Gwenno – Tresor

Welsh surrealist Gwenno Saunders journeys via Cornwall towards self-discovery

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“If we opened people up, we’d find landscapes,” said the French director Agnes Varda in 2009. Varda is one of many artists, musicians and filmmakers from around the world who inspired Tresor, the third album by the Cornish-speaking Welsh psychonaut Gwenno Saunders – and that quote is particularly beloved to a musician dedicated to mapping out the intersection of land, heritage, identity and potential.

Like Gwenno’s last album, Le Kov, Tresor is written mostly in Cornish – a language she learned as an infant from her father, the Cornish poet Tim Saunders; her socialist-choir-singing mother made sure she was equally fluent in Welsh. Le Kov imagined a cosmopolitan city of modern-day myth, raised from beneath the waves like the revived Cornish tongue itself; Tresor now journeys inward, into an inner life lived through Cornish.

To Gwenno, Cornish is not some exotic linguistic treasure, but the language of her childhood, of family, of imagination. She’s now teaching it to her son, and the songs on Tresor explore instinct, the unconscious and belonging. It’s a dreamier, gentler album than Le Kov or her Welsh-language debut, Y Dydd Olaf, leaning further into spectral electronic textures on tracks like “Keltek” and “Kan Me”.

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The softer sounds are animated by the fresh creative energy Gwenno has found in the feminine on the likes of “Anima”, fuzzy psych-rock with medieval leanings and a sinuous melody. Surrealist imagery hangs in the hazy air: a black horse, a shell, a woman’s torso, a ball of fire. “Duwes po Eva/Ow sevel a’th rag”, Saunders sings: “Is it a Goddess or Eve stood in front of you?

Sometimes the mystical archetypes of womanhood – the mother, the womb, the instinctual, the nurturing – can be limiting, but on this exploratory, visionary record, co-produced by Saunders and her partner and collaborator Rhys Edwards, it doesn’t feel that way. On the languid title track – a musical fairy mound piled with layers of vocals, synth, piano and marimba – Gwenno asks (in Cornish): “Do you want a crown upon your head and a woman at your feet?/Do I want to fill a room with all of my will and feel ashamed?” She wonders at the power of ineluctable instinct amid the drifting ghost’s dream that is “Men An Toll” – named for a set of holed, round, Freudian-field-day standing stones near Penzance – yet on opener “An Stevel Nowydh”, with a backbone of chiming indie, she’s less instinctual, more analytical as she airily interrogates existence: “Is the total lack of meaning an inevitable part of being?

If Cornish is the language of internal philosophical enquiry, then the language of politics, for Gwenno, is Welsh; a supporter of independence, she tackles hypocrisy and individualism dressed in nationalism’s clothing in “NYCAW” (whose title refers to an old anti-holiday-home slogan, “Nid Yr Cymru Ar Werth”, or “Wales is not for sale”). Sardonic, taunting post-punk with lovely, liquid gothic guitar flourishing under the thrum, it bemoans the commercialisation of Welsh identity. When it comes to community, she asserts, “the only thing that matters is love”.

Wales, Cornwall and lands beyond are concretely present in the found sounds that add a richness of detail throughout, from the eldritch creak of a gate leading to an iron-age settlement on Anglesey to the strings of a hotel-room piano in Vienna. And while this is the first album Gwenno has written while actually in Cornwall – in St Ives, paid tribute to by the closing track, “Porth Ia” (its Cornish name) – it maintains a polyglot conversation with global influences from Swedish artist Monica Sjöö to American hippie adventurer Eden Ahbez, never giving in to easy authenticity or essentialism. On the driving, sultry “Ardamm”, she addresses critics of her new position as a Welsh-born figurehead of the Cornish language (record numbers signed up to Cornish courses after the release of Le Kov). How long, she asks, will they wait to take the lead themselves? “Ple ‘ma dha vammyeth?” (“Where is your mother tongue?”)

Yet the medium is no longer the message here; though the meaning of Tresor can’t really be divorced from the language in which it is written, it is not about Cornish, but in it. Tresor’s inner landscape, both local and global, invites us to consider what vistas and future paths we might form from our own jumbled heritages and where it is we might find ourselves. Among the last sounds heard on “Porth Ia” are the bells of Santa Maria Della Salute in Venice during the 2019 floods. “I want you to know”, Gwenno sings, “that when you arrive I will be here”.

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