Interview with Singer, Poet, Musician, Writer, Druid and Bard, Paul Newman

blackwell_interviewsPaul Newman presently lives in Sheffield, England. Song has been part of his life from when his mother sang to him as a child. He had teachers who could encourage him and give him the love to play music as well as sing. He also teaches people to develop their own singing ability. He is a Druid and a Bard.

Christopher: Can you tell us a bit about your background?

Paul: I grew up in Portsmouth, a coastal town on the south coast of England. My father was a baker and my mother was a care assistant in a nursing home. I’m one of the lucky few who enjoyed school. Mum and dad taught me to read before I started, so I hit the ground running.

Christopher: You mentioned that you remember your mother singing to you as a young child. When did you begin singing yourself?

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Paul C. Newman

Paul: One of my earliest memories is performing The Birdie Song at my play school (kindergarten). I must have been three years old. We lined up to go on stage and someone further ahead said they were nervous about performing. I noticed that I wasn’t, although my mother tells me when I was six I did bail on a performance due to stage fright.

Singing was part of everyday life in school back then. We sang hymns and funny songs, action songs, nursery rhymes. That continued all the way into Secondary School (Junior High) where I joined the drama and music clubs and we put on musical shows like Annie, Get Your Gun, Godspell and Oh, What A Lovely War. I don’t think singing is so prevalent in schools now and that’s a great shame.

Christopher: You mentioned a couple of teachers that had a major influence on you. Could you tell us something about them?

Paul: My first music teacher was Mrs. Lewis. She taught us guitar chords. I was nine then and my father had always had this fairly cheap guitar with steel strings. I persevered with it for weeks until Mrs. Lewis suggested to my folks that they should get a nylon string guitar which would be easier for me to play. I was playing every evening trying to get the changes.

She sang Ralph McTell’s Streets of London to us as a class. I was moved by it and right then, knew that I wanted to be able to do that, to sing truths that weren’t easy to say in a beautiful way. That was probably a pivotal moment for me.

Hugh Carpenter was my music teacher throughout my adolescence. He had a beard and I liked him instantly. One of those teachers who teach as much about how to be happy and alive as their chosen subject. A friend of his very generously subsidized the cost of lessons for one pupil every year so that he could offer lessons to someone who wouldn’t normally be able to afford them. I was very fortunate to be the recipient of that scholarship and took all my grades in singing before I’d left college (High School).

Christopher: What affect did this have on you as a boy?

Paul: I think it helped with my confidence. I’ve always had a fair amount of social courage and have been able to ask questions in class and make conversation with people I don’t know.

Saying that, one time, my courage failed me; I went into a shop on Fawcett Road in Portsmouth which now I would call a Head Shop, but at the time had no idea what to call it. I was probably fourteen years old. It was staffed by a fellow who had long hair and a beard even longer than Hugh and was possessed of a sobriety / sincerity that I hadn’t encountered in anyone before. I was very much drawn to him and sensed there was something to learn or to know there, but although I was quite a thoughtful child, I’d never struck up a religious or spiritual conversation with a stranger before. I wanted to say “So, tell me about life…” or something, but that just seemed ridiculous and I became increasingly embarrassed at not knowing what to say and ended up walking out of the shop without engaging the chap or the shop at all. It turns out that the man was Dylan ap Thuin, founder of the Insular Order of Druids. If I’d have only said something  I might have saved myself ten years!

Christopher: What kind of music influenced you the most?

Paul: Well as a child you just absorb everything. My dad listened to Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, soul music, lots of things. He collected cassettes and records from car boot sales (like a yard sale in a parking lot). He got comedy records like Bob Newhart and the Policeman’s Secret Ball, so I was introduced to the humour of Monty Python quite early. Two records stand out from my childhood more than any others; Nut Rocker by B. Bumble and the Stingers and The Tale of Big John by Jimmy Dean. Nut Rocker showed me that it was okay to take someone else’s music and make your own (very funky and danceable too) and Big John tells a story, I love that.

Christopher: When did you start performing yourself?

Paul: I’ve just always done it; always been in the school play, accompanied the school singing hymns on my guitar during assemblies, studied drama and music through education up to degree level which provides plenty of performance opportunities. I sang in the Portsmouth Choral Union.

The first proper band I was in where we had actual instruments rather than hitting whatever was to hand was called Psychalysis. We played Purple Haze and Wild Thing, grew our hair long and wore black. Since then there’s always been something. Even when I was a Mormon I got involved in choirs and plays. They have a thing called a Roadshow where five or six churches get together, each with a fifteen minute play.

Christopher: What kind of gigs do you perform?

Paul: All sorts, festivals, camps, storytelling, forest schools, clubs, restaurants, private functions. The material changes for each gig. This week I’ve had five gigs; three were informal, more coffee morning-type atmospheres where people sing along and call for requests. If I know how a song goes I can usually busk it if I get the lyrics up on my phone, then learn them properly later. That way my repertoire keeps growing. Those gigs were for Creative Recovery, a charity in Barnsley. I like gigs where there’s no stage.

There’s an Irish tradition called Sean Nos where the singer sits side on to the audience and holds the hand of the person at the end of the row to show that the songs belong to all of us, it’s not just about the performer. Music is for everyone, for everyone to create and enjoy.

My favourite place to go out and play is a pub called Fagans in Sheffield. They have a session there most nights and everyone who comes is welcome to join in tastefully with other people’s songs whatever your instrument. It’s like a fireside eisteddfod in that way.

There was a private function I played with a drummer called Peter Fairclough, which was a mixture of covers, mostly eighties dance tunes, some classic rock numbers and a Tapas bar in town called Cubana which has live music most nights, music for people to eat and dance to; mostly latin, Bossa Nova and Cuban Son.

Christopher: You mentioned taking a year to work on your music and songs, and about creating podcasts with each song until you had enough for an album. Could you tell us bit about that?

Paul: I managed six out of twelve. Well thirteen actually, I wanted to do one for each moon. I was trying to bring some sense of order and discipline to my creativity by using the lunar cycle. It was a good idea, one I’d like to try again some time.

During that process I had a profound encounter with the Goddess whilst at a rock festival with one of my sons. As a result of that, I wanted to align myself with the moon more consciously. The episode with the story about Rhiannon meeting Pwyll was inspired by my experience.

I think if you set your intention and make yourself available to inspiration, keep to your commitments and work on it then you will be used; inspiration will come. Working on your craft whatever it is, seeing whatever you do as art and taking it seriously increases your integrity and love for life. More opportunities come to you as you become more able to meet their demands. The podcasts are free to download and the songs are available separately.

The year out to work on my album was a therapeutic experience. At the time I wasn’t able to hold down a steady job, so I spent the time lost in myth and music. I’m very fortunate to have a very supportive family. My family and friends are used to me having to withdraw for periods of time. The album PassingFayre came from it and it’s a spell really more than an album. The intent with which it was made was to help people come to terms with death and live more engaged and fulfilled lives as a result.

At the moment I don’t sing a lot of my own songs, because I tend to get gigs where people want to dance and sing along. I have a large repertoire of covers, but I don’t feel I have a large enough body of my own work to get gigs based solely on my own compositions. Hopefully that will change as I see and hear more clearly.

Christopher: You also teach others as well?

Paul: Yes, mostly singing, but occasionally voice for speaking or acting too. I’d like to do more therapeutic work with the voice, using the voice as a starting point for self discovery and actualization (or whatever you want to call it). Many folks who come for vocal lessons are looking for more confidence, a better sense of centre and voice work helps with that.

Christopher: How can people contact for either your teaching or performing?

Paul: I have a couple of websites – www.vocaledge.co.uk for teaching and www.storyfolksinger.co.uk for performance.

Christopher: How did you become a Druid?

Paul: By accident! Or maybe my wife’s clandestine design. We attended the Midwinter Solstice ritual at Stonehenge in 2003. I was so overcome that I stood forth and took initiation as a Bard even though I was still a Christian at the time. After that, we went to the Lammas Games in Oxford organized by the Druid Network. By that time, we had left the Church we were attending. I ended up winning the Eisteddfod and was presented with the Spear of Lugh. At that event, we met Mark Graham who invited me to tell stories at his hand-fasting and also a Druidic Blacksmith from Doncaster to whom I was apprenticed for a year. So, rather in at the deep end you might say!

A year after that, I met Damh the Bard at the Druid Network Camp. We became friends and he invited me to play at the next OBOD gathering. When I was there, he told me as I wasn’t a member of the order, I would have to come back in the evening after the order’s business had been conducted, so rather than face another day shopping in Glastonbury, I joined OBOD!

It was some years of dipping in and out of their correspondence course, attending public rituals around the country with various Groves and playing at Druid rites and celebrations before I decided to take this Druidry seriously. Just this last week I have completed the OBOD Bardic Grade and am moving on to the Ovate Grade.

Christopher: How does this affect what you do?

Paul: How long have you got?! It has helped me see life and my place in it more clearly. It’s given me a framework to be able to understand and assess my development. I know some people manage perfectly well as solitary practitioners, but having the regularity of a course, a tutor and an external order to meet with occasionally and compare myself with has been very useful.

Christopher: What is a Bard and what is their purpose?

Paul: Briefly, a Bard keeps the spirit and memory of a tribe alive, learning and sharing songs and stories that inform us about who we are, why we’re here, where we’re from, where we’re going and how we could get there.

It’s not easy, because we in the west have many different tribes within tribes. Household, family, neighbourhood, work, hobbies, interests, religions. Quite often we associate with these people separately. Comedian Stewart Lee said in his recent tour that he “creates a liberal consensus that melts upon contact with the night air”. Sometimes a tribe comes together and lasts only as long as the duration of a gig. In this way, it’s hard to find work that is truly bardic because I would have to be part of that tribe I worked within, not just a visitor.

However fervent, friendly and well-meaning we are, we still live compartmentalized lives. Mostly this means looking at my tribe as the two-legged. I truly come alive for the moments when we are at the Druid camps. It is only temporary, but we come together and live as a tribe where we use all of our gifts to serve each other. In recent years we have attended less of them in attempt to feel more at home at home. Slow work.

Christopher: Is keeping the old stories alive important to you?

Paul: Yes, that’s part of it, but more important to me is that we apply the lessons they teach in our own lives.

Christopher: So what of the future?

Paul: Service! Having spent ten years as a Bard and finishing the Bardic Grade feels like I have completed a period of apprenticeship. In the trades an Apprentice becomes a Journeyman for a similar period of time before they can become a Master. I am now entering that Journeyman Bard phase of my career. I intend to write, record and perform more of my own material, doing what a Bard should be doing. What shape exactly that will take will be a journey between the Land, the Gods and the People.

Christopher:  Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?

Paul: Just that I’d be happy to know you. Feel free to get in touch. Thanks for your time, Christopher.

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