In the glamorous confines of a tiny back room in her record company’s office, her chair wedged between boxes of CDs, Gwenno Saunders is expounding on the joy of singing in a language that only 600 people in the world are supposed to be fluent in. “Tonally,” she says, “Cornish is a dark language, very close to Breton, a lot more Zs and Ks and Vs, which gives it a very different texture. It probably reflects the harsh landscape of Cornwall. And it’s almost like an emotional shield. Singing in Cornish, I thought, ‘Wow, no one understands me!’ I can get lost, and everyone else has to get lost, because what else can they do? It allows me to escape and find freedom in music. There’s something magical about that.”
To that end, Saunders has just recorded her second solo album entirely in Cornish, the language she learned as a child. The follow-up to Welsh-language Y Dydd Olaf (2014), which won the Welsh Music prize, Le Kov would be a fantastic album whatever it was sung in – spacey, strange and richly melodic – but there’s no doubt that the language gives it an added sense of purpose. Without wishing to make any rash claims, it seems likely that it’s the first ever Cornish electronic psych-pop concept album.
Indeed, it seems likely it’s the first ever Cornish rock album full stop. There has been a vibrant Cornish-language folk scene for decades. The late singer and poet Brenda Wootton was its best-known exemplar, while Saunders has a soft spot for a band called Bucca, who released a solitary album, An Tol an Pedn an Telyor, in 1980. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, given how few native speakers there are, it never crossed over into pop.
The website Kernow Beat has assembled an exhaustive database of wildly obscure bands from Cornwall, pulling back the curtain on a vibrant regional music scene: who knew punk took such a grip on Penzance in the late 1970s? But, alas, not one of the frequently mind-boggling names it lists (Constable Zippo’s Electric Commode Band, Furry Vermin, Big Dick and the Deviants) seems to have used Cornish. Its solitary appearance in something approaching pop was on Aphex Twin’s 2001 album Drukqs, the track listing of which contains a few Cornish titles, albeit frequently misspelt and easy to miss among the titles comprising entirely made-up words.