It’s DYDD MIWSIG CYMRU (or maybe WELSH LANGUAGE MUSIC DAY to you), but Adwaith (Reaction) are not celebrating in Wales in front of a familiar home crowd. They’re in Liverpool instead, inside the iconic Cunard Building, a somewhat sterile room away from the warmth of the populated city streets. It is raining after all, so the original plans to stage the event on the Pier Head have been sidelined, moving indoors to the British Music Experience. Yet, it’s apt for them to be surrounded by artefacts belonging to musical icons today because the time we’re living in is a truly golden age of all contemporary Welsh music, with these three young women at the forefront. Today’s lunchtime gig by the trio, Hollie Singer (vocals, guitar), Gwenllian Anthony (bass, keys) and Heledd Owen (drums), is not only their debut in Liverpool but another sign that music made in the Welsh language is being embraced more and more outside their home country.
Adwaith’s Welsh Music Prize-winning debut album Melyn (Yellow), recorded almost entirely in Welsh, encompasses far more than the post-punk tag attached to them. Released on the ambitious Libertino Records, the vinyl edition sold out in under a fortnight. Adwaith’s journey over the past two years has seen them tour the UK with Gwenno and the Joy Formidable, deliver a tremendous BBC Radio 6 Music session and perform abroad, taking in Canada and Italy. Yet, headlining the first leg of a three-part UK tour last autumn – organised by Welsh distributors PYST, aiming to introduce Welsh language music to new audiences and promoters – marked a turning point. Manchester’s YES on that damp September night, busy with people from across the north – Yorkshire and Liverpool as well as the local Manchester contingent – left Adwaith stunned.
“I literally could not believe it. People singing along in Manchester, in Welsh!” says Gwenllian.
And yet it wasn’t Welsh I myself replicated that night, but instead an approximation of lyrics. It’s excellent to learn Adwaith appreciate creative interpretation from us non-Welsh speakers.
“Welsh language music, in general, is very open to interpretation,” starts Hollie. “You can listen and come up with your own story in your head about what you think the song’s about. I think that element of wonder, of mysteriousness, to our music and all Welsh language music is definitely an attraction.”
Welsh music recorded in both Welsh and English is enjoying a surge of popularity across the world. One of the contemporary cohort, Alffa, now own two of the top three most streamed Welsh language songs on Spotify, with listeners as far as the US, Brazil and mainland Europe. The internet, in reducing gatekeeper roles, plays its part by feeding new music direct to fans, free spirited presenters and producers at BBC 6 Music offer precious airplay when they can; latterly, the likes of the Guardian have taken good note of grassroots music journalists and blogs around the UK and world, and responded accordingly.
Schemes and initiatives and homegrown festivals including FOCUS Wales – who enable emerging artists play festivals around the globe – provide opportunities for fresh talent. Hana Evans, who performs as HANA2K, benefits from BBC scheme Horizons – she appeared at Manchester’s Off The Record due to them – and the Forte Project.
“The opportunities we have now, compared to 10 years ago when you perform in Welsh, are insane,” says the pop-urban artist, who sang in a Cardiff shopping centre for Welsh Language Music Day. Her English language song, Daydreaming, was playlisted on BBC Radio 1 daytime in January, courtesy of the support and promotion she received from BBC Introducing.
“It’s nice to get the exposure you get with English music, [because] when you write in Welsh it brings more attention to it because the English stuff is already out.” Independent Venue Week 2020 saw Papur Wal – winners of the Best EP gong at this month’s Y Selar Welsh language awards – return to a busy room in the North West once more, confessing from the Liverpool Jacaranda stage “we didn’t expect this many people”.
Independent Venue Week recruited BBC Radio 1’s Huw Stephens as Welsh ambassador, but he refuses to blow his own trumpet over Welsh Language Music Day, his co-founding of the Welsh Music Prize, or championing of Welsh music on national radio.
“It’s about the creativity of the artists, to be honest. Welsh language artists are fearless now. They’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. The world’s become a lot more diplomatic in terms of music, I think, so you can sing in Welsh anywhere.”
Back at the BME, a Welsh Language Music Day playlist plays the title track from Cotton Wolf’s latest album Ofni (Fear), released by Cardiff’s Bubblewrap Collective, featuring Hollie Singer’s vocals coursing through the loudspeakers.
“It’s amazing to hear this, playing in a room in Liverpool,” Huw says with a big grin, before rushing off excitedly to introduce Adwaith from atop the stage.
Such playlists smash the old cliché, that Welsh language music is confined to folk and male voice choirs. Horizons Festival alumnus and teenage blues-rock duo Alffa (Alpha) – now based in Liverpool for university – received wider recognition when songs Gwenwyn (Poison) and Pla (Plague) clocked up three million Spotify streams. Yet the real story of Alffa’s success is the people turning up to their shows. Drummer Siôn Land and bandmate Dion Jones found themselves unexpectedly playing to a full house at the End Of The Road festival. “Before that, we’d gig where we were from [in Wales] so we pretty much knew every person,” says Siôn. “I remember looking at the crowd thinking, ‘God I’m in probably the furthest away I’ve ever been gigging, and it was packed’. Insane. The venue was one in, one out.”
Signed to local indie label Recordiau Côsh Records, Alffa never expected to break out of the Welsh language music scene back home. “The fact that we’ve crossed the border to people who speak different languages to Welsh brings a sense of confidence, and you’re confident in what you’re doing regardless if it’s a Welsh or English song.”
Dylan Hughes, formerly of indie band Race Horses, re-emerged with his new dreamy, psych-glazed project Ynys (Island) last spring. With two singles released on Libertino and a session for Marc Riley under his belt, he played the second leg of the PYST pilot tour along with Bitw and SYBS, taking in Glasgow, Manchester and London. His first appearance as part of the INES talent programme – which enables promising artists to drive their international careers forward by performing at European showcase festivals – is at Liverpool Sound City in May. He credits 1990s bands like Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, Super Furry Animals and Catatonia for helping build the confidence Huw Stephens speaks of, and the difficulty making a living as any sort of musician these days, he believes, delivers a sense of creative freedom. “People maybe feel like, ‘I can do anything, I can get stuff on Spotify, I’m not worried making it to the next step’. Or, ‘Once we get this support slot NME are quite keen’.”
In a step towards inclusivity, Dylan shared English translations of Caneuon (Songs) and Mae’n Hawdd (It’s Easy) upon release, a move influenced in part by Gorky’s, who provided titles in English.
“If I’m listening to a song or album in another language it’s quite nice to refer to the song title in a language you understand. The great thing about music is that you don’t necessarily, or at all, need to know the ins and outs of the lyrics to enjoy it. For things like literature or poetry you need to understand the language to be able to appreciate it or have an amazing translation.”
In Wales itself, artists are well served by radio BBC Radio Cymru and Radio Wales, and dedicated television programmes Curadur and Lŵp on Welsh language channel S4C, supporting both established artists and those at a more embryonic stage.
“So, if we ever get to play in England, the other side of the border, we’ve got a bit of practice, we already know what it is to play a radio session and we’re not kind of shitting ourselves,” says Carwyn Ellis, who records in both Welsh and English with his band Colorama, and delivered the wonderful Bendith album in 2016, a collaboration with folk siblings Plu. “It’s a big opportunity. The more you get under your belt, the more you learn your craft.”
Ellis’ solo album Joia! (‘Enjoy’ in Welsh, ‘Groovy’ in Brazilian Portuguese) was recorded in Rio de Janeiro with Brazilian musicians, but is sung in Welsh. His most well received album to date was made on the suggestion of Chrissie Hynde – Carwyn also plays with The Pretenders, and Edwyn Collins – and Joia! is international, musically and conceptually. Conceived, recorded, and released during the aftermath of the Brexit vote, it is outward-looking and far reaching in nature – an antidote of sorts.
“[It’s] something different, some sort of medicine or balm for the soul for my people,” he grins. “Enough people listen to it that don’t speak Welsh for me to think there’s an abstract musical essence there that seems to appeal to some people, which is very nice.”
Carwyn sees the popularity of Welsh language music as cyclical. Like flares, coming in and out of fashion. He points out that the current surge is lower key than in the ‘Cool Cymru’ 1990s.
“Anything to do with music or films or whatever, most of these things come and go in circles. I’ve seen it before, seen dips where it’s receded and it comes back again. The Welsh language, again it comes and goes. One week it’s being bashed, a month later there’s no sign of it anywhere. The month after that it’s being praised to the roof. We live through this constant thing of it being a bit of a football, our language and identity. It’s kind of strange.”
Returning to the ever moving and expanding world of Adwaith, it’s only been a few weeks since the Liverpool show and, even as I type, announcements around the band come thick and fast. There are trips to SXSW in Texas and Russia, and a headline date at Rough Trade East all in the coming weeks. Right now they’re writing a follow up to Melyn. The possibilities for them and those in their wake, it seems, are endless, with Welsh Language very much coming to the fore of their contemporary music.