Daily Practice

Last week I interviewed the author and teacher T. Thorn Coyle for DruidCast, the monthly podcast by the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. One of the questions I asked her was what advice she could give to more experienced spiritual practitioners? The answer she gave was to make sure to have a regular daily practice. She also said to stop using the word ‘mundane’ to describe our everyday activities. That the spiritual can encompass everything we do, be that sitting in quiet meditation in the woods, working a deep magical ritual, or doing the washing up.

For many people I’m sure that this apparent simple answer could actually appear quite hard. Time is one thing. Where is the time for a regular daily practice, and how can washing up be seen as a spiritual pursuit? Her answer to time was also simple, most of us find time for Facebook and Twitter… It’s true with me, sometimes the way I use my time is not always the best and most spiritually nourishing. I’m sure many of us procrastinate, waste time, even use other tactics to self-sabotage our well-being, and then say ‘I just don’t have any time for myself’.

Thorn’s answer was to use some of that Facebook time, some of that TV-watching time, just 30 minutes a day, to take that walk in the woods, to go to another room in your house, away from distraction, and meditate. There’s no doubt that a daily practice reminds us who we are, and why we are doing this work. The opposite is also true – the longer we leave it, the harder it can be to make that connection with our spiritual selves again. Questions like, ‘I used to feel so much more, and now it feels like it’s all gone’ begin to arise. I’ve been there on a number of occasions when I’ve had a prolonged absence of spiritual practice. I know I’m not the only one.

And the spiritual connection of washing up? It’s obvious. These are the plates, cutlery, and pans that cooked the food that keeps us alive and feeds not just our bodies but our spirit. The food was grown from our Mother Earth, maybe an animal gave its life so we could eat. To make them clean again shows respect for that food, and for ourselves.

So that’s it. No more excuses. I can find that 30 minutes each day. If you’ve found yourself diverting your attention away from your spiritual needs, why don’t you join me?


Sources of Inspiration 2 – Places of Peace

The Quest for the Awen, yearning for those three sweet drops to fall upon my tongue, to open my eyes and see the world through the eyes of a poet is still a Quest that drives me every day. Nature is the world’s most intoxicating drug and the great thing is that in all of my encounters with her, the side effects of this particular addiction have all been, without exception, completely positive.

I am blessed by the fact that my chosen medium, acoustic folk, is infinitely portable – from an acoustic guitar or for even more portability, the tiny mandolin. I have written many songs in the quiet of my own home, but a number of the songwriting experiences I remember with most fondness are the songs that I caught whilst playing outside.

Some people find inspiration in conflict. Friction can be a wonderful source of inspiration and it has been for me a couple of times, Only Human instantly springs to mind, a song that I had to write after watching a program about animal experimentation, but for me the main source of inspiration is peace. I guess some may find no inspiration in peace at all, finding it too dull, still or quiet, but I have always known that I have within me an inner hermit who yearns for that sacred solitude that opens us up to the Divine.

Oak Broom and Meadowsweet was written in a woodland near Beltane, the floor covered with bluebells, and the voices of the Faerie almost dictating the words; Noon of the Solstice was written in the same woods, near the time of the Solstice, singing the words to the Horned God standing with my back to a mighty Oak; Hills they are Hollow was written in the stone circle at Merrivale with the ‘Tors standing as Guardians to the rites to Nature’s Gods of darkness and of light’; and Grimspound was written in the large roundhouse at the site listening to the calling Ravens and the voices within the fallen walls.

Other sites have inspired songs that have arrived some time after getting home. Land, Sky and Sea was inspired by a visit to St Ninian’s cave in Dumfries and Galloway where every day St Ninian used to make a pilgrimage down to the sea, to sit in this tranquil cave, and here he said he could talk to God and hear his reply. When I went to the place I also sat and spoke aloud, possibly to different Gods, but still there was a sense of connection that I can vividly remember whilst writing this. It is taking these experiences and putting them into words that have been a large part of my songwriting over the years.

So what to do? Well, I get on my walking boots, go outside, take my instrument with me, and a pen and paper. Choose a site that I love, and make a sacred pilgrimage to the place, making my intent the connection to the Site, not writing a song – the song comes from the connection.

When I get there I open up to the spirits of place, sit and open my senses – look, listen, smell, and touch deeply. A technique I learned from my Bushcraft training was to see with the eyes of the deer, listen with the ears of the hare, feel with the skin of a new born baby, smell with the nose of the wolf. This intense opening to the senses quiets the voice that chatters in my mind about the washing up, the bills to pay, that I am wasting my time and shouldn’t be here, that kind of thing. If I turn my attention away from that voice and solely to my senses, that
voice cannot get through. Combine this with conscious breathing and the connection with the place, and its energies, open to me, and then, sometimes, something wonderful happens, and I begin to hear the words of the Ancestors, then voices of the Faerie, the stories of the Stones.

Usually I just ‘noodle’ on the guitar, playing the words I hear with notes. We know that sound is vibration, that music is tuned vibration, and notes do not end after the string is played, but rather carry on out into the universe, and endless space. That is the space I get into, and if I am lucky I will catch a word or two, and begin to sing over the tune, and sometimes these words become a song.

It is the sense of peace I feel at these places that lets me open up to the flow of Awen. It is when I allow my inner hermit his space that the songs I feel most connection with are given voice. Do you have an inner hermit/monk? Do they get enough space? If not, try to give them time and space, and there you too might find peace, and taste the Awen.

Sources of Inspiration – part 1

One of the questions I am asked more than any other is – where do I get my inspiration? There are many, many sources of inspiration so I thought I’d tackle a few in a series of blog posts.

It might seem like an easy topic to write about but it’s actually quite difficult because, for me, inspiration is a feeling more than observation. I can feel it descend over me like a second skin, my breathing changes, colours change, there is a sweet feeling in my chest, a lightness. It can come during a walk on the moor, the downs, or just while ‘noodling’ on an instrument (noodling is literally just playing and singing nonsense until some hook, or phrase, catches your attention). Only rarely have I sat down specifically to write a particular song. I did this with Isis Unveiled, Only Human, Immrama, and a couple of others, when some outside stimuli has inspired me, but on the whole they seem to just appear.

The feeling is pure magic, like tapping into a flow of power from some Otherworld, but I also know that I’ve only got it for a limited time. If I don’t sit and write the entire song in one sitting, it’s so difficult to come back to at another time and try to get back into that flow. A song that I lost the feeling halfway through was The Cauldron Born. That song originally had a completely different set of lyrics, but it didn’t get finished. When I came back to it, they had gone, and I couldn’t finish it. I sat with the tune for many hours just playing the melody, opening up to see what would come through, and nothing did. I had the tune for 2 years before the lyrics finally arrived. I had finished recording 8 of the 10 songs on The Cauldron Born album, and only then did the lyrics arrive, and with them the title of the CD!

So what is my process? I make sure I have a clear space of time. I pick up an instrument (it’s not important which one, just the one I’m called to that day). I have one book in which all of my songs have been written for the past 7 years, so I get that book, and a pen. I open to a clean page, and write the alphabet across the top line. Then I close my eyes, find my centre, and open up, and just begin to play – never something I’ve already written, if I do that I’ll lose the feeling, it has to be new. It’s like an old vinyl record I guess – I put the needle on, and at first it just stays there, but if I’m lucky, it’ll slip into the groove, and a song will begin to play.

At this time I have no idea what I’m going to write about, but I’ll sometimes just get an opening line, so I write it down. I might get two, and then the alphabet across the top does it’s job. I look at the word I need to rhyme with at the end of the phrase and, using the alphabet, I say the sound until I find a good rhyme. This will often create the next line. There is a lot of fiddling about with words and lines as the song develops, and during this time something will hopefully click and I’ll see what the song wants to say, what it’s about. Once this happens the ‘aha!’ moment then points me towards the finishing direction of the song.

An important thing to remember is not to over analyse while you’re writing the song. Just get it down on paper in some form. The creative process engages the right side of the brain, the analysis engages the left. If I swap from one to the other I know I will lose the connection, and the song will literally die on the page. So I tend to write the whole song, including some dodgy lines, then once it’s all there, only then go back to re-write some of the lines I’m not entirely happy with.

So I hope you found that interesting! More thoughts on inspiration to come.

The Pressure of the Creative Soul

Having recently turned my attention to writing songs for my next studio album I wanted to write a blog about the pressure we can sometimes feel as creative beings. But then I saw this wonderful video on Philip Carr-Gomm’s blog and thought that Elizabeth Gilbert, author of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ said it so well. Inspiring, entertaining, and affirming.

Video Instructional for Green and Grey

Lots of people have come up to me at gigs and said how they enjoyed the Land, Sky and Sea instructional video I did last year, and did I plan to do anymore. The most popular requested song for this new video was Green and Grey, so here it is. I hope you can see enough to have a go at playing the song yourselves!!

The Power of Independence

Technology has made it possible for us independent musicians to keep complete control over our careers. Whilst the mainstream music industry is seeing cd sales fall year after year, those involved in the independent music scene are seeing theirs grow.

The old recognised way of making your way in the music business is now fading into history. Today there is no need to seek a major record deal – in fact this can often be the most destructive decision a young band can make. There were even 18 independent CD Baby artists in this years Grammies!

With the emergence of Myspace, Facebook, blogs, podcasts and Twitter it’s easier then ever for independent musicians to keep in touch with their fans. And communication technology keeps making things easier – I’m even posting this from my iPhone!

Hurrah for keeping things independent!

Land, Sky and Sea chords on video

Typical isn’t it? I create a songbook with all of the chords and lyrics from my first three albums, and then, within days, release a new album. The chords from The Cauldron Born will be in volume two, but that’s a few years away, and I keep getting people asking for the chords to Land, Sky and Sea. So I’ve had a bit of fun creating a little instructional video for anyone who’d like to have a go playing this song. Enjoy!

How to write a song – The Muse

The Muse. The cause of the Fire in the Head, the Awen, Imbas, inspiration. A blessing, sometimes frustrating, often turns up late, at least in my experience, but what is it? The answer, as with anything metaphysical isn’t clear or definitive. The Muse can take many shapes, sometimes a feeling, sometimes a figure of myth, sometimes male, or maybe female, or neither.owl.jpeg

I found my Muse by accident. It was a close encounter with the Goddess Blodeuwedd, and you can read more about that here. She can be gentle, or a hard mistress, and I could never predict her arrival. It could happen anywhere – ideally whilst noodling on an instrument, but more often when I didn’t even have a pen, paper, or tape recorder to hand. In these instances I just kept singing the line/tune in my head until I was able to write it down, or record it. This wasn’t helpful…..

So I decided one day to make an appointment with my Muse…. I would be sitting with my guitar, pen and paper ready, at 10am tomorrow morning. I would start to write, and if she turned up, great, if not, I’d start without her. You see I love writing songs, and I want to write more often. I know some of you feel the same. I love the feeling of creativity, the flow of Awen. So the appointment appeared to be the answer.

Well, I was on time. I picked up my guitar, and began to play. At first just cold, cliched tunes, nothing to Fire the Head, but after about 20 minutes something changed – she turned up. She was late, some might say politely late, but here she was….. Imramma (A Soul Quest) was the result.

I’ve done that more and more since then. It seems that I do have to at least make the appointment. If I just sit down and play, more often than not I’ll walk away after enjoying a good practice session, but with nothing new. The appointment works. So if your Muse is often late/fails to turn up, try making an appointment and see what happens.

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How to write a song – songs and poetry continued…

Following on from yesterday’s post on songwriting I’d like to delve a little deeper.

It certainly helps me when I sit down to write to know what it is I’m going to be writing, ie whether it’s a song, or a poem. If my drive is to write a poem, I won’t grab one of my instruments. All I need is a pen and piece of paper. I feel an incredible sense of freedom when I write poetry. I let my mind and emotions free and follow the stream of consciousness as it appears on the page before me. My poetry tends to follow this pattern. When the poem is finished I often feel washed clean, purified – somehow the world changes when a new poem has been written.

Here’s one of my poems – a seasonal one for Imbolc:

By Damh the Bard

As the dark, cold morning gives way to light,snowdrops1.jpeg
And the world shows its face dazzling in her nakedness,
So the twigs and leaf-bare branches,
Bow to the passing dance

Of old Jack Frost.

His crystal breath on the earth,
And the corners of houses weep icicles of joy.
But where is the Sun’s warmth?
Where is life?

A small flower, delicate and pure-white,
Looks to the earth,
As if talking to the waiting green,
“Not yet,” it seems to whisper.
“When I fall, then you can return.”

And she nods her head,
as the Lady passes by,
Leaving more flowers in Her wake.

Writing a song is a very different experience.

I’ll often feel the need to write a song, so will grab an instrument and just noodle, playing with chords, fingerpicking, singing nonsense words to find a melody that fits with the chords. Sometimes something comes, sometimes it doesn’t. But the melody is the hook of the song for me, so other than two of my songs when I wrote the words first and then found the tune (Only Human and Immrama, both from my new CD), the tune always comes first.

I can sometimes have a tune for months before I discover what the tune will be about. The song The Cauldron Born from my new CD, I had the tune for nearly 3 years before the words finally came through. Others, like Merlin am I, I’ll write the tune and the words in one sitting, and will often look at the page afterwards, totally exhausted, and wonder where it all came from.

Either way, for me songwriting is more like giving birth to a child. It can be painful, exciting, frustrating, risky, but at the end there is something that breathes for itself, and like a child, continues to grow and change with every performance.

How to write a song part 1 – songs and poetry

I thought it might be nice to write a series of blogs about my way of songwriting. You don’t need to play an instrument to join in with this, but it certainly helps.

As the title says, this first post is about the differences between songwriting and poetry writing. Why start here? Well, I think some people write poetry and then try to pumusic.jpegt music to their words and don’t understand why it won’t work. I guess I’ll say something controversial here – as a general rule poems are not songs. What!! No they’re not, they’re poems. Now that’s not saying that some song lyrics cannot read as poetry, or that some songwriters indeed have the hearts of poets. And I know that a few musicians have put famous poems to music (Loreena MacKennett comes to mind) – but there are always exceptions. On the whole they differ. As I said, this is a general rule.

The main things about a song lyric is that is must have a rhythm and meter – usually one that stays consistent – that can be sung emotionally as a tune. It can, indeed it must, vary between the various parts of the song (verse, bridge, climb, chorus etc – I’ll go into these on another post), but these individual parts should match in rhythm and meter. Also, its got to rhyme (again, I’ll go into different rhyming techniques on another post).

Now a poem can have a regular meter –

Dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah

Dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah

Dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah

Dah-dah dah-dah dah-dah etc.

And that is fine to speak out loud, but a bitch to sing with any kind of emotion. A lyric must also flow musically. How do we do that? I’ll start that bit next time…