If BTS can get stadiums full of British fans singing along in Korean, it shouldn’t seem that odd that Gwenno Saunders is releasing her second Cornish-language album. She’s a Cardiff musician who grew up speaking Welsh with her translator mother and Cornish with her poet father, one of only a few hundred fluent speakers who have helped the tongue to return from extinction.
Her debut album, Y Dydd Olaf, was in Welsh, and to confuse the cultures still further, she was also a teenage Irish dancer in Michael Flatley’s troupe, but it’s with Cornish that she has really made a tangible impact. Her 2018 album Le Kov, which means “the place of memory” had overall themes of Cornish culture and identity and was credited with sparking a 15% increase in people taking Cornish language exams. On this follow-up, with the bigger picture already established, she settles into more personal observations – from mother tongue to motherhood.
She spent a week in St Ives in January 2020 to write it, seeking to explore how it would feel to compose in Cornwall itself after making Le Kov in Wales. The first song, An Stevel Nowydh, means “The new room” and simply depicts the space where she worked. The last, Porth Ia, is the town’s name in Cornish, and again the feel is smaller, more domestic. One line translates as: “Pondering over breakfast about my good fortune.”
Of course I wouldn’t know this unless she’d told me. She has put translations beneath the YouTube videos for the songs released so far, and included a lyric sheet with the album. She isn’t trying to limit her audience by communicating in a secret code, but the experience of listening in isolation does create an otherworldly, mysterious feel. The soft, pillowy language is complemented by flute, plucked strings and an alien analogue synth line on Kan Me. On the minimal, spooky Tonnow she puts so much echo on her voice that it wouldn’t even be comprehensible if it was in English.
She switches to Welsh for a lone song that is slightly more aggressive. With its tense bassline and disdainful vocals, the full title of N.Y.C.A.W translates as “Wales is not for sale”. The song criticises the branding of her homeland as something to be monetised.
Elsewhere the music is as beautiful and strange as the county. Suddenly a Cornish exam sounds like a lovely idea.