"I try to let the music do what it wants to do." An interview with Gwenifer Raymond
Gwenifer Raymond is one of my favourite guitarists, and her new album, Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain, is at once a consolidation of and several steps beyond her fine debut, You Were Never Much of a Dancer. Whilst it is still at least partly rooted in many of the same folk influences, she has simultaneously allowed herself more breathing space and crammed in an almost embarrassing richness of compositional ideas. Yet this is not merely a showcase for what Gwenifer is capable of technically, as a writer and player: rather, she has become adept at summoning up mood, setting and ambience, from the sinister, occult foreboding of Gwaed am Gwaed to the plangent yearning of Eulogy for Dead French Composer. And in contrast to the more overtly American influences of Dancer, she has one foot firmly back in her native Wales, channelling the landscapes of her childhood and adding a sprinkling of folk horror to concoct a heady brew she has described as her own ‘Welsh Primitive’. The album may have been recorded in a Brighton basement, but its heart and soul inhabit the hills, woods and mountains and whatever lurks, half seen, in their shadows.
Photo by Jinnwoo
Can you tell me about the process of making Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain? Recording an album during the pandemic must have presented a few challenges.
By the time the pandemic hit I had already finished composing all the tracks and was booked in to go into the studio, so from a thematic and musical point of view it’s really not a plague album. Global circumstances did however affect the way it was recorded: rather than going into the studio, I instead ended up investing in some new mics and recorded it myself in the bedroom of my basement flat - pausing for the upstairs neighbours’ washing machine.
Did you approach making the new album very differently to when you were working on You Were Never Much of a Dancer? Did you have a clear idea of what you were hoping to achieve? Was there an overarching theme you were aiming for?
Dancer was more a collection of tunes that had been written over a very protracted period, whereas for Strange Lights I think there is a stronger theme connecting the tunes, maybe just due to them having been written over points closer in time. I think Dancer has more of a traditional folkie vibe, whereas with Strange Lights it’s starting to step ‘out there’ a little more. I try not to think too hard about music when I’m making it - I just try to let it do what it wants to do - but I think I was certainly getting interested in more complex compositional styles as opposed to straight tunes: something that gets more of a story across.
Can you tell me about the title? Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain sounds like a headline from a local newspaper from the 1970s or the title of a pulp sci-fi horror novel.
I have this memory from when I was little of my mother and sister coming home one evening, claiming to have seen UFOs over the top of the Garth Mountain, which our house sat at the foot of. A lot of the tunes on this album put me in mind of being small and growing up under that picturesque and foreboding landscape, and that memory came back to me while I was thinking about what to call it.
It sounds like you put a lot of work in with the tracks on this album - in some cases there are as many ideas in a single tune as some guitarists would spread over a whole side of an album. What is your writing process?
I generally take a long time to write a song. Of course, sometimes a track will just come in altogether wholesale - Eulogy For Dead French Composer is one - but that’s not very common. Typically, ideas come in bits and pieces, and I kind of have an idea as to what bits should go together in that they feel somehow related, but it’s generally more of an evolutionary process, until the song finds itself.
I love the aesthetic of both your album covers, but particularly Garth Mountain. It has a very gothic feel underpinned by a bit of sly humour, putting me in mind of classic British cult horror films. Is this the ambience you were going for?
For certain, I’m a big fan of 70s folk horror and I’m enjoying the resurgence folk horror in general has been seeing over recent years. I do think that the best of it is absolutely full of humour, delivered with a deathly straight po-face. The album covers, however, are actually the product of my mother, who is a filmmaker and artist herself, and I know she was absolutely going for that Edward Gorey vibe.
Can you tell me how you ended up recording for Tompkins Square? It's one of my favourite labels, but as a UK-based musician, does being on an American label present difficulties?
I came to Tompkins Square completely out of the blue. Of course, I had a bunch of their records in my collection, but I never would have considered approaching them with my own stuff. Basically a friend of mine - Simon Ounsworth aka Doctor Turtle, a very fine guitar player in his own right - sent some of my stuff to Jeffrey Davidson at WFMU, an internet radio station based out of New Jersey, who in turn passed it along to Tompkins Square. They apparently dug it, as they sent me mail out of the blue, asking if I’d be interested in putting out a record with them. I’m not sure it’s all that different being a British musician on an American label these days: the internet kind of resolves those issues.
Can you talk about some of your musical influences, more broadly and particularly as a guitarist? And can you talk about the musical journey, as it were, that led you to deciding that playing solo acoustic guitar was what you wanted to do?
I started playing guitar when I was around eight or nine, having heard Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ album for the first time. I went ape wild and would run around the house with my headphones on, and very shortly thereafter asked if I could have a guitar for my birthday. From then I just ended up playing in grunge and punk bands around the Welsh valleys. At some point though I discovered - as a common point of perhaps unexpected influence in a lot of music I was listening to at the time - pre-war blues guitarists like Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James. Their absolute masterful expressive skills on the unaccompanied guitar, technically brilliant but without the sanitizing effect of over-fretful ‘technique’, was just astounding to me. To my ears it had a similar urgency and underlying aesthetic to the punk music I was otherwise immersed in.
Of course, most of these players sing, whereas I have the vocal expression of a hundred cats alight in a bag, so I ended up concentrating fully on how much I could express with just the guitar. I ended up writing these little solo blues guitar compositions, and only realized it was a thing that other people might be interested in when someone played me a John Fahey album.
You're a woman working in a very male dominated field of music. Off the top of my head I can only think of Sarah Louise and Marisa Anderson ploughing parallel furrows. Is this something that bothers you?
For whatever reason, this is a really common state for me - I always seem to find myself in male dominated fields. At this point I don’t really think about it too much - though obviously it would nice to see more women in the scene. Art is most interesting when it’s being run at from all corners.
Can you talk a bit about your guitars? Is there a particular one you'd save from a sinking ship?
I’ve got a good few guitars. Possibly slightly more than a good few. My main gigging guitar is a Waterloo WL-14L and I think for me it’s a perfect gigging guitar: it’s got that vintage tone most commonly heard in pre-war Gibsons, but it’s a modern guitar with a modern build quality and so having to throw it in the cargo hold of a plane - the practical reality for touring musicians - is much less of a fearful prospect. In terms of saving from a fire though: I’ve got an 1800s Joseph Bohmann guitar that was gifted to me by Henry Kaiser, which both as an incredible musical instrument and an actual piece of history might have to be the one that gets saved.
Idumea remains a favourite of mine. Are we ever likely to see a banjo album?
These days I’m finding it difficult to compose on the banjo to the same level as I’m able to on the guitar. I think I can throw together ‘stunt’ pieces on it - all speed and fury - but in terms of more sophisticated tunes than really tell a story, that’s just not something I’ve quite managed yet. It might happen though - in which case a banjo album could emerge. I just don’t like to force things.
What's on the turntable at the moment? Any recommendations?
It’s all the same as before the album at the moment to be honest. All Satie and Moondog.