A crisis led Brian Doerksen through a deep spiritual valley, where his inspiration seemed to have disappeared.
Eventually, the Canadian worship leader and songwriter found that inspiration again – in the Psalms. A new project was born with the help of several musician friends; the Shiyr Poets.
In this two part story, Brian talks exclusively to CCLI about the project, its background and his personal experiences with the Psalms that were arranged into new music. Both lyric sheets and sheet music of these songs will soon be available through SongSelect.
If you speak of worship leaders in terms of sports, then Brian Doerksen is an Olympic Gold medalist. He wrote songs like The River, Come Now Is The Time and Refiner’s Fire. Across the globe he is considered to be one of the most influential writers in the genre. But he’ll never call it a ‘career’. In fact, a few years ago it seemed as if he had written his last song.
“To put it simply, I lost my words” he says. “It was an effect of a situation in my church, in which I was personally involved and found another pastor and co-worker in opposition to me. It was a dark period of pain, betrayal and confusion. I’m an HSP, a ‘highly sensitive person’, which made the impact all the more damaging.
I stopped writing, even though I knew that the Bible contained words that were meant for me and my pen. Not just the beautiful, positive words, but the difficult, raw emotions where anger and confusion are allowed to have their place. I found these in the Psalms.
And I did what I might not have done usually, which was to pick my favourite Psalms and apply them to my life instead of the other way around. I took my life and superimposed it on the Psalm lyrics. In other words; I allowed the Psalms to do their work in me.”
Brian began to work through the entire book of Psalms this way, reading and singing them, song by song, without skipping through the hard parts. This immediately led to a struggle because the first Psalm is a song that speaks of how everything the righteous man undertakes will succeed. Not exactly an encouraging start for a worship leader who was in the midst of a perceived failure!
“You’re right, and it was very difficult” says Brian.
If anything, Psalm 1 made me angrier in my situation. But there was something in me that made me persevere. And I was encouraged by an observation of the theologian Walter Brueggeman. He states how there are ‘Psalms of Orientation, Psalms of Disorientation and Psalms of Re-orientation’. That was confirming what I experienced when I started to study the Psalms. I did that out of a position of disorientation. Some of the Psalms I would sing, would start to work for me as orientation. I had to trust that it was all part of the journey.
Working his way through the Book of Psalms, Brian did what he had done for years as a worship leader – he started to put new music to the lyrics, enlisting the help of theologians in order to get a faithful, singable translation of the lyrics.
With the help of three musician friends (Calum Rees, Brian Thiessen and Teresa Trask), Brian found his words again. “I realized that this was a road I should not go on alone. The three [musicians] I involved, I already knew through earlier ventures. It turned out each of them had gone through crises in their own way, and they too felt drawn to the Psalms, to their artistic riches and honesty.”
Together they began to re-arrange the Psalms and The Shiyr Poets were born. (The name ‘shiyr’, pronounced as ‘sheer’, loosely translates as ‘musical poets’).
The new platform feels like a liberation for Brian and his friends; each according to their own situation.
We have just begun to play live and already we seem to have so much fun. It does feel like a fresh, new beginning, free from what held us down.
The first selection of Psalms has already been recorded on what has become the album Songs For The Journey Volume 1. It appropriately starts with The Way, a song that speaks of going God’s Way, which ultimately turned out to be the starting point for Brian Doerksen’s return to healing, restoration and… new words.
Brian worked his way through the Psalms from start to finish, both the highs and the lows. He allowed them to speak into a situation where he felt struck down.
“When I was young, life was black and white” Brian explains.
Everything was clear; also spiritually. But then you walk through the seasons of life and you get confused. You think God is calling you for something and then you run into obstacles. Or it fails. Was that God? Was it me? All of those questions came on my path. I had started singing Psalm 1 and it wasn’t exactly a great start for me; to read from a position of failure, that ‘the way of the righteous will succeed’.
Brian’s motivation to continue seemed to evaporate on the spot. “Through sheer act of will I continued, reading Psalm 2. And that planted the first seeds of restoration. The moment I started in Psalm 3; I’ll never forget it. It is still so clear in my mind. I sang ‘oh Lord I have so many enemies, they rise against me’ and started to weep intensely. And it didn’t stop. I hadn’t been able to do that for a while because the period I was going through, was so dark. Psalm 3 for me was an example of a ‘disorientation-Psalm’, but it also became an example to me in terms of something to hold on to. It wasn’t just a lyric, written down millennia ago. It was applicable to my experience today.” Psalm 3 eventually was worked into ‘Watching Over Me’ by the Shiyr Poets.
Reworking the Psalms is quite the challenge. There are many different views when it comes to the translations, and Brian and the Shiyr Poets faced the challenge to be as true to the original as possible. They got help from a few friends.
“We know a couple of Hebrew scholars” says Brian.
When we finish a translation of a Psalm, there are a few people we can bounce it off of. I don’t know how many translations of the Psalms there are in Holland, but the ones here all focus on the same things: linguistic and theological accuracy. That can be quite a challenge. As an example; I studied biblical Hebrew and I know the basics, but I still consider myself in kindergarten.
When we were in class, the professor was explaining how many Psalms have the word ‘vav’ in their lyric, which means ‘and’. ‘And God…’, ‘And then….’ He explained how we left out this word ‘vav’ in our modern translations because we believe we don’t need it.
That tickled me as a musician, because that sounds like taking out the pickup note in an arrangement. If we as the Shiyr Poets were to sing these songs in their traditional Hebrew form, it would be inaccessible to many people. We faced the challenge to link verses, connected by such a word like ‘vav’, in rhyme, all the while keeping both the rhythm and color of the Psalm intact.
When we set to work on a rearrangement of a Psalm, we have about six translations spread out before us. We often look to the translations by Robert Alter because he is very poetically minded. Next, we sing the Psalm and determine a rhythm. Once we have our own version, we put it in front of our scholar friends and say: ‘we took some artistic liberties, but are we still within the range of the orginal meaning?’ That process repeats itself until we have a version everyone is content with. Each of us has a veto.”
For the different members of the Shiyr Poets, this is liberating. “Take someone like Calum Rees” says Brian.
His father was drummer for artists like AC/DC, Tom Jones, Foreigner… but he always felt excluded when it came to the creative process. That has left its mark on him. Calum’s input in the Shiyr Poets is, to him, a sort of healing.
Brian Thiessen plays various instruments and has a love for the more obscure, free form music. He provides the nuances in the sound that go against the ‘certainty’ often seemingly required in worship music. Teresa works in addiction care and daily encounters people who are down and struggle to get up. The Psalms are also special to her because of that. Her musical background is more rock music, and she brings those influences into the Shiyr Poets.”
The goal of the Shiyr Poets and the new songs is to keep the Psalms accessible for singing for future generations. “We are no theologians” says Brian.
If we would have begun this project with such a mindset, we would have been bogged down by details. We are artists, working together with scholars to ensure that the content is right.
As we write this material, we listen to our hearts, which means that the shape of the song does not always need to follow the traditional ‘verse-chorus-verse’ structure. The writing is going great; we’re definitely continuing this! For us, this isn’t about introducing something ‘new’. In fact, we’re re-introducing a form of tradition.
For anyone who believes in this God, Yahweh, the singing of Psalms is an integral part of the faith journey. We hope these people, when they hear the songs, recognize the emotion and situation in their own life. Some think, when they hear the words ‘singing Psalms’, of monks and traditional singing or chanting. Well, we are no monks! (laughter) We’re modern musicians, which brings me to the other hope we have: to stimulate others to work on their own interpretations of the Psalms.”
This summer, the Shiyr Poets hope to present the second collection of their Psalm versions, with ‘Songs For The Journey Vol. 2’.