Published Apr 24, 2011While growing up in Edmonton, AB, Cris Derksen started thinking about what instrument would be right for her. Narrowing it down to bass and cello, she chose the latter partly out of practicality; she thought there would be less competition. The specific charms of the cello quickly won her over and her instrument of choice has ended up taking her many places, including onstage with Kanye West.
"I don't really have a genre that I fully fit into, which I think is a good thing," Derksen declares. "I have a whole bunch of different audiences. I have an almost specifically aboriginal audience, an indie queer audience and an older art-folk audience. As a musician, it's super helpful ― I can play a lot of different venues in the same city."
She credits the versatility of her instrument in helping her realize all her musical and cultural influences into a personal statement. "The range of the cello is ginormous compared to the bass. It can be so much more versatile than the bass or violin. It's got five octaves, though I only use four. Having a cello is almost instantly relatable because it's in the same range as the human voice so you're instantly drawn to it."
Derksen was classically trained and graduated from University of British Columbia with a Bachelor of Music Performance. "[Formal training] helps if I'm stuck on a chord, I can figure out what works with a chord. But I try to keep it in the back of my mind," she says. "My longer compositions, I kind of take inspiration from the sonata form, fast-slow-fast. There are so many things I take from it, but some things I leave behind."
At the same time she draws inspiration from her Cree heritage. "With aboriginal music they've got some really rad tonal harmonies and little slides in the vocals that translate so well to the cello. I have pieces which are completely aboriginally-influenced, and I take sounds I know and love and try to make them my own. But I'm not going to claim it's wholly aboriginal just as I'm not going to claim it's fully classical."
Electronics are central to her music and she's steadily increased her arsenal over the years. "I started about seven years ago. My roommate had a loop station and I stole it. I got multi-effects [Boss ME70] about five years ago, and about two years ago my roommate had a robot costume and in that costume was a drum machine [Boss Dr. Rhythm 550], so I stole that too." (Note: if you've got electronic gear, don't move in with her.)
Now proficient with the Boss RC-XL 20 loop station, effects and rhythm box, she has a wide open canvas no matter what setting she finds herself in. For that reason she much prefers the spontaneity of live situations. "I find recording often frustrating. I like the immediacy of live performance rather than trying to perfect something."
Nevertheless, her album The Cusp, released last year strikes a happy medium between immediacy and composition. "My process is somewhat simple, I sit down and play and if I remember it next day or week then I keep it. For the album, some of the pieces are super old that I was working on for five years, others I wrote the day before." Derksen is planning to move up to Ableton Live in the near future, which will allow for more flexibility with loops and textures.
No doubt the strangest place her music has taken her was onstage with Kanye West ― more than once. "I played with him when 'Gold Digger' was #1 and it was at GM Place [in Vancouver]. It was a string quartet, Questlove, A-Trak and a harpist. It was super amazing. He was super nice and shook hands with everyone and said 'thanks so much for playing with me.' Then I played with him again and it wasn't, um, nearly so pleasant. The production value went down the next year so it didn't feel as nice. And he was an all around jerk to the players. We're just hired guns, really."
Have cello, will travel.