“If we opened up people, we would find landscapes,” said the French director Agnes Varda in 2009. Varda is one of many artists, musicians and filmmakers around the world who have inspired Treasurethe Cornish-speaking Welsh psychonaut’s third album Gwenno Saunders — and this quote is especially beloved of a musician who is dedicated to mapping the intersection of land, heritage, identity and potential.
As At Gwenno’s latest album, The Kov, Treasure is written primarily in Cornish – a language she learned from her father, the Cornish poet Tim Saunders; her socialist-choir-singer mother made sure she was also fluent in Welsh. The Kov imagined a cosmopolitan city of the myth of modern times, emerging from under the waves like the Cornish language itself revived; Treasure journey now inward, into an inner life lived through Cornish.
To Gwenno, Cornish is not an exotic linguistic treasure, but the language of his childhood, of his family, of his imagination. She now teaches it to her son, and the songs on Treasure explore instinct, the unconscious and belonging. It’s a dreamier, sweeter album than The Kov or his debut in Welsh, Y Dydd Olafleaning further into spectral electronic textures on tracks like “Keltec” and “Kan Me”.
Softer sounds are driven by fresh creative energy Gwenno found in the feminine on the likes of “Anima”, fuzzy psych-rock with medieval overtones and sinuous melody. Surreal images float in the hazy air: a black horse, a seashell, a woman’s torso, a ball of fire. “Duwes po Eva/Ow sevel a’th rag”, Saunders sings: “Is that a Goddess or Eve standing before you?”
Sometimes the mystical archetypes of femininity – mother, womb, instinct, nurture – can be limiting, but on this exploratory and visionary record, co-produced by Saunders and his partner and collaborator Rhys Edwards, it doesn’t feel like that. On the languorous title track – a musical fairy mound stacked with layers of vocals, synth, piano and marimba – Gwenno asks (in Cornish): “Do you want a crown on your head and a woman at your feet? / Do I want to fill a room with all my willpower and be ashamed?“She wonders about the power of inescapable instinct amidst the dream of the drifting ghost that is “Men a Toll” – from the name of a set of perforated, round and Freudian menhirs near Penzance – still open “An Stevel Nowydh”with a backbone of chiming indie, she’s less instinctive, more analytical as she casually interrogates existence: “Is the total absence of meaning an inevitable part of being?”
If Cornish is the language of internal philosophical research, then the language of politics, for Gwenno, is Welsh; supporter of independence, she attacks hypocrisy and individualism under the guise of nationalism in “NYCAW » (whose title refers to an old anti-holiday home slogan, “Nest An Cymru Ar Werth”, or “Wales is not for sale”). Sardonic and sly post-punk with a beautiful liquid gothic guitar flourishing under the thrum, he laments the commercialization of Welsh identity. Regarding the community, she says:the only thing that matters is love”.
Wales, Cornwall and the lands beyond are concretely present in the sounds found which add a wealth of detail throughout, from the eldritch creaking of a door leading to an Iron Age settlement in Anglesey to the strings of a hotel room piano in Vienna. And although this is the first album Gwenno wrote while in Cornwall – at St Ives, honored by the closing piece, “Porth Ia” (his Cornish name) – he carries on a polyglot conversation with the Swedish artist’s global influences Monica Sjöö to the American hippie adventurer Eden Ahbez, without ever yielding to easy authenticity or essentialism. On the ride, sultry “Ardamm”she addresses critics of her new position as a figurehead of the Cornish language of Welsh origin (record number of enrollments in Cornish courses after the release of The 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; although the meaning of Treasure can’t really be separated from the language it’s written in, it’s not Cornish, it’s in it. TreasureThe inner landscape of , both local and global, invites us to consider what perspectives and what future paths we might form from our own blended heritages and where 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 sing”that when you arrive I will be there”.