Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Arts & Culture

Lisa Jen's Otherworldly Sound In Welsh With 'Tincian'



Those are the opening notes of an album released this week that has a dark and atmospheric sound and a human voice that seems otherworldly.


SIMON: That's Lisa Jen, singing in her native Welsh language with her band 9Bach. Their new album is called "Tincian." That's the Welsh word, not the English one, for where you can store baked beans. Lisa Jen joins us from the studios of the BBC Wales in Bangor. Thanks very much for being with us.

LISA JEN: Oh, pleasure. I'm delighted.

SIMON: Why was it important to you to sing in Welsh?

JEN: You know, people don't realize that the Welsh language exists. Some people in England are a bit ignorant. And I don't mean that in a cross way or in - I'm not judging them. But there is a lack of understanding. There is a lack of knowledge that Welsh is a living, thriving language. So it's my mother tongue. It's my first language. I didn't speak English really until, you know, there was no need to speak English.

And all my education has been done through the medium of Welsh. My science, my mathematics, even my French lessons have been done through the medium of Welsh. So I didn't, you know, I didn't actually sit down and go - oh, let's make a Welsh album. You know, it's just in me. You know, that's my - it's my - I dream in Welsh, you know. I can't even speak English to my dog. You know, that's how instinctive it is. (Welsh spoken) That means sit down, sit down. (Welsh spoken).

SIMON: (Laughter) And I'm sitting, in fact.

JEN: Excellent.

SIMON: See, it works. Out of curiosity, how do you say like bonjour in Welsh-French?

JEN: (Welsh spoken).

SIMON: (Laughter) No way. But that's hello.

JEN: Let me give you a little Welsh lesson here.

SIMON: All right, please.

JEN: If you imagine the English alphabet...

SIMON: Yeah.

JEN: ...So you know that I'm sure. Well, the Welsh alphabet is (reciting Welsh alphabet).

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. Let's listen to some of your music - a song that I gather is your traditional Welsh folk song, but hardly done, I think, in the traditional manner, "Pa Le?"


SIMON: What can you tell us about the song?

JEN: Well, this song is, like you said, a traditional folk song and it means - (speaking Welsh) - means which place is my loved one? So it's this girl that's like staring out of the window going where is he? Where is he? You know, the cloud is starting to cover the moon. It's getting dark. It's getting late. You know, where is he?

And then at the end, she sings about how the Earth by the church has turned red, which to me implies that he died there or the fact that it's turned red to me implies blood. And so that's the drama in it. So the loved one never comes back. And lots of traditional folk songs - Welsh folk songs - they're very dark, which I love.


SIMON: Your grandmother used to sing and used to teach you songs.

JEN: Yes, but very rude songs - nothing, you know, traditional or anything like that. I don't come from a musical family at all, actually. I would love to say that my grandmother passed on her amazing gift of Welsh folk singing to me, but she didn't. She was just very rude and making, you know, very dirty little poems up. So, I -

SIMON: (Laughter) She sounds like a generally great grandmother.

JEN: Oh, she's amazing - she was amazing. And she was such a good friend. But she lived in the village of Bethesda, which is right in the Snowdonia Mountians in the Snowdonia National Park. And although I've lived in London and lived in Cardiff and I've traveled the world, but I've found myself back home with my English husband and my two kids and my dog and my cats living back in my old grandmother's house.

SIMON: Oh. And I gather the name of your band, "9Bach," is kind of a tribute your grandmother.

JEN: Kind of. Nain, which is spelled N-A-I-N, means grandmother. And so bach means small and we use bach - it's a term of endearment as well. So it literally means small grandmother.

SIMON: You're from the north of Wales, I gather.

JEN: I am from the north of Wales.

SIMON: Mountains and mining, right?

JEN: Yes.

SIMON: Well, let me ask you - you have a song on this CD about a quarryman.

JEN: Yes. It's called "Ffarwel," which means farewell, I guess, goodbye. And he's leaving the quarry for the last time.


JEN: This quarry, called the Penderyn quarry, used to be the biggest quarry in the world. And it has the - where they striked in the 1900s for three years. And so people in my village, women and children, starved because men would not cross that picket line. And so that still resonates in my village now. My grandfather worked in the quarry - my uncle, their father. And so it's still a working quarry. Only about 200 people work there now. And the slate is very famous slate.

And it gets shipped all over the world. And this dominates my eye line. You know, I see it every day. And it's both beautiful and also very ugly at the same time. But there's history there. There's stories there. And this particular song is sung by a quarryman that's leaving it for the last time, whether it's due to the strike or whether he's just with old age. However, it's very very sad. And he misses - he's going to miss the banter.

He's going to miss the singing, because they would all clustered together on their lunch breaks and just sing. And you could hear it all up the mountains, you know, these male voice singing in their lunch break, you know. He's going to miss that. He's going to miss his tools. And he's going to miss the banter with the boys.


JEN: The male voice choir is an acquired taste. Most people are going to love a male voice choir, but some people aren't. And I decided it was interesting. It was essential for me to have those - that male presence within the song of the ancestors of the quarrymen. And I composed that song in my local chapel. Because I was - I just wanted almost like permission that it was OK for me to say their story, you know.

SIMON: Yeah.

JEN: And nothing fell on my head and no bad sign, so the vibes were good.


SIMON: You're on tour this month in Wales and the UK.

JEN: Yes.

SIMON: What's the reaction like when you sing in Welsh?

JEN: It's no reaction, I guess. You know, in a way the people - I don't think, because it's quite music. You lock into the music. You kind of zone-out of the words, in a way, so the language doesn't become a barrier at all. But usually people say that our music is quite hypnotic...

SIMON: Yeah.

JEN: ...Puts them in a trance.

SIMON: Oh, it sure is. Yeah.

JEN: But we generally - we go down quite well. So let's hope we'll do with this tour.

SIMON: Lisa Jen from the group 9Bach. Their new album is "Tincian." She joins us from the studios of the BBC in Bangor, Wales. Thanks so much. Good luck to you.

JEN: Thank you so much. Lovely to talk to you.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.