CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. – Earth Changes, the new album by musician Todd Alan, includes a dire warning in his song “We Can Unite.”
“It really is so simple, the end of the road is near,” Alan sings as his plaintive, John Denver-ish tenor meanders over his mellow banjo playing. “The way we’ve run our politics, we’ll just increase the fear, and fear will breed more violence. The killing will go on until some really foolish man ignites the atom bomb.”
Alan obviously penned the song while watching the news crawl on CNN one recent night, right? Er, no.
The singer/guitarist/banjoist recorded the 10 songs of Earth Changes in 2006. Various life changes – the death of his mother, the illness of his wife at the time, the devastating loss of his singing voice – led him to shelve Earth Changes shortly after its recording and abandon music entirely, even listening to it.
A rejuvenated Alan is back on the Pagan music scene, 32 years after releasing his first work, Moon Magick, with his partner Lady Pythia, and 23 years after releasing his last album, Live at Pantheocon. Following the latter album, Alan went on a musical hiatus in the mid-1990s in order to co-found Wisteria, a campground, event site and nature preserve in southern Ohio. Wisteria currently is home to the annual Starwood Festival, which runs July 10-16 this year.Alan’s first return to music, with the recording of Earth Changes 12 years ago, was aborted by those aforementioned life changes. More recent changes — a divorce, the return of his singing voice, and a move to Sarasota, Florida, where he opened a shop selling his hand-crafted, braided wedding rings — opened him to trying music again. He finally released Earth Changes in February.
“I started sitting in on open [mikes], started performing again,” Alan said during a phone interview while attending a family reunion in Chautauqua, in upstate New York. “All the music has come back, and my voice and guitar playing are better than they ever were. I started writing again, so I said if I’m writing again and I’m going to release new material, the first thing I better do is catch up everyone on what I’ve already done.”
Alan’s website describes Earth Changes as “original songs dedicated to the environment, stopping global warming, and our spiritual connection with our Mother Earth.” The album combines acoustic and soft electric guitars, lyrical but seldom bluegrass-y banjo, keys, percussion, Alan’s clear voice, and backing vocals into pop and folk-rock textures that recall Dan Fogelberg, John Denver and Crosby, Stills and Nash.
The song “Heal the Earth” goes off the pop path by deploying tribal drumming, flute, and a chorus chanting the mantra “Come together and heal the Earth. Come together, the Earth heals us.”
“Gypsy Incarnation,” a tale of lost love, sports a dreamy pop sheen that would be right at home on mainstream adult contemporary radio. “Hanging Around,” a paean to friends, would be a perfect chill-out song to be played and sung around a campfire at festivals.
All the songs, and a video of “Gypsy Incarnation” shot in Bali, can be heard in their entirety on Alan’s website.
Alan himself seems a bit amazed that Earth Changes, steeped in his environmental activism, sounds as if it were recorded during the past year, when President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, a former coal lobbyist has assumed leadership of the EPA, and nuclear tensions between the U.S. and North Korea continue to fluctuate.
“Oh, it’s shocking stuff,” Alan said of current affairs. “Things I never, never would have perceived going on are happening now. I feel almost like Earth Changes was ahead of its time and that it just wasn’t time for it. Maybe just because I was so activist back then, maybe I was a little ahead of the curve. That’s all I can guess on it.
“I’m proud of it from a musician perspective. I sat and listened to it and not only was I like ‘Hey, there’s some really good musicianship here, some really good songwriting,’ but also it rings true of our time now.”
Alarming, even pessimistic imagery peppers the album.
“High finances, the corporate greed see our earth as a place to steal,” Alan sings on “Today,” despite the song’s ebullient groove.
On the title track he wonders: “Draughts and floods and hurricanes and rising ocean waves, crops are lost and wildlife gone, no water that is safe. Families lost, and cities gone, children all alone, hunger, fear, and desperation longing tears, and pain. Earth changes — is it true this is the time? Do our children need to suffer or do we have enough time?”
Alan even name-drops the atom bomb in “We Can Unite.”
Yet he sees Earth Changes as full of hope. For example, that latter song concludes: “We can unite to stop the machine. We must unite to stop the greed. Love grows, strength flows, love heals, time to feel.”
“At the time I was giving a lot of workshops on environmentalism, and global warming consciousness was just beginning to rise,” Alan said. “I am a firm believer in climate change. I studied with Al Gore. I went out and did the Climate Reality Project – spent six days with a group of people with him. I study the latest. It’s really scary stuff.
“I had a lot of hope. I really felt that if people just knew – if people just knew about it, of course they would do everything they could to avoid calamity. I listen to the album now and I don’t think I could write such a positive, affirming kind of message, but I’m actually glad it’s there because maybe it just wasn’t its time and maybe it’s good to reach something more positive.
“Yes, I’m trying to raise awareness – you know, red flags here! Our current political climate is not doing anything good for the cause, but at the same time, I’m trying to give a positive place to go. I still believe there are a lot of things to be hopeful for.”
Alan was born in Buffalo but grew up in the Cleveland area, where his father was head of the Boy Scouts for the region. Alan grew up in a “really casual” Methodist household, but “even as a small child, I would be out in the woods making believe I was a minister and just going ‘We should have church in the woods!’ ” he recalled.
Alan began playing guitar at age 11, and “right out of high school” in the early 1980s he went on the road playing the lounge circuit with a pop-rock cover band, and simultaneously playing “scrub little clubs” in an all-original rock band.
Alan’s life and music “took a radical change” in 1985 when he attended his first Pagan festival, Starwood. There he met and fell in love with Lady Pythia, “and I ended up moving in with her into this full-blown, full-time, 25-person coven called the Floating Spiral Coven” in Kent, Ohio, he said. “I changed my job, my life, my music, my everything and dove incredibly deep into that. It was kind of like going to witch college. It was full-time study.”
“In 1987, we (Alan and Pythia) released our first Pagan cassette, called Moon Magick,” he said, chuckling over the primitive connotations of the word “cassette.” That meditative work was followed a year later by Earth Magick, “which was probably the first Pagan rock ’n’ roll on the scene. The biggest thing I realized way back then was that there was some great, great Pagan music, but the recording quality was terrible, the musicianship wasn’t all that great, and at the time there was an enormous need for good quality musicians within the Pagan music scene.
“We had Gwydion, who was the ‘Ahhhhhh!’” — here he breaks into an operatic flourish— “at the time and he had just recently died, but he was like ‘it,’ so when we released Earth Magick, it very quickly became popular.”
Alan and Pythia ended their relationship even as he continued to play the Pagan circuit, “headlining at most all the festivals.” He met and married Charlene Suggs, and the couple had a child conceived at the Pagan Spirit Gathering. Llewellyn, the book publisher, contacted Alan and signed him to record for their new Pagan music division. The label planned to re-release Earth Magick and then Alan’s just-recorded new work, Carry Me Home.
A week before the first release, “Llewellyn called me and said ‘We’re having financial trouble and we’ve decided to drop the whole music thing,’” Alan said. “I had this complete album on my hands with no idea what to do with it, so I printed 400 copies of a cassette and went to Starwood and gave them all away.
“Carry Me Home took off like crazy. It literally bootlegged itself around the world. It sold really well. The Starhawk book and the Todd Alan Carry Me Home – it was that level at the time. I re-released it later on CD and just sold it online through my website, and that album continues to sell through the years. There’s not a cut on that album that to this day I’m not proud of.”
Alan released other albums before leaving the music scene in 1996 to form the Wisteria community with Suggs.
“I had been performing a lot,” he said. “I was headlining at most of the festivals. Actually, through the music we started promoting the idea of community. It was the idea of ‘Boy, we love doing this all week long. What if we could do this all year?’
“Also for me at the time, music was becoming – it’s kind of a selfish thing in a way. You’re like ‘Me me me, look at me! Listen to my music!’ I wanted to do something that would be deeper, longer lasting and was about service, about giving to the larger community. What greater thing could I do than not only try to preserve a large piece of land but create a permanent home for community?”
Alan returned to music by recording Earth Changes in 2006, but a series of events aborted his comeback. His mother died in 2007. His wife Charlene became ill in 2008 and he became her caregiver. Later the couple began divorce proceedings. Alan also left Wisteria “after years of running everything” (although he remains affectionately connected to that community).
Alan also inexplicably lost his singing voice: “I could maybe sing a song and half, maybe two, and I would start getting this feeling in the back of my throat that was like choking. I couldn’t sing for the rest of the night. I literally separated from music. I even stopped listening to music because it was depressing for me.”
His new girlfriend assured him his voice would return after his divorce was finalized, but that didn’t happen. Then came a messy breakup with his rebound relationship.
“I was driving by her house and her new boyfriend’s car is in the driveway, and I’m bawling and this Stephen Stills song, ‘Southern Cross,’ comes on the radio,” Alan said. “I’m singing along with it, especially the line ‘I’ll find somebody new.’ Then I thought, ‘Wait a second – I’m hitting some really high notes! What am I doing with my throat right now? It’s kind of this Kermit the Frog thing.’
“Then it dawned on me that’s what my voice teacher always said — you’re supposed to feel like you’re yawning. It was like a revelation. The irony of the story is that all the time my rebound kept saying ‘When you get divorced, you’re going to get your voice back,’ but it was actually when I broke up with her that I got my voice back.”
Recalling the lessons of his voice teacher as a child, Alan “started from scratch and retrained my voice from the bottom up using this whole new method. It was weird because my voice sounded very different. It took several years. This was 2013-2014. Really working my voice also brought back my guitar playing.”
Alan’s spiritual path likewise has metamorphosed since his coven days.
“To me spirituality is a journey,” he said. “When I first found the Pagan community, it was so incredible because it was a place that mixed nature with spirituality to the depth of everything I’ve always felt.
“When I left the coven, I wanted to follow more of the Native American spirituality, even though I’m a complete, 100 percent European English white man. The biggest difference between the Wiccan and the Native American for me was the Wiccan movement kind of said decide what you want and do magick to make it happen. The Native American for me said we’re very small and how can we know what it is we’re supposed to be doing and not doing and where we’re supposed to be going, so instead send up your prayers for guidance, send up your prayers for wisdom and simply trust and learn to read the signs and learn to read the guidance. That has become the underscore of my entire spirituality for my life ever since.”
Elements of Buddhism, the Hinduism he witnessed in Bali, his Christian upbringing, his Wiccan past, animal guidance (“because I lived in the woods for so long”), and elfin magick (“because I’m very connected with the faery realm and nature spirits and how that ties into the Native American teachings of our animal teachers”) all combine to create his eclectic path, he said.
“I would not shy away from the word Pagan because of the roots of it being of the earth, and if there is anything that describes my spirituality more than anything it would be nature and being fully earth-connected and trusting the guidance that is provided,” he said. “To me it’s a very personal thing that I keep inside. I don’t feel I have the right to teach anyone. I have the deepest respect for the native peoples and by no means am I claiming anything like that (native heritage). The closest resonation I probably have is some eclectic mixture of concepts of Native American teachings.”
“Ah Ho,” a song on Earth Changes, reflects Alan’s spiritual path, taking its inspiration from animal guides and Native American mythology including the White Buffalo and Turtle Island: “The Turtle is our Mother Earth, she freely gives us all we need from fire, water, air and earth, and now we must give back to her.”
While Alan has no desire to teach spirituality, he does hope that his music can inspire hope and bring awareness to environmental concerns.
“My jewelry-making isn’t going to raise consciousness,” he said. “Music is the best chance I have of making a dent in reality, however little or however much. I feel like more than ever this is the time to step forward. In the next project, I think we really need to tie in the idea of nature and spirituality in a way that everyone can grasp – that people have a spiritual connection to nature and they themselves are nature and that we’re all completely interconnected.
“Then they are going to be a lot more likely to take the small steps that all of us can take to start making a huge difference. There is so much power in the masses. If every individual would do something to make the world a little bit better of a place, oh my god what could happen! How do you do something that hits a chord? I don’t want to be preachy. I don’t want to be pessimistic. I just want to find a beautiful, heartfelt message that resonates with the deepest parts of our humanity.”