I recently reached out to Brian Doerksen - renowned songwriter, recording artist, conference speaker and songwriting instructor - to see if he would be open to an interview about his EP, 'Everlasting Arms'. Brian was gracious to take time in his very busy schedule to share his heart with us...
Lisa: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. Your new EP, 'Everlasting Arms', has some very moving tracks on it. The title track was previously released on your 2018 album, 'Grateful'. I remember Vin playing it for me and it was so beautiful then...but it has such a profound new take today in light of COVID-19. I saw on your Facebook page that you had invited some select family and friends to come hear your title song, face-to-face and, am so glad you consented for us to share it here...
Lisa: Were you surprised by their reactions?
Brian: This idea of sharing the song Everlasting Arms 'face to face' came from my son-in-law Luke. I wasn't sure what would happen because it was such a vulnerable, intimate way to share a song. It would have actually been easier if I could have done it with strangers. This concept reminded me of a Covid-19 project in Germany I heard about – concerts for one where a member of the orchestra would show up and play for an audience of one. (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/05/world/europe/germany-stuttgart-coronavirus-reopening.html)
The responses to 'Everlasting Arms' were as I expected . . . emotional, intense with a couple of people feeling a touch embarrassed by the vulnerability of it. I was pretty sure my wife Joyce wasn't going to want to do it – but she agreed. After we filmed, I thought she was going to say "this is too vulnerable; let's scrap it." But she saw the footage and said, "That worked. Let's release it." With her not being a musician or an 'artsy' type person, she helps ground me in reality and I really trust her instincts.
Lisa: Here is a short video from Brian about the song...
Story behind Everlasting Arms
Lisa: As a songwriter, do you consider the outcome or response to a song as you are writing?
Brian: I do consider the outcome because I'm the sort of person that is intentional. Yet at the same time I recognize that it's out of my hands. None of us can control other people's responses. As songwriters we are living in that very real tension, trying not to care about how people respond to the song, yet caring very much. I suppose the longer I do this, the more experienced my instincts are as to what the response will likely be, but even more than 30 years into this journey, I still get surprised, and truthfully, sometimes I still get disappointed if I have a lot of belief in a song and it doesn't seem to connect. In all those things I'm an ordinary human being who writes songs and I experience all the ups and downs of the creative life.
Lisa: Other than your relationship with the Lord, where do you find your inspiration to write such moving songs? And was there something specific that inspired this EP?
Brian: Inspiration comes from many different places. A passing thought that I reach out and harness. A line in a novel or film. A verse in the Bible that impacts me. It starts with a spark which can be as simple as a word or a phrase. Or to use another metaphor, it's like a seed that falls into the soil of my heart.
The EP Everlasting Arms is a different type of project - it was my response to the rise of Covid-19. I had started 2020 optimistically with 45 concerts and events booked to begin in late April. 2019 had gone so well. I had released multiple recording projects; The Heart of Christmas, Faithful One & The SHIYR Poets Volume 3 and so I told myself, “It's going to be quite some time until I'm back in the recording studio.” Joyce and I enjoyed our winter holiday late January into February 2020 – a circular road trip through Nevada and California visiting some dear friends in Yorba Linda, her brother in Fresno then finishing up with a Van Morrison concert in Las Vegas. Shortly after returning home we started feeling the presence of the pandemic. By early March I knew we were entering a world-changing health crisis that was going to change the way the world worked and how we travel and interact with each other. The virus that infected one person began to ripple outwards within weeks, having a tidal wave like impact as entire industries were forced to shut down along with closures of cultural and social gatherings impacting almost every population around the world.
There are many ways to respond to this type of global challenge and the changes that come with it. This whole season boldly underlines how deeply we need each other to do our part, and I've been so grateful for all the essential workers doing theirs. My part (music & ministry) is labeled non-essential, yet songs can play a vital part in our emotional and spiritual health and help us hold on to hope in times of trouble. A response started stirring in me. For some time, I've been singing a new song, a co-write with Cindy Rethmeier called 'In The Middle (Your Peace)'. This song was birthed in 2018 after listening to a 'On Being' podcast on the story behind songs called 'Spirituals'. These timeless songs were often written in the middle of suffering, injustice and trying circumstances. Filled with raw emotion and honesty, they were vulnerable and simple, yet were always marked with defiant hope. Cindy and I set out to write a 'modern spiritual' in our own musical and lyrical mother tongue drawing inspiration from the spirituals that came before us and from people around us who were suffering, specifically those who were doing whatever they could to suffer well. Our lyrical aim was to name our struggles truthfully while still affirming the one thing that remains, the gift of God's peace. All life and truth is a paradox, it's both at the same time; struggle and comfort, fear and peace. When we began to write, we did not foresee Covid-19, but the closer it came the more convinced we were to keep singing. We recorded 'In The Middle' plus I decided to rework a few hidden songs that felt right for this season. These include another co-write with Cindy from 20 years ago called 'Ever So Gently.' A new recording and version of 'When You Shepherd Me' – my setting of the 23rd Psalm that previously was only available on 'Live In Europe' from 15 years ago. An updated mix of 'Your Faithfulness' – the song I wrote in the middle of the birth of our second special needs son Isaiah. And an update of the title song 'Everlasting Arms' from the 2018 album Grateful. In the few years since I wrote this song it has become one of my personal favourites. I often close concerts with it as it's the thing I want people to remember as they journey back into the challenges of their life's circumstances and now, the words feel like they have more weight.
'We don't know when this storm is going to break' or how many people will perish in it and how many businesses will be broken beyond repair and not reopen. We don't know. We don't know when or what the new normal will look and feel like. Yet in the middle of all this uncertainty we can still choose to trust and experience peace that is not dependent on our circumstances.
Lisa: How does your family dynamic influence your songwriting?
Brian: That's an interesting question to consider. My family is not musical per se (our second daughter plays some percussion) They all love listening to music and attending concerts, but are not musicians or singers. I wouldn't describe us as a musical family. So that part of our dynamic doesn't impact my music. However, the other family dynamic that impacts my music substantially is that we have 2 special needs sons who have almost no words. They both have Fragile X Syndrome and while they have physical mobility (at a slower measured pace) they require almost full-time support. Our older son Ben no longer lives full time with us – it would be too much for us to handle caring for both boys. However, he comes home for a visit every weekend and we are still quite involved in his care and support. And having these precious 2 boys impacts almost every part of my life, including what I want to write songs about, and over the years has shifted more and more of my focus towards unconditional love.
Lisa: How does your gift impact your family?
Brian: Our 4 daughters are proud of what I do and we have a great relationship with them with lots of dialogue and time together. Over the years they've had to give me up for some touring and conference events (though in comparison with many in my field of work, I'm not away from home very much because of our special needs sons.) Our sons have almost no reference to what I do, though our older son Ben who loves things like musicals and movies at the cinema does enjoy showing up at my concerts when they happen locally about once every 2 years, especially if I introduce him to the audience. He gets a kick out of that.
Lisa: Do you listen to your own music?
Brian: No . . . heavens no! By the time we are done with producing an album we have listened and analyzed to the point where you have to let it go. Joyce will enjoy listening sometimes, but only when I'm out of the house.
Lisa: When you have your own worship time, do you listen to other artists or do you find more of your time spent singing rather than listening?
Brian: It's always changing. There are times where I will sit at the piano and sing a simple song, or play something with my guitar. Sometimes I listen to other artists like Andrew Peterson or The Brilliance. Sometimes I'm just quietly reading . . . praying. Mostly I like going for walks in the forest and just breathing . . . all the time listening for the still small voice. I found practicing 'breath-prayer' one of the most helpful devotional practices of recent years.
Lisa: I am just one of so many others who have been incredibly blessed by your music. I can remember coming to the Lord in my mid-20's and falling in love with Jesus as I listened to 'Refiner's Fire', 'Light the Fire Again', 'Isn't He', 'Remember Mercy' and so many other beautiful worship songs that you have blessed us with. My favorite song is 'Creation Calls'. I've danced to that song more times than I can count. Of all the songs you have released, which one would you prefer never to hear again? Was there any one song that you just despise?
Brian: I don't know if I would use the word despise, but there are songs from various eras of my life that don't resonate with me anymore, that I would rather forget. Sometimes words get loaded because of cultural changes. Sometimes words are dated. One of my songs from the early 90's was called 'Revival Fire'. Over time I realized that most revivalists were serving an 'angry God', one that I increasingly could not relate to. I obviously related to those words in my early to mid 20's because each song I write was my honest and whole-hearted expression at the time, but the experience of having a special needs son began a long slow progression away from that mentality. The word revival is not one that I currently use because it's too loaded. Even the song 'Light The Fire Again' is a struggle for me to sing now. I do still get the basic concept of the song and have asked for God to rekindle my first love from time to time. But that song is too associated with conferences and personalities that are not in sync with where I'm at now. (Actually mentioning 'Light The Fire Again' – I kind of updated that idea and concept with a song called 'First Love' on my 2018 album Grateful – so in this season I'm more drawn to sing 'First Love') Like most of us, my faith and the expression of it continues to undergo a life-long renovation. I want to continue to learn, and I don't want to be afraid of the truth as it's revealed to me. I still have so much to learn.
Lisa: On the other hand, what is your absolute favorite song that you have released?
Brian: Most songwriters connect the most with the last song they wrote. It's not the 'last one' exactly (that one is called 'Instruments of Peace' which I wrote for the recent Jesus & Justice conference), but Everlasting Arms feels like it expresses who I am in this season, or perhaps to put it another way, it expresses who I've become in this season. My theological shifts expressed in a gentle artistic way. I no longer primarily see God as the Being 'up there' causing things, but as the arms of love underneath all things catching us when we fall.
You mentioned 'Creation Calls', that is another personal favourite of mine as well, as is 'Faithful One' which was one of the first songs I wrote that I'm still singing today.
Lisa: My husband, Vin, attended a worship symposium that you did in Florida with Paul Baloche and Kathryn Scott back in 2006. At that symposium you shared songs that you've never publicly released. Vin remembers when you went to share some of those songs, he was thinking in his heart, “Great! [sarcastically] I want to hear his hit songs!” Well, he says that when you started to sing one of those unheard songs, he almost fell to his knees. He said it was just so beautiful and anointed. How do you as an artist choose what songs to release and what songs to keep just for your congregation?
Brian: It comes down to timing and truthfully, I don't always get it 'right'. Sometimes I am beyond excited about a song and I think it will connect . . . and virtually nothing happens. Other times I'm unsure about a song but it sneaks onto a project to fill a slot and it ends up really resonating with people. I don't think we can be completely objective about our own writing. It's just me expressing what I'm feeling, or what I sense the 'still small voice' saying, and I'm very aware that I see and know only in part.
Lisa: I listened to 'Your Faithfulness' and 'Everlasting Arms' on your Facebook page. I'm excited to hear the rest of this release. I love that you said on your website, “If you would like to support music artists so that we can continue to serve you while one of our primary income sources of concerts and CD sales at concerts is gone, here's a simple opportunity.” Supporting music artists during this time especially is so close to our heart at Worship Live. Where can we purchase 'Everlasting Arms' and be blessed in sowing and in receiving?
Brian: 'Everlasting Arms', and my other albums are all available on my website store in various formats including digital, CD, DVD and vinyl records. In this season of people primarily consuming music by streaming sites (which pay the music creators virtually nothing) every person who chooses to purchase music makes a huge positive difference. Thanks for your interest and encouragement! https://www.briandoerksen.com/store