Gwenno on Le Kov and the Cornish language

Sung entirely in Cornish, Gwenno Saunders’ new album is a warm world of collective memories and a document of a language that’s well and truly alive

Feature by Eugenie Johnson | 02 Mar 2018
  • Gwenno

“Music is a really lovely way to communicate in languages that are not as familiar to other people,” Gwenno Saunders says. For her, the medium has certainly afforded her the opportunity to do just that. Her debut solo album Y Dydd Olaf was performed almost entirely in Welsh, with the exception of the final track Amser which was sung in Cornish. Now, she’s picked up that thread on her new album Le Kov, a record entirely sung in the Brythonic language.

Saunders is one of only a few fluent Cornish speakers, but it’s a language that she’s been intimate with since childhood. As such, making an album in Cornish was something of a no-brainer. “I just thought that I wanted to utilise it and take ownership of it, because it’s not widely spoken but it’s one I’m really familiar with,” she explains. Despite the natural move, she was still aware that “it’s a really weird place to be because it’s something very personal to you, yet not one that many people understand,” even more so than Welsh.

Yet understanding Cornish is hardly a prerequisite for enjoying and appreciating Le Kov. Instead, Saunders believes it simply adds a unique dynamic to her music. “It naturally becomes an otherworldly thing, which I really love,” she explains. “I think it creates this hypnotic element to the music and something that you can get lost in, because it’s harder to place. But this is the thing about music, it’s a place that’s open and where anything goes, particularly anything different goes.

“It gives you another power to play with that perhaps can offer new ways of thinking and new ways of sounding. A language has its own melody and it encourages particular melody,” she continues. Cornish has indeed helped to open up a distinctive musical world for Saunders, one where she explores new moods and sonic palettes. The languid, relaxed words and phrases she sings on Le Kov are gorgeously accompanied by warmer tones that distinguish the album from Y Dydd Olaf. Some of the harsher electronic drums and melodies are stripped back in favour of cosmic yet comforting, earthy psychedelia that feels far less synthetic than her debut, a move partially inspired by Saunders' own musical experiences: “when I was thinking about the music that I loved growing up [sung] in Cornish, it was all very warm and homely.”

That more organic feeling implicitly reflects the long history that Cornish carries. “You’re very conscious that you’re using words that other people have used over centuries, going back to the middle ages,” Saunders explains. Digging into research and diving deeper into that history, she learned about the Brythonic myths of sunken cities such as Langarrow and Lyonesse, beginning to imagine the metropolis of the album’s title. 'Le kov' means 'place of memory', a place that it is 'dhe ni oll' – for us all – built from a collective consciousness. “This idea of community and collective memory was sort of behind how I imagined this place,” she says. Within this psychological terrain, Le Kov feels quite far removed from the dystopian themes that characterised her debut. “It’s utopian!” she declares enthusiastically.

While it isn’t really a concept album in the purest sense, in the wake of Brexit particularly Le Kov’s use of Cornish in and of itself feels like an inherent pushing back against isolationist thought, highlighting the inherent diversity that resides within the British Isles. On Herdhya, Saunders touches on this issue, imagining escaping to a welcoming haven. “My feelings were that these people were trying to push back to this non-existent Middle Ages that never really happened, that there was only one culture here and that everyone was the same. It’s just a really right-wing view of what Britain was like in the Middle Ages, whereas it was actually a really diverse place,” she says. “I think it’s a really good time to reflect on the history of the island that’s been incredibly diverse for thousands of years.”

There’s also a more playful side to Le Kov that’s still similarly grounded in the society and linguistic history of the region too, not least on Eus Keus? It’s named after an old Cornish rhyme: 'Is there cheese? Is there or isn’t there? If there’s cheese, bring cheese, and if there isn’t cheese, bring what there is.' Despite its origins though, it’s hardly cheesy and, through its urgent arpeggiated melodies and stomping, exuberant hook, it becomes “kind of a call to arms,” especially when brought into its live form. “We’ve been rehearsing a lot and when we play it it’s kind of a raucous thing,” she says, “and I was looking into the druids, how they would chant the same thing over and over because they really believed in the power of words, that some sort of magic would happen.” That this mystical yet vociferous chant happens to be based on an old, cheese-based saying is magic in itself. “I liked the idea of making a song that sounded quite angry but was actually about cheese!” she explains excitedly.

Le Kov doesn’t just look to the past for inspiration though; Saunders also embeds the album with some more modern references. Tir Ha Mor is a soaring tribute to Peter Lanyon, a St. Ives school painter who learned to fly a glider to observe the landscape, dying while doing so in 1964. Opener Hy a Skoellyas Lyf a Dhagrow borrows its title from a track found on Cornish native Aphex Twin’s 2001 album Drukqs, developing a unique scenario behind the origins of Richard D. James’ song. “I imagined that he was wandering around in Le Kov and going into a record shop to find this vinyl of a 70s folk-rock band and there was this song that he’d use the song title for!” Saunders explains.

Jynn-amontya, or 'Computer' in English, reflects more closely a troublesome relationship with technology that Saunders examined on Y Dydd Olaf. “The computer’s been part of Cornish language history and I wanted to acknowledge that,” she says. It’s a love song (of sorts) inspired by the use of a computer program that could decode linguistic patterns by scrolling through old texts. “I think that was something people struggled with, because they thought it makes [the language] synthetic if technology is a part of it,” Saunders explains, “I was thinking about our relationship to technology; it’s a really ongoing, difficult relationship that we’re dependent on, pretending that we don’t need it but we do and are completely obsessed with it.”

That relationship may be fraught, but the existence of a word for “computer” in Cornish emphasises how the language is as alive and vibrant as the land and images Saunders conjures with her music, adapting to changing times. “What happens with smaller languages is that you feel the evolution, it’s more apparent to you. You think, ‘if I don’t come up with a word for this, who else is going to come up with a word for it?’” she says. It’s a creative, ongoing process, one that has a definite pull: “I think it’s interesting how it draws creative people. It’s like creating linguistic utopias too, you have to be really inventive,” she says, “you’ve got to invent it and you’ve got to make it.”

Despite this, Saunders doesn’t really see herself as a deliberate, self-appointed guardian of the language. “I’m definitely not consciously thinking about that, I’m getting more excited about the subject because if you think about it as a conservation thing, you become very aware of how delicate something is and get protective with it,” she explains. Instead, Cornish has afforded her the freedom to explore avenues she may not otherwise have been able to tread. “Creativity and music is just about trying to reach a point of freedom,” she says. “Because there’s not such a big body of work, it’s given me freedom to be out in the wilderness and not be too oppressed by all of your influences.”

After making two albums in two of her most familiar languages, even Saunders wonders what her next move will be. “Who knows where I’ll go from here,” she muses. She knows though, that no matter where she heads, she’ll be led by her instincts: “I’ve reached a point where I can follow my muse and not think about what other people would think of that.” Wherever her muse leads her, whatever language she sings in, following Gwenno into her immersive creative realms remains a greatly rewarding experience.

Le Kov is released on 2 Mar via Heavenly Recordings Gwenno plays Hidden Door Festival, Leith Theatre, Edinburgh, 25 May