really enjoys conversations about what the hell is going on here?! As many people do, and I’m not going to get bored of talking about this because this is actually what I’m interested in. That’s just a personal thing for me, and it may not be for other people you know?
HAPPY: Obviously you are a real advocate for people singing, or creating music, in their native language. You’ve said before that there is something really special about that, are there any non-English artists you would really recommend checking out?
GWENNO: As a long established band I would say Datblygu, and that mean’s ‘developed’. They would be one of the bands that anyone who speaks Welsh would say to go and listen to. It’s very lyric-driven but I think what that band has done is turned around and taken a long hard look at their own culture. There’s this thing that I find interesting about being in a minority culture; you feel like you’re whiter than white, you’re perfect and you haven’t done anything wrong because you’re the oppressed ones. And actually there’s loads wrong and once you start admitting that, it becomes a really vital thing. I think that’s an important thing in art in general; the flaws. But Datblygu really do that, [being] angry with the way that Welsh society operates and you need that person to say ‘this is rubbish‘ rather than being really purer than pure. Off the top of my head, I also love Googoosh who is an Iranian pop star.
HAPPY: I’ve come across her! Actually that brings me to mind of the Sexwitch release, which I thought was fantastic but came under fire for a kind of cultural appropriation at the same time as they translated the lyrics.
GWENNO: Yeah, TOY did that and I thought it was brilliant musically. But with Googoosh I like that she’s singing in her language and I don’t need her to sing in English for me to like it more. I really don’t, the same with Os Mutantes because I realised that they sung in English as well. Obviously they sing in Portuguese and I love Os Mutantes, then I heard the English version of it and I was like ‘Ah, this is not quite as good as the Portugese version’.
HAPPY: I’ve had Fatoumata Diawara’s album on nearly constant rotation for four years now. She sings in a Malian dialect, but I have never even thought about looking up the translation to her lyrics. When really you connect to music it seems that words can actually become quite irrelevant.
GWENNO: Isn’t it? It’s almost this double thing that is happening. It’s an escapism in a way because if you’re not constantly listening for the lyrics you can actually switch off and just get this feeling. But it’s also quite a political thing because you’re actually listening to another culture that’s trying to get its voice heard. Isn’t that brilliant?! That’s the combination! Music for me always has to be about contrast; a song has to make you dance and cry at the same time. There always has to be two emotion clashing with each other when you’re listening to music.
You can catch Gwenno here this October – don’t miss out, buy tickets here.
Perth, Saturday October 8 @ Mojo’s Bar w/- Original Past Life, Moon Puppy and DJ Sandy OTL
Melbourne Festival, Tuesday October 11 @ Toff in Town w/- Totally Mild
Sydney, Thursday October 13 @ Newtown Social Club w/- Shoeb Ahmad
Buy her new record, Y Dydd Olaf, here.