Arc Of Le Kovenant: Gwenno On Her Cornish Language Album

Gwenno Saunders talks to Jeremy Allen about her Cornish language album Le Kov

Photograph by Michal Iwanowski

Gwenno Saunders, Celtic pop singer and Brittonic language activist, might have been regarded as an emmet when I was growing up in Cornwall. Emmet – if you aren’t aware – is the word old Kernownians use for those born on the other side of the Tamar – and anywhere else that isn’t Cornwall for that matter. It’s a binary kind of prejudice, where holidaymakers are tolerated for their imperial dollars and outsiders are always distrusted. Back then it wasn’t uncommon to hear a family be referred to as emmets who’d settled in West Penwith for two or three decades. Hopefully it’s a parochial attitude that’s been left behind with the 20th century. Having not lived in Penzance since the mid-90s myself, I’m probably not the person to ask.

Beyond the River Tamar is the county of Devon, a covetous neighbour who has tried to lay claim to the national dish with little success for centuries. Despite this ancient food feud over the pasty (or ‘oggy’ if you want to be really Cornish), it’s the longest lasting and most stable border in Europe enduring for more than a thousand years. Cornwall, you see, is a country, and Le Kov – the name of Gwenno’s stunning second solo record – is a shimmering utopia floating somewhere between the Celtic Sea and her imagination. Le Kov is a progressive kind of place where the Cornish language is spoken and mostly sung; where you’ll bump into Aphex Twin in a record shop and borrow a title from him (‘Hi a Skoellyas Liv a Dhagrow’); where there are traffic jams assuaged by the presence of Gruff Rhys (‘Daromres y’n Howl’) and where there’s hopefully some cheese (‘Eus Keus?’ or ‘Is There Cheese?’). There’s even a song about computer love (‘Jynn-Amontya’), which reminds us computer is no neologism (the first known usage in English is apparently around 1640, while the Cornish etymology is unsurprisingly more hazy).

The utopianism which is currently a big trend in contemporary pop shares some correlation with the entrenched and dangerous right wing political administrations that the West is enduring, if not some outright causation. Bjork released her version of Utopia five centuries and one year after Thomas More’s titular socio-political satire was published, and David Byrne is asking questions about what the future could look like on his imminent solo record American Utopia. “If you feel this world is not heading the right way,” Bjork told the Guardian last year, “you have to be DIY and make a little fortress, over here to the left.”

As for defining Cornishness, one likes to think that even back in the day Gwenno – who won the 2015 Welsh Music Prize for her impressive Welsh language debut Y Dydd Olaf – would have got a free pass. And not just because her father is Tim Saunders, a Cornish language poet who was born in St Tudy and who taught his daughter to speak the language fluently. Her album drops a few days before St Piran’s Day on March 5th – the national day of Cornwall – and one might suggest that promoting a struggling language at a time when the government has slashed Cornish language funding is an intrepid and heroic thing to do. Has anyone done more to raise the profile of Cornish language music since the legendary late Cornish folk singer Brenda Wootton, who died in 1994, and the songwriter and Modern Cornish founder Richard Gendall who died last year? If Cornwall is a nation then Gwenno should already be regarded a national treasure.

Le Kov translates as a “place of memory”. What inspired you to make a Cornish language album?

Gwenno: I’m trying to think what prompted me. I started off as a teenager writing in Cornish. They were electronic songs and they weren’t great. And then I diverted. So I’ve always wanted to make a Cornish language record, and the idea grew because I was thinking about what to do for the next album and was trying to not repeat myself.

Did the decision coincide with the government withdrawing Cornish language funding in 2016?

G: I think that a lot of things contributed to it. I found a lot of Cornish speakers on social media, which sounds like a really uneventful thing, but it was eventful for me having not known a huge amount of Cornish speakers growing up. I met people in Cardiff who spoke Cornish. And yeah, it was related to the funding thing. But also the last song on my last album was in Cornish [‘Amser’] and it was really amazing every time I played that song live. People would really listen when I’d announce it, so that excited me because it was suggesting a conversation. I think you learn quite a lot when you play live.

To me it’s astonishing that you grew up speaking Cornish, because I assumed it was ancient history growing up. I certainly didn’t know anybody who spoke it.

G: Not as a first language among native speakers where you use it with parents or whatever and you’re using it every day. Now I have a son and I speak Cornish with him. So I thought a lot about that; about what you’re given. When you have children you think a lot about your own childhood. So that fed into it because Cornish to me is a family thing. I instinctively think of the home because I didn’t use it in school. It’s a very homely thing.

I don’t speak Welsh or Cornish, but I know the salutary “Iechyd da!” and “yeghis da!” mean the same thing (Good health). I suspect they’re quite similar so do you mix them up ever?

G: I don’t think you do. Someone asked me that the other day. I don’t think you do mix your languages up if you speak more than one do you? They’re both Brittonic languages so Welsh is related to Cornish.

It’s a part of my heritage so I should probably learn it really.

G: It’s a tool isn’t it? And if you’ve got a couple of tools you may as well use them all. I overthink things a lot and so I found that singing Welsh initially helped me feel freer in the creative process, and I became less conscious of what I was doing. And I felt that with Cornish too, because it was such uncharted territory for me. There’s not a lot of Cornish language music, so as a creative process I became a lot less conscious of what I was doing.

I went looking for Cornish language albums and there aren’t many are there? Brenda Wootton sang in Cornish obviously but I’m not sure she recorded any purely Cornish albums?

G: No, I think they were always quite mixed, because I think all of her Cornish songs were written by Richard Gendall. He was a real Cornish language expert as well as being an incredible folk songwriter. It was odd actually because on the morning he passed away I was playing all of Brenda’s Cornish songs to my son, and then I read on the internet that he’d passed away and I thought it was really weird. It was the first time I’d played those songs to Nico. But yeah, I think she sang in Cornish everywhere she went, even though I don’t think she was a fluent Cornish speaker. Though she was really proud to be Cornish.

She was my neighbour actually. My Dad had a farm and she lived at the top of the lane so quite often I’d see her as we drove past.

G: That’s amazing. You always hear stories like that about Cornwall, everybody is so interconnected.

In a place called Ding Dong.

G: Ding Dong Mine?

That’s right, her place was a literal stone’s throw from Ding Dong Mine. I didn’t know who she was at the time really. My dad would point her out but it didn’t mean much to me.

G: I was talking to someone the other day who said it would be a much older generation that would have liked her music. There is something about her music that’s like it’s from another time.

I was listening to her song ‘Lyonesse’ last night and it gave me goosebumps all over.

G: Oh it’s ridiculous. I think that’s another thing, she represents that other side of folk that isn’t heard of as often. You often think of a folk singer, particularly if she’s female, as angelic, which is great but she’s the other side of that. There’s a real robustness to her singing and actually her voice is really beautiful.

I found her records in Paris which kind of spun me out.

G: She was really popular there!

She was also big in Brittany of course. The French state was possibly even more oppressive where the Breton language was concerned.

G: There are obviously close cultural links between Brittany and Cornwall and Wales, and obviously the relationship between Brittany and France is problematic. I was wondering what the vibe is nowadays?

I did a press release for Yann Tiersen a few years ago and he’s vehemently anti-French. Even in the 1950s or 1960s there were signs hung in schools that read "no spitting or talking in Breton".

G: Bretagne up until the 18th century was one of the richest countries in the world, in the same way my dad said Cornwall was like Spaghetti Junction in the Middle Ages. When I was thinking of Le Kov as a place I imagined this Cornish metropolis with strong trade links. The Cornish were trading in tin before the Romans arrived so I wanted to celebrate that and the fact that people have traded forever. And this ridiculous situation we find ourselves in now which has turned us into a backward island. You know there’s this shouty idea at the moment that really is the product of fascist thinking where that there’s this ye olde merry England somewhere. If we’re going to go back to the Middle Ages then let’s talk about what was going on in Cornwall which was amazing and really exciting and multicultural and all of that stuff.

One of the biggest disappointments of the Brexit vote for me was that Wales and particularly Cornwall voted out.

G: But you know what, Richard Wyn Jones – who’s the head of politics at Cardiff University – did a study of who voted for what, and you can’t forget there are quite a lot of people who are retired who have moved to rural areas. The joke is they’ll move to somewhere like north west Wales – "I just want to go somewhere away from the foreigners" – and they’ll end up in a predominantly Welsh speaking area. I think the percentage of people who weren’t born in the area was quite high and I just wonder if that would apply to Cornwall as well. I think there are two things going on: that and the fact there wasn’t much in it. For me more than anything else, people were manipulated by state media.

There certainly was a lot of sneering at the Cornish after the referendum.

G: A friend was going door-to-door in Holyhead trying to convince people to vote remain. And when asked why they were voting Brexit people would answer "because of the muslims". And that epitomises people in disenfranchised areas where they can’t really work out what’s wrong. They’re believing what they’re reading. It’s very complicated so you can’t just to say people were cutting their noses off to spite their face.

Dolly Pentreath died in 1777 and she was supposedly the last person to speak Cornish as a first language, though she wasn’t the last monoglot.

G: Oh yeah, what were your feelings or knowledge of Cornish when you were growing up?

I didn’t think about it that much and just assumed it was a dead language, and if I’m honest the revivalists seemed like cranks to me then.

G: I like the fact that Robert Morton Nance, who was the driving force behind the Cornish revivalism of the early 20th century, was an artist. And he was a Cornishman who’d been brought up in Cardiff and then returned to a village near St Ives.

There was this pioneering spirit amongst fin-de-siecle artists everywhere that was kind of killed off by the horror of the First World War wasn’t it? People really believed that art, and machinery, would change things for the better before the killing machines obliterated millions of young men.

G: But the Celtic revival was all about looking back and embracing nature again. And that idea of pre-Christian reconnection with the land and the spirit of that. And bear in mind the Celtic countries weren’t leading – they weren’t the imperialist states. I think that’s a crucial point when people discuss nationalism. Nationalist conversations are driven by big nation states going "ooh, if anybody wants to be different and they’re interested in their own culture then it’ll end in fascism".

I can hear a lot of anguish in your song ‘Herdhya’ which addresses leaving the EU. Do you think there’s compatibility in being a nationalist and a pro-European?

G: Well it depends how you define nationalism. If you’re from a dominant culture, nationalism means something very different than if you’re from a dominated culture.

It probably makes you think all Cornish separatists want to blow up Rick Stein’s chip shop.

G: But they didn’t did they? Again that was just propaganda. Absolute bollocks! It fits the narrative. Again if you’re a centralised power it’s the way you look at the peripheries of your power. You’re gonna keep belittling them to keep them in their place. And I think that happens a lot to Cornwall. When you look at the history of Cornwall and the things that have been achieved and how progressive and pioneering it’s been, you think how can this be the narrative? It isn’t the real narrative and you realise it’s propaganda. And actually it’s just because we live in a centralised state that doesn’t benefit everybody. That’s all it’s about really: everybody should get an equal chance whether you live in rural Cornwall or North West Wales or even the North West of England. Why should that not give you an equal chance in life? It’s just insane.

‘Tir Ha Mor’ is a gorgeous, diaphanous sounding song about another Cornish artist Peter Lanyon, who was one of the leading lights of the post-war St Ives School. He took to the sky in a glider and innovatively brought landscape painting together with abstraction, and tragically that was how he died too.

G: There was a BBC Four documentary called The Art of Cornwall and that was where I became aware of Peter Lanyon. And actually that was the first song I wrote for this record. When the presenter [James Fox] spoke about Peter Lanyon creating art about his country, while he meant it about the landscape I was like wow, that’s the first time I’ve heard anybody on the BBC call Cornwall a country. I saw this artist who was regarding his own history but really progressive as well. I love his painting and how abstract it is, and his methodology was obviously extreme. It turned out my dad published books in Cornish on Francis Boutle and all of his covers are paintings by Peter Lanyon which I hadn’t realised. It’s this link where I discovered him myself but he was there all along.

There was a big rivalry between him and the out-of-towners Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth wasn’t there?

G: I can sort of relate to that with these artist’s colonies. People turning up and saying "oh, this is beautiful", or "this is so barren", and not really considering the cultural impact or the language or the story of the people that have actually lived off that land. I like that he was telling a story about what the place is. I’m conscious of not being Cornish-born and I’m really sensitive to the fact that I’m using the language and trying to be as respectful as possible. It’s so easy to go to Cornwall and be seduced by it.

Growing up as a kid I remember the resentment I felt towards adults I knew complaining about emmets.

G: I imagine it was quite frustrating when you’ve always felt quite internationalist. It’s a hard one isn’t it when your economy is built on tourism. It’s just the nature of capitalism that it moves on and drains resources. It’ the same with the old industrialised areas of Wales that have just been hung out to dry.

Tell me about ‘Eus Keus?’ Or is there cheese…

G: I found it in a book. I can’t remember the name of the book now. It’s an 18th century saying that someone had noted down. And I just thought how amazing is that? Because it’s my favourite food thing. Is there cheese? Is there or isn’t there? If there’s cheese bring cheese? If there isn’t cheese then bring what’s easy. I though oh my god, there’s my chorus! I just loved the idea of doing something quite chant-y and then I thought I’d do it like a call to arms and go through a list of all the place names with all the Cornish names. It’s a war cry about cheese.

When I heard Pennsans my ears pricked up.

G: That’s the thing! There are a group of volunteers on the Cornwall County Council who replace street signs with bilingual signs at no extra cost whenever they need replacing. It’s sort of in that spirit really. So for instance, St Michael’s Mount was known as Karrek Loos yn Koos which means ‘grey rock in the wood’, which fits in with the idea of ‘Lyonesse’ about a grey rock in the woods rather than the sea. It’s good to celebrate that. Like Newquay, which is a really generic name (there’s also one in Wales), but in Cornish it’s Tewynblustri which means ‘port of crockery’, because it would have been the port where they exported all the clay. Or Market Jew Street in Penzance – people thought there was a Jewish connection but it came from Dy’ Yow which is Thursday in Cornish – because the market was there on a Thursday. There’s loads of things like that that you lose when you lose a language, so it’s a sort of archaeology in a way.

Le Kov is released via Heavenly on March 2

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