Interview : Gwenifer Raymond
American Primitive is a guitar style first developed by John Fahey in the late 1950s from country blues fingerpicking techniques. The origin of the music has been definitively expressed by Fahey himself, "I had a big background in listening to classical music and I started trying to compose, like I was playing the guitar but I heard an orchestra in my head."
The genre has had many skilled proponents since, but the newest, and one of the most exciting, is Gwenifer Raymond, who, for all her authenticity as an American Primitive musician, comes from South Wales.
If you listen to the instinctive brilliance of now Brighton-based Raymond's emotionally articulate debut album, You Never Were Much of a Dancer, the long musical journey she followed to its release makes sense - starting aged eight, when her mother bought her a cassette of Nirvana's Nevermind, and she found an instant connection to the visceral sound in the headphones. A guitar (as a Christmas present) followed, and an obsession grew.
From a childhood on the edge of Cardiff Raymond roamed through punk bands in the Welsh Valleys, before working back through sixties folk and experimental rock to find their common influence in pre-war delta and country blues. As she has described,
"I (then) stumbled upon Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James and Roscoe Holcomb, and they became the holy trinity of musicians I so wanted to be able to play like. I tracked down a blues man in Cardiff who could teach me, and it was in studying these guys that I was introduced to John Fahey and the whole American Primitive thing."
The years invested as a distant, unknown apprentice to past greats paid off. Whether played on banjo or guitar, when fast or bucolic-paced, You Never Were Much of a Dancer fizzes throughout with life - confirmed by five star reviews in The Guardian ("A profound talent"), and similar praise in Uncut and Mojo ("Raw. Virtuosic").
That is some remarkable enthusiasm expressed for an album of acoustic instrumentals.
Ahead of a showcase set at FOCUS Wales 2019 I spoke to Gwenifer Raymond by phone to find out more about her relationship to the music she plays; a short conversation revealing she is open, intelligent and thoughtful, with a quick humour to frame her thoughts.
FtM: You’ve played in punk and grunge bands, but your debut album is in essence American Primitive. What attracts you to this musical form?
"All the music I’m drawn to is primitive in more than one sense – fundamental, close to the bone of human emotion. American Primitive as a form has something primeval, non-verbal and not intellectual, from some collective unconscious human experience; not from an articulable position. It lets you express things that are more complicated than you can verbally."
FtM: For your recent mixtape interview – Industrial Estate Blues – you chose a very eclectic collection of songs, ranging from The Fall and The Lovely Eggs to a 1930s bottleneck guitarist, but all the music included shares that 'primitive' feeling too?
"Yes - it’s all music that insisted on existing, rather than being carefully put together or curated by an intellectual decision – instead it’s all music that forced its way into the universe."
FtM: Reviewing your album Michael Hann (The Guardian) noted that “…. this stew of bluegrass, blues and haunted Americana could only come from a land where cotton and tobacco grow”. Others have expressed a similar feeling. You’re from Cardiff and live in Brighton, how do you explain that dis-located sense of place your music has? Is it learned technique, or does it comes from something else?
"You can’t escape the technique, learning the musical language you are using – you pick that up. If you immerse yourself in pre-war American Blues, and I have (laughing), then that’s a big part of where you end up. But I’m not sure it’s that simple – the American sound, it’s evolved and mutated from many sources – be it British, Celtic and then there are Raga influences, Greek – especially in the contemporary age, everything oscillates back and forth – you can’t ascribe a place to a sound so readily."
FtM: It’s labelled, or owned, as an American form though, and you have played there - debuting at the Thousand Incarnations Of The Rose festival in Maryland last in year. Did you have any apprehension before that appearance?
"It was such an experience I didn’t have time to think about that! It was my first trip to the US – I just went along with the flow! (laughing). Maybe the moment when I walked into the venue though, it’s a converted house with a backyard – I walked in there and there’s a bunch of people jamming old time stuff on fiddle and banjo, and it was like something out of a film. That’s not something that happened so often in Cardiff."
"I also know more about these genres of music than most people I meet day-to-day, but compared to these guys – American Primitive players tend to be music historians - I felt a complete neophyte, and often had no clue what they were talking about! (again laughing)"
FtM: You self-released an EP a couple of years ago; now your on a famed US label (Tompkins Square) and you have had exceptional reviews for the album. Has that change affected how you see yourself and what you do?
"Not really, but there’s definitely more of an idea I might be able to make a career in music, that’s a change! I had almost quit before Tompkins Square emailed me – playing tiny gigs to no-one, with people talking over you – it was tiring at times. That’s changed too. But there’s also some pressure now – I’m writing my second album and I’m a s-l-o-w writer – I tend to hate everything, and then something I think is not awful emerges, but it might take me six months to get to that point."
FtM: And do you still play in other bands?
"Yes – the band I play guitar in is on hiatus, as I need to focus on writing the album, but I also play drums in a punk band, I love it, it is very different – I am not at the forefront, and I just get to hit things with sticks (laughing)."
FtM: Does the energy and difference of that feed into your acoustic writing?
"My solo stuff certainly can have an angry fastness – but it’s probably that my attraction to the different forms comes from exactly the same place in me."
Whatever place that is, you can hear the cross connections of her musical hinterland as she plays. When it arrives Gwenifer Raymond's second album will be just as high impact as the first, and her unmissable live shows will undoubtedly continue to confirm the raw, mesmerising energy of her music.
You Never Were Much of a Dancer can be heard and bought here.
GWENIFER RAYMOND I Sometimes There's Blood