Gwenifer Raymond is a virtuoso guitar player, born in Wales but extraordinarily adept in the American Primitive tradition, which she learned from Stefan Grossman tab books, John Hurt records and a guitar teacher who introduced her to John Fahey. Her latest album, Strange Lights Over Garth Mountain, is steeped in folk and blues, but imbued with a bit of Welsh folkloric strangeness, which she distinguishes from other UK traditions for its violence and its dark humor. You can see a little bit of that in the video for Hell for Certain, where Raymond strums and picks at blur speed, amidst a haunted Miss Havisham-ish backdrop of a forlorn wedding spread, including a truly disturbing set of dolls atop a cake. We talked about her journey as a musician, recording an album alone during the lockdown, her punk drumming sideline and the way that on good nights, the music takes over, and you hardly notice the complicated things your hands are doing. | j kelly
Aquarium Drunkard: I’m really enjoying this album. I went back and listened to your first album You Were Never Much of a Dancer, and it seems a lot folkier. You played some banjo on it and there were traditional touchstones and tunes. Were you trying to get away from that on this one?
Gwenifer Raymond: Not necessarily trying to, but I think I was. I’ve been falling down some avant-garde-y rabbit holes musically. When I started composing for the album, a few singles were a bit more compositionally complex. I found that it was more interesting to write that way.
AD: How does a person who is growing up in Wales become interested in American Primitive guitar? Did you start playing other stuff? Where did you first hear that kind of music?
Gwenifer Raymond: Oh yeah, I was playing in punk and grunge bands when I started out in music. The usual sort of thing. But I was also fond of some of the records my parents left lying around. Bob Dylan. Neil Young. The Velvet Underground. And this sort of thing was around. I don’t know if you remember when Nirvana did the Leadbelly song?
Gwenifer Raymond: After hearing that and discovering a lot of the roots of classic Dylan and that was pre-war blues music and American Appalachian folk, I started to get interested in that sort of music and then I tracked down a guitar teacher. I’d been playing guitar for a really long time. I had a teacher in the city where I lived, and he was a really great blues player. I really wanted to get down some of that, you know, John Hurt-style country blues. So, I started working with this guy, and he introduced me to a lot of artists. I had never heard a John Fahey record. So, he played John Fahey for me, and it was amazing.
AD: It’s a real practice playing the kind of music you play. How long did it take you to get up to speed?
Gwenifer Raymond: Oh, I don’t know. I’ve been playing guitar since I was a wee one. I’ve been playing guitar for maybe 25 years. It’s practice. You pick up different techniques. At one point I made a concerted effort so that I had a bunch of those Stefan Grossman classic blues tab books, with John Hurt thumb techniques, which I’d seen my teacher doing. So, I started trying to do that on my own, in my own style of playing.
AD: Did you come from a musical family?
Gwenifer Raymond: No. Well, sort of. Neither of my parents are musicians, but they’re both big music fans. We had lots of music around the house. On my mother’s side of the family, some of them were quite musical. Most of them I never met. But my uncles were all adept players. And certainly, my brothers are both musicians.
AD: What can you tell me about Welsh music and how it plays into your work? I don’t know much about it or how it’s distinct from Irish or Scottish or English folk music. What can you tell me about it?
Gwenifer Raymond: Yeah, I don’t listen to too much Welsh folk, beyond, obviously hymns and stuff when I was at school. I have listened to some, though, and it’s almost like a cross between Scottish and Irish. It’s kind of in that category. I think it was more the landscape of Wales with lots of open space and big dark mountains. It was that kind of imagery that plays in my head to the music, rather than folk music.
AD: Did you come from the country or a city?
Gwenifer Raymond: I grew up in a little village. It’s near the capital city, about eight miles out. But in Wales, that’s not really the city. It’s actually a village in the foothills of Garth Mountains, which is where the name of the album comes from. So yeah, it was quite rural. I went to school on that mountain. It was full of forest.
AD: You mentioned that the folklore of Wales was a factor in writing these songs?
Gwenifer Raymond: Not in any specific way. Folklore. Just the vibe. I’m a really big fan of British folk horror. I didn’t realize there’s a huge revival of that now. I think the Welsh side of that is quite specific. It’s often really quite grim, but also quite funny as well. There’s a lot of humor. There are a lot of outsmarting the devil stories in Welsh folklore, which are something I like. There’s a lot of wry humor in the grimness.
AD: I’ve been watching the video for “Hell for Certain,” and it’s super fun to watch you play. Your hands are moving so fast and your face is so calm. Can you tell me what it’s like to play like that? Are you always thinking about what note is next or do you get into a zone? How does that work?
Gwenifer Raymond: My mind’s not at all on the next note. The hands are just muscle memory. In fact, if you’re thinking about what the next note is, you’re in trouble. Because you’ve forgot the next note. But at gigs, especially, you can always tell it’s going to be a good show by the fact that you’re not thinking about things that have happened in the day. Your mind has just gone to that trance state. Those are usually really, really good shows. In the bad shows, you’re really aware of yourself and what’s going on. Being apart from your brain is a good thing.
AD: Do you have a lot of guitars or just one? How much of a gear head are you?
Gwenifer Raymond: I’ve probably got eight in the room with me right now.
AD: Do you play them all? Do you collect them?
Gwenifer Raymond: I’m not really a collector. Each one has a purpose. I have my Waterloo, my gigging guitar. And then I’ve got a baritone electric, an electric, a microtonal, a resonator and a couple of other pitch guitars. I don’t want to have eight of the same guitar. Which is what happens when people become collectors. They all serve a purpose. Though I do like to have a lot of different guitars.
AD: Tell me about the set up in the video with the wedding cake. What does it all mean?
Gwenifer Raymond: What does it all mean? You’d have to ask my mam. The video was directed by my mother, who is a retired filmmaker, so there is some sense to it.
AD: Would she like you to get married? Is that what you’re saying?
Gwenifer Raymond: No actually, just the opposite. My mother never married either. I think it’s a trap. I think it’s a Miss Havisham scenario where everything’s been there for decades. It’s all do to with the previous occupants of the room and the dolls. I think that’s the thing.
AD: But it does have that feeling that you were talking about earlier, sort of fanciful and folkloric but also a little bit ominous.
Gwenifer Raymond: Yeah, I think that’s just the mood of the moment. Folk horror. But it has that slightly nihilistic edge.
AD: Was that one based on a traditional song?
Gwenifer Raymond: No, no, no. It’s supposed to sound a bit like trains. It has the horns and the chug of the wheels. I grew up right on the train tracks. I always attribute the fact that I can sleep anywhere to the fact that I grew up with coal trains going past my window, all hours of the night.
AD: That’s right. I had an older copy of the album that had that was under a different name. Something like “Coal Train Song.”
Gwenifer Raymond: Yes. That was the previous name. I wasn’t sure about the title. I change the titles all the time, and that was one I wasn’t quite happy with. You change them because you think, well, that title is a little more what that song is.
AD: People put a lot of weight on the titles in instrumental music, because it’s the only hint at what they might be about.
Gwenifer Raymond: Yeah. But it’s also kind of pointless. I do like a good title because it’s quite a satisfying feeling when you come up with a good title, but obviously, a lot of the power of instrumental music is being able to encapsulate something that’s very hard to put into words. So, then you’re expected to summarize that song in words, it’s almost like a contradiction to the music in a way. Which is why I quite like those slightly enigmatic titles. Because I think, then again, you’re avoiding actually very verbosely answering the question of what the song is about.
AD: Yeah, but I have to say that I’m a little intrigued by the title, “Marseilles Bunkhouse 3 a.m.” Is there a story there?
Gwenifer Raymond: Yeah, I was drinking some spirits outside a bunk house. I played a gig in Marseille, and the people put me up in this bunk house. It was sort of a night club. And they put on a lot of punk bands, and all over town, so they were used to having more people. I think you could sleep up to 30-odd people there. But it was only me. So, I had this whole space to myself, and I’d been to some bars and was drinking anise. Marseilles is probably one of the wilder towns I’ve been in. I was just thinking about that, I guess.
AD: It’s a gorgeous track. It’s lyrical and sort of shadowy and mysterious.
Gwenifer Raymond: I guess I’m trying to do some more narrative based stuff these days.
AD: I ran the title “Gwaed Am Gwaed” through Google Translate, it and it came out “Blood for Blood.” That’s pretty dramatic. What were you thinking there?
Gwenifer Raymond: Again, that was just what it sounded like to me. I don’t live in Wales anymore. I live in England. The initial bit, the main riff of that song and that title came to me at the same time. I was at a Green Man Festival, which is in Wales. It’s in a beautiful part of Wales. They kind of came together. That to me seems like the most Welsh song.
AD: What seems Welsh about it?
Gwenifer Raymond: It’s hard to explain unless you’re Welsh.
AD: And Ruben (from “Ruben’s Song”) is your dog, I think?
Gwenifer Raymond: Ruben is my friend’s dog.
AD: How does Ruben feel about the music?
Gwenifer Raymond: Well, Ruben is no longer with us. That was sort of a requiem for a very good dog.
AD: Who was the French composer you referenced in “Eulogy for Dead French Composer?”
Gwenifer Raymond: Erik Satie.
AD: What does he mean to you?
Gwenifer Raymond: I just really like Erik Satie. I am somewhat obsessed. It’s kind of one of those things where it can make, I don’t know, cigarette ads sound sad. He’s kind of cliched that way. But it’s only cliched because if you use a Satie soundtrack, you’re guaranteed to get an emotional reaction whatever toilet paper it is you’re peddling in your advert. Because they’re the most beautiful pieces of music. So, I got into that, just purely, knowing nothing about the man himself. He’s got this amazing story of Satie. He was the official composer of the Dada-ist movement and all that. When there’s someone who you really, really like their output, and you find out that their character kind of matches…That track was right at the peak of me being slightly obsessed and trying to write an Erik Satie song. So that’s my attempt at a Satie song.
AD: Your playing reminds me a lot of Jack Rose, in that it’s just one instrument but sometimes it sounds like an orchestra. Do you ever think about writing for more instruments or do you get all you need out of the guitar?
Gwenifer Raymond: Yeah, sort of, but whenever I sit down to do it, it doesn’t come out the same. There’s something about having that one instrument in your hand, and it kind of is everything. I think there is a purity to it as well. I always prefer…again, going back to Satie, I don’t like the orchestra versions of his stuff so much. I really like the piano pieces where it’s just that one instrument. You get so much more. It’s so much more intimate when it’s just one person playing one instrument, and everything is coming out of that one thing. It’s subtle and unsubtle at one time. Because it comes with everything. I think there’s a power to that.
AD: You also play the banjo. Can you tell me about playing the banjo versus guitar? How they’re different? How they express different things for you?
Gwenifer Raymond: Well, I find the banjo a lot harder, in the first place, which is why there’s isn’t any on this album. I didn’t write any banjo songs for it. I’m increasingly finding that. The banjo is a really fun instrument to play. It’s very visceral and enjoyable. It’s great for noodling out on your front step when you don’t have to do anything else, as I did this summer. But I find it much more difficult to compose for it. So, I think these days, increasingly, most of my compositions are going to be more focused on the guitar. I just think I can do a lot more interesting things on the guitar. I can do stunt pieces on the banjo, where I play really fast and fun, but it’s just not interesting.
AD: Do you just play by yourself or do you have some other collaborative projects?
Gwenifer Raymond: For this, I just play by myself. I also continue to play in bands, but it’s very different. It’s punk bands and all that. I play the drums. I’m not very good, but I do play the drums. I really like playing the drums.
AD: What do you like about it?
Gwenifer Raymond: Cos you get to hit things. (Laughs) It’s also nice not being in the front. You can just kind of get into the groove. So, I really dig that. That’s kind of what I do in collaboration. I sometimes find it hard to do my solo stuff with other people, because, well, I think I’m kind of a nightmare to work with.
AD: What you play is so dense and complete, it’s hard to imagine fitting other people into it. You’d have to back off a little bit. What are your punk bands? What are they called?
Gwenifer Raymond: There’s just one right now. A punk band called Weekend Death Cult. We haven’t played in a long time. We didn’t play very much before.
AD: Is it a three-piece?
Gwenifer Raymond: It’s a three-piece. Our guitar player has the biggest pedal board I’ve ever seen. He does that thing where you have the split channel going through a bass amp, the guitar. It’s this huge fuzzy, chugging sound.
AD: That sounds great. Do you sing? Or just play the drums?
Gwenifer Raymond: I just play the drums. I’m a terrible singer.
AD: How have you been getting along this year? How are you staying sane during the lockdown and all?
Gwenifer Raymond: I think I’m not staying sane to be honest. It’s been kind of a bummer of a year. In the first half, I had to record the whole album in my basement flat. So, I put that out, and it was sort of a lot of work, doing that. And obviously, if it were a normal year once the album came out, it would be, all right, now touring. So not doing that is kind of a bit weird. I’m a bit at a loss for what to do. I don’t really like livestream shows that much. I think they serve a purpose. You can do a couple, you know. But it’s not the same.
AD: I feel like they’re better than nothing, and I’m kind of hoping that they continue at some level after the pandemic. Because I live pretty far from the major centers of civilization. So, it’s really great to be able to watch things, but it’s sterile because there’s no audience. But if you could do a livestream where there’s an audience, I think that would be great. For people that live in Podunksville and can’t always get to New York or Boston or Chicago.
Gwenifer Raymond: I’ve been planning some shows like that. I was going to play a show in London in February, and it’s almost certainly going to be cancelled. But that would have also been livestreamed. I think a lot of venues are doing that. Because they have fewer people. But they’re also still doing the livestream as well.
AD: I’ve been thinking about that. Not just music. We’ve seen some great livestreamed theatre this year as well that we would never have been able to get to. It would be nice if that continued. Even if you have to pay for it, and even if other people are attending live.
Do you think that music has any particular role in difficult times?
Gwenifer Raymond: That’s a complicated question. It’s not just music, it’s art. And the question is, what purpose does art serve? It serves in innumerable ways or not at all depending on how your mind works. Certainly, it helps a lot of people get through tough times. There’s a reason why music is in the background of so many people’s daily lives. I think it is incomprehensibly important. I think the world would collapse and people would go into full insanity without it. I don’t know.
AD: If they have not already done so.
I know that you’ve said that even though you recorded during the lockdown, that there’s nothing especially pandemic about this record. Would you have made the same record in normal times?
Gwenifer Raymond: Yeah. It would have been recorded slightly differently. I really was absolutely ready to go in the studio when lockdown hit, so those songs were written and the order had been worked out. I knew that these were the tracks. I don’t really do much in the way of improvising. They’re all fairly rigorously written.
AD: DO you write stuff down? Or do you just remember it?
Gwenifer Raymond: I just remember it.
AD: Are you listening to anything good now?
Gwenifer Raymond: I’m not really listening to loads and loads of stuff. I’ve been on a podcast binge lately.
AD: What podcasts are you listening to?
AD: Do you like hearing the voices, having them talk to you, tell you stories?
Gwenifer Raymond: When I work, I need other stuff happening. You kind of need to be distracted. Otherwise, I will become more distracted elsewhere.
AD: And what happens then?
Gwenifer Raymond: Oh, I just buy stuff on the internet. I don’t do work.
AD: Is there anything about you or your music that people don’t get or they always get wrong?
Gwenifer Raymond: Oh, I have no idea. I don’t know. I barely know what I’m trying to express musically. I’m not belittling it. I’m just saying that the music is something that I can’t articulate coming out. So really that’s just…art is a reflection of yourself. So, I don’t think there’s anything to get or not get about it, necessarily. For me anyway. Because it’s abstract. I’m not going to tell someone, “You don’t understand what this chord means!”
AD: Is there anything you’re working on in terms of technique right now?
Gwenifer Raymond: I don’t really work on technique except when I write songs and inevitably sometimes a technique will fall out of a song. I’ll be thinking, oh, if I could do that, that would be cool.
AD: Are there any of those on this current album?
Gwenifer Raymond: Techniques. There’s probably some in this new album, some slightly faster, but those are all evolutions. I don’t like to sit down and do scales. That’s not really a thing. I think technique is just to serve the composition. It just kind of falls out when you’re composing something.
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