Gwenifer Raymond: Carving a Niche for Herself on the American Primitive Landscape

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Photo by Jimmy Guest

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 7

Instrumentalist, Gwenifer Raymond, is a masterful storyteller. Hailing from England by way of Wales, Raymond’s sound is deeply rooted in Appalachian folk, American Primitive, as well as grunge and punk rock with a spin that is entirely her own. She has a fierce playing style that is at once raw, powerful, and moody. Her latest release You Never Were Much of a Dancer highlights her talent for telling stories through melody.

Raymond filled us in on her early influences, creative process, how she creates such beautiful stories with her guitar, and what’s next on the horizon.

Tell me a little about your musical background. Who were your influences? What drew you to playing music?
When I was around eight or nine years old, I was a pretty typical eight or nine-year-old, meaning I had little to no real interest in music. I did, however, have a colorful little My First Sony Walkman that I used to listen to books on tape with. However, it was then that a significant moment in my life happened – my mum bought me a copy of Nirvana’s Nevermind on cassette tape. It’s hard to tell really what grabbed my child-brain about it, but I know that I spent weeks running around the house with my headphones on and the music at full blast. That same year I asked for a guitar for my birthday.

Now, is there a particular guitar you’re drawn to – in a general sense or at this moment?
I guess I generally like smaller-bodied guitars, so the nuances don’t get drowned out. I’ve always had an affinity for parlor guitars. The bulk of the album was recorded on a 1929 Bradley Kincaid Houn’ Dog. In an astoundingly generous act, I was also gifted an 1890 Joseph Bohmann model guitar by Henry Kaiser. It is stunningly beautiful sounding, and more than any other guitar I’ve played, it responds to where and how I attack it.

Basically, I tend to like guitars with a lot of character, and those tend to be vintage ones. At the moment, however, the realities of the road are that I need a good reliable hard-wearing guitar that can take its knocks, still sound great, and alleviate me of the worry of destroying a piece of history. With that in mind, I’ve recently started playing a new model Gibson LG-2, which is a nice small-bodied machine that happily provides a compromise for tone and function.

You grew up listening to punk and grunge. How did you come to be an artist playing American Primitive-style music? How did you discover Appalachian folk, and what drew you to it?
I’d say it probably stems from Nirvana again. Growing up, they remained my favorite band, and obviously, on that MTV Unplugged album where they famously covered Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” – that really kicked me off looking into pre-war blues music. On top of that, my parents’ record collection included a lot of the stuff from the 1960s Greenwich village scene – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and The Velvet Underground, which I also very much dug. Looking back into the influences of those guys, I saw a commonality there that they were also taking a lot from early American folk music. From there, I delved pretty heavy into blues guys like Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Blind Boy Fuller, and then also the Appalachian players like Roscoe Holcomb and Doc Boggs.

I’ve always dug music that skewed slightly left-field – outsiders who had their own offbeat energy. In my teenage years, I got really into bands like The Fall and Butthole Surfers, and when I listened to these other old weird sounds coming from long gone back-roads and way-out-there’s, it all just hit me in the gut in the same way. To me, [those artists] feel like they spiritually occupy the same plane.

Then, when I first heard [American fingerstyle guitarist] John Fahey, it felt like the same deal – some weirdo guy on the outskirts of everyone else, expressing some stuff that no one else could in a way that no one else could.

There’s a moody, haunting quality to your music, and I really enjoy all the songs on You Never Were Much of a Dancer. You very much tell a story with your music, which I think is amazing, especially in the absence of lyrics. How do you achieve that – is it conscious or does it just happen?
I think sometimes when you’re just playing whatever on your guitar, a riff will strike you like it’s the beginning of a thought that’s leading somewhere. You feel this itch to find out what else it wants to say, whereas other crummy riffs that won’t turn into something musically interesting don’t tend to do that. I think that’s a thing that happens because it’s just a manifestation of some subconscious feeling or emotion processing internally. Really, that’s the power of instrumental music – you don’t need to put words to it, so you’re immediately empowered to express something that is verbally inarticulable. I think the things that tend to be expressed are universal, so even though we may not be able to agree on the descriptive language, they sculpt the same landscape in our heads.

What is your creative process?
It’s kind of what I described above – I’ll play and play until something sticks. Usually, it’s just a short riff to begin with, and I’ll feel some immediate tug to go somewhere else with it. This tends to continue until I hit a roadblock where it’s obvious the song wants or needs to do something else, but I can’t quite figure out what. I have basically no musical theory, so I can’t intellectualize what might be clever in a musical sense. I might have an instinct as to what should follow, a sense for whether it should be something in harmony or disharmony or to suddenly bear off in an unexpected direction. From this, I might be able to compose something in a conscious way, but other times, the right notes will just materialize, and it’ll be obvious that those are the ones that want to be played. Really, it’s an emergent evolutionary process.

What would you tell your younger self who is just starting out as a musician?
Instinct and ear is as important as technique. You need technique to effectively express yourself, but you need to make sure you’ve got something worth expressing. Learn songs, break them apart, then write your own.

Alive or dead, who is your dream collaboration? Who would you love to play with? Who would you love to have a conversation with, musical or otherwise?
I’d like to sit and have a couple cups of tea with Mississippi John Hurt and get him to show me some tunes. I’d like to see if I had what it took to endure a session with Captain Beefheart. And I’d like John Waters to tell me all his stories.

What’s next for you?
Next year I’m going to be playing as much as I can, everywhere I can. I still work a full-time job, so it’s hard to do any extended tours, though I am going to be playing a short tour of dates in Finland in early February. I’ve got other stuff booked around the UK and some stuff in Belgium and Germany. I’ve recently started working with a booking agent, so, at the moment, we’re working on filling up this year’s schedule of dates, which will hopefully include a lot more festival slots, too. So, hopefully, this year will be a lot of gigging even though the form of that is still taking shape, as well as attempting to write new material so I can get a second album out at some point.

Last but not least, what are you listening to right now?
The Lovely Eggs, 75 Dollar Bill, and most recently, the new Tompkins Square release “Lament from Epirus – Soundtrack.”

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