THE workshop culture of the Winnipeg Folk Festival has been ingrained since the very beginning.
Taking the lead from two of the oldest folk festivals in North America — Newport in Rhode Island and Mariposa in Orillia, Ont. — the Winnipeg Folk Festival was designed to be a collaborative affair, relying on the talent and ingenuity of the musicians it hosts to further encourage an interactive relationship between performer and audience members through a workshop setting.
For Chris Frayer, artistic director of folk fest, the willingness to do workshops is a deal-breaker when he considers which emerging artists to invite. "I need them to come in the spirit of the festival," he says, adding that without a strong workshopping vibe, there's not much to help distinguish the Winnipeg Folk Festival from the plethora of new festivals popping up every year across North America.
"We spend so much time sharing the workshop experience with new people because it's not happening at the other festivals," he says. "It's getting more and more unique as new festivals that are emerging don't have it. It's becoming harder to get people to do them, because they're unfamiliar with them and a lot of people don't come from a collaborative background."
First-time folk fest performer Terra Lightfoot (no relation to Gordon) is fully embracing the collaborative festival atmosphere. The Hamilton, Ont., singer-songwriter is scheduled to participate in four workshops throughout the weekend. She says she's specifically looking forward to the all-women session — with a stellar lineup of strong female voices that includes Jessica Pratt, Frazey Ford, the Weather Station and Twin Bandit, the Girls Just Want to Have Fun workshop on Friday, July 10, is a can't-miss event.
"I'm so excited for that one because I love hearing the songs close up and kind of having to play or sing together when there's an easy part that everybody can catch on to," Lightfoot says. "Those magical moments that happen in workshopping... that's why I play music."
The guitarist, who released her newest album, Every Time My Mind Runs Wild, this year, relishes the ability to work with other musicians and "lift them up" in a workshop setting. "I live for collaboration. That's the most exciting part of being a musician," she says. "Getting to work with people you've never worked with before, getting to improvise, having to change things on the fly... it's awesome."
Not all musicians at folk fest are as willing to collaborate as Lightfoot; Frayer notes not every pairing works out the way he hopes it will. When asked if a workshop has ever fallen apart at the seams, he nods and says with a laugh, "Oh, absolutely."
"Sometimes they're brilliant and super fun and collaborative and bands become fast friends, and then sometimes it just doesn't happen. It's always going to be good but it's not always going to be magic."
Americana-soul group Dawes last played the Winnipeg Folk Festival in 2011. A veteran of the workshop format, the quartet is looking forward to working with pals from the SoCal music scene for the California Dreamin' workshop on Sunday afternoon, July 12.
"Jenny (Lewis) is a good friend, and Griffin and Wylie even played on some of her latest record," says Dawes singer/guitarist Taylor Goldsmith of his bandmates Griffin Goldsmith and Wylie Gelber.
As a writer, Goldsmith loves that the workshop setting allows a peek into the process of building songs — both talking about how he puts songs together and hearing how other artists do it — because "no two writers do it exactly the same."
Dawes is no stranger to the folk festival environment, and Goldsmith agrees that the workshop culture developed and maintained by Winnipeg's fest is something special.
"It's definitely unique to Winnipeg and gives fans that much more insight into how the music works, which is always a good thing," he says.
The full workshop schedule is available at winnipegfolkfestival.ca/folk-fest/schedules/
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Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Updated on Thursday, July 9, 2015 at 8:05 AM CDT: Replaces photo