Huw Stephens On The Heart And Soul Of Welsh Music

CLASH speaks to the broadcaster ahead of his new book...

Although Wales: 100 Records is his first book, writing courses through Huw Stephens’ blood. In their Welsh homeland, his father Meic is a celebrated author and intellectual who coined the famous phrase ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’. As a quick but hopefully illuminating aside: ‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ translates into English as ‘Remember Tryweryn’ and alludes to the deeply contentious damming of the Tryweryn river in the early-sixties to create a reservoir to supply Liverpool. The phrase has gone on to become an important slogan in the Welsh nationalist movement.

As this history shows, alongside writing, an ability to capture the tenor of feeling in their home country is a part of the Stephens DNA. It wouldn’t be a stretch to call Huw Stephens Welsh music’s most important figure of the post-millenium era. Beyond his prolific radio presence, where he frequently champions Welsh music on his 6Music show, Huw also founded Cardiff’s Swn Festival and the Welsh Music Prize and frequently hosts music and culture documentaries on the Welsh-language channel S4C

To add to this list, Wales: 100 Records marks his debut as an author. The coffee table-style book is a breezy, fun and insightful tour through a hundred key releases (mostly albums, along with a couple of singles and compilations) in the Welsh music canon. It’s a guide that has been a long time coming. “I first contacted the publishers eight years ago,” Huw explains. “I’d been thinking about it for a decade. It’s taken a while, but it’s the book I’d always wished existed.”

Relative to other, similar-sized regions, the literature on Wales’ music history is a little thin. There’s biographies of some of the big names and plenty on the country’s famous folk tradition, but not a lot documenting the myriad branches of its popular music story. In regards to English-language books on Welsh-language music (of which Huw’s book features countless underheard gems, alongside copious English-language greats), those are practically non-existent. “The story of Welsh-language music should have been told more frequently,” laments Huw. “I realised that I’d never read about people like Geraint Jarman and even Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci in English before.” 

Wales: 100 Records is published by Y Lolfa; a West Walian publishing house founded in 1967. Huw’s father actually worked with them on several books. “They have a long history of working with musicians,” explains Huw. “My editor called this her ‘dream book’ to work on. She actually learned Welsh after being inspired by the Super Furry Animals, then moved to Wales to work for Y Lolfa.”

Huw and Y Lolfa’s ambition is visible from the off, via some big name quotes that open the book. These supportive blurbs come from the likes of Manic Street Preachers’ Nicky Wire, Catatonia vocalist (and fellow 6Music host) Cerys Matthews and, fabulously, Sir Tom Jones. Huw explains: “I reached out to Tom’s son and manager Mark and they responded saying they found it really interesting. He’s been mates with Elvis and Sinatra but is also a global ambassador for Wales, so I hope he enjoyed reading about the likes of Funeral For A Friend and Astroid Boys.”

Following this introductory praise, Wales: 100 Records jumps straight into an eclectic range of music. The book’s structure eschews chronological or genre categorisation, instead bouncing between styles and sounds with intuitive abandon, or, as Huw puts its; according to his “gut instinct.” For example, the first three inclusions are Stereophonics’ post-britpop classic ‘Word Gets Around’, Meredydd Evans’ 1954 acclaimed ‘Welsh Folk-Songs’ and Kelly Lee Owens’ 2020 electronica masterclass ‘Inner Song’. It’s a bit like being taken on a guided tour of Huw’s amazing record collection.

He continues: “I’m not strictly saying these are the hundred definitive records from Wales, there’s plenty that aren’t in there. But I went with a hundred that I thought were interesting.” Huw’s being a touch modest. His hundred records are consistently fascinating, rife with classics and impressively jump through history, casting back right to the depths of the 20th century and into the 21st with releases by contemporary acts like Mace The Great, H. Hawkline and Minas. 

Due to the simple fact that there’s more music than ever being made today, did he ever worry about recency bias affecting his inclusions? “I could have written a book looking at the last 20 or so years quite easily,” Huw answers. “But I definitely wanted this to look at the past because some of the music will be new to people, but there’ll also be people picking up the book who were there when Badfinger or Man or Amen Corner started. I didn’t want it to be an age-limiting book.”

The book also takes one or two intriguing detours into releases by non-Welsh-born musicians. There’s Public Service Broadcasting’s ‘Every Valley’, US singer and activist Paul Robeson’s collaboration with the Treorchy Male Voice Choir and ‘Of Snowdonia’ by L.A.-based beatmaker Daedulus, who has long expressed a fascination with Wales. Huw delights in drawing links between these artists, such as Daedulus’ association with Madlib, who appears in the book because he sampled Cardiff post-punks Young Marble Giants.

Huw is also commendably keen to show how “music from Wales can, did and is constantly travelling.” Given that there’s been a long history of Wales being painted (and occasionally coming across) as inward-looking, it’s refreshing to hear such a major figure in Welsh culture describe the country in the opposite terms. “You look at the international collaboration albums in the book,” he elaborates. There’s Carwyn Ellis in Brazil, The Gentle Good working in India, Catrin Finch working with Seckou Keita from Senegal; music knows no boundaries.”

To go into too many more details, such as why certain albums by key acts were included, would spoil some of the pleasures of Wales: 100 Records. There’s no shame in admitting that part of the fun of picking up a book like this is having an internal debate with yourself or others about whether or not x album by x band was the correct one to include. All that remains to be said is that, for Welsh music fans, it’s a simply essential read that functions as an important and accessible ethnomusicological study of a country whose music culture is in a constant state of change, which is perhaps why it hasn’t always been documented as well as it could have been.

“Some of these records sold millions, some sold a hundred, but they’re all incredible beacons of light,” Huw poetically explains. “I’m using ‘record’ in the title not just in terms of physical music but also as a record of the stories of these artists and Wales’ story. I hope it helps examine why this music exists.”

Order Wales: 100 Records online. Catch Huw Stephens on 6Music – visit BBC Sounds for past shows. Find the best in new Welsh music in our monthly column Played Cymru.

Words: Tom Morgan

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