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Gwenno on “Le Kov,” Language, Capitalism, and a Basic Income

A Meadow of Language

Apr 18, 2018 Gwenno
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Near the end of our conversation, Gwenno Saunders (who releases music simply under her first name) asks me what channels of media exist in the U.S. for other languages beyond English. Raised on the neglected tongues of Welsh and Cornish, the polyglot singer/songwriter has grown into a fervent crusader for representation. “Every single [language] is as valuable as the other,” Saunders says over Skype. “Just because there are 500 speakers or five million speakers, doesn’t make one any less important than the other, because it’s all just a massive organism of language. It’s just like a wild meadow, [where] each flower is as valid as the other, or it all collapses.”

We’re talking about Saunders’ second solo album Le Kov, a collection of songs written entirely in Cornishat least, that’s the starting point. For, while the Welsh artist’s vivid composite of a submerged utopia looms large in her lush yet weatherworn canvas, she also strides across time and space to demonstrate how the ancient language still lives and breathes in the modern world. In a dreamy ballad that compares our dependency on technology with the complexities of human desire, Saunders invented a new term for “computer”jynn-amontya, or “counting machine.” “[In] a language which fewer people speak, you become really aware of how language evolves,” she says. “All words are the evolution of something else. It’s the same way that nature evolves, as well.”

Of course, the causal listener might not pick up on this clever wordplay-and Saunders doesn’t mind. “I don’t need to know what you’re singing to just feel it,” she says, echoing the upbeat pop attitude of her previous band, The Pipettes. “We did a brilliant gig [two years ago] in North Carolina, in a churchand everyone was dancing to songs about robot overlords taking over the world. And I was just like, ‘yes!’” (Saunders wrote her debut album, 2016’s Y Dydd Olaf, almost entirely in Welsh).

That gap in comprehension worked in her favor when she hashed out arrangements with her producer and husband, Rhys Edwards. He’s nowhere near as fluent in Cornish as Saunders (“he’s improving, since I speak Cornish to our son”)so like most listeners, he had to rely upon sounds and atmosphere to understand what was happening in Le Kov. So the distinct landscapes throughout the album each serve a purpose, from the hypnotic twilight that envelops a lullaby to her son (“Hunros”) to the euphoric fanfare that celebrates Saunders’ favorite Cornish expression: “Eus Keus?” (“Is there cheese?”) In “Daromres y’n Howl,” a cheery song about stop-and-go traffic on a sunny day in the city, Edwards and Saunders banged on multiple keyboards to imitate blaring car horns. Also in the mix is the gravelly, nonplussed voice of Gruff Rhys of Welsh band Super Furry Animals, also in Cornish. “It’s all silly and a bit annoying, and it conveys the mundane [feeling] of not moving very fast in your car,” Saunders says.

Of course, while Saunders strives to create in the languages of her childhood, she centers the psychic geography of Le Kov (“the land of memory”) in the world at large. Under the suave waves of “Den Heb Taves” (“a man without his tongue”), a revolt from the 13th century against Edward I’s frequent tax hikes clashes against the isolating tendencies of capitalism captured in J.G. Ballard’s Kingdom Come. Like many artists in today’s hyper-monetized Internet era (including yours truly), Saunders certainly feels jaded with how capitalism has ranked and filed humanity. She tells me that her utopian world would level society with a citizen’s wage (aka a basic income), such as the failed proposal in Switzerland from 2016 to grant every citizen $2,500 francs. “It’d put a lot more people on equal footing,” she says. “And it’d bring out the best in people, because it wouldn’t be based on what they get back. [They’d just say], ‘Oh, I’m quite good at this, so I’ll just go back and do that. There’s no pressure on my living.’”

Ultimately, though, Saunders believes that Le Kov would embrace the diversity of human experience. “As human beings, we know instinctively that we’re a varied species,” she says. “But capitalism goes against that in a way, because it’s trying to get everyone to buy the same thing and look the same way, and obviously technology’s made that worse.” The visibility of multiple languages helps to undo that homogenizationand for Saunders, music provides the best platform for myriad cultures to be seen. “My only experience with Welsh and Cornishand a large chunk of the reason why they still existis through music, because of how helpful music is,” she says. “People define themselves by the music they feel attached to. So I think it’s really integral to cultural identity that you have a popular song in [that identity].”

So when Saunders asks me about what the U.S. looks like in terms of our multilingual channels, she’s happy to hear that Spanish has made huge inroads in the popular sphere. “All I’m interested in, really, is multiculturalism and diversity,” she assures mewhich rang true throughout our conversation, as we talk about how to move forward from the nationalism that now eclipses both our countries. “There’s a huge existential crisis happening within the UK stateand as much as that’s scary and a lot of aggression, there’s also a lot of interesting voices coming to the fore,” she says. “I feel like that’s part of my own journey creatively, to keep searching and searching all around, back 1000 years and also in the present, to figure out where to go next.”

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