It may be a native tongue of our landmass, but for many in Britain the Welsh language sounds pure tongue-twister. That sing-song tone, that Celtic lilt; the spittle-flecking double-Ls and guttural back-of-throat vowels… And yet Welsh also holds a real fascination – especially when married to that universal language: music.
2015 has been a good year for Welsh-language pop, the minority language charming listeners with its lyrical tone – even if the majority are none-the-wiser as to what the lyrics actually mean (only about 562,000 people in the UK speak Welsh).
Break-out star Gwenno Saunders just won the Welsh Music Prize for her brilliant, critically-acclaimed psych-pop record Y Dydd Olaf, where her high-pitched, spun-sugar Welsh vocals drift gauzily over wobbly, echoed-out guitars, piano and synths. Wales’ music scene is notable for producing wonky, whimsically strange pop in both languages – see also Cate Le Bon, H Hawkline, Meilyr Jones, and granddaddies of ‘em all, Super Furry Animals (who this year re-released Mwng, the best-selling Welsh-language album of all time).
There’s a rich seam of contemporary folk, too, and not all of it traditional. 9Bach offer a warmly electronic, trip-hop take on traditional tunes, with crystal clear, pure vocals underpinned by dub-influenced beats. Gwyneth Glyn collaborated with Mumbai singer Tauseef Akhtar on recent folk fusion record Ghazalaw, the Celtic harp punctuated by tabla rhythms.
But a shared language doesn’t necessarily mean a shared sound. Stadium-rockers The Joy Formidable also recently launched Aruthrol, their version of a vinyl singles club, each new release sung yn Gymraeg – proving the language also works over epic, drum-pounding, guitar-squalling grandiosity. Meanwhile post-rock band Yucatan have found themselves dubbed the Welsh Sigur Ros for their expansive, shimmering, guitar-led sound.
“Definitely the profile of Welsh music is being raised,” says Lisa Jen Brown, singer in 9Bach, who lives in Bethesda, north Wales; their record Tincian won best album at the BBC Folk Awards this year – the first win for a Welsh act in the award’s 16 years. “I don’t have the answer for why it’s happening now, but it’s about time! The Welsh music scene has always been incredibly strong, [but now] producers have confidence we’re not going to throw tomatoes at the radio because there happens to be a Welsh-language song.”
Far from being a barrier to listeners, the language even seems to lend Welsh acts a certain exotic appeal. “My experience has been overwhelmingly positive – I generally have my best gigs in Manchester,” says Saunders, who lives in Cardiff.
This is echoed by Dilwyn Llwyd, of Yucatan; this summer, they live-streamed new album Uwch Gopar Mynydd from the top of Snowden. “There’s a lot of curiosity. The music has an extra level of mystery.” They even had one review complaining an English song on the record killed the magic: “but we’re not romantic about it – I’m not an elf or something!”
And yet… it is easy to be romantic about the language. We think of Wales as a nation with a song in its heart, and a poem on its lips – from male voice choirs and rousing chapel hymns to Eisteddfodau, Wales’ traditional cultural competitions, and the historic storytelling figure of the Bard.
Brown confesses to finding singing in her mother-tongue more emotional; some 9Bach songs are old Welsh poems set to music, and using those words “makes your heart cry, makes your belly split in two! It’s what moves me. I have a theory that everyone in Wales can sing – because we haven’t got a choice. At school, we’d sing all the time, and in chapel; being brought up in that tradition, it’s embedded in you.”
Is it overly-romantic to suggest Welsh is an inherently poetical, musical language? That there might be something in its very rhythm that makes it suit songwriting? Saunders accepts the theory. “My word flow is more interesting in Welsh. Sonically, it’s very different – your voice does different things. Singing in Welsh is like having a new palate, or paint.” Llwyd agrees: “English is interesting to write in as well, but they’re definitely different. There’s something about the Welsh language which creates a certain atmosphere.”
While there may be an increasing appetite outside of Wales for this sonic otherness, Saunders refutes the suggestion there’s more Welsh-language music actually produced today: it’s just more visible. “I don’t think it’s any different than it has been for the past 40 years – it’s just people having access through technology and social media.”
Paradoxically, the collapse of the record industry may have helped this recent flourishing. The sense of being free from commercial expectations enabled Saunders – who previously sang in manufactured retro-pop outfit The Pipettes – to return to her mother tongue: there were no execs arguing English was more sell-able. “’Commercial viability’ has evaporated really – you may as well sing in the language you want to sing in,” she says.
Things have even improved since the ‘Cool Cymru’ period of the Nineties – when Catatonia, Stereophonics, Manic Street Preachers, even Tom Jones were regularly on Radio 1. Yet Llwyd argues there was “a real divide” then between the Welsh- and English-language scenes. That’s no longer the case: “There’s a crossover – there are mixed-language gigs, it’s much more open.”
That also means singing in the mother-tongue is a less freighted choice. It used to be a political statement – a deliberate kick against the Anglicisation of Wales. But over the last 20 years, attitudes towards the minority language have also changed, with greater political and public support. While singing in Welsh can still be a political act, it no longer has to a divisive one.
“I feel political about the Welsh language, because it is in jeopardy,” says Brown, pointing to the declining use of Welsh in the rural communities, traditionally the language’s heartland. “But we need to be extremely inclusive of a non-Welsh audience. It’s about raising awareness, not about throwing it down people’s throats.”