As his fourth album hits download stores, we meet a singer-songwriter from Gwynedd who writes in both English and Welsh
usic may be the international language that knows no borders, but the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of songs that make their presence known on the international stage are written and sung in English. There are exceptions, of course – Je T’Aime (Moi Non Plus) springs to mind, or La Bamba – but generally speaking, the language spoken by Frank Sinatra, Elvis and The Beatles is the lingua franca (oh, the irony!) of popular music worldwide.
So when we came across Dan Amor, a 37-year-old singer-songwriter from Tregarth in Gwynedd, north Wales whose songs are written in both English and Welsh, we were intrigued. How, we wondered, does one approach writing in two different languages… and is he not worried that writing in Welsh will limit his music’s reach? And then, when we listened to his new album Rainhill Trials, with its distinctly Donovan-esque folk-rock-pop stylings, we definitely wanted to find out more.
Curiously, Dan says Donovan hasn’t actually been that much of an influence – “I’ve got one greatest hits CD but that’s it,” he tells us. He also shrugs off hype sheet comparisons to Belle & Sebastian and Nick Drake, citing as his primary musical inspirations instead the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Neil Young, Fairport Convention and “the Beatles just for their melodies”. But you get the general idea.
Anyway, here’s what else Dan had to tell us…
Let’s start at the beginning… tell us about how you got into making music in the first place?
“Well, my parents were always playing music… 60s and 70s stuff mainly, Hendrix, The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, Roxy Music, Crosby Stills & Nash. So I was exposed to a lot of good music from an early age. I didn’t actually start playing guitar until quite late, when I was 15 or so… and then a couple of years after that, I was watching local bands play and I thought, ‘I could do that’.”
So you started out in bands, rather than as a singer-songwriter? Tell us about those bands, then…
“The first one was Luminous, a sort of psychedelic pop-rock band when I was in my early 20s. It was a mix of lads I’d grown up with round here, and university mates from Aberystwyth. We did all move to Cardiff together but it didn’t really work out, we only did about ten gigs.
“After that there was Gabrielle 25, a band I formed when I moved back up north. We did sort of melodic, country-tinged pop, and we did all right… we had a track played by John Peel and we did a few regional radio sessions. It’s funny because I never heard our song played on Peel, but I emailed the Perfumed Garden website yesterday and they sent me a link to the show, so I’ve just heard it for the first time, which was a buzz, obviously.
“But yeah, Gabrielle 25 did okay for a while, Huw Stephens recorded and broadcast one of our gigs, and John Lawrence from Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci played with us for a while, which was the start of a long recording relationship. But we had trouble keeping a drummer – I think we had something like 23 members in two years! And I think the Gabrielle 25 sound was just a bit too rocky for me as well, so in 2002 I recorded my first solo EP, which I did with John on a four-track and he put it out on his label, Lawrence Music, the following year.”
How would you say your sound has changed, in going solo?
“Well, the same minus the rockiness, basically! [laughs] Also I think I sing a bit differently now, it’s a bit more understated. I guess that’s inevitable if you’re solo, though.
“I speak English and Welsh on a daily basis”
You write in both English and Welsh. But looking at your back catalogue, there seem to be more and more English songs as time’s gone on…
“I’ve never really thought about it, to be honest with you. When I was younger and really getting into music for the first time, I heard a lot of Welsh language songs by people like Gorky’s and Super Furry Animals, so it just seemed natural to write in Welsh. And the first album was all in Welsh, because I was really looking for recognition on the Welsh scene.
“But I am bilingual, I speak both languages on a daily basis, so it’s never really been a conscious decision. My parents are English so technically English is my first language, but we moved to Wales when I was two and I’ve been speaking Welsh since primary school.”
So let’s talk about your songwriting process, and how a song ends up in either English or Welsh…
“Usually I’ll sit down with a guitar or at the piano, and the melody will come first, and then I’ll start making sort of la-la-la sounds over the top. Then as I kind of get into the zone, some phrases will start to form in my mind, and they could be in either language. Actually, I think what language the lyric develops in depends largely on what language I’ve mostly been speaking that day.”
And are you confident that there’s a market for Welsh-language songs? Do you ever have doubts and think about writing entirely in English, to be more ‘accessible’?
“I haven’t really thought about that, no. Because for one thing, as you said there’s a pretty good percentage of English songs on most of my albums anyway. And also, I think there is a market for Welsh music – there’s actually a lot of Welsh music around. If you listen to BBC Radio Cymru – that’s a different thing from BBC Radio Wales, by the way – you’ll hear lots of Welsh language music, in all kinds of genres, from folk and country to rock and electronica.
“People in England are curious to hear what someone singing in Welsh sounds like”
“Here in Wales, it’s an advantage, because I get gigs I wouldn’t get otherwise… playing at Eisteddfods and stuff like that. And the flipside of that is, I’ve found people in England are actually really open to it, they’re curious to hear what someone singing in Welsh sounds like.”
Do you think your environment, being in rural Wales, affects your songwriting at all?
“I’d have to say yes, of course: your immediate environment will have an effect on anything you do that’s creative. But I’d want to steer away from the romantic image of the pastoral songwriter. I don’t know, I try not to analyse my lyrics too much but I guess the landscape and the weather do crop up quite a bit!
“I’m a keen walker as well, I’m always up in the mountains, and in fact now I think about it I often pick up a guitar as soon as I get in from a walk. So I guess it does, but as I said, I’m not trying to be seen as some kind of romantic wandering Celtic troubadour or something!”
So, four albums in… what’s next?
“Well, I’m always writing and recording – in fact I’ve got enough songs for another album already. And I also run my label, Recordiau Cae Gwyn Records. It’s a proper label, in the sense that it’s not just for me to put my own stuff out. At the moment I’m working on a compilation of bands from my home valley, which I’m really excited about, but which is taking up quite a lot of time.
“And I’m about to release my brother’s band’s debut album as well. He’s 16 years younger than me, and I first heard their lead singer when him and my brother were both about eight years old… now he sings on some of my stuff as well. They’re called Sen Segur, they’re very psychedelic and they’re playing at this year’s Green Man festival.
“Other than that… just keep gigging and recording, basically. I’d like to do this full-time eventually… I did do music full-time for a couple of years in the mid-00s and I’d like to again. I’d like to push my music as far as it can go, really.”
Finally, anything else you think the world should know about Dan Amor?
“Well there’s one interesting tidbit… my Mum designs my record sleeves. She’s a really good designer and it’s what she used to do… she did the sleeve for Golden Hour Of The Kinks and she did an album sleeve for Long John Baldry too.”
Interview: Russell Deeks