She grew up in Burlington, earned a degree in physiotherapy at Queen’s University, and then headed west to Revelstoke, B.C. for eight years, surrounded by mountains and wilderness, applying her profession and, having learned guitar, immersing herself in the local music scene. “It provided a really good space to learn music,” she says.
Folkens wanted to develop her craft further and attend Berklee College of Music in Boston, a world-renowned music school. Berklee Online was a compromise after moving to Guelph three years ago and establishing herself in a local physiotherapy practice.
“It worked out well,” she says. The singer-songwriter certificate program involved posting compositions on the internet and being critiqued by an instructor and classmates. Her craft was taking shape.
“A key to writing a song is you have to include both elements of something that people are familiar with and feel satisfied to hear, but then also surprising,” she says.
Another tip: “Really focus in on small details, small moments, as opposed to telling the whole story in one big chronological ballad.” It’s something her favourite folk artist, Gillian Welch, does well, she says.
Uncle Jimmy is the first song on the album. Planes were flying overhead dropping bombs and the “army tanks rolled in,” she sings, (to an upbeat tune of course). Instead of going to war, Jimmy put his soldier’s helmet on and went fishing for eels in the creek. “When the world’s on its knees,” the chorus goes, “Uncle Jimmy’s livin’ free.” She sings, “I’d like to be like Uncle Jim; buckle my helmet under my chin; let water rush over my skin and laugh up at the sky.” Simple and true.
Folkens sings simply as well (no fancy trills) and every word is crystal clear, as if what she’s singing about is the important thing.
Her mother, Ilse Folkens, has taken a taxi all the way from Burlington to the Common and is now listening to her daughter on the wooden plank floor, with windows looking out toward city hall.
Now she sings Across the Sea, probably the sentimental song of the album. It tells of a woman leaving her mother for a new life. “Come visit, me; cause I’m goin,’ across the sea,” she sings, the fiddle and upright bass moving the piece along gently, as if over ocean waves. This is partly her mother’s story, an immigrant from Germany who found better opportunities in Canada. Folkens was too young to remember much of her grandmother on visits they made to Germany, as she died in 1989.
The choruses often repeat and act as a hook, pulling the listener into the song.
Lonesome in the Grave No More is one story told to her by a friend who grew up in Kapuskasing, Ont. Sung from the perspective of a corpse that had been buried outside the graveyard because there wasn’t room, then later secretly dug up and buried on top of a relative, it won Folk Music Ontario’s Songs From the Heart — Humorous Award in 2017.
The last song on the album, Right Side of the Tracks, she wrote specifically for Via Rail’s Artist on Board Program. Artists can ride the cross-country train, the Canadian, from Toronto to Vancouver free or at a reduced rate while entertaining the passengers on the four-day journey.
“I thought it would boost my application if I wrote a railway tune,” she says. So she asked around and found someone whose father was a railroader.
“Then I wrote it, recorded it, sent them a little video and when I applied they got back to me within three hours that I was accepted for the train.”
She headed off to Vancouver in 2016, playing her songs with a friend as the train swayed and rattled, while stopped at sidings in the middle of nowhere, waiting for freight trains to roll by; and she repeated the journey this spring, shortly before the release of her CD.
“I find that the train is a great venue because people like to share stories,” she says.
“Before we had television people would sit around in the evenings and chat and tell stories and sing songs and pass around the guitar.
“That’s the whole sentiment behind these stories,” she says of her songs. “They’re meant to be sung (and shared) in the community.”
At the Common, she ends off the train song — and the concert — singing, “And you’ll die on these rails, when your last train rolls by,” and then there’s applause, whistles and shouts for “One more!”
A final fun song about a pirate who loves his parrot and Folkens and her band make a bow to about forty people. Her mother then stands up and says, in her German accent, “Thank you, Doris, for keeping these family stories alive!”
Back near the boathouse, Folkens says, “This is my first attempt at putting something out there in the music scene, so we shall see how it goes.” She has more stories to tell.
Folkens and her band, including her producer, Andrew Collins, from Toronto, are on the roster of performers for the Hillside Festival this year, which runs from July 13-15.
For more information about her music, visit dorisfolkens.com.