Paul Mitchell, druid and musician

by Nimue Brown

For those of you who have not encountered Paul Mitchell, you could start by imagining what Billy Bragg would sound like if he took up Druidry. Well known on the U.K. Druid scene as both a solo performer and part of the folk-rock band Mad Magdalen, Paul is about as far from gentle, tinkly new age music as a person can get without needing amplification.

Nimue: When I saw you at the Druid Network conference in 2012, you commented that folk is as much a part of our heritage as Stonehenge. What is it about folk music you think Pagans should be paying attention to?

Paul: I experience our evolving folk tradition in a way that was well described by Chris Wood (an exceptional performer and writer). He described a sense, when singing a folk song or playing an old tune, of the ghosts of generations of performers standing behind him, checking that he was honouring the song or tune (rather than having the song or tune honour his performance). It is this honest connection with the past that is offered through our engagement with our folk traditions. It’s so very available to us all, be it through attending folk clubs or just checking out a few songs here and there. So if it is the heritage of your people and your land that you seek to explore, connect with and honour then our folk tradition offers a simple and fun way to do so.

Nimue: Ah, Chris Wood is a splendid chap. You perform a mix of your own stuff and other material, folk and otherwise. Whose work are you drawn to?

Paul: The roots of my stuff cover a lot of areas. However I think it’s important to mention Chris Gosling’s work. He was the first satirical pagan act I heard, and clearly was a master wordsmith. Well worth checking out if you get a chance to hear recordings of his material. In terms of folk music I like anything with passion in it. Mabon, for example, offer modern Celtic tunes. I’m a great fan of Martin Carthy. My musical tastes are wider than some might expect. For example, Damh the Bard expressed surprise to find me at a heavy rock festival a couple of years back. As a young man brought up on a rough council estate through the 70′s and 80′s I am also influenced by bands like The Clash and The Jam. It’s a heady mix that’s not to everyone’s taste. For example the only place I can get away with playing the Marilyn Manson CD’s is in the car on my own. I’m also a Capt. Beefheart fan, which takes some doing.

Nimue: With lines like “just what the world needs, another bloody druid” and “I’m a much better pagan when I am pissed”, that satirical theme is easily spotted in your work. Is that underpinned by a desire to make changes, elicit laughs, combinations thereof, other things that have not occurred to me?

Paul: I have no great message and on the whole (but not always) I’m not trying to do anything more than express some of my thoughts and feelings. I would hope that I’m more than a comedy musician (although that’s a great skill if you have it). So I guess I’m engaging in some satire and some people like to hear it. I’d write and play this stuff even if there was no audience. Indeed, I write and play lots of other stuff that people never hear. However when there are people interested in your art and are willing to listen, or to turn up to things because you’re playing, then I think there is an opportunity to use that interest; hence bringing the Pagan Folk Against Facsism thing together a few years back. I had people listening and turning up to see me so, with the band Mad Magdalen, I used that momentum for what I thought was an important cause. I also hope that my songs capture some of the story of the modern Pagan movement here in the U.K. as capturing stories is part of what the folk tradition is about.

Nimue: Not everyone (especially readers from beyond the U.K.) will have heard of Folk Against Fascism at a guess, so, can you say a bit more about what happened there and the role you played in all of that?

Paul: A few years ago it became apparent that the far right party, British National Party (BNP), were advising members to purposely infiltrate folk clubs, morris sides and the like with a view to convincing people that their love of English traditions was the starting point to their joining the BNP. The folk community got wind of this and formed Folk Against Fascism to raise awareness. The band I’m part of, Mad Magdalen, has a bit of an activist bent at times. I asked the band for support in bringing about a CD of music performed by modern Pagans, and a couple of poems as well, to help raise awareness in the Pagan community. We got lots of support and even financial backing from the community and released the Pagan Folk Against Facsism CD, some T-shirts and hoodies. It worked really well to publicise the musicians and worked as a great way of engaging people in discussion about folk music and the potential it holds for exploring our heritage.

Nimue: What other activist stuff do Mad Magdalen get up to?

Paul: No other non-music activity for a while. Demands of life have been getting in the way and we’ve managed to line a few gigs up that might not actually cost us anything play

Nimue: Now, I’ve seen Mad Magdalen (you’re awesome), and if I was booking you with my former folk club organiser hat on, I’d expect you’d have been at the edges of what I could have afforded (there being four of you) and only then if you happened to be in area anyway. It seems crazy to me that you should have to consider gigs in terms of not losing money. I’m guessing things are tough for musicians at the moment?

Paul: I think it’s always been the same. But it’s not just the band, I am so frequently asked, or to be frank, expected to play for little or nothing that I’ve simply stopped trying to be polite about it. The problems really arise when event organisers seem to take affront at being asked to make a reasonable payment, if only to cover costs. I had one Rainbow named person exclaim “But we’re a new company! We can’t afford to pay!” and even some well-known organisers are happy to pay speakers a fee (or at least expenses) but unwilling to shove things around to pay a solo musician for his train fare, a meal and a pint. Interestingly, since I’ve simply said “If you’re not going to pay me I’m not even going to consider your event” there have materialised paying gigs. Nothing much more than expenses, but it’s a start. It reflects where the Pagan community actually is, I suppose, with people singing and playing to pre-recorded music rather than keeping music live, over running support slots; meaning the live musicians have to play shorter sets and thus have less time to promote their CDs and maybe, just maybe, make £10 on an evening’s work. It’s happened several times and the combination of little or no money plus an emergence of pre-recorded acts tells me the community isn’t valuing its musical artists. Of course I’ll play events that I support without payment, or for the passing of a hat. But why on earth would you think that this applies to your event when we’ve never done anything more than become “friends” on Facebook?

Nimue: I feel much the same way about going out as an author. If it’s local, i.e. cheap to get to or something I want to do anyway, that’s one thing, but many events (not Pagan) seem keen that authors should pay for the privilege of being there, not the other way round!

So (because this is usually a more book orientated sot of blog) who gets space on your bookshelves?

Paul: I’m involved in proof reading a book by one of my favourite authors, Paul Read (AKA the Tea Pot Monk). Paul writes on the subject of Tai-Chi, one of my greater passions. I have several of his books already and these have been a great help in my articulation of my aims around teaching Tai-Chi and related practices. I also have a couple of books by a guy called Rory Miller. Rory is a leading expert in the area of self defence and violence. A great read and I was blessed with the opportunity to train with him over a rather bruising weekend recently. A book that is frequently in my hands at the moment is by Dr. Sun, it relates to the use of wind and fire wheels, a rather odd weapon that he resurrected for use in Tai-Chi training. Other than the whole Tai-Chi / martial arts thing I also tend to read, from time to time, books about economics and green issues. If I’m feeling up to it I’ll read a book that presents an ideology really opposed to mine; this helps me to test and understand my thoughts better. I haven’t read any fiction for ages! My wife is an avid reader, she belongs to a book club so I guess I should try a couple of her books out. The book club is an interesting thing; ladies spend a month reading a book then get together, get drunk as can be, and talk about the book. I’m in a home brew club. We brew beer then get together and get drunk on each others’ beer. I think it’s a far more honest process.

Nimue: If you’d like to find out more about Paul, his homepage is http://paul.makingithappen.co.uk/ which includes some music samples and album purchasing options – http://paul.makingithappen.co.uk/music.htm including that aforementioned one about being a much better Pagan when pissed. If you get the chance to see Paul live, jump at it.

This interview was first published on January 13, 2014 as Pagan People, and is republished here with permission.

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