Convivium: Your songs were in many ways the accompaniment to my childhood. I would come to church many Sundays just in time to have you lead our congregation in worship. Take us back to the beginning of your musical journey.
Brian Doerksen: Ever since I was a little boy, I was moved by music; I was fascinated by it. Certain types of music will just penetrate your heart and do something deep inside you, and other music will just float on by and not really grab you.
Songs that were emotionally transparent, told stories, or were spiritual in some way – even on mainstream radio – was a magnet to me. My dad was a tenor, and sang in more traditional quartets and choirs. His musical mother tongue was not my mother tongue musically, but I was around music. He did multiple albums, so I remember as a boy getting to go to the recording studio and just sitting there in wonder of it all. My mom played a little bit of piano, but it was really I would say in my teen years I was mentored by other musicians sitting by my turntable.
My older brother, who's now an Anglican priest, would come and badger me saying, "Let's go do such-and-such." I would be sitting by the turntable listening to Phil Keaggy or James and I would go, "I am doing something." To this day I have a little tradition, I call it "Vinyl at Five." At 5:00 to mark the end of my workday I'll put on a vinyl record and look at the artwork, and just be present to the music.
Then, when I was about 16, I had my spiritual awakening and I picked up the guitar. That's when the little seeds of writing my own songs started.
C: Which musical artists have been formative in shaping the way that you approach your craft?
BD: In my teens, it was folk-rock, mainstream, and explicitly Christian music that shaped me. James Taylor would be my biggest influence. He's been doing music for 50 years now, and I still respect the songs he writes. I ended up getting the same type of guitar that he plays. That shows you the power of that influence, an Olson.
Phil Keaggy was one of those Christian musicians that was really influential. He’s an incredible guitarist. He had this song called Let Everything Else Go. I remember through all my teen years I had a ritual where before I would go to sleep at night, I had a little cassette player – this of course dates me – and I'd hear these words: "I can't wait to see you Jesus, face to face. Nothing in this world can take your place. All the pride of man laid low and all of his works of gold, nothing can compare with what you are. Let everything else go, let it go."
C: Are there particular songs you have found that continue to resonate with your listeners?
BD: There are songs that you do over the years that just fade away and you never sing them again. Then there are songs that people keep asking for: Faithful One, Creation Calls, Refiner's Fire, I Lift My Eyes Up, and Come, Now Is the Time to Worship.
Songs have this way of bringing you back. They live in what I like to call your backup hard drive in your brain. When you take information and you fuse it with melody it gets stored in a different part of your brain. My father-in-law had a stroke, a brain bleed, and we weren't sure if he was going to survive. For a short amount of time, he lost most of his memory. Somebody would walk into the hospital room and he wouldn't even know who they were. I had been away on a trip when this whole incident happened, so I arrived about 10 days after to his hospital room. As I walked into the room, he looked straight at me and started singing my song, To the River.
I always say to young songwriters, "I know song writing isn't easy; it takes a lot of wrestling and rewriting and vulnerability. But if you actually can write a song that goes into somebody's heart and stays with them, it goes into their backup hard drive, and when they're in trouble they'll remember it."
One of the most amazing emails we ever got at my website was from a couple who had been kidnapped by extremists. They were imprisoned in a cell for months and they had nothing, except they had what was in their memory. They started singing what they called their "captivity hymnal," their sacred songs that helped keep them alive, and they said a whole bunch of them were written by me.
C: You grew up in the Mennonite community with parents who were deeply involved in the local community of faith. Would you share more about the role of heritage in a life of a faith?
BD: Heritage is so important. Who we are is a direct result of how we have seen our parents do life. Faith is about who we are and what we do, how we treat other people, how we seek the good for others, how we seek the good for the environment and for the world in which we live in. None of us would necessarily walk that road unless somebody showed us how to walk it and somebody gave us permission to come along with them and walk it.
I'm part of a new, simple kind of faith community called the Table, and whenever we get together to worship or to be together we do it inter-generationally, because we believe that children need to be with the next generation and the grandparents' generation, and we all need to learn from each other. I just think walking together and passing on faith to the next generation, it's life.
C: How has fatherhood shaped you as a musician and person of faith?
BD: I am a musician that expresses spiritual themes and biblical themes through music and speech. I have special needs boys who have limited or no speech. Being their father has been part of a shift for me that spirituality can't be primarily about belief and what we say and our creeds, even though I believe in theology and I believe in creeds. But my boys can't say those. What they can do is that they can give and receive love. They have helped shift and shape me and aim me towards love as the primary goal. I think it also has shaped the music behind the scenes in a way that it also shows our dependence, our vulnerability.
Parenting has also changed my sense of pace. In my career I had opportunities probably 10, 15 years ago at the peak when I could have booked basically nonstop touring in the US and Canada, in parts of Europe, Asia. Most of those opportunities I turned down because of my boys. We were only going to walk in a way that was at a pace that our family could sustain.
C: You went through a dark night of the soul from 2010-2012. How did that shape you as a musician?
BD: I think what some call the dark night of the soul is part of the seasons of life. You can go through a long arc of fruitfulness and intense work and growth, and there eventually comes this point in your life where you hit a wall, you enter this place of shadows, and you can't seem to see anymore.
I actually wrote a song Will You Love Me in the Winter, just before entering into a season of deep sorrow. During that period of time, I would go to a faith gathering or a church service where all the songs they were singing spoke of springtime and summertime. I remember feeling like trying to sing some of those songs and they felt like sawdust in my mouth. I had to just give myself space. Then eventually the healing could start and the re-emerging out of that season.
In communities of faith, we often do a really good job celebrating with those who have good news, but we don't do really good at mourning with those that are mourning. We’ve removed the grieving rituals from our culture, and even Christians now, at somebody's funeral they'll call it a "celebration of life" because they don't almost want to say a funeral is a time to mourn.
C: You often perform with a group called SHIYR Poets. You sing the psalms and have penned pieces based on song fragments discovered with the Dead Sea Scrolls. What’s the unique power of the psalms in worship?
BD: It’s pronounced "sheer" because it's a Hebrew word which means musical or singing. So, we're like the musical singing poets, and we take the ancient Hebrew prayers and poems and we set them to new melodies. Then we sing in our mother tongue, English, not in Hebrew. We’re releasing our next album, the next set of Psalms. Singing these songs makes every cell and atom in my body quiver with resonance that they have been sung for 3,000 years. I don't fully understand all of the psalms and I find at times there's a little bit too much us and them in it, but this is the songbook of the people of faith, of Jewish faith and of Christian faith for 3,000 years. The humility in saying, "Let the ancient songwriters still speak."
C: Are there old hymns that you find yourself returning to again and again?
BD: The older I get, the more I recognize the power, strength and beauty in the ancient liturgies and in what my brother would call the great tradition. The importance of understanding that the songs and the creeds and our gathering within Christendom is always about feeding and replenishing us, but then sending us back out into a broken, needy world to be healers, to be providers, to be reconcilers, to be peacemakers.
I grew up Mennonite, so I grew up in Anabaptist tradition, which probably was, in some of its expressions, very beautiful on the theme of pacifism and making peace, but also very suspicious about the great tradition, about anything liturgical, which in my opinion starts getting crazy. As human beings, to quote James K.A. Smith, "We are homo liturgicus." We are rhythm, and liturgy is about this rhythm of words and embodied actions and symbols and things. We're creatures of habit, we're creatures of rhythm, and they are all about aiming our soul, our heart, toward something ultimate, something bigger than ourselves.
C: I’ve seen you share the stage with children’s choirs, and university choral ensembles, encountering musicians like Paul Baloche and Kathryn Scott in your work. What’s the place for you of collaboration in creating music?
BD: Collaboration is life. In every way we need each other. I did this little exercise for this songwriting training thing back in the day. I said to everyone, "Okay, let's do a little exercise. Let's look at the top 25 songs of CCLI," which represented the top 25 songs sung in faith communities and churches. Of the 25, 24 were written by one writer, and the one co-write was written by a married couple. Then I said, "Now let's go to the top songs that are nominated for Grammy award." 90 per cent of these songs were co-writes.
I'm not saying that every song written by one person is bad. I've got a bunch of songs out that are known that I wrote in essence by myself. But we’ve got to learn the craft of writing and rewriting and collaborating with other people. Now, if you go to the CCLI top 25, most of them are co-writes. So something has started shifting.
C: What is it about music that connects people across time and space?
BD: Last year, I was invited in to do this night of songs and an 80-voice choir, 20-piece orchestra at a Catholic Church in the south of Germany. There was this young woman in her early twenties. She had tried to commit suicide because she was depressed. She was in the psych ward in the hospital and she wasn't allowed out, but she was a professional-caliber violinist. Her mother was the first violinist in the orchestra for my event, so she started hearing the songs as they were learning them and she thought, "This is the kind of music that my daughter needs to hear. It's honest, it expresses sadness but it also expresses hope, and it points to Jesus and such."
She went to the hospital and played some of it for her daughter and said, "Would you like to play this?" The daughter got a special pass to come and play at the event. As I was leaving the church this same young woman rushed up to me and said, "Hi. You don't know me, but I just wanted you to know that these songs are so living in me. They're healing me inside. Thank you for coming all this way to share these with us in person."
I was in awe. It was like she had music in her and it took an injection of some of these fresh songs that she hadn't heard that were about love and about hope and about honesty, and her heart just opened up.
C: What is next for you?
BD: This year I'm going to be part of releasing three albums. The next SHIYR Poets, the Faithful One legacy album, and then a Christmas album. My wife said, "It's going to be Christmas all year and never winter." I started working on this album last August and I’ll work on it all the way till August 2019 to finish it. I've also got this educational thing I'm trying to launch this year, my first songwriting retreat, called Lyrics and Litanies. My goal is that each year I would spend part of my energy not just doing and creating, but mentoring and educating the next generation. It’s going to be a full year.