Songs for the journey: The Shiyr Poets
by Keri Vermeulen
The two are talking and plucking at their guitars casually, and warm golden notes hover in the air of the history-rich room in Brian Doerksen’s Abbotsford home. It’s the same home he grew up in, actually, and the restored heritage farm house seems the perfect place to talk with him and bandmate Teresa Trask about the release of their band’s latest album Songs for the Journey Volume II. The album is the continuation of the Shiyr Poets’ debut album Songs for the Journey, which takes listeners into a beautifully crafted, subtly layered folk music setting for the ancient poetry of the first 10 Psalms, which speaks to and awakens some of the deepest and even most painful parts of our human experiences. Volume II is Psalms 11 through 20, and also features Psalm 126 plus a new song featuring fragments from the Dead Sea Scrolls. Walking into the room that was once the original living room of Doerksen’s childhood home, sunlight streams through the window and is absorbed by dark hardwood and rich burgundy. It feels like a room one could contemplate in – or get into deep conversation. It feels nostalgic, and a bit serious, but also palpably hopeful. Doerksen and his wife Joyce (he married his high school love) raised their own six children here. The interview is not without laughter, even as the talk centres around some of the grittier aspects of life, like when we find ourselves pressed in to the back of the cave, so to speak, and all we have left is to cry out to God. A Psalm.
The Shiyr Poets (which also includes Doerksen’s friends Brian Thiessen and Calum Rees) didn’t happily stumble one day onto the idea to put the first few Psalms to music. It was a process that Doerksen himself says he kind of got “fooled” into undertaking. Thousands of Christians here in the Lower Mainland, and multitudes around the world know the name Brian Doerksen, the influential author of some of the most popular worship music to come out of the last few decades. Part of the Vineyard Churches and Vineyard Music group, Doerksen penned songs such as “Come Now is the Time to Worship”, “Faithful One”, “The River” and “Holy God”. His catalogue of music and his accolades (both of which he does not mention during the interview) are impressive – Doerksen won a Gospel Music Association Dove Award in 2003, more than a dozen Covenant Awards from 2005 to 2007, and a Juno award in 2008. So it’s surprising then, to learn that Doerksen went through a dark time, a crisis of faith when, he says, he “lost his words”. A divisive local church issue, combined with his concerns over aspects of the modern worship scene mounted up on Doerksen, and the deep well he had drawn from so often to pen his spirit-stirring music had run dry. “There’s ongoing bits of unresolved suffering and questions in both my life and the lives of people around me, that eventually took their toll,” Doersken says, who steers away from specific details and toward the feelings instead. “I’ve never been good at pretending or faking emotions or belief that I don’t really have. And so it got to that point where I just couldn’t go on as things were.”
A few years into this difficult time, Doerksen rediscovered the Psalms, and with those ancient words he resonated. “Especially in the bits of the Psalms that were dark, angry protests…and then I started really connecting with some other styles of music like Blues, and things for which people would not equate Brian Doerksen. You know, people would not say “Oh that’s Brian Doerksen, he’s a singer of the Blues.”
Teresa Trask, sitting adjacent to him at a large, solid wood table, laughs. “Although you kind of are now. We all are.” She is referring, of course, to the words of the psalms as Doerksen himself smiles broadly, and herein lies one of a few beautiful contrasts highlighted by The Shiyr Poets and their Songs for the Journey. While many of the Psalms, and indeed this day’s discussion about them reveals the struggle and grit, and the very real cries of sorrow every human will experience in unique degrees, this afternoon meeting is filled with lively, interesting conversation and moves from talk about affliction and grief to sudden humour in an instant. It’s a relief.
During this wordless time, the lead pastor at the church where Doerksen was on staff asked him to deliver the first message in a series about the Psalms. Doerksen agreed, and he knew he was going to start at the beginning of the Psalms, not wanting to avoid the “hard bits…Psalm One teaches you about moral absolutes, black and white. But I had just experienced the opposite – people who were being cruel to each other were being blessed and people who were trying to do the right thing were being crushed.” Doersken sat in a room at home that week, and wrote his message on Psalm One, when he heard a voice inside him say: “If you don’t sing it, they won’t remember it.” He shrugged it off, because he wasn’t writing songs anymore. But he heard it again, and so he put Psalm One to a melody. Two days later, he preached his message and closed by singing Psalm One. “The next week, I thought ‘well that was interesting,’ why don’t I look at Psalm Two. I had a couple of moments when I was going ‘oh, I’m actually enjoying this process of writing.’ Remember, I’m still saying to myself, ‘I’m not writing songs anymore.’ So I’m getting fooled into this.”
By the time Doersken started studying and singing Psalm Three, when King David is fleeing his own son Absalom (“Oh Lord, I have so many enemies”), he was weeping. “This thing is 3,000 years old and I’m in it. Like I’ve lived it.” And herein lies another beautiful contrast in the making of Songs for the Journey –when the ancient meets the new. Words written thousands of years ago that we can relate to today.
Trask agrees that the Psalms should be studied and celebrated in their entirely, not just the sweet couplets we often sing about in church. “Even in my own personal journey, if I could never connect with anything at a certain time, I could always find solace in the Psalms. It just feels real and honest,” she shares, adding much of the music she wrote in her 20’s had it’s roots in the Psalms. Trask grew up in the core of Winnepeg, in a musically gifted family. “One of my first musical expressions was singing at the Salvation Army in my Dad’s country band in Winnepeg. I was just a kid.” Like Doerksen, she grew up in a loving Christian family where she was free to develop and express her heart for people who were suffering. “Much like Brian, I was always bringing people home and feeding them. I remember at 16 wanting to join a woman at our church, to go downtown and reach out to women who were selling themselves. It (downtown Winnepeg) was rough.” This sensitivity for women in difficult circumstances has fueled Trask as Executive Director of LifeHaven Women’s Support Society in Abbotsford (Brian and Joyce Doerksen serve on the Board of Directors). LifeHaven walks with women on the journey out of addiction, giving them love and support to find housing, access to education, job skills, counselling, and providing spiritual support. “I’ve walked alongside along a lot of people who struggle and sometimes they find it really hard to even fit into a church setting, because they feel like everyone is more than conquerors expect for them. So I think the Psalms just give a safe haven to people who really need to be real in whatever it is they’re going through. To actually feel the hope of God, in the middle of it.”
When Doerksen had written a melody for Psalm Three, he called Trask, whom he has known for about 10 years. Was he crazy or did he have something here? She liked what she heard and made some musical changes to areas of his melody she couldn’t relate to. Yes, Doerksen was onto something. With the addition of Brian Thiessen (with whom Doerksen has been friends since high school) and Calum Rees, The Shiyr Poets were born. They have remained true to their commitment to set the first 25 Psalms to music that each of them agrees on.
So what about the music? It is inspired, and the collaboration of these musical pros has paid off, so to speak, in a richly layered, textured folk rock sound. Even for those who have grown bored or disconnected at times from music (worship or otherwise) Songs for the Journey II might be like opening a treasure chest and finding gems that will wake up both the heart and the head, as you find yourself moving in agreement to the words and the music. “The Fool” (Psalm 14) provides mellow, warm acoustic guitar punctuated by electric guitar, violin and the beats of a hand drum. “He’s coming from Zion, when the Lord restores His throne.” And then, “Here on Earth” (Psalm 15) is a knock out with Trask’s lovely, throaty vocals, paired with horns and drums that provide hints of reggae and blues.
The words you can’t go wrong with and the music from these pros is, quite honestly, spectacular. But even so, there is the sense that it would be incredible to experience live. Well, there is good news. The Shiyr Poets will officially release their album Songs for the Journey II at Matsqui Centennial Auditorium Oct. 4. Proving again their sense of humour, and also their ability to connect with people, The Shiyr Poets have hired a stand up comedian to open the show. “With the Psalms, there’s a seriousness and intensity and a density to them, so we’ve hired a stand up,” Doerksen says, laughing. “We have a lot of fun at our concerts. We’ve never had so much fun singing sad songs.”
Tickets to the Shiyr Poets Songs for the Journey, at Matsqui Centennial Arena are $15 in advance, $20 at the door.
Tickets can be purchased at itickets: itickets.com/events/349893.html
Check out Shiyr Poets website to get a sample of their music, purchase a downloadable CD, get performance information or buy tickets to the album release shiyrpoets.com.
* Shiyr is a Hebrew word meaning “to sing” or “singer”. It is pronounced “sheer”.