Gwenifer Raymond is a finger style acoustic guitar player with a sound that’s uncannily similar to one of my heroes, John Fahey. She released her first album, You Never Were Much of a Dancer on Tompkins Square in 2018 and last month she was planning to celebrate the release of her second, Strange Lights over Garth Mountain, with a concert in Islington, London. The limitations of lockdown meant that this became a YouTube event where she played all eight tracks in front of a camera and mic in her Brighton flat.
The new album continues the style she established with ‘Dancer but the songs are generally longer, with a more compositional style as she calls it meaning that each is made up of different elements. This makes them more interesting and varied with some being full of attack and dynamics and others more contemplative and melodic. The playing is if anything technically more impressive than it was on her first release. Eulogy for a Dead French Composer being a striking example of just how many notes can be played by two hands on one guitar. It sounds nothing like the serene work of the composer it was made for as you can imagine, but it is equally immersive in its own way.
Raymond makes video games for a living but anyone who hears her playing realises that this is where her passion lies, as a fan of this particular genre I have been looking for someone who plays like this for over thirty years, I have not found many, so discovering Raymond in a city half an hour away is something of a miracle. Strange Lights… is available now on vinyl and download (lossless on Bandcamp), it is highly recommended. I caught up with Gwenifer a week after the album release to discuss the musician’s life in lockdown and other less topical matters. JK
Is this record a product of lockdown?
I’d written the whole thing before lockdown kicked off, I was booked into a studio then lockdown happened, so I ended up recording it from my flat. All of the songs are pre lockdown so musically speaking they’re not a reaction to the situation
I suppose most of your songs are morose anyway so it doesn’t really make that much difference!
Yeah, they’re all pre mandatory lockdown.
What did you use to record it with?
Guitar wise I played my Waterloo WL14L and I had an AKG 414 mic and a couple of Rode stereo matched pair NT5s on a wide pan.
A bit like the concert? (Raymond played the new album live on YouTube on the day of its release)
In the concert I just used the AKG 414.
It sounded pretty good for YouTube.
Obviously it’s pretty badly compressed but if you put it through OBS, a bit of streaming software you can plugin, you can have some nice EQ and reverb.
What did you do over lockdown?
I got lots of practice, my guitar sits next to me and there’s less people to complain when I start doing solos than there is in the office. And fiddle playing, I’ve started playing that.
What have you been listening to?
Bits and pieces, I’m always a bit all over the place, I like to find new stuff all the time so I have strange listening habits of going down rabbit holes of things, so no one specific. I like digging through strange playlists, I’m a big fan of Numero Group, an American label, they put out represses usually of quite rare stuff and a lot of private press. Pretty interesting stuff. Private press country music or weird deep soul cuts.
Is that ton Spotify?
It is yeah.
It’s a whole new approach to listening for those of us brought up on albums, do you listen to albums?
I should recommend people buy albums, I do listen to whole albums but I’m awful with just being on Spotify all the time.
This albums sounds quite different to the last one, did it come from a different place?
I think so, I think my listening habits prior to the album did go a little bit avant garde compositionally. I had to compose a piece of music to live score an old French silent film and that basically resulted in the Three Deaths of Red Spectre. Because it was a live score it was longer and more compositional with movements, so telling more of a narrative rather than being traditional. At the time that was the my favourite track I’d ever written, from there I started to explore that kind of territory a bit more.
Which composer is the Eulogy for a dead French Composer for?
It’s Eric Satie who I’m very, very obsessed with, he did everything. He’s one of those guys where it’s almost clichéd because it’s so over used but people use it because he’s such a guaranteed emotional hit, that’s how fucking incredible his compositions are.
Gwenifer Raymod, phtotograh: Jinwoo
I read that Gwaed am Gwaed meant blood on blood, is that true?
Blood for Blood.
Was that just a good sounding title or is there more to it than that?
I have a problem with titles because obviously my songs aren’t really about anything but often times a phrase just comes to mind, that sums up what I think the song sounds like, and that one occurred very quickly on composing the opening bit of the song, so it must be meaningful somehow to me.
Do you speak Welsh?
Yeah, I went to a Welsh language school, I’ve been living in England for eight years now so it’s really rusty but I was fluent many years ago.
I hear a bit of Jimmy Page in some of your songs, is that likely?
I don’t listen to much Jimmy Page to be honest so I couldn’t tell you. I know the Zeppelin hits but my knowledge of him is somewhat thin. Didn’t they nick all their riffs off of old blues musicians, and that I listen to an awful lot of.
Is Garth Mountain in the album title the same as Garth Hill near Cardiff?
It’s Garth Mountain man, why is everyone calling it something else? When I was a kid it was Garth mountain, I’m not down with this rebranding!
Did you live near there?
I grew up in a little village called Taffs Well which is right under Garth mountain, I went to school in Gwaelod y Garth which means bottom of the Garth. So it was pretty much the first thing I’d see when I left my house.
I presume you haven’t been able to play with your rock band for a while, is that something you’ve been missing?
Yeah totally, it’s been an absolute bummer, I miss bashing my drums quite a lot, it’s actually one of my favourite things. I’ve played guitar in many bands in my day but in my current one I play drums, which is quite nice. It’s nice to not be in charge, that was the thing with playing guitar in a band, I get really bossy which is how I ended up being a solo guitar player. It’s nice to not be the one in charge.
I can hear some Spanish influence on the album, is that a coincidence?
I don’t go out of my way to try and do stuff or listen to stuff specifically but obviously I’ve heard plenty of Spanish guitar, Portuguese guitar. I know the track you mean, 3am in Marseille which has a very Spanish sound to it.
Do you have a favourite John Fahey album or track?
My favourite album is America, but my favourite track is off of Requia, it’s Requiem for John Hurt.
You are wearing a dress on the album cover which doesn’t seem like your style, was that to add an element of the gothic?
Yeah you know, it’s something to do, I was just trying to do a shocking cover and nothing’s as shocking as me in a dress!
What’s your preferred guitar, what do you normally play?
These days I play my Waterloo WL14L, they’re just great guitars. I’ve always played vintage ones but when you start touring and gigging more seriously and you start chucking guitars in the back of vans and planes it becomes a paranoid thing, so I wanted to find one that had a suitable tone in that style but had modern build quality. Waterloo make proper pre-war sounding small bodied guitars but with modern build, they’re tough.
I guess you’re hoping to play live again next year?
I have a gig that’s rescheduled to February, but it might not happen, maybe in the spring it might start happening again.
Would you consider playing purely acoustic, without amplification?
I have done it, but it’s hard because you’ve got to have the right room, I’d play a big old church that could be pretty cool but I’ve played in venues before where it’s been not that large and there were lots of soft furnishings and it doesn’t sound good, so it needs to be somewhere live sounding.
Gwenifer Raymond is scheduled to play Islington Assembly Hall on February 10th, 2021