Interview : Bendith
In the early summer I met Alys Conran to talk about her book Pigeon - published in two editions, one English, one Welsh; it is a hugely evocative expression of place and culture. Near the end of the interview she said something about her motivation to write the book that really struck me:
Just as I came back to the Welsh language through the work I did when I moved back, in a way the book was also about coming home for me - in parallel with reengaging with language and culture through work I was also writing my way back to the people around me.
The early autumn sees the release of Bendith, a collaborative venture initiated by Carwyn Ellis of Welsh alt. pop icons Colorama. Analogous to Alys finding her way back to her community and cultural present, Carwyn seems to be finding his way through the Bendith project to better connecting to his past; the songs on the record are mostly written about the area where his grandparents lived in Carmarthenshire - a place to which he has a profound emotional link.
To understand the album, and what was behind it, I was lucky enough to meet Carwyn's collaborators for the project - the Snowdonia based alt. folk band Plu - who are siblings Elan, Marged and Gwilym Rhys. I met them late afternoon, the August sunshine baking the flagstones outside the Anglesey Arms in Caernarfon. They were generous with their time, open and affable; Elan's humour, Gwilym's deep enthusiasm and Marged's thoughtfulness and precision all became evident as we spoke.
Usually with an interview you ask your question and record the response moving onto the next; it can be quite a linear process. With Plu a question became much more like a ball fired into an arcade pinball machine - pinging between them, and producing a much more iterated and authentic response in the process. For this reason, although most interviews end up highly edited, I have transcribed this one verbatim:
"Bendith is a very personal work, you'd think that it would need strong relationships to forge something like it; did the three of you know Carwyn before the album's recording?"
Marged: "We spoke to him, we saw him at gigs ..."
Gwilym: "...He was a fan of ours, he is a big fan of Americana, old time bluegrass harmonies, a Nashville sound - he had some songs and he really likes our harmonies. At the start it was meant to be his songs with our harmonies in the background - that was his intention. He had only heard our first album, which had an Americana feel - he didn't have the last one, which is more pop with some psychedelic influence."
"But the project rapidly became its own beast - he only sings two of the songs, even though he wrote ..."
Elan (counting): "... he wrote six of the ten songs, including the instrumentals. Marged wrote most of 'Mis Mehefin'"
Marged: "... and 'Dan Glo' - that's a collaboration - Carwyn did the music, I did the words."
Elan: 'We wrote 'Lliwiau', and 'Pan Own Y Gwanwyn' is a folk song. For us 'Bendith' came at the point when we had just finished 'Tir A Golau' - we did not initially feel ready to write again, so it was a perfect project.'
"In the beginning it was just going to be an EP - we recorded at Acapela Studios - it's an old church - Catrin Finch owns it with her husband, it's a lovely venue, and it is used as a studio too. Once we agreed to do it, it all happened very quickly, and once we were working together there, it took off on a different course than we all initially intended - and became an album!"
"It's definitely a heartfelt work, with a real 'in the room' feel, despite the at times complex orchestration - the intimacy and coherence of the songs, despite their often very different sound, suggests the album was recorded in one go?"
Marged: "Yes, Carwyn had a few of the songs written and the theme - home, roots .. we met up and worked through the songs and new compositions as a set ... "
Gwilym: "... And the intimacy in part comes from how it was recorded - most of it is us jamming ... we tried the standard band way of recording - all working separately, and we did one track like that, 'Angel', but we decided it would work better live; four or five mikes, us sat in a circle (captured in the image on this page) ... and loads of creaks and squeaks from the building (laughs) - they added a lot!"
Elan: "In Acapela we recorded 90% of the vocals and guitars, piano, organ, and accordion, and some percussion - then it was handed over to Mason Neely - he has been involved in a lot of Carwyn's projects. Mason took the project over, with input from Carwyn and at times Marged, and that's when the strings and wind instruments were added ..."
Gwilym: "He took our creaky, squeaky, acoustic and very raw recordings and polished them up! It was a different album when we heard it back, and we were ..."
Elan: ".. Gobsmacked! you could not believe the difference!"
"'Danybanc', for example, was completely transformed, I originally sang the lead vocals for that, and it was a much mellower song - but then Carwyn decided it was a very personal song for him and he wanted to sing it. The cover of the album itself (opening it out to show the panoramic pastoral watercolour that unfolds) is the places that are important in the songs - Danybanc, the Dinas valley, and this (pointing to a work shed in the watercolour) is his Grandfather's workshop - he was a carpenter. All this is what the album is about."
Marged: "It sounded good before, but it sounds great now!"
"The track Pan Own Y Gwanwyn stands out quite a lot - in terms of mood?"
Gwilym: "It is a bit dark (laughs) - it translates as "Once I was in Spring" - it's a love song ..."
Elan: (laughing too) "The lyrics are really positive, but there is no rhythm"
Marged: "We chose it as the melody was so out there!"
"And Dinas, the instrumental and orchestral opener, is quite a departure?"
Elan: "Carwyn wrote it - it's a place that is very sentimentally important to him - it's about a place that means a lot, it feels like a home to him - especially as he moved so much as a child; Anglesey and a lot of places in England; but this place, Dinas, is where he felt that attachment."
"And which song do you think works best?"
All: "Mis Mehefin!"
Elan: "We love performing it, it's in Plu's set now."
The second choices were more diverse, and for a moment the conversation descended into an intense, good humoured, three way family haggle. Although Gwilym has worked with others extensively before Plu, and continues to, for Marged and Elan this has been their main creative outlet, working as three siblings, which prompted an obvious next question to them: "How it has been working with someone from outside the Plu unit?"
Marged: (Laughing) "We (Plu) can bicker, and be brutal in the studio with each other ..."
Gwilym: "... constructively brutal (laughs) - don't complain if you haven't got a better suggestion! It's hard to please each other and it really pushes us creatively."
Marged: "Usually our producer will have some input - but with Carwyn, he had a huge input into this, and we had to respect that!" (again laughing)
Gwilym: "At the outset it was going to be headlined as Carwyn + Plu, but in the end, to some extent, it was all a collaboration."
Elan: (Pausing thoughtfully to sum up) "It was just an incredible experience."
"Bendith is a complex work of moods and orchestration - how will the songs be presented live?"
Elan: "The songs are deep in terms of instrumentation - we will have strings, other instruments - it'll be people we know up here two violinists, a cellist, a harpist, a bass player and it's possible Mason (Neely) will be joining us on percussion. We'll be able to represent the album really well I think!"
"Is the Bendith album a one off?"
Elan: "There is a new EP - we were offered a Radio Cymru session, and we did two new songs and a new version of 'Mis Mehefin' for that ..."
Marged: ".... Carwyn has a few new instrumentals to go with them ..."
Elan: "We don't know beyond that - but Carwyn thinks so much further ahead than we do, we just plan .... "
Gwilym: ".... the next couple of days." (there must be a truth touched on here as they all laughed, and for a long time)
Organised or not - you can't help but be left feeling they are rightly and deeply proud of this complex and creative project - which left two questions - first: "How would you categorise it? Where would you put it in the racks in HMV in Manchester?"
Gwilym: "It's Welsh music!"
"You can't have that easy option!"
Gwilym: "Pop, folk ..."
Elan: "... and there is an orchestral element ... we chose 'Danybanc' as a single, and that was the easy option as it was the most Colorama like song, but it is very different to the rest of the album."
We went through quite a few genres - it's certainly not just alt. folk - a discussion that just left time for the final question: "Do you think it will surprise people who are already Plu fans?"
Marged (emphatically): "Yes! And Colorama's!"
They all laughed again - but, having strained against the clock, we came to the end of Elan's parking ticket time, and of the interview. In person the three siblings seem very down to earth and grounded - but when you look at their output in the last eighteen months or so - Tir a Golau, Gwilym's solo album, the Bendith collaboration and for Gwilym Fel Tôn Gron with Y Bandana - you cannot help but marvel at their creative drive and what it has delivered - preconceptions might be challenged, but you can't second guess what they will do next, only expect it to somehow enchant.