Go west and you’ll find a land of melodious joy. The music there is bold and beautiful, the language round and ripe. But Wales is not as sunny as Brazil, despite its odd bouts of tywydd hufen iâ – that’s “ice cream weather” to you and to Carwyn Ellis. The man behind Colorama, and more recently collaborations with Saint Etienne, Edwyn Collins and touring with The Pretenders, has gone off-piste with his new album, the glorious Joia! It takes his Welsh language to Rio, where it found a happy home with a Brazilian band, who we now call Rio 18.
Born and brought up on both sides of the Welsh borders and then in Anglesey, Carwyn struck up a friendship with Chrissie Hynde since he joined The Pretenders in 2016. In Brazil for tour dates in February 2018, Chrissie talked to Carwyn about some Brazilian musicians she’d worked with in the early 2000s, including producer and composer Alexandre Kassin, who fortuitously came to the UK that June to promote his recent solo album, and play gigs.
She arranged a meeting and suggested they work together. “It was deeply impractical, and not something I’d have dreamed of doing. She said, ‘You’re going to make a Welsh album with a Brazilian band – it’ll blow people’s minds!’, and we thought it was a brilliant idea. We were both, ‘Yes, Miss.’ I’m so glad she did that.”
Carwyn had long been a fan of Brazilian music, getting into bossa nova and Tropicalia through his partner Maki’s record collection twenty years ago, before starting to crate-dig across countries and genres himself, so this project made sense. He’d even recorded a song called Sarafa for 2011’s Welsh language album Llyfr Lliwio, named after a cult 1972 film about Brazilian music. After Chrissie’s exhortations, Kassin and Ellis swapped emails and chatted, then briefly lost touch; then in October, Kassin asked Ellis if he was free in three weeks. Percussionists Domenico Lancellotti and Andre Siqueira and electric guitarist Manoel Cordeiro were also along for the ride.
“I’ve never made a record being so unprepared before,” Carwyn boggles. “I didn’t have any songs so I had to write them there and then.” It’s a record about identity in some ways, he says – he’s someone whose Welsh language but upbringing on the English borders has always made him feel he slips and slides between places. It’s also about how people from very different places achieve an easy musical communion. “When I went over, I gave the musicians only rough shapes, and we played – and somehow it worked.” And work gorgeously it does, on a record full of life, spontaneity and the spirit of its title writ large.
Joia! means “enjoy” in Welsh, but it’s also an old-fashioned slang word in Portuguese meaning “groovy”. On Joia!, every song is different, which is fitting: Carwyn doesn’t like to repeat himself. “I never liked albums all set in one mood,” he explains. “I like Beastie Boys’ records which are trying lots of different things, or albums like [The Beatles’] Revolver, where you have a Stax rip-off, a waltz, then something with tapes going backwards that’s totally new.” The initial recording for Joia! was made in Rio de Janeiro with the Brazilian band, and it was finished off in Sain studios in Caernarfon. Backing vocals come from Nina Miranda and from Elan Rhys and Marged Rhys, from the groups Plu and Bendith, with added harp from Georgia Ruth, flugel horn from Gwion Llewelyn with added production by Aled Wyn Hughes. Recording was bookended by sessions in London, with production from Shawn Lee (Saint Etienne, Kelis, Zero 7), who also adds drums and percussion.
The songs worked out fine, too. Unman [Nowhere] is Carwyn’s glorious attempt to write “a Welsh Road To Nowhere in a cumbia style”, cumbia being a Colombian working-class style of music big on the borders of North Brazil. Manoel Cordeiro’s guitarist soars here. “He’s this incredibly unique dude from the rural Amazon essentially making his own brand of surf music. He’s amazing!” Tywydd Hufen Iâ [Ice Cream Weather] was inspired by a phrase Carwyn heard a woman say to her partner on a sunny morning alongside Cardiff’s River Taff, as he walked on his morning constitutional. “I hurried to get my phone to write that down.” The results are appropriately cool and delicious.
Dant Melys is a perky piece of bubblegum pop, which works well given that its title means “sweet tooth” (an affliction which Carwyn says he’s often struck down by). Duwies Y Dre [Goddess Of The Town] is the story of a crush Carwyn had on a girl in Bangor in his mid-teens: he’s never written about her before. “I never even spoke to her – she rendered me mute. Given I was an undateable dopehead, it was probably for the best.” Gwen [Smile] is the album’s “daft, happy song”, while Olion [Traces] is more melancholically personal, about postcards Carwyn’s paternal great-grandmother wrote to her parents in the early 1900s when she was in hospital recovering from TB. Carwyn’s aunt and uncle found them recently, and brought them to show their nephew. “Some of them are very sad. They reminded me how quickly someone’s memories disappear, for us to find only traces of them later.”
Carwyn covers more modern subjects on his songs too. Ymosodwyr Anweledig [Invisible Attackers] is an ever-so slightly sinister finger-clicker about internet trolls, before Hen Beth Cas [Nasty Business] takes us back to an old Welsh exclamation of his grandmother’s, transported to slinkier climes (and crimes). Then we return to Brazil in more ways than one with Undiù, the only non-Welsh title here: this is Carwyn’s jubilant cover of João Gilberto’s 1973 instrumental.
Then we finish with more joy on Diolch Amdani, which takes Carwyn back to where this project started – and to the duwies who made him do it. Diolch Amdani, he says, smiling broadly, means “thanks to her”. “We were laughing making it in the studio, nearly in tears,” he grins. “All going, ‘Chrissie will hate this’. And she would: she wouldn’t expect thanks, but I mean it, so that’s just how it is!” It’s not a love song, but it’s a lovely song, he adds. And it is, finishing the album with a bright grateful glow, transporting us across oceans, across continents, from Cymru to Brazil and back again, the tywydd hufen iâ blazing on.
– Jude Rogers, Spring 2019