NASHVILLE – Rowena Whaling says her mother “was terrified I would become a nun, but I never really thought of that because I knew I was going to be a singer.”
Instead Whaling became a Wiccan high priestess and a singer, and an accomplished one at that. At the Second Annual Pagan Music Awards, held in Nashville in September and presented by the International Pagan Music Association, Whaling was honored as Best Female Artist for the second year in a row. Samples of her sometimes dark, sometimes mystical, sometimes erotic, rock-oriented music — from her CDs My Mother’s Song and Book of Shadows — can be heard on her website, rowenaoftheglen.com.
While Whaling’s spiritual path meandered until, she says, she “came out of the broom closet in 1995,” her musical destiny was set early.
“I was raised on the road 32 to 36 weeks a year because my parents were theatricals,” Whaling says. “So, I was in a show business environment all the time. I was around a lot of really famous singers and I loved music. There was always an orchestra where we were playing. I really started singing and writing poetry at 6 years old.”
Her parents also arranged for her to take operatic singing lessons.
While Whaling wasn’t a part of her parents’ act, she would “sneak on stage between shows when the audience was arriving and just, you know, sing,” she says with a hearty chuckle. Her laughter, like her gritty singing voice, sounds like a cross between Stevie Nicks and Janis Joplin.
All the while, Whaling adds, “I was a very odd child. I was very deep spiritually. I always had dreams that came true exactly, and I’ve always been able to hear and see sometimes the presence of spirits around me. But I was afraid to tell anyone because I thought they’d think I was crazy, so I kept my mouth shut and I was very secretive about it.
“Looking back now, I probably could have shared that with my parents. They were spiritual but they weren’t part of any particular religion. In fact, they probably would have been proud of me. But I didn’t.”
Her mother kept some of the poetry Whaling wrote as a youngster. “It was dark,” she says with a laugh. Perhaps that poetry was a harbinger of some of her music to come – such songs as “Bella Morte,” “Death,” and “Poison Lover.”
With many adults and few children around, Whaling also became quite precocious.
“I was mentally mature growing up,” she says. “I was included in adult conversations.”
And so “it was not incongruous,” she says, when as a 6-year-old she informed her non-church-going parents that she wanted to attend a Catholic church near their home in the Northeast when the family wasn’t on the road.
Her mother’s fear that she would become a nun dissipated when the family settled in New Orleans, thus ending her Catholic stage in her early teens. In the Big Easy, “voodoo was everywhere and I met some nice practitioners,” Whaling says. She also “investigated” other branches of Christianity apart from Catholicism.During the early stage of her music career, Whaling worked as a staff songwriter for three different music publishing companies in Memphis and Nashville, where she got paid to write mainstream pop and rock sings for other artists. As she had always done, she wrote the music in her head, given that she plays no instrument.
Whaling also launched her own career as a singer-songwriter, recording an R&B/rock set as her first album, a jazz/blues/rock album as her second, and then two albums as the front woman of the popular Nashville gothic pop-rock band the Beat Poets. Singer/guitarist/keyboardist B. Willie Dryden, her partner in the Beat Poets, won Best Male Artist at this year’s Pagan Music Awards.
The Beat Poets’ breakup in 1995 coincided with Whaling’s emergence from that broom closet. Asked what led her to “the Craft,” as she calls it, Whaling enigmatically says only that she “probably found it when I was a child.”
She became high priestess of the Circle of Dragonstone, a traditional Wiccan coven in Nashville which her “handfast” has led as high priest since its founding in 2001.
For a time, Whaling also served as the high priestess of “a huge, more eclectic group, kind of like a Unitarian Universalist church with rituals,” she says. “I identify spiritually as a shamanic practitioner. I’m very deeply into that as well as a traditional Wicca. I choose to express my spirituality or to celebrate it in the Wiccan form, but I basically am a Universalist.”
Whaling’s latest two albums, My Mother’s Song and Book of Shadows – both released under the name of her band, Rowena of the Glen – include rocking songs that are overtly Pagan, and some that reveal nothing of their Wiccan creator beyond the human emotions that reside in everyone.
Her song “The Witching Hour” features tribal percussion, Pan-ish meandering flute and Whaling’s raspy voice chant-singing “Serpent coils at midnight, the witching hour. Drummers drum the fire light in the witching hour. Madness does abound with the May moon full and round. The energy whirls in the witching hour.”
“Trance Dance” is a rocker that pulses with a Middle Eastern-ish riff and big, hooky chorus. “The Creature,” with its flute weaving around searing guitar and Whaling’s lyrics invoking Glastonbury, Merlin, and the “gods of the old ones,” recalls the prog rock of Jethro Tull.
“Pagan Lover,” with its muscular guitar crunch and erotic lyrics delivered by Whaling’s Janis-like voice (Joplin, not Janus the Roman god), would bring a blush to the cheeks of Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin’s satyrish front man.
“Bella Morte,” with its lyric about the “vagina dentata” (vagina with teeth), “was a gift from the Dark Mother,” Whaling says. The song came to her in a dream “that was completely black – it didn’t have any visual element to it.”
The title track of My Mother’s Song “is about my mother and the Great Goddess,” she says.
Other songs — “Trust Me,” “Nothing Lasts Forever,” “His Fool” – would sound right at home in some grungy bar that caters to blues-rock bands.
“Some of the songs on my albums aren’t even Pagan at all, and yet every song is a Pagan song because it’s coming from a Pagan writer,” Whaling says. “We play for non-Pagan audiences too. When we play out in a mainstream club or festival, the people there don’t look at it as Pagan music. They just don’t (laughs). Either that or rock music has been enmeshed in Pagan concepts for decades.”
Regardless of the audience, Whaling is quick to add that for her creating music is “absolutely” a magical act: “My music is as much my spiritual work as my priestessing work.”
Whaling says she “felt so honored just to be nominated by the committee of the International Pagan Music Association. When I saw the list of other beloved and talented female nominees the first year, I frankly didn’t believe that I had much chance to win. When I did indeed win, I was shocked — and then a second time!”
Whaling urges not only musicians to join the organization, but also journalists, writers, songwriters, producers, engineers, and music fans through the IPMA’s associate membership program.
She and other Pagan musicians are blessed by the efforts of the International Pagan Music Association, Whaling says: “In my experience in the music industry, this kind of broad support is unheard of. I am so happy that an organization such as the IPMA has sprung up in our community — one that supports and esteems the artistic talents and dedication of Pagan musicians worldwide. Theirs is a multifaceted plan in the works to promote and aid Pagan musical artists in every way possible. It’s all about the artist to them.”
Whaling also is a writer whose works include the Arthurian fantasy novel Voices of the Stars. Her author website is rowenawhaling.com.