Nature and justice infuse the latest album from James J. Turner

James J. Turner’s latest album, “Spirit, Soul and Handful of Mud,” opens with the raucous title track, a song about mortality that manages to be joyous, somber, inspiring and sobering all at once, a profound disquisition on the meaning of life packed into less than four minutes and set to a rollicking Celtic-flavored tune.

(Download the album here.)

On this, his third album, Turner is preoccupied with two major themes, separate but interrelated: nature and justice.

The title track sets a sobering tone on the nature side of the equation, celebrating rather than mourning the reality of mortality and the earthy nature of human existence. Turner is is confident and well-anchored in a nature-centered pagan spirituality that manifests in his lyrics in various ways. In “Come With Me,” he invites the listener to come with him on a journey, but only “If your heart is on the mountain and your soul is in the sea.” Meanwhile, in “Long Way Around,” he celebrates living a life engaged and aware.

As the rain flows to the stream and sea

Life flows on through you and me

In the sun and sky and the grass and the trees

The very fabric of nature is alive in me

Turning to justice, Turner contrasts the rich and poor in “Heart of Gold.” “Watching You” is about our surveillant society, while “Karma Will Track You Down” he delights in the richly deserved comeuppance of the hypocritical.
Related: Interview with James J. Turner

As with his previous outings, Turner’s performance is bold, forceful and certain. He shows no wavering of his convictions, presenting instead an uncompromising, consistent set of beliefs.

Musically, the album rocks despite the contemporary folk instrumentation and arrangements. Acoustic guitars, fiddles and whistles shape and flavor the tunes, but the compositions meld styles and influences into a seamless and unique mix.

James J. Turner and a handful of mud

jjtJames J. Turner has been slowly building a following among fans of pagan and nature-themed music. His latest album, Spirit and Soul and a Handful of Mud, is built around themes of impermanence. (Download it here.)

James was kind enough to answer some questions via email for The God of the Hinge. Here’s our interview.

How do you describe your current religious/spiritual perspective? Can you briefly describe the journey that has led you to this viewpoint?

I’m a Bardic Druid. I feel I’ve always been a Bardic Druid – but didn’t know it existed until relatively recently! When I was younger I never wrote the usual kind of songs, I mean, I didn’t just write love songs or whatever. My songs tended to be about such things as concern for the environment or altered states of consciousness and often strayed a bit into the psychedelic. Music has always been  my main passion; I’ve played music since I was a child, in fact I performed my first gig at the age of 9, and was writing and performing my own songs since the age of 15. I loved performing for people, it’s all about getting your message out and engaging with people.  Alongside my music I’ve also always been interested in spirituality (whilst steering clear of mainstream religion) and read spiritual books avidly – everything from Buddhism to Magick – but about 8 years or so ago I felt especially drawn to Paganism, particularly Druidry. After lots of research and more reading I found the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), plus the British Druid Order (BDO) and signed up for their online courses. The more I became immersed in this, the more it all made sense with my music and songwriting.

Are there particular ceremonies, rituals, gatherings etc. you take part in as spiritual expression?

Every time I perform is a ceremony and involves ritual. In fact every time I pick the guitar up to play is a form of ceremony. I think that my guitar is a kind of antenna and I view every gig as a gathering that enables me to have spiritual expression. It’s not just about me standing up in front of people and singing. I feel it’s a two-way trip between me and the audience, like a kind of tryst. Of course, this ritual becomes much more intense and powerful when performing with and for like-minded Druids! Last year I attended the OBOD gatherings in Glastonbury which was very special.  In fact, the last OBOD gathering I played was the Winter one and I was joined on stage by Dan Goodfellow on the cajon and djembe. Dan is a shamanic drummer as well as a Druid and I’m pleased to say we whipped up a storm!

How does your spirituality find expression in your music, if it does?

I hope I’ve answered this, above? Anyway, as I said, I think it always has, although in recent years this expression has been more overt. My first solo studio album The Believer had many songs that expressed my love for, and concern with, nature and the environment – including the title track. My second album How Could We Be Wrong? is a little more strident in this concern, although at this point (this album was released in 2012) I still hadn’t yet nailed my Pagan colours to the mast! My new album, Spirit, Soul & a Handful of Mud is more overtly Pagan in theme, reflecting the fact that I am more clear in my personal expression

Your website bio describes a long and varied career in music, but being an independent solo artist seems to be a relatively new thing. What do you find to be the pros and cons of this arrangement?

In actuality there’s not a lot of difference in being a solo artist to being in a band. I still need to work with other musicians when I go in the studio. I did record a solo four track EP last year, but I use other musicians for my studio albums and so the arrangement is the same as it ever was – in other words, I’m the songwriter and singer and have to work hard with the other musicians, trying to get the best out of them, trying to inspire them and be inspired, and striving to get the music as high as possible. Of course, it’s different when it comes to live performances – because right now it’s usually just me and my guitar! That’s been a challenge for me over the past few years – because previously I’ve always worked within a band. It’s a whole new discipline, and was quite daunting at first because it’s only me and basically if I stop playing then the music stops and there is silence! That’s obvious, of course, but it was quite a revelation to me at first when I was used to some sort of noise continuing regardless of what I did.

Are there songs by others you wish you had written? If so, what are a couple of examples?

 Mind Games by John Lennon and The Times They Are A-Changin by Bob Dylan

What are some inspirations behind the songs on the new album, in particular the title track?

As a Bardic Druid I try to look at the human condition a lot in my songs and indeed do so in “Spirit, Soul & a Handful of Mud”. A great friend of mine – a recording engineer I had done a lot of work with – had an untimely death, and he was the “good friend who had to go away”; which reminded me about the impermanence not just of being alive but of everything and I guess that led on to me meditating upon the non linear and cyclic aspect of time. Of course, the “Handful of Mud” is relevant in life as a metaphor for our humanity and in fact just our existence. I think that putting a handful of mud together with the Spirit and Soul and trying to live in a more ethical way on a day to day basis is a big challenge for all of us.  Anyway, I could probably go on all morning, ha ha!

Nightwish: Symphonic rock evolves

Album cover

Endless Forms Most Beautiful, Nightwish

I recently picked up the new Nightwish album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, and it’s been on heavy rotation on my iPod ever since.

I’ve read a few reviews, and most of them seem to focus on the new vocalist, Floor Jansen, and how she compares to her two predecessors. I come to Nightwish uninitiated, and this album is my first exposure to them, so I can consider the music without getting caught up in the band’s history.

The music is, in a word, majestic. Blending power metal rock and orchestra, the band creates a rich sonic tapestry with the disparate elements blending seamlessly. Jansen’s singing is warm and usually understated, though she can go big when a song’s climax calls for it.

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Komos: Celebrating Festivals in Contemporary Hellenic Polytheism (Review)

Much debate goes on among pagans about reconstructionism, and the degree to which we can, or even should, recreate the ancient rituals, festivals and practices as we carry out our own polytheistic practice. My own position, which I think is fairly common in ADF and other neopagan groups, is that reconstructionism should be a methodology, not an end goal.

Sarah Kate Istra Winter’s new book, Komos: Celebrating Festivals in Contemporary Hellenic Polytheism, reflects just that approach. Focused on contemporary practice of Hellenic religion, particularly in America (though it could be applied anywhere), the book begins with what we can know about ancient practices and then provides a very practical guide to using that information for new, culturally relevant ceremonies.

Komos,

Komos,

Winter’s previous book, Kharis: Hellenic Polytheism Explored, was kind of a Hellenism 101, and put its emphasis on solitary home worship. The excellent Hellenic Polytheism : Household Worship (Volume 1) does as well. Komos, by contrast, is centered on festivals, the kind that in ancient Greece would have been full-day or even multi-day affairs organized by the state and attended by thousands. How can solitary or small-group Hellenic pagans, in 21st-Century America, capture the essence of such an event? That is the key question Winter seeks to answer.

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From the Roaring Deep

From the Roaring Deep

From the Roaring Deep

I have a poem published in From the Roaring Deep.

Writing this poem was a real breakthrough for me, a convergence of several things. First, in my devotional work with the Hellenic gods and my simultaneous working through an ADF study program, I had been holding one ADF-style ritual a month, each honoring a different god or goddess.

As part of an ADF bardic course, I had just read Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse, an excellent introduction to the nuances of metrical poetry. When my first ritual for Poseidon went badly, culminating in an omen that suggested the god’s displeasure, I decided to redo it, with an original poem written with some of the knowledge I had gained from the Mary Oliver book.

The resulting work pleased Posiedon, and now is published in From the Roaring Deep. But more than that, this devotional series from Bibliotheca Alexandrina is wonderful and I’m sure this volume will be no different. Pick it up.

Related: See my interview with Bibliotheca Alexandrina editor-in-chief Rebecca Buchanan.

Animism renewed: A review of The Wakeful World

The Wakeful World

The Wakeful World

The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature
Moon Books, 2012

At its most basic, animism can be defined as the idea that plants, animals, natural objects and the universe itself have souls. The definition is accurate, but oversimplified.

In The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature, Emma Restall Orr seeks a deeper meaning of animism. She approaches the topic methodically, building a case one step at a time, focusing by turns on spirit, matter, consciousness and the self. On each topic, she explains and engages with the various philosophical ideas that have shaped our view of body, mind and spirit over the centuries. Her goal is to examine each aspect of existence that shapes a worldview in some detail before putting it all together in the final chapters.

She largely succeeds, but the result is a challenging book. Some prior knowledge of the history of philosophy will help, but it is accessible to the patient reader even without that.

The dualistic world view, articulated in detail by Renee Descartes in the eighteenth century, has dominated Western culture for centuries. To Descartes, man has a soul, but all of nature is essentially mechanical. Plants, animals and natural processes are simply machines of various kinds, operating without thought or motive. Even the human body is a mechanism, or a set of mechanisms, while the soul is a distinct, non-material entity.

“The comprehensive efficacy of Descartes’ thesis was based upon the principle distinction between body and soul,” Orr writes. “Once the God-given substance of thought had been removed, what was left was empty. The spirits of the wildwood, the personality of a dog or horse, the heavy presence of a thunderstorm, the striving growth of the barley, the irrational and thoughtless urgency of human love-making, all were no more than the clunking of levers and gears in nature’s various array of mindless machines.”

This Cartesian dualism contrasts with another prominent philosophy, materialism. Materialism is not dualistic, holding that all that exists is made of the same kind of stuff. However, materialism arrives at that view by jettisoning the spiritual dimension altogether, where Orr seeks to integrate spiritual and material, mind and matter. In Orr’s animism, “Mind and matter are not, nor do they ever become, separate substances: they are merely different states of nature’s essence.”

While animism is hardly the only philosophical basis for polytheism, Orr’s book makes clear that it can be a powerful foundation. It does take some patience to work through, but the experience is rewarding. Even a reader who does not fully embrace Orr’s arguments will come away enlightened.

Pan With Us

Pan and his student Daphnis.

Pan and his student Daphnis.

Pan, the son of Hermes, is wildness personified. Depicted with a goat’s legs and horns, he roams the woodlands playing his pipes and seducing nymphs. Pan is not about subtlety; he is unabashedly primal and, like the liminal god he is, bridges the distance between the human and the animal.

It is the loss of this wildness that Robert Frost laments in his poem, “Pan With Us.”

Pan came out of the woods one day,–
His skin and his hair and his eyes were gray,
The gray of the moss of walls were they,–

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