What if your mother tongue is an ancient language of a land that you’ve never lived in, whose native speakers have only recently broken 200 years’ silence? What if the only place it has ever existed over the years is hundreds of miles away, in your home and your heart?
Le Kov (The Place of Memory) is the second solo album by Welsh singer-songwriter and musician, Gwenno Saunders. Created alongside long-term collaborator and producer, Rhys Edwards, with additional drum engineering by Gorwel Owen (Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Super Furry Animals) and mixing and additional programming by David Wrench, it is an exploration of the individual and collective subconcious & the ‘dream state’, the myths and drolls1 of Cornwall, and the history of the survival of our lesser known Brythonic2 language. It’s also one of 2018’s most beautiful and stirring records, swirling with ancient myths and urgent modern themes.
So why choose to make an album entirely in Cornish, a language that fewer than a thousand people speak fluently? Gwenno explains “I was raised entirely in Cornish and Welsh, they were the only languages that we conversed in at home and so I’ve always viewed them both equally. When the time came to start thinking about recording again after touring my last album, Y Dydd Olaf, it just felt like the most natural and obvious thing to do.”
Y Dydd Olaf (The Final Day), Gwenno’s debut was a concept album based on Welsh writer Owain Owain’s 1976 sci-fi novel of the same name in which robots take over the human race – bar a single Welsh speaker, the protagonist, who hasn’t relinquished his identity. Originally released on Welsh label Peski and reissued by Heavenly in 2015, it won that year’s Welsh Music Prize and Best Welsh Album at the National Eisteddfod, along with acclaim from The Observer (“these are songs brimming with ideas, both musical and political”) and Pitchfork (“one of the best British debuts of 2015”). Nine of its ten songs were in Welsh; the last, Amser (Time) in Cornish.
Amser was, in fact, one of Gwenno’s father’s poems set to music. Tim Saunders is a noted Cornish language poet and Gorsedh Bard3, and alongside Gwenno’s mother, Lyn Mererid, raised his two daughters with Welsh and Cornish as their first languages; English came third. Gwenno grew up understanding that language was something worth fighting for—her mother was a regular participant in the ultimately successful protests to see Welsh recognised as the official language of Wales in the early 1990s, and twice went to jail for defacing the Welsh Office.
Despite being fluent in Cornish, Gwenno never got to spend much time in Cornwall outside of the occasional family trip to visit the Cornish-speaking community there. In the absence of experience, she figured that it would be much like Wales: a Cornish-speaking heartland filled with fluent speakers and deep connections to the ancient culture, and as Gwenno explains “Not having family who lived in the Welsh-speaking heartlands of Wales, and only ever visiting Cornish speakers in Cornwall, I just assumed that both languages were in a similar position – how wrong I was!”
There’s no official date for the death of the Cornish language, but its decline set in after Edward VI enforced English as the national language of worship in 1549, and his armies brutally killed the 4000 Cornish protesters who led the resulting Prayer Book Rebellion. Cornish steadily diminished—Dolly Pentreath, who died in 1777, is widely considered the last monoglot speaker—and for centuries it was a more academic concern than communal tongue. But the 20th century saw the sparks of a revival led by Robert Morton Nance at the turn of the century, followed by a flurry of activity by the late 70s with literature and poetry, and songs being written and performed by the Davy family on the seminal BUCCA album, alongside Richard Gendall and most notably ‘the voice of Cornwall’ Brenda Wootton, who released many a Cornish language album, toured internationally and always performed a song in Cornish wherever she went. By 2004, The Simpsons’ prodigal daughter Lisa was protesting “rydhsys rag Kernow lemmyn!” (“freedom for Cornwall now!”) on the cartoon’s Christmas special. Locals were encouraged to claim Cornish identity on the 2011 census, and in 2014, the Cornish people were granted minority status within the UK.
It’s huge progress—but where did Gwenno fit into all this? Could she lay claim to any kind of Cornish identity, having never lived there? What she did know was that as one of the language’s few fluent speakers, she felt a duty to make her next album entirely in Cornish: to create a document of a living language, to explore her identity and the endless creative possibilities of a tongue that has a very small surviving artistic output, despite having been around for at least 15 centuries.
She dove deep into research, learning about attempts to protect and progress the language, the role of women throughout Cornish history, the Ordinalia4, the St. Ives school of artists5 (also mostly interlopers from across the border who nevertheless defined Cornwall’s creative identity). When Gwenno considered the legends of sunken Brythonic cities Cantre’r Gwaelod, Kêr-Is, Langarrow and Lyonesse, she knew she had her starting point. These lost lands are sometimes represented as the Celtic Sodom and Gomorrah—debauched communities smited by the gods—though Lyonesse, the most Cornish of the four, is considered more of a mystical place.
For Gwenno, they could stand in for her imagined Cornish heartland: a place of native speakers, with strong international connections (referencing Cornwall’s robust ports) and a robust mining industry (Redruth was once one of the UK’s richest towns thanks to its copper and tin resources). These cities evoked her idea of language as its own form of psychological territory, a concept perfectly distilled by the Cornish title for the album, Le Kov—the place of memory.
But Le Kov isn’t really a concept album—the city doesn’t loom that large through these 10 songs, and you don’t need the translation sheet to appreciate the gorgeous, sea-warped psychedelia that Gwenno has created alongside long-term collaborator and producer Rhys Edwards. Evoking the music of her childhood – Brenda Wootton, Alan Stivell, BUCCA along with the The United States of America, White Noise and Serge Gainsbourg, Le Kov is shimmering and tarnished, rust mingled with barnacles, moss entwined with weathered rope. It’s a huge step up from Y Dydd Olaf, featuring forlorn piano, crisp drums, and searching synth lines that seem to reach across the horizon. The sounds of the language are similarly gorgeous: “Dha wolow jy yw splann” (“your light is bright”), Gwenno marvels on Hi A Skoellyas Liv A Dhagrow (She Shed A Flood Of Tears).
Sharp-eyed observers will note that that’s also a song from Aphex Twin’s 2001 album Drukqs. “I imagined Richard D. James coming across this ‘long lost Cornish 70s folk rock song’ on vinyl in a charity shop in the city of Le Kov, and stealing the title,” says Gwenno. It’s one of just two songs where she references the city directly. The next is Herdhya (Pushing), a hypnotic song “about the feeling of isolation after the Brexit vote, and realising that you’re stuck on an island—Britain—with perhaps many people who are trying to push society back to a regressive idea of the middle ages that has never existed, and imposing that on everyone else,” says Gwenno.
By contrast, Le Kov is “dhyn ni oll” (for us all), a sanctuary city and analogue for the importance of understanding that diverse identities are the foundation of any place. Den Heb Taves (A Tongueless Man) follows the same thread, marrying a saying discovered in the 17th century by Welsh linguist, botanist, geographer and antiquarian, Edward Lluyd, (although it would probably have been quite old at that point) —“An lavar koth yw lavar gwir, nevra dos mas a daves re hir. Mes den heb taves re gollas y dir” (“Still true the ancient saw will stand, too long the tongue, too short the hand. A tongueless man, though, lost his land”)—with verses inspired by J.G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come and modern day isolationism.
There’s darkness on Le Kov, but beauty, too. Tir Ha Mor (Land And Sea) is a tribute to Peter Lanyon, the St. Ives school painter who learned to fly a glider plane in order to “get a more complete knowledge of the landscape” that he lived, and died after crashing his aircraft in August 1964. “Marghek an Gwyns was his Bardic name,” says Gwenno. “Rider of the Winds.” Jynn-amontya (Computer) is an almost erotic love letter to technology, a modern update of Kate Bush’s Deeper Understanding that also acknowledges tech’s role in the development of the Cornish language—linguists have often used analytical software to predict appropriate new words for modern devices.
And Gwenno’s playful side shines through, too. Daromres Y’n Howl (Traffic In The Sun) is a low, groovy tribute to Cornwall’s clogged roads in the summertime, featuring Gruff Rhys rapping amid dissonant brass that evoke the angry horns of tourists on the A30. And Gwenno’s favourite song is Eus Keus? (Is There Cheese?) It comes from one of the oldest surviving Cornish phrases: “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!” Gwenno’s joyful chants sound like a protest, but they’re a celebration. “You can imagine my delight when I discovered that this fine saying was about my favourite foodstuff, cheese,” she says. “I was instantly compelled to write some music to accompany it and I’m very much looking forward to playing this one live.”
Over the course of making Le Kov, Gwenno reconciled her anxiety over her right to make a Cornish-language pop record, and realised that, in the age of Brexit, isolationism and hostility towards the rich cultures that make modern Britain, it had a wider resonance, too. “This album is a combination of accepting the culture which your parents have valued enough to want to pass on to you, regardless how small, and utilising it in a positive way to try and make sense of the world around you, it’s also about having to accept and respect the nuances that make us all different and discovering that all of our stories share the same truth.”
Between Land’s End and Scilly rocks
Sunk lies a city that the ocean mocks
A bustling metropolis
Links reaching the furthest seas
A Cornish Capital –
The Place of Memory