With her four-and-a-half-foot cello slung over her back, you can’t miss Cris Derksen as she hauls the 100-year-old love of her life around town.
East Vanners might recognize the 24-year-old musician from her occasional stint as a busker when the rent needs to be paid, or perhaps via her occasional musical contributions to local fundraisers, such as Sistahood and Redway BC.
By the end of July, Derksen’s fan base is likely to grow significantly after a destined-to-impress appearance at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.
While you may or may not remember her name, you’ll likely come to know her (if you don’t already) by her unofficial title: “the punk rock cellist.”
If the phrase sounds out of the ordinary, know that Ms Cris is very used to messing with preconceptions. As an independent free spirit, she has spent much of her life riding the periphery of various groups and cliques, preferring to eschew their pressures and to remain true to her own unique self.
The first and most dominant focus in her life is her music; Derksen speaks with deep love and reverence for her instrument. The same cannot be said, however, for the institute of higher learning that she attends.
With one year left in her Bachelor of Music degree from the University of British Columbia (UBC), she appreciates the knowledge that she has received but definitely feels “in it but not of it” when it comes to the university’s attitude towards her.
With her tousled hair, labret piercing and omnipresent bandanna, the only thing missing is a neon ‘free-thinking radical’ sign across her forehead.
Needless to say, when it comes to the classical music program, the independent spirit that makes her so vibrant also occasionally makes her scholastic days a little longer.
“I totally love and value the technique I am getting out of school. The discipline and the big orchestra concerts are really awesome, but as far as fitting in… it isn’t one of the places that I fit.”
Derksen admits that there is a considerable amount of pressure from the faculty, day to day, to conform. “They’ve given me some noses up on my concert dress. I wear the dress and put on boots to make it complete. Even though I have a 90 percent average, they still put me in the back. I have fun back there but at the same time, I know what they are doing.”
The economic realities of what it takes to create a well-trained classical musician have dogged Derksen her whole life.
“I grew up on welfare,” she explains. “To have my mom able to pull enough strings together to keep at it is pretty incredible. I think that people who haven’t been on welfare or didn’t grow up on welfare didn’t understand the implications of what that does to your dignity as a kid.”
The way that her past poverty has manifested in her day-to-day life, however, has been more positive than negative.
“Being poor gives you a different taste. You’re more grateful for things. I respect pretty much everything because I know how precious it is.”
Another part of the integral makeup of Cris Derksen is her ties to her First Nations heritage.
Much like other elements in her life, being half-Cree is an important part of her identity but she remains cautious at the thought of jumping in full-force.
“I’m half-breed so I’m right in the middle to begin with.
“I’m urban aboriginal ’cause I didn’t grow up on the reserve,” she explains. “My knowledge of our history is pretty limited. I do go to events but I don’t really fit into the community a) for the time it takes to be a part of a community and b) well, I’m a homo and I don’t feel really safe yet in that community to let them know.”
As for the queer scene in Vancouver, Derksen admits that the amount of time required to carry such an intense school schedule keeps her out of the community to a large degree.
She also admits-a tad hesitantly-that there are certain elements that keep her emotionally at bay.
“The whole dyke scene in Vancouver… I can’t fully be a part of that because a lot of it is, it seems to me, just going to the lesbian bar and drinking a lot every weekend. I can’t; I won’t go to Celebrities every Tuesday.
“I see a lot of the dyke culture to involve going out to the gay bar, hanging around your gay friends and being completely satisfied with that,” she continues. “Just because I am gay doesn’t mean that that is my end all and be all. I also like to go to shows, bike around the seawall and go for a fancy drink with my lover on a Friday night.
“I am part of the Strathcona scene ’cause that is where I live, but as far as the whole spectrum is concerned, I don’t have time,” she shrugs. “I play cello.”
Derksen’s decision to stay on the periphery of various scenes has propelled her creatively. By not focusing solely in the classical genre, the indie-alternative scene, or in the queer scene, she has left herself open for a host of musical match-ups.
Included in these are performances on the upcoming Kinnie Starr CD, Anything, which comes out early next year. Derksen is also currently working on a new project called Coy (which she describes as “cute rock music: U2 mixed with Nirvana mixed with xylophone”).
There is also her more traditional musical fare, comprised of regular chamber and full orchestra performances at UBC.
As a result of her multilingual musical fluency, she is the perfect choice to participate in a new project created this year by the Vancouver Folk Music Festival.
“It is called the Collaborative 2.8,” she explains, “because it is the 28th year of the Folk Fest.
“We’ll all meet with our instruments a week before and create two sets on a workshop stage. I don’t know all the people; I know that Allison Russell from Po’ Girl, [singer/emcee] Brigee K and Jacob [Cino] from Third Eye Tribe are involved. It is gonna be a mix of hip-hop with clarinet, cello and DJs and stuff.”
Derksen’s enthusiasm about the project is obvious. “I remember being 14 and going to the Folk Fest for the first time and thinking this is totally what I want to do! I have a list of goals of what I want to achieve in my life and playing at the Folk Fest was definitely on that list. Now I get to check it off! The whole thing is pretty much like a dream.”