Dylan Hughes, formerly of Welsh band Race Horses, admits “it’s been a while” when asked where the bloody hell he’s been since the group split in 2013. Other members remained noticeably active in the intervening years with singer Meilyr Jones enjoying the most notable success. Hughes, though, vanished from the musical landscape.
What a beautiful surprise, then, when this Spring he unexpectedly reappeared under the moniker Ynys, Welsh for island and pronounced un-iss. The sun-kissed psych dream of debut single Caneuon and the unsettling yet gorgeous Mae’n Hawdd with such magical timeless pop sensibilities both formed a soundtrack to the warmer months, highlights of the year for sure. On national radio last month, a classic from Dusty Springfield segued seamlessly on from Mae’n Hawdd as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
Mixed and mastered in Liverpool by Iwan Morgan (Gruff Rhys, Cate le Bon) Hughes’s new material arrived courtesy of the so-hip-it-hurts Welsh label Libertino.
“I’ve gone with the imagery of a night-time island,” Hughes jokes of the name Ynys. “What’s that programme, The Prisoner?”
Whereas Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six resented his coastal surroundings, Hughes is happy and thriving where Ynys landed, finding pleasures in melody, melancholic bittersweet harmonies and upbeat riffs.
“I think when you’re writing – not without a purpose, that sounds wrong – you’re not in a band, you’re not writing for anybody else, you end up with 100 ideas,” he reckons of his lengthy fallow period. “A hundred voice memos on your phone. And in a way there’s no real reason to finish songs.”
Last year, fellow ex-Race Horses and close friends Gwion Llewelyn and Mali Llywelyn, who both play with Aldous Harding, pushed Hughes to crack on and book a studio for the weekend. The argument being, “even if it doesn’t get released, it’s good for the soul”.
What a difference two days recording makes. The time allowed him to have fun with 80s analogue synths and 70s string machines (his comfort zone, “where muscle memory takes over”) and pursue a new penchant for speeding up songs after choruses.
It was becoming a front man which proved to be the real uncharted terrain. “I was thinking, I’ve written these songs, I don’t really want somebody else to be singing them. With the singing it’s definitely a different ball game. But it’s something I enjoy. I’m getting into it.”
His latest single Mae’n Hawdd (“It’s easy, when you know how”, the chorus goes) may well be inspired by a simple walk by the sea but it’s delicious with mystery, isolation and solitude. It’s all spooky strings, Mali Llywelyn’s vocal shadowing of Hughes, and a hymnal almost male voice choir-orchestral effect built from doubling up a snippet of Gwion Llewelyn singing, not to mention the slightly unhinged weird-shit-happens-after-midnight intro.
“The sequencer thing happening at the start came together in the studio but again I’m imagining it quite dark in terms of nighttime setting, quite cinematic,” says Hughes. “That was going through my mind. Those old movies.”
“I’d like to say it’s when you rediscover a vinyl that you haven’t listened to for some time,” he jokes. “But it’s probably, if I’m honest, more about the random iPod shuffle or walking into somewhere and ‘oh my god, do you remember this song?’.”
Seeing out the Summer with festival dates and a live radio session for Marc Riley on 6 Music broadcast from Salford’s Media City, Ynys boomerangs mere weeks later to play YES in Manchester, part of a three-part pilot scheme which sees nine Welsh language bands touring across the UK.
Label mates and feminist post punk trio Adwaith headline the first leg in September, themselves returning to the city for a fourth time in ten months.
“I think there might be a perception in Wales that audiences outside don’t really get Welsh music,” says Hughes. “I’ve never ever experienced any negativity about singing in Welsh. As you know, Welsh music is not a genre. It’s just the language the words happen to be sung in.”
He continues: “Even though it’s my first language and I probably use it predominantly, it can be difficult because obviously in English you’re probably drawing on a few thousand influences whereas in Welsh there’s a lot less music. I’ve got a few English songs as well.”
I sense that recording those initial tunes over that fateful weekend has gone way past an exercise in self-worth for the songwriter. This is just the beginning for Ynys. “It’s coming together. I’m quite excited.” A smile warms his voice. He pauses. “I’m excited to be doing stuff again.”
Ynys plays YES in Manchester on October 10, 2019 with Bitw and SYBS