The Sci-Fi Synth-Pop Politics of Gwenno

Gwenno’s Y Dydd Olaf might be my favorite album of the century that I don’t understand a word of.  The album is the debut full-length of Gwenno Mererid Saunders,...

Gwenno’s Y Dydd Olaf might be my favorite album of the century that I don’t understand a word of.  The album is the debut full-length of Gwenno Mererid Saunders, former vocalist and keyboardist of The Pipettes.  The album, which is entirely in Welsh (well, one song is in Cornish), is a leftist political concept album, based on a Welsh science fiction novel from the 1970s.  The album first began in 2011, when Gwenno returned to Cardiff, her hometown.  And while the album is meant to be an affront to the popular consumer culture notion of selling yourself, language aside, the album is immediately and extremely charming and infectious, resembling an amalgam of the best kind of dream pop, the quirkiest work of music history’s most profound synthetic dreamers, and Yé-yé.  The juxtaposition of delicate sonic spaciness and the thematically heady and revolutionary are not dissimilar to some of Lætitia Sadier’s best work, both in Stereolab and solo (Keep an eye on the site for a chat with that brilliant postmodern chanteuse in the very near future as well.)  The album was first released in a limited edition last year, courtesy of Peski Records, but Heavenly Recordings re-released the album this July. Gwenno is currently on a U.K. tour that goes throughout the end of the month, but she recently took some time to tell me about her first solo album and what the future holds for her.

Izzy Cihak: Your solo debut, Y Dydd Olaf, has been out for a while now.  Have you had any particular favorite reactions to the album?

Gwenno: It’s all been incredibly interesting and I’ve really appreciated the amount of thought that people have put into reviews and critiques. Working with Heavenly has also been fantastic, they’ve really taken us on board, and shared the album with a far wider audience than we could have ever imagined and people have been interested, which has been brilliant!

Izzy: Heavenly is actually one of my favorite labels. Any favorite labelmates?  I’m a pretty huge fan of Kid Wave, TOY, and The Voyeurs.

Gwenno: Well I know TOY from Brighton and I’m a huge fan of what they do. I’m on tour with H. Hawkline and we’ve known each other for years from Cardiff and I can’t wait for that, as he’s a fantastic live performer. I’ve also had the privilege of supporting Stealing Sheep recently, which was ace, and have played shows with Kid Wave and with The Voyeurs, so it’s a big massive intertwined bundle of joy and I feel very lucky to be amongst such an ace bunch!

Izzy: And how do you think the new album compares to your other musical endeavors? You’ve worked on quite a few projects that are quite a bit different.  Do you feel like your solo work has allowed you to explore things you haven’t previously?

Gwenno: Definitely. But I wouldn’t have gotten to this point without having worked on all the projects beforehand. It’s a process that I certainly had to go through to work out what I wanted to start discussing through my own music and how I wanted to go about it. I think that there must be traces of everything that I’ve done in what I’m doing now, but I suppose what’s different is that I’m curating it and driving it artistically. Age and (a bit of!) experience also gives you confidence to pursue your own vision and it also allows you to embrace different creative scenarios more freely, which I’ve felt has been an essential part of working it all out over the past few years.

Izzy: I understand that the album is a concept album and seems to deal with a lot of really cool (or I guess, technically “uncool”) concepts and issues but, as I’m sure you could guess, I don’t actually understand a word of it.  Would you care to share some of the album’s inspirations and influences to those who don’t speak the language… or do you enjoy it remaining a bit mysterious to many listeners?

Gwenno: I think that there’s a lot to be said about getting lost in music where you don’t necessarily understand the words, but funnily enough, it wasn’t my intention to deliberately make music that people wouldn’t understand. We made the album just thinking about what we wanted to make within the context of living in Wales and trying to look outwards more than anything else and the fact that so many more people have heard and responded to it and that you’re now asking me questions about it is just a massive bonus! The themes that I’ve touched on in this album are the frustration of being female and living in a patriarchal society, media manipulation, and governmental control of information, the artist’s value within the community, technological revolution, misguided town planning, modern electronic pop music, and nature’s power over us all.

Izzy: I really dig the whole album, but I especially love “Golau Arall.”  What can you tell me about the origins (sonic or conceptual) of that particular track?

Gwenno: The song is about the role of the artist within society, and how under-valued it is. The chorus’s line, “Golau arall yw’r tywyll (the darkness is another light)” is taken from a well-known Welsh folksong called “Ar Hyd y Nos.” I liked the idea that even if you are marginalised that you should never give up on your existence.

Izzy: Not to detract from the music, but I’m also a big fan of your personal style (sartorially speaking).  What does that draw inspiration from?  Do you have any particularly significant “style icons?”

Gwenno: To be honest, as I’m heavily pregnant at the moment (8 months and counting!) I’m generally looking for the most comfortable item of clothing going that perhaps has a bit of a sheen to it and doesn’t make me look like I’m wearing a bag! It’s a tricky task but I’ve managed to avoid buying horrible maternity clothes so far so that’s a good thing at least!

Izzy: I know that you’re currently on a UK tour, so I’m curious, what can be expected of the live experience?

Gwennno: Lots of delay on my vocal, a few quips about the how awful the U.K government are here and there, and a bunch of imposing live visuals behind me to add to that sinister feeling that we need to be thinking about making a change in the way things are run!

Izzy: And finally, what’s next for you?  Any chance we might get to see you in the US sometime in the near future?

Gwenno: Yes please!

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During the day Izzy Cihak teaches transgression, subversion, and revolution at Temple University. At night he haunts Philthy's best venues to cover worthwhile acts for Philthy Mag. Morrissey is everything to him and, in their own heads, all of his friends see themselves as Zooey Deschanel.