Category Archives: Bardic

Viola stories

The viola in this photo has had quite a journey. It was, many years ago, part of Portsmouth Sinfonia – a 1970s student project that was about participation rather than skill level. The viola went to The Albert Hall as part of this. 

Quite some years ago, I knew the owner of the viola through Druid circles in the Midlands. When she left the area and needed to downsize, she offered me the viola because she hadn’t played it in a long time. At that time I was mostly playing violin, but I was not the sort of person to turn down a free instrument! 

My primary musical collaborator at the time had a stringed instrument that mostly played in Bflat, so I down-tuned the viola to make it easier to play with him, and I learned a few tunes on it, and took it to sessions for times when having an option on keys with flats in was handy.

I’ve been a violin player since childhood. Not because I had any particular interest in the instrument at first, but because there were free lessons at school. What I really wanted was to play the harp, (proto-druid issues) but there were no harp lessons to be had, so I learned the piano and the violin. The logic was that I could get into the orchestra and then somehow options would appear – which they did not. I was a mediocre violinist at best during that time.

In my late teens, I started going to a session at my local pub, playing with The Old Spot Pickers – and there I started learning how to jam in with other musicians. There were a lot of them, and they were loud so it was easy to be quiet and join in. Actually falling in love with the violin didn’t happen until I got to the Midlands in my twenties. Suddenly there were a whole lot of musicians I wanted to play with, and that made me practice. That in turn led to spending hours every week playing with other people, which grew my skills considerably.

Shoulder damage made the violin impossible to play, and when I came back to Gloucestershire  I had no one to play with. However, I’m back in a position of there being multiple musicians I am keen to do music with, and lo and behold, I’m motivated to practice again. The larger body of the viola is feasible for my damaged body, and that’s all working out well.

I didn’t choose the viola. It happened to me. It’s been a gift in every sense, and increasingly a blessing, opening up possibilities and connections that otherwise I would not have had. I’m playing with a number of people and there’s more of that to come, that’s now obvious. There are three other musicians I’m going to be working with (Robin Burton, Keith Errington, Jessica Law)  and I’m looking forward to talking about that as things progress, and at some point having videos to share. There’s also scope around this to form up as bigger bands, depending on need, so The Ominous Folk (usually four of us) is going to have a big band version, we’re Robin’s Minstrels when we’re at The Folk of Gloucester and other possibilities also exist. Adventures, there will be many.

Taking care of your muse

For some people, a muse is a more abstract thing. It’s a way of naming the whatever-it-is that brings you inspiration. Druids often use ‘awen’ as a term, expressing the idea of a sacred flow of inspiration. People can be inspired by pretty much anything, but there are implications when the source of the inspiration is another person, or people.

Not everyone wants to be a muse. It’s a big word, and it can feel like weight, or pressure or responsibility. Getting excited about someone and writing them a poem doesn’t always play out smoothly. It can make slightly more sense in a romantic context, but even there, it can make people really uneasy. 

People don’t always recognise themselves in the things created because of them. That can be really unsettling for them. If you find you’ve done this it is really important to put in the time and make sure the other person feels comfortable. For the person with low confidence, there can be a sense of unworthiness, or that the person who is inspired doesn’t really understand how they are. Be gentle with your human muse, and don’t put them on a pedestal in a way that feels precarious to them.

If you’re making something because of a person, it is as well to also make it for them. If you can offer the fruits of your inspiration back in a way that makes your muse happy, you get something more sustainable. Casting someone in the muse role tends to work better when they can feed back and be more of an active participant in the process. If your muse has to stand there being passive while you do things, that can be really uncomfortable for them, through to full on objectifying. The traditional idea of the muse as a beautiful woman who does nothing in her own right, but inspires a man to create is really awful on this score and we all need to move away from it as an approach.

However you handle your relationship(s) with your muse(s) it’s really important that they do not feel used or exposed by what you do. How that works is going to be really individual, but if people feel disrespected or taken advantage of, they won’t stick around to inspire you. 

I’ve been around this from both sides. It is weird and unsettling to be told you are inspiring someone when you can’t see how that even worked. It’s uncomfortable if you are told you’ve inspired something and you don’t even like it, worse yet if what you’ve inspired is something you’ve told the creator you really don’t like. At the same time, when people have made things because of me in ways I can relate to, that’s been incredibly happy-making for me. 

There are a small group of people who are always on my mind when I’m writing, and I think they know what. Having the focus of writing for specific people really helps me, and I try to pick people who are comfortable in that role and who enjoy interacting with me on those terms. This is also a big part of why I like co-creating with people. When I’m working with someone, and we inspire each other and can both be energised by that, while being equally creative and equally invested, that works very well. It takes away all risk of there being the active creator who holds the power in a situation while the passive muse has to accept whatever happens.

Sometimes you just have to jump

In the last few years, I’ve not attempted to write a novel on my own. I’ve co-written a novel with David Bridger, and we’re working on the second in the series. I’ve written two novellas in the Hopeless, Maine setting. Before that, during lockdown, I accidentally wrote three novels worth of material. However, the Wherefore books were written one short story at a time with a structure more like a soap opera, and collaborative partners, so that was a very different sort of thinking.

I’ve been asked to write a sequel to Fast Food at the Centre of the World – that one’s being published as a book this year having only previously been out in the world as audio files. It would be fair to say that while I’ve been thinking about themes, I’ve also been procrastinating a lot. It’s been a year since I last sat down to deliberately write a novel, and I have no idea if I can do it. I wrote that one to a tight remit in about a month for a project that didn’t work out – I was working with other people’s plots and characters, it wasn’t purely mine. This was not a good experience.

This isn’t an unusual issue for writers, or for anyone working creatively. Any time you aren’t doing the thing it is all too easy to feel like you aren’t someone who does the thing. Gaps between creations can loom large. Even if your creativity is central to your identity, there’s only so long you can go without doing it before all kinds of uneasy feelings creep in. It’s not like I haven’t been writing – I write every day. Novels loom large for me. They are large creatures, unruly, and requiring a lot of care and attention. And sometimes, as with last year, things can go badly wrong. It’s a lot of time and energy to invest in the hopes of making things work.

I started Fast Food at the Centre of the World on a plane to America, visiting Tom for the second time. The central characters were his, although I have developed them a long way from his original ideas. I started writing with a keen sense of the world, and very little idea where I might be going. I’m in the same position now, knowing the setup but not knowing the story. I prefer working this way, but it is a bit exposed. 

What’s focusing my mind is the support from the people who are into what I do. Mark Hayes was out on Twitter this week telling me that he wants to read it – without even needing to know what I’m working on. It’s a powerful gesture of support. Others of my closest people are being tremendously supportive and encouraging. 

Writing can seem like a really solitary thing to be doing. It isn’t – not for me. I depend a lot on my collaborators, on the people who inspire me, and the people I write for. Those are usually the same people. Writing is an expression of relationship for me, not just with people, but with the world as a whole.

I know I’m going to be including themes of fast fashion, AIs, disability, fatigue, parenting and the madness of late stage capitalism in this book. Maybe also looking at eco-fascism, and certainly thinking about regeneration and community. There’s usually a lot of Druidry in my fiction even though it isn’t always overt.

Learning by doing

There are some things you can really only learn by doing them. The process of doing something when you really don’t know how to do it tends to feel exposed. In the beginning, you may be awful, which can be off-putting and might be very uncomfortable. How will people react?

Sometimes very experienced writers of essays, short stories and articles can jump straight into novel writing and make it work. For most people, the first novel is a hot mess you hide and never speak of. Until you’ve tried to write one, it’s hard to grasp what it takes to write a novel, and just how many ideas you need to make it to 60k words – which is short by book standards. It’s not until you try and write a book that you can really get to grips with how pacing works, and character arcs and themes. There’s a lot you can learn from reading, but it’s not the same as doing.

Playing music or singing with people when you aren’t working from a written composition brings similar issues. You can learn to play your instrument, you can learn songs, and there’s a great deal of theory that can be handy for this, if it suits how you think. You can only learn how to play by ear by doing it. You can only learn to sing with other people, or to join in by improvising, by doing it, and you have to do it with other people.

There are things about being on stage and interacting with an audience that you can only learn by experiencing it. This also applies to giving talks, being on panels and being interviewed. There are a lot of things you can learn by observation, but in order to learn how to navigate yourself through this sort of thing, you need practice.

This is why it is so important to have safe spaces where people can have a go. If the only spaces you can find are for professional people who already know how to do these things, there’s no scope for anyone else to advance to that level. Accessible, grass roots spaces where people feel welcome and supported as they learn, are absolutely essential. The only way we get people who are great at these things is if we support them while they aren’t great. No one comes fully fledged into their creative powers, everyone has to spend time learning and making mistakes.

If you’re an organiser, this is something you can factor in by creating opportunities. If you’re an audience member, your willingness to be kind and supportive is hugely important. Mocking people and knocking them down will stop people from becoming all that they could be. Kindness, support and encouragement helps people grow and develop. Often the single biggest issue for people putting their stuff out is confidence – nerves can mangle performances or stop people showing up. Help people build their confidence and you help them become all that they can be. 

It may be tempting to think that surviving setbacks and hard knocks is a good way of weeding out the wimps and only getting the really committed performers. This isn’t how it works. Confidence and determination don’t have any relationship with quality. I’ve seen some really confident people doing terrible things in public places and no amount of negative feedback will slow them down. It’s the more sensitive people, the gentler people, the ones already knocked around who suffer most from being put down. Those qualities are good qualities in a creator, and might be worth more than the ability to disregard all criticism. People learn a lot when you can tell them what you like about what they do.

Creativity for everyone

Money is not a measure of your creative worth. All of the creative industries are a mess anyway, so if you can’t make it pay, don’t take it personally. Creativity is inherently valuable.

Every single successful creative person out there (however you want to measure success) started out as an amateur. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being an amateur.

Success is subjective. You can set the terms on which you measure your own success. If I do something and it works for someone else, that’s all I need to feel it was worthwhile. Doing something and liking how it turned out is success. Seeing improvement in your own work is success.

Creative culture isn’t just about the big names and the people at the top. You only get the extraordinary professionals when they have room to grow. Grass roots arts are vital. Spaces for people to learn, flourish and develop are vital. Being part of those spaces, and providing joy and entertainment to other people, is a really good thing to do, regardless of whether you get to be famous.

It’s also perfectly ok not to want to be a professional. It’s totally valid to do things because you enjoy them and they make you happy. You do not need to be good. You do not need to have anyone’s approval or permission to do the things that enrich your life.

Creativity and delight go together. We should be able to do the things that make us happy, to make our own things and to be able to enjoy the things that other people make. Focusing on joy in this way is good for mental health, good for building relationships and for making our lives better.

Focus on the people who enjoy and support what you do. If that’s just you, this is also entirely valid. Focus on the people whose creativity you enjoy and whose work inspires you. Everything is better when we lift and encourage each other.

Creativity is all about joy, and putting beauty into the world and creating interest. Anyone engaged with that on any terms is your ally, and worth taking interest in if you have the time. The people who show up to criticise while making nothing themselves are of no real consequence and do not deserve your time and energy.

What you can imagine is always going to be better than what you’re able to make. This is not a thing to worry about. When you create, you also learn and grow, and that remains true no matter how good you get. It is ok to be dissatisfied and you do not need to hate your work when you can see how to do it better.

You are needed. Whatever you’re doing, whatever you make and however that impacts on the world, you are needed. Even if you don’t share your creativity with anyone else, the way it changes you is also important. And I hope, if you aren’t sharing yet, that you get to a place of feeling able to do so.

Viola Stories

Back in early October of 2022, I started talking about rebuilding my body so that I could play musical instruments again. It’s taken a lot of hard work, but I am exactly where I wanted to be with the viola. 

When I started this process, I was vague about what, exactly had lit a fire under me. There have been exciting developments around getting to play with Robin Burton, which was unexpected and wonderful as a thing to have happen. I very much like where all of that is going.

What happened, back in September is that Keith Errington (already a co-creator on many projects) admitted to having a guitar and writing songs. There’s been a fantastic trajectory around him sharing this as he’s written a couple of songs for the Hopeless, Maine project over the winter.

Back when I played music regularly, that was very much for and about the musicians I was able to work with. When Keith started sharing his songs with me (cautiously) I had what at the time was a pretty bonkers response – I wanted to be able to accompany him on viola. And so, with no idea whether that might ever be an option, I put in the time, and the work, and pushed through a lot of pain to get my hands and arms back up to strength. I pushed through the frustration of not being able to do half the things on a viola that I could once do on the violin, and by slow degrees I got better.

So here we are, viola and guitar, and me improvising around his songs. It was good. Really good. Everything I could have hoped for, and more. I’m so happy about having got to this point, and about the way in which that autumnal leap of faith is starting to pay off.

When I’m playing accompaniment, I’m entirely focused on supporting whoever is leading and enriching the music in whatever way I can. I like setups where my job is to make the other person look even better. There’s a very particular flavour of inspiration that comes from working that way. 

I had forgotten what it’s like to have music become a whole body experience, not just a matter of head and hands. To play with my entire person, to be utterly focused and in the moment such that the music flows through me and out through my fingers. Keith has written some fantastic songs, and performs them with an intensity that brings out the best in me as a musician. 

Right now, I don’t know exactly where we are going with all of this, but there’s a lot of potential and we’re certainly going somewhere. New adventures!

The Magpie

This isn’t an album review – although I heartily recommend clicking the link at the bottom of the post and going to listen on bandcamp. This is a story about a song.

Many years ago, back when I ran Redditch Folk Club (and had a different name) a trio called Young No More turned up to a singaround. One of the songs they sang was all about magpies, and I was instantly smitten with it. However, I didn’t know the trio, and the internet wasn’t as helpful in those distant days, so I could do nothing but wait.

Eventually, they came back, and arrangements were made to get me a recording of the song. They explained it wasn’t theirs but if they mentioned the name of the songwriter, I do not remember. They told me it was on an old album one of them owned. I learned it from their version and started singing it. The Magpie was always a great favourite with my son, so he picked it up from me and started leading on it. This is how the folk process goes sometimes.

Then The Unthanks covered it and the song became a lot more widely known. 

I’ve arranged and rearranged my harmony lines on this song so many times – we sang it through James’s teens with all that this implies. We sang it casually during the years when we weren’t going to events as musicians, or spending much time in folk clubs. It remained a favourite with people we sang with informally. When we started putting Ominous Folk together, it was an obvious candidate for the repertoire. It’s been our most requested song. This is because Mat McCall of Gloucester Steampunks pretty much requests it every time we see him.

Back in September, we had the amazing experience of getting to meet Davey Dodds, the man who wrote The Magpie. We heard him sing it at an event in Gloucester (I cried). We asked if it was ok for us to sing The Magpies at the same event, and Davey said yes, and listened to us doing it and was nice about it afterwards. Of all the things you can do as a musician, playing or singing something in the presence of the person who actually wrote it is by far the most terrifying. 

(As an aside, there was one terrifying occasion where I somehow ended up singing a Damh the Bard song to Damh the Bard late one night.)

The new album Davey Dodds has recorded features The Magpie. It means there’s a definitive version from the man who wrote it, which is great news. The original recording (1979, the internet thinks) predates CDs and downloads, so it’s good to have something more accessible. It’s such a beautiful version, the harmonies are lush.

Falling in love

Playing music featured heavily in my twenties and was the basis of most of my social life. What drove me at that point was a love of music, and an absolute love affair with the violin.

There’s something about improvising that brings me into an intense state of relationship with both the music and the instrument. Which in turn can create an unusual kind of intimacy with whoever I’m sharing music with. To improvise, you have to be entirely present to the music, the exact way everyone else is playing, the needs of the music, and what it is, exactly that your instrument can do. When music emerges between people in this way it can be incredibly magical.

I really was in love with the violin. It was the voice of my soul, and often the primary way in which I expressed myself emotionally. And then there was no one to play with, and I damaged my shoulder, and the back came away from my beloved violin and despite repeated attempts by various clever professionals to fix it, nothing worked.

This week I realised that I could fall in love with the viola. I could have all those same feelings about it, and throw myself wholeheartedly into playing in the same way. I might still have it in me to give unreservedly, like I used to. I might be able to meet a musical collaborator in a fearless, present, open hearted sort of way, and be able to trust that, and reclaim the magic I used to feel around playing.

Being open hearted is a risky, exposed sort of thing. But, I want to go back to playing the way I used to play. This feels so much more like the person I should be, and want to be. 

Creative collaboration

I love working with people in creative ways. I’m happier creating music with other people than performing alone. I love having writing collaborations on the go and being in spaces where people interact creatively and support each other. The Hopeless, Maine project has been brilliant for me in this regard because there are some awesome people inclined to be involved with it.

I’ve spent plenty of time as a solitary musician – I used to busk a lot when I was younger and had more stamina. I’ve written a fair few books on my own (more than a dozen novels, eight non-fic titles). I can create on my own, but I don’t get excited about it in the same way.

There’s an energy to co-creation that I get really excited about. When people really gel as co-creators, there’s this wonderful scope to be inspired by each other in a way that keeps the inspiration flowing. There are usually challenges, negotiations, compromises and a lot more figuring out to do when whatever you’re doing has to meet the needs of more than one person.

I think some of this is because I’m excited about relationships. This has always been a significant aspect of my Druidry, that it’s a consciously relationship-orientated path for me. I exist in relationship with the land, and in relationship with my ancestors of blood, land and tradition. As a creator I have all kinds of relationships with people who engage with what I make. I find the kinds of relationships I can have with people around shared creativity really appealing. I have no doubt this is one of the reasons I have a strong relationship with my son – we’ve sung together since he was small, and we still do.

When there are more people involved in a project, it’s likely to be more than the sum of its parts. Even if there are only two people, some third thing reliably emerges that is not simply the sum of the two people involved. There’s a magic in the sharing of inspiration and ideas, and what grows in that soil can be marvellous indeed.

I’m increasingly drawn to thinking about what we can do collectively, as communities, and as small groups or even in pairs. I’m questioning the individualism I encounter, and finding that the more time I spend doing stuff with people, the happier I am.

Connecting with an audience

When you’re performing, connecting with your audience is a major consideration. There are people whose audience connection and engagement is so strong that they can get by with weaker technical skills for other parts of what they do. Audience engagement can be the centre of how you perform. In most circumstances I prefer to focus on the quality of material and how I use my voice, but there are many ways into this.

The person who taught me stagecraft was of the opinion that primarily what a person needs to do is fill the space with their own personality. If you’d got a strong enough personality, everything else would flow from there. He was certainly able to work on those terms. Much of that approach depends on confidence. You’ve got to be able to walk into a space and demand attention, not just with your voice, but with your whole self. You’ve got to know in your bones that you are entitled to be there and that it is in everyone’s best interests to pay attention to you.

Winning an audience over is an act of will that can feel a lot like magic. It’s a relevant ritual skill, as well as a performance skill, and I think it’s well worth considering on more magical terms. To captivate an audience, you have to assert your will. When an audience is cooperative, that feels fairly rational as a process.

I have taken less cooperative audiences by force on a few occasions. Noisy pubs are the worst in this regard, where you have a lot of people who have come along to chat and who treat the performances as audio-wallpaper. Even an audience like this can be made to fall silent. I’ve done it as a solitary singer, and at poetry events, and on one occasion when we were out with the band. In some ways it’s easier with an exposed voice rather than instruments because most people aren’t so used to hearing that.

Uncooperative audiences can be intimidating, but stepping out there with the intent that they are going to be quiet and listen is an essential starting point. You can’t expect an unruly audience to become polite and attentive, but you can demand it of them. Audacity can get a lot done.

Given the kind of material I take out, the best measure of audience engagement for me is often silence. Not merely that people stop talking, but that they don’t move. The absolute stillness of an audience means that you’ve successfully enchanted them. It’s an entirely different process with comedic material because there, the small sounds of amusement through to the unmissable guffaws will give you a lot of information. Then there’s the material that demands toe tapping and that calls upon bodies to move, and even if they don’t jump up and dance you can feel when an audience is responding that way. It’s all in the sounds, and it’s much easier to judge sound as a whole than to try looking at individuals. 

Be it in ritual or on a stage, there’s often nothing more powerful than silence. Most especially, the silence that falls sometimes at the end of a piece where no one wants to move or break the spell. If you can hold an audience in stillness and silence, you’ve got them.

It’s difficult to pin down the precise mechanics that make this possible. However, magic is in essence about putting intent into the world, and good performance always feels magical, so perhaps it makes most sense to approach this as an act of magic and prepare accordingly. Believing in your own power is a very good place to start.