Damh the Bard probably needs no introduction to readers of this site. A pagan balladeer, Pendragon of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids and host of the Druidcast podcast, Damh is well known in many pagan circles.
His latest album, Sabbat, is about celebration, honoring the past and the power of place (see full review here.) Damh was kind enough to answer a few questions for The God of the Hinge. Here’s our interview:
Damh, thank you for taking the time to answer these questions.
How would you describe your beliefs (for want of a better word) as a Druid, and can you say a bit about how you came to this path?
I came to my path via a strange route that included heavy metal music and magic. I remember when those little labels began to be placed on CDs and some fundie parents in the USA spoke about how they were worried that heavy metal and Dungeons and Dragons would lead children into the Occult. Well with me they absolutely did. And I’m just fine thanks very much. So it was magic that initially drew my attention so in my late teens I joined a magical order that worked with the teachings of the Golden Dawn and Hermetic Magic. This was the perfect path for me at the time but after about 6 years my attention began to turn towards something a little more Earthy. And right over there I saw the old Horned God waving to me, so I went and had a chat. We’ve had a great relationship ever since.
My beliefs? I’d call myself a Polytheistic Animist. So I do believe in many Gods but to me they are the consciousness of that part of the Natural World. So Llyr in Druidic Lore is the God of the sea, but I don’t see him as some human shaped Neptune who lives in the sea. To me Llyr is the sea itself. The actual water, and the consciousness of that great element. Rhiannon is the consciousness of all horses, Bodeuwedd is every owl, Don is the consciousness of the land. Old Horny is the wild spirit in every animal, the Green Man is the consciousness of the forest, and on it goes. There is no separation.
In the years that you’ve been writing and recording music, has your spiritual outlook continued to evolve? If so, can you say a bit about how?
Absolutely. It’s a constant quest and the moment I start to think I have the answer, that is the moment things will start to change and show me another way. I embrace the world of uncertainty. I know what I feel is right for me, but I don’t believe that is the Truth with a capital T. Like many people my beliefs have changed with the experiences I’ve had. It’s part of the magic of the Pagan path and being alive. Also, I’m a Gemini so please don’t ask me to make a definitive decision!
I can only imagine that choosing to make a go of making a living as an independent musician is quite a leap of faith. How did you arrive at the point of taking that leap? What made you think your chances were good?
It was 2006 and I was at my first gig in the USA in Alabama. I had just bought a woodland and started a Bushcraft/Wilderness Awareness school that was already quite successful even in its first year. But here I was, in the USA, playing music from my first two albums. Up until that point I really hadn’t thought I could really make a living from my music, but I saw iTunes becoming more popular, MySpace was allowing a connection with a wider audience, Web 2.0 was on the horizon. Music had always been my greatest love so I looked into the future and imagined that last breath. When I looked back at my life what might I regret, and it was that I never really gave my music my best shot. So when I returned to the UK I closed my newly created Bushcraft school, and threw everything into my music. It was two years later when The Cauldron Born was released that things snowballed and I realised that I was now living my dream.
When was the last time you had a day job? What was it?
September 1998. I was managing director of my own agri-business and travelling the world, had a company car, expense account, the lot. But none of it felt congruous with my pagan heart. So one day I went to talk to an oak tree and said, “There must be a way to earn a living through what I love. If there is make it happen. I’m ready.” The next day I got a phone call that offered a way out, so I began the process to pass over full ownership of my company to my business partner, and that was that. It was a huge risk and financially quite a daft thing to do, but sometimes you just have to go with your heart and jump and trust things will be ok.
On the new album, the songs “On the Shoulder of Giants” and “Time Machine” seem to touch on themes that you have not explored so directly before, the influence of the past on our present and future. Is this something that is coming more to your thoughts these days?
I just felt it was about time we as modern Pagans began to value who we are right now. It’s great to take inspiration from the past, but we are alive now, what we do right now has relevance,
Absolutely. For a few years I’ve found myself becoming uncomfortable when speakers at Pagan events often spoke in the past tense – the ancient Druids ‘did’ this, the ancient Pagans ‘did’ that. I just felt it was about time we as modern Pagans began to value who we are right now. It’s great to take inspiration from the past, but we are alive now, what we do right now has relevance, it’s time for us to take ownership of our paths and say “we are here, right now.” So those songs aren’t just about looking backwards into times past, they also hold that message. That we too will one day be the ancestors, and future generations will judge us on our actions right now, not on how well we tried to imitate things from the Bronze and Iron age.
Your albums feature some complex band arrangements, while you perform live with just yourself and a guitar. How hard is it to pare down a song to a single instrument and voice and have it still sound like it should?
To me a song should still work stripped down. If the message and emotion still comes across in that simple state it’s a good song. When I write that’s how it is, just me and one instrument. Whilst I write it I can hear the full arrangement in my head, but the core of the song is always simple. All of the other instruments add to that core and enhance it, but then when I play live it’s just me and the guitar again. So I guess what I’m saying is that the way I perform the songs live isn’t pared down, it’s the soul of the song’s origin, and how it originally was when I wrote it, before I hit the studio.
Does it frustrate you that you don’t have a larger fan base?
Not at all. I could push harder into secular festivals and one day maybe I might, but my music is Pagan and there is nothing like playing my songs to people who really understand what I’m singing about. Not only understand it but truly feel it too. It actually amazes me how big my fanbase is when I consider how Pagan my songs are, so that question doesn’t really occur to me. Earning a living from my music is wonderful, but I also want to leave the Pagan community with music. Music that people can sing for years to come around Pagan campfires. That’s the real drive for me.
Are there songs by others you wish you had written? If so, what are a couple of examples?
Oh yes, and I’ve covered a few of them on my albums… Lady in Black for instance, a great song. Several songs by John Denver, Dougie Maclean’s early songs, some of the songs from Steve Knightley and Show of Hands. There are so many great songs out there.
How does your practice of Druidry affect your opinions, beliefs and actions in other realms of life, such as politics, personal relationships or interactions with your community?
It affects everything and every decision. I don’t like the way some people separate their lives into ‘spiritual’ and ‘mundane’. To me Paganism is a way of life so even a chore like washing the dishes becomes a magical act. Using the element of Water to clean the utensils on which the food that keeps you alive has been held. For me bringing those two seemingly separate circles of spiritual and mundane into alignment is a quest of my Pagan life.
Find out more about Damh the Bard at his website, paganmusic.co.uk