Michelle Demers Shaevitz brings necessary voices to the Mission Folk Music Festival
Artistic director Michelle Demers Shaevitz goes way back with the Mission Folk Music Festival. She actually started volunteering for the annual event in 1991, the year she graduated from high school.
"I started handing out volunteer tags that first year," she recalls, on the line from a family trip in Washington State. "And after that they let me drive the performer van."
Shaevitz eventually got into managing performer services, and when artistic director Francis Xavier Edwards retired in 2016 she stepped into a general manager role, before being named artistic director in 2017. She says that she learned a thing or two working under Edwards, who founded the festival in 1988.
"He really went out into the world and sought out interesting and innovative voices," says Shaevitz. "So bringing in groups like Mariza, the [Portuguese] fado singer, and someone like Thomas Mapfuno—I mean he really shaped my musical education and imparted my love of world music.
"But he also modeled deep respect for the artists," she adds, "so that's one of the reasons that in my programming I always make sure to include artists that are part of our Canadian canon, artists that maybe aren't top of the charts, but have depth and breadth and are necessary voices."
The Mission Folk Music Festival is normally held at Fraser River Heritage Park, but, as was the case in 2020, this year's event is an online production. Performances by 15 acts—from blues to bluegrass and indie-folk to Afro-flamenco—will be streamed from July 23 to 25. When asked which of the artists she's booked she's most psyched about seeing, Shaevitz—who was also part of the programming team for Seattle's Northwest Folklife Festival for four years—equates it to a mother being asked to pick her favourite kid. But she comes up with some choices anyway.
"I've been really wanting to program [Indigenous singer-songwriter] Leela Gilday over the last three or four years," she points out. "I think that the perspective that she brings to her work and the depth to her songwriting really transports the audience to a particular place and time, and I really like that.
"And Talisk, from Scotland, I had the privilege of seeing them at Celtic Colours [music festival] in Cape Breton, and they are these young, dynamic, innovative players. They have a fiddler, guitarist, and concertina player, and together they play trad music, but they do so in a way that is really exciting."
Another festival event Shaevitz is thrilled about is the Sunday night "Fathers and Sons" show, which will see Canadian folk- and roots-rock veteran Barney Bentall performing with his son Dustin Bentall, and Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy performing with his kids Devin Cuddy and Sam Polley.
"That's a project that has been my secret bucket-list project for about five years now," she reveals. "It would have been amazing to have been able to do it in person, of course, but this year I thought, 'Why not go for it?' Barney Bentall played a couple of times with us, and I know his son Dustin, and I enjoy their music, individually and together. Jim Cuddy is a stalwart in Canadian music, and I had the pleasure of seeing his son, Sam Polley, open for him, and it was such a fun show. That sparked this idea of wanting to explore what the relationship is like when the child follows the path of the parent—what sort of lessons are they drawing upon, how does that affect their relationship. So that session is really neat."
A closet jam-band fan with a penchant for the Grateful Dead, Shaevitz claims that, before the COVID-19 pandemic forced it online, one of the best things about the Mission folk fest was its shared sense of community. She compares getting together with all the volunteers, vendors, and audience members to a family reunion.
"And then every year we get to add more family members with the artists on stage," she says. "We have an unofficial policy that if you've ever played Mission and want to just come back and hang, you can.
"I will say," she adds in a more solemn tone, "that we have some big questions on the horizon, because, you know, our site is a residential school site, so we've been getting a lot of questions around that. And our approach to that is we'll be in communication and conversation with the nations and communities upon whose lands we reside, and will be referring to them as to how that unfolds. So it's on our minds and in our hearts. But we're looking forward to being back live, on a stage, under some beautiful trees in Mission next year."