Interview: Twm Morys (Bob Delyn a'r' Ebillion)
Poet and frontman of the Welsh-language folk rock band Bob Delyn a'r' Ebillion sat down with us to talk about the music of Brittany and Wales, the inspiration he takes from Welsh poetry and verse, the revival of Welsh culture and language, as well as the difficulties it still faces.
“[Bretons] are like a Welsh tree planted on the continent, it shot up with slightly strange fruit on it, but [it's] still recognisable"
Imagine you’ve ventured to a new land in search of a new life, and once you arrive, something seems askew. The place in which you’ve landed is suitably different from where you left; the deep valleys, dramatic mountains, and ancient castles of your homeland have all been exchanged for pretty fishing villages, ornate orchards, and a rugged pink granite coastline. Instead of quenching your thirst at the local pub with a nice pint of Guinness, you follow up your freshly brewed cider or red wine with a trip to the crêperie for a galette. There is, however, one inescapable reminder of home and its culture. “Imagine you talk to a fisherman or a farmer from Grimsby maybe, interesting; but imagine talking to that farmer, or especially a fisherman in a language that is like your own but has medieval grammar. Everything is wacky, everything is glowing, as if you were on a drug.” This was the experience of Welsh singer and poet, Twm Morys, who spent time as a young man living in Brittany, the experience above being due to Breton’s similarity to Medieval Welsh, which he initially found rather unusual. Having come to stay in Brittany assuming that the two cultures were somewhat distinct, he soon realised that they weren’t “distant cousins”, and that the links between the two Celtic nations were much stronger than anticipated, bonded by linguistic similarity.
The Bob Delyn a’r’ Ebillion frontman grew up in Llanystumdwy, a predominately Welsh-speaking village in Northern Wales > north Wales, very close to Cricieth, from where he spoke to us via video conference. He came from a literary family, and as the son of well-regarded travel writer and author Jan Morris, Morys was exposed to a wide variety of ideas and music, from Wales as well as lands further afield. One notable example he remembered was when musician and future President of Wales’ foremost pro-independence party Plaid Cymru, Dafydd Iwan, came to stay at their house in 1970 upon the invite of Morris. Iwan, back then part of a nascent Welsh culture revivalist movement, had been imprisoned for three months after refusing to pay fines that were imposed on him for defacing English-language road signs in Wales, which itself was a protest against the suppression of the Welsh language by the English. “[He was] part of kind of a European movement, to protest against things that were unfair in everybody’s society, and in our society, it took the form of our culture and language being suppressed.”
After the protests of the 1970s subsided, Iwan and Morys’ paths would cross again in the future, this time in a musical capacity. Iwan had started a Welsh-language record label named Sain, to which Bob Delyn a’r’ Ebillion were signed and released their albums. Iwan’s influence on Morys was not only musical, but political as well, and though his songs were not overtly political, they could always be interpreted in that way. The climate of Welsh nationalism and cultural revival reverberated across the wide open fields and deep valleys, and for someone whose family was so involved in it, Morys could not help but be moulded by these ideas, particularly those surrounding the importance of keeping the Welsh language alive. In the 1950s and ‘60s, there was a general sense of fear that was promulgated by prominent Welsh cultural and political figures that the Welsh language was on its way to extinction. Morys mentioned the famed poet and political activist Saunders Lewis who gave an influential radio speech named ‘Tynged yr Iaith’, meaning ‘the fate of the language’, in which, according to Morys, he warned that “if something wasn’t done very quickly, then by the next century there would be no Welsh.” As Morys himself notes, we are now in the next century from when Lewis was speaking and the Welsh language is surviving, but its future is still insecure.
Morys analysed the current state of affairs thusly: “We have Welsh education, we have a Welsh senate, we have all sorts of advantages now for the Welsh language, but on the other hand, if it is not supported by the normal people in normal jobs, the mechanics, or people out of work or whatever, if it is not supported by them, it means nothing.” Like any artist worth their salt, Morys balances both a sense of optimism and hope for the future whilst also drawing on the fears of the present and the pain of the past. “At the moment I feel that we are in a very, very big crisis, but it doesn’t mean to say we are not going to sing anymore because we are part of the resistance.” Morys has perhaps passed on the mantle of resistance through music specifically to a younger generation, as Morys focuses much of his time on poetry, academic work, and political projects. He mentioned to us a band named The Barry Horns, whose song Cymru Rydd was recently banned from being performed on S4C television, as an example of music still pushing boundaries.
In some senses, Morys has always been an outsider from the mainstream Welsh music scenes. In his youth, he avoided the traditional Welsh choirs that many of his generation participated in, due to his dislike of discipline. “You have to keep at it and go to bloody practices all the time, and you can’t sit around smoking weed and drinking wine… it’s a very different type of discipline which I’ve never been attracted to. But I like to hear them very much.” His instinct of non-conformity continues into the very fact that Morys and his band members are barely considered to be a Welsh folk act by many purists due to their instinct to play around with the form. That said, Bob Delyn a’r’ Ebillion began as a folk outfit, and the folk music of Wales and Brittany still informs their music. Morys recalled being invited in their early days as a band to accompany a folk dance, in which the dancers “had a book among them which they tried to look at, as they turned around slowly, in which there were the steps of the dance”. This rather upset Morys’ rockier sensibilities as he was asked to “slow down the music as if we were walking through some bog or something” because the dancers had no spontaneity due to that aspect of the culture being lost.
This was one aspect that Morys impressed upon us when discussing the differences between Welsh and Breton cultures today. By hook or by crook, the Welsh managed to keep their language, yet some cultural aspects such as dance had proven harder to preserve, whilst the opposite had happened in Brittany. “If you go to Brittany to a fest-noz, which is a night dance in which they have traditional musicians, very loud, very quick and very alive indeed. You get hundreds of people dancing and that is something they have done since they were children very naturally without thinking.” He continued by explaining, “that is nothing to do with language, you know, because those people might not even speak Breton, because they have inherited everything else as their culture. In our culture those things disappeared, but we kept the language, to us that is what is important because you can, with difficulty, resurrect a dance if you really want to, but it is very difficult to resurrect the language and everything else that involves, the history behind the language, the meaning of a place, the meaning of the name of the field, that is minute, that is impossible to resurrect.”
Morys went on to inform us that the Breton language is currently “in a very bad way”, and it is considered a language in danger of extinction by UNESCO. The singer attributed this state of affairs to the fact that the older generation focussed more on passing on “their aptitude for dance and music”. The only form in which many young Bretons know their language is through music, which is not enough for general use. It is this music that Morys occasionally mines for inspiration, and is able to speak Breton not only because of the time he spent living there, but also due the huge similarities between the two Celtic languages, and the rhythm of Breton music sharing a similarity with Welsh poetry, with which he is very familiar. The music itself, however, is still very distinct, and he rejects any notions of shared tunes. “It is claimed that there are a lot of tunes that are common to both countries, I don’t believe that, I did a lot of research upon that. That was a kind of early Victorian romanticism… there was a lot of invention and embellishment that happened.”
Morys’ discoveries about the differences between his native music culture and that of his continental cousins came mostly through his close relationship with the musical family of his then-partner and former Bob Delyn member Nolwenn Korbell, who is Breton. Her mother is the folk singer Andrea ar Gouilh, and he was also fortunate enough to get to know renowned harpist Alain Stivell. Breton music has a rather big sound that is reliant on loud, brash instruments such as the bombard, a type of reed instrument. According to Morys, it is not particularly tuneful in general, however its appeal lies elsewhere, in creating a drone for the music. “If you tune your ears into the drone behind the song, instead of listening to the song, you will hear it change colour. It is a strange thing to say, but because of the interaction with that one note with three different chords, it changes colour and that has an influence on the whole sound, on the whole bit of music.”
Other Celtic music traditions from Scotland, Cornwall, Ireland, and the so-called seventh Celtic nation Galicia, have not formed part of Morys’ music repertoire, by deliberate exclusion. He laughed off our suggestion of any musical similarities between Wales and Galicia by describing them “as similar as a teapot and a tortoise”, but he acknowledges the pipe music connection between Galicia and Brittany. When it comes to Scottish and Irish music, again Morys decided long ago not to take inspiration from those nations. He recounted us with the fact that there are many people who play Irish fiddle music in Welsh pubs “relentlessly”, and while he appreciates the music, stating that it is “wonderful”, it is of course not traditionally Welsh. Though it did end up influencing the Welsh folk scene, Morys considers it to be “mostly Irish type music”, and he wished to be separate from that. He continued by saying, wagging his finger jokingly as he did so, “apart from a couple of individual tunes, you will not find anything Irish or Scots in the music of Bob Delyn a’r' Ebillion. Breton, yes. Irish, Scots, no.” However, our line of questioning was not without merit, as to untrained ears such as ours, tracks such as Ffair y Bala do have pipes on them. They are, however, Breton pipes, not Scottish or Galician ones.
Despite their later successes dipping their toes into the world of Breton music as well as rock music, the band started out life as a folk outfit. Developing their style out of busking, they had what Morys dubs “true folkies” playing with them, though Morys and guitarist Gorwel Roberts wanted to move on from just folk music. At this point they were still without a permanent name, until they came up with the name Bob Delyn a’r' Ebillion. The logic behind the name came as part of a wave of bands wishing to parody famous American or English artists, and Bob Delyn, whilst also sounding like the name of a particular American folk singer (not Joni Mitchell), it also means Robert the Harp in Welsh, and ‘ebillion’ means harp pegs, among other things. Morys elaborated that “it also means a carpentry tool, and it also means the male sexual member, so ebillion is full of all sorts of meanings. And it was shortly after that that the folkies decided to leave us, and set us free from the shackles of boring folksiness, and we shot away, began flying with our own interpretations.”
This is where Morys’ other passion for poetry really came to the fore. He is the former Welsh Children’s Poet Laureate, a National Eisteddfod winner of the Chair, and is the editor of the Welsh poetry magazine Barddas. His musical interests remained a mixture of Welsh and Breton folk combined with rock and other genres, but lyrically Morys has always looked further afield for inspiration, often leaning back on the great wealth of Welsh verse that exists. He taught us about the customs in centuries gone by where Welsh people, after a hard week’s work on the farms, would come together and sing about their life, composing verses as they did so. “They couldn’t read or write, maybe, but they could [compose and] sing”, Morys stated, and many of those verses which have remained have now been recorded again and again. When we asked him why he kept on going back to these verses, he elucidated that they are full of “images which are metaphors for their experience” and as such are “good material to make new things out of, because those images still are very colourful and vibrant today, and their meaning has changed a little bit because our experience is different to theirs, but all their experience of life is in common with ours”.
Explaining his process, the poet explained that he seeks out a verse that helps him say what is on his mind. It is at this point where he implements his own judgement on how to use it. “I might use that verse exactly as it is, or I might change it, or I might steal an image from it, or it might itself disappear, leaving a thought or a feeling or a style, and that’s how I usually go about writing a song.” Even if their style has changed and evolved over time, what remains constant in Bob Delyn a’r' Ebillion’s music is the origin of the material. In terms of those moments in which Morys feels like he has something important to say, his inspiration is often drawn from the ground beneath his feet. Though halted by the pandemic, Morys has been fortunate enough to travel all across Wales, and get to know his country intimately. What differentiates Wales and Brittany in terms of culture unites them in breath-taking landscape, serving Morys with ample material to be guided by.
Though of course an accomplished musician, Morys does not see himself in the vein of many rock stars and musical performers. As lyrics are at the centre of what he does, he takes more inspiration from musical behemoth Leonard Cohen, who was himself also a poet. What keeps Morys motivated was the longevity of Cohen’s career, as though he does not arrogantly believe himself to be on the same level as Canada’s most famous son, he does believe that the quality and timbre of one’s voice plays second fiddle to the words themselves. He pondered, “it doesn’t involve necessarily being a young rock star because it’s another kind of performance, and you can be in a wheelchair - I hope anyway because I’m not far from that stage now! – and still continue.”
On a musical level, the band is rather eclectic, mainly due to the varied selection of talented musicians who play with them. Morys mentioned his woodwind wingman Edwin Humphries, who, according to Morys, can play “any wind instrument you might like to name”. An accomplished jazz musician, as well as a psychiatric nurse who uses music in his therapy, he started his career in the army. It was there where he learned to play music, as well as where he honed his renegade nature, breaking all the rules that the army had to offer. He was eventually expelled from the army for being “undisciplinable, and refusing to put ammunition in his gun, and also, I’m afraid, being stoned out of his head on parade.” This maverick attitude has continued with his work with Bob Delyn a'r' Ebillion, as he often adds a jazz “sprinkling on top of the sound”. The band also worked with Gorwel Owen, who went on to produce the Super Furry Animals, and it was with him that they honed their sound, using folk and rock techniques. As such, Morys believes that their music cannot strictly be classified as folk rock. “It’s something else. The basis of it is folk, I would say, but it has all sorts of hats on and puts on strange jackets now and then.”
When focussing on his career as a poet, Morys’ vision to keep making music never died, and was merely on a long hiatus for practical and personal reasons. Between the release of Dore and the release of Dal I 'Redig Dipyn Bach in 2017, 14 years had passed, mainly due to the fact that the band got older, started having children and other responsibilities. As he put it, making an album means absence from the duties of life, and your mind is always on the making of the album, and if it is not, the album becomes a mess. “I don’t like that very much, an album it seems to me should be one project, and hang together well,” he explained. “And so, the undertaking of an album is a big thing which is difficult when you’ve just had a child, or that kind of thing, and it’s as simple as that. And I think it happens to many bands.”
The band themselves have not played during the past two years when, as Morys puts it, “everybody has been in their own tin can,” but as they were due to play a television gig, he has been in the process of getting the band back together. Morys is on vocals, and the aforementioned Humphries is on wind, and Roberts is on guitar. Einir Griffiths, Humphries’ wife, is on backing vocals, and Nicolas de Balan is their bass guitarist from Brittany. Their drummer, Rhydwen Michell, lives in the middle of nowhere according to Morys, and jokes that he hasn’t spoken to him for around two decades. They have been asked to perform their biggest hit Trên Bach y Sgwarnogod, which means ‘little train of the hares’, on a music show for S4C. In a Kurt Cobain-esque manner, Morys has little regard for their biggest hit. With a wry smile, he called it “a nonsense song, it means nothing at all, we made it in about five minutes, but I’m afraid it is the only song that we will ever be remembered for when we’re all dead, which is a pretty embarrassing and miserable fate.”
Despite being slightly self-deprecating at the prospect at being remembered for a fairly frivolous ditty, Morys was able to reflect back upon a time in which an unlikely set of audience members managed to really enjoy his band’s performance, which happened when they were playing at a festival in a field in Ffostrasol, a small village in the south of Ceredigion. “We were playing there, and we came off the stage, and a couple came up to us who were from Norway, and they’d flown to some airport in England, and made their way to the middle of the fields in Ffostrasol because they thought that Bob Dylan was playing! But instead of being angry and resentful, they were delighted because they hadn’t heard of Wales before or the Welsh language. They liked the music, they made friends, and they had a very good time.” While this anecdote is an amusing one, it has a more serious point connected to it, in that it demonstrates how the music of another culture can be easily accessible and understood by someone from a completely different place who speaks a completely different language, and thus why it is so important for the Welsh language to thrive through song, poetry, and culture.