Seven StarsGwilym Bowen Rhys : Arenig

I first saw Gwilym Bowen Rhys play in a café in Dolgellau - a short, magnificent set of Welsh language folk that left a strong desire to understand the cultural hinterland behind his performance.

Fast forward three years, and I found myself sat with Gwilym in a Caernarfon pub as he rested between live sets during the town's Food Festival. I took the chance to talk to him about his background in music and his new album, Arenig.

If I hoped the conversation would turn up something as precise and defined as a foundational memory, I was always heading for disappointment.

When I asked Gwilym about his first remembered connection to music, he rolled the question round in his mind for a long moment, before a quick burst of laughter at the lack of a specific answer, "Growing up in North West Wales you can't escape music - when you ask 'when did you start singing?', I can only say it's not when we start, it's only when we finish."

Still amused, he then continued, "It begins at primary school - learning very early on to sing in three-part harmonies, singing every day - from there, I've just never stopped!"

From that lost-in-time school beginning Gwilym sang in Eisteddfods, joined his first band aged fourteen, and picked up myriad influences as he went.

In his late teens he had a successful pop career with Y Bandana, but always had an interest in folk music, which grew more focused when he inherited a box of music from his grandfather, "I'd been listening to Dylan, really liking the words, and I then became more curious about Welsh traditional songs - suddenly here was this store of it - and I was singing them myself by the time I was fifteen."

To explore this fascination, he started an experimental folk band with his sisters, Plu. When Y Bandana came to a close, he started performing traditional music solo wherever he could. Creatively restless, he also developed a further ensemble folk project, Tosta, after a tour of minority language areas in Europe, and was a vital part of Bendith. A remarkable CV of accomplishment for 26.

Gwilym's willingness to experiment, collaborate and follow curiosity to somewhere beyond its logical conclusion for most has shaped his distinct range and depth of musicality. As if to underline this, his third solo album, Arenig, confirms the accuracy of Mark Radcliffe's praise when he marked Gwilym out as, "One of these islands' best, in any language."

Arenig builds comprehensively on the strength of the two releases that preceded it - O Groth y Ddaear and Detholiad o Hen Faledi I.

The new album's songs were arranged through improvisation, and the contributions of Gwen Màiri (harp), Patrick Rimes (fiddle/viola/trombone) and Marit Fält (Latmandola/fiddle) are integral to their triumph. To further develop the sound Tegid Roberts then added clarinet, Aled and Dafydd Hughes (Cowbois Rhos Botwnnog) deft touches of rhythm and percussion.

Given any chance, Gwilym is fulsome in his acknowledgement of this troupe of collaborators, "They are brilliant musicians to work with. We jammed - four of us sat in a circle with mikes, doing live takes - I had the raw materials for the album, the melodies and the words, but I consciously didn't set any arrangements in stone before going into the studio, as I wanted to create them with this group."

Arenig's compositions are informed by contemporary and traditional sources. For the latter, Gwilym takes delight in the challenge of balancing what is there with what he adds, "I love working with traditional music - it's fantastic, you don't have to ask permission - mostly we don't know who wrote them so they are everybody's songs."

"No-one can turn to you and say 'you can't change that' - much of music has been fixed since we started to record it, but with these songs I can still play with the melody or change outdated words, it's accepted."

"Before recording technology froze them in time. songs were always changing, evolving. I revel in changing, adding - sometimes when I find them they don't have many verses, there's just fragments - but it's a style, or template for me to write more. The lyrics of many of these old songs are poetry, and that sets me a high bar to reach."

The opening three tracks set out Arenig's stall fully.

Yr Hosan Las skiffles and dances into vivid life, ribald and energised, before Er Fy Ngwaethaf - with words from a poem written by the young Welsh poet Elis Dafydd, about the physical and emotional cues that bind us to the past - offers reflective, plaintive respite. Following this initial pair of songs, Jac yr Oil is a set of three fluent, life-affirming tunes that illustrate the range of inspiration drawn on to nourish Arenig's soul; the first is self-penned, the second from a 1752 collection by Anglesey fiddler, John Thomas, the last an arrangement of a Stephen Rees composition, 2 Cardi 3.

The keystone of the album is its title track, found late in the running order. Evocative music frames a recording of a poetry reading by Gwilym's great uncle, Euros Bowen, of a piece he had written about Arenig Fawr, a mountain in Snowdonia. It begins with a mournful fiddle playing over a sustained drone, before a harp sparely echoes the melody. The poem's words then roll out like mist down a mountainside, clear in tone. Their descriptions of natural beauty are made accessible to an English-speaker by Iestyn Tyne's empathetic translation in the CD's notes.

Beyond these pieces there is further thematic variety, as political morality (Byta dy Bres - 'Eat your Money'), love and a joyful May carol, O Deuwch Deulu Mwynion, take their place in the lyrical mix.

Gwilym Bowen Rhys' new music stands shoulder to Celtic shoulder with the current wave of exceptional Irish folk artists, such as Lankum, Ye Vagabonds and Lisa O'Neill. Every moment of it holds a sense of having been lovingly and intensely crafted. There's a thread of fine instrumental detailing throughout, an excitement caught in the variety of sound. The stories are fully revealed by the drama inherent in the singer's voice.

Beautifully produced by Aled Wyn Hughes, the songs and instrumentals on Arenig are transcendent. The contrasting emotional textures of the recordings are available to anyone irrespective of language, the poetry resonates in the music itself.

In its essence a stunning celebration of rooted, shared creativity, Arenig is a contemporary folk masterpiece.

 

GWILYM BOWEN RHYS I Arenig