The Making Of – Herne’s Apprentice
I can barely believe that my album Herne’s Apprentice is 20 years old this year! I think it’s about time I took a look back at my albums and take some time to remember the processes and journeys that led to their births. Today my thoughts have turned to my solo debut album. It was my first venture into home recording – Spiral Castle, the band I’d formed with friends in the late 90s had made a home-recorded album so I knew it was possible, but I had no experience or direct training with the software or how to record using it. So I bought a Dell PC (I was then, and still am, an Apple user, but I was recommended a PC by the music shop), I bought a microphone, an audio interface/mixer, and a copy of Logic (which at the time was a PC Digital Audio Workstation). The music shop sent someone out to set it all up in the smallest bedroom in our bungalow. I remember it being so complicated! But finally, everything was set up and ready to go.
I’d had a couple of false starts. I had bought an all-in-one recording station and I’d used that to help my Bardic Buddy Paul Mitchell record his first album Far Better Pagan, but I wasn’t happy with the way the unit worked so I went all in with the full PC home studio thing. We moved into our bungalow at Imbolc in 2001. Work on Herne’s Apprentice began in earnest in October 2001 and was completed and ready for release in the Spring of 2002.
So how about the songs? My old band Spiral Castle had recorded an album in the late 90s, and I continued to write more songs. Rob who played most of the mandolin parts on the SC album had moved to Yorkshire and Rick came into the band playing Hammered Dulcimer. I’d fallen in love with the Hammered Dulcimer through the music of Space Goats and Jabberwocky – it just felt like the musical sound of that age. But over the first couple of years of the 2000s, my life changed completely and it also became harder and harder for the four of us to meet up, and it was during this time I thought about just going it alone. I remember watching Mike Oldfield on Blue Peter when I was a child demonstrating how he multitracked his music all by himself and I thought I could do that too. So I started to experiment and in the end that is the direction my musical life took.
The tiny room was ready. The equipment was connected and set up. I had most of the songs written and ready to go. When I listen to Herne’s Apprentice now I’m amazed at how well it holds up. The opening chords of Song of Awen still give me goosebumps. The choppy mandolin chords that open Lughnasadh do the same. I still love this album. For the Spiral Castle album, we used an acoustic Djembe for the drum and I continued that with Herne’s Apprentice. I laid down a guitar or mandolin track first (depending on the song) with a guide vocal, and then built everything around that. I remember having a very experimental attitude, a ‘why not try that and see how it sounds’ thing, which led to the call and responses vocal lines in Song of Awen and Obsession in particular. I wanted the whole album to feel like you were listening to a folk band play outside, next to a campfire, under the stars. I think that works.
There were only a few individual tracks and instruments used. I kept it to what would sound like a four-piece acoustic band. Subsequently, there is literally no bass guitar. All of the bottom end is the guitars. It was very stripped down and natural. Partly because I really didn’t know what I was doing, and partly through choice. When it came to the finished album I literally just bounced down the mixed songs onto a CD. Cerri put together the artwork and for the first few thousand copies, the covers were hand cut from a colour-printed A4 sheet. Those were the dark green covers, the ones that look like the picture in this article. The bounced-down songs were never, and have never been, mastered. I just didn’t know what that was, but I think it adds to the magic of the album – there is a lovely sense of innocence in the recording that comes from a place of love, not perfection. I also had no real idea how the album would be received. I was just happy to have achieved something I thought was rather special.
How did it get the title Herne’s Apprentice? What does it mean? Throughout the recording of the album, I didn’t have a title for it. I knew I didn’t want it to be the title of one of the songs on the album, but nothing came until one night, I had a dream. My reverence was then and still is, with the old Horned God of Nature. Ever since I saw Pan and the image of Herne in the old Richard Carpenter Robin of Sherwood series, I had adored him. Herne in particular. And in that dream I was walking through a forest, fallen Autumn leaves crunching underfoot, and out of the Autumn mist I saw antlers, and Herne stood before me. I was awestruck. I said nothing. But he handed me an arrow, smiled, and then slowly retreated back into the mist. When I looked at the arrow there was nothing in my hand, but I heard the words, “You are my apprentice”. Look, I’m not going to get all grandiose about it. I don’t think I’m literally Herne’s Apprentice, but I do think I was given a gift in that dream, a blessing maybe. When I awoke, I had the album title.
There were no social media sites. The internet was still a painfully slow dial-up experience. The way I let people know about my music was through Pagan magazines. So I sent the album for review in the Children of Artemis’ Witchcraft and Wicca magazine, Pagan Dawn, Sacred Hoop, Prediction – as many places I could think of, but I never thought that Herne’s Apprentice would be the debut album of a musical career that went on to birth many more albums, overseas tours, the Y Mabinogi albums, would end up on iTunes, Spotify, and would be a firm favourite for so many people for decades to come. None of that was anywhere near my radar. All I did know is that I wanted to release an album of songs that I was happy with.
The reviews were quite frankly astounding, and from those reviews, orders came in for the album. There really is no way of expressing the feeling you get when someone shows their love for your art. From those reviews I got gigs and at those gigs, more people bought the album. I remember sending a copy to the Czech Republic and after many years finding out that the CD had been copied for others in the Czech Pagan community, and that resulted in me going to Prague and playing to the most wonderful groups of souls who all knew my songs! It felt like I’d stepped onto a Path, with no real idea where it was leading, but loving everywhere it was sending me.
And really I’m writing this today, and you are reading it, because of that first album. The Path it set me on continues, and there are no words that can express my gratitude for all of the adventures I’ve been on since I played that opening chord of Song of Awen, standing in front of that microphone, and the first tracks were laid down 20 years ago. When I was 8 years old I had a dream of, one day, earning a living through my music. That dream came true. What can I say, other than thank you – I look forward to finding out where the Path will lead next.