By Zoë Mills
The rustle of wind shaking the tall grass, the crinkle of a tarp under eager footsteps, the twang of a banjo, even the plink of a Mongolian yatga—there is one weekend in July when Birds Hill Provincial Park is completely alive with music.
The 2023 Winnipeg Folk Festival runs July 6–9 with plenty of marquee names and new discoveries to see and hear. Once again, the festival shares its commitment to building the local music community by featuring a strong lineup of local luminaries including Métis/Franco-Manitoban artist Andrina Turenne, soft-voiced singer/songwriter Field Guide, iconic Klezmer collective Finjan celebrating their 40th anniversary, bilingual folk duo Fire & Smoke, indie pop powerhouse FONTINE, singer/songwriter Kris Ulrich, cinematic Canadiana band Leaf Rapids, artful experimental performer and producer Matt Foster, and JUNO-winning singer/songwriter William Prince, who opens Main Stage on Thursday night.
The music fest welcomes attendees from across the continent, as well as renowned and genre-defying artists from around the world. What makes the festival so special is its intimate and lasting impact on Manitoba’s music community.
“I will never forget the first time I did a tweener on the mainstage at 18 or 19 years old,” says Turenne, who returns this year fresh from the release of Bold As Logs. “We did an a cappella version of Joni Mitchell's ‘Blue.’ There were people as far as the eye could see, fading into a beautiful post-sunset sky, and a beautiful quietness we pierced with our voices. It was an incredible feeling.”
“What makes the Winnipeg music community strong is our interest in each other and our support of one another,” says Andrina Turenne. “It's beautiful when events are organized to celebrate that.”
Both new and long-time performers can agree that the environment is an immense part of the festival’s magic.
“Playing Big Blue with Boy Golden as the sun was setting was an incredible experience, one that I will absolutely never forget,” says FONTINE, who made her Folk Fest debut in 2022.
“There is a beautiful smudging ceremony with guest speakers and a land acknowledgment," says William Prince. "It feels very grounding and readies the soul to receive the music and messages of the festival.”
The festival grounds hold multiple stages, which allow for a unique experience for attendees and performers, especially emerging artists.
FONTINE says one of the most rewarding parts of the festival is the opportunity to interact with new listers. Instead of picking a genre they favour or a name they know, attendees can wander the grounds, hunker down at a stage, and witness an artist they otherwise never would have discovered.
These cozy stages lend themselves to workshops throughout the weekend.
FONTINE recalls a previous Folk Fest workshop where she collaborated with Montreal-born artist Allison Russell and Milwaukee’s SistaStrings.
“They played flawlessly and effortlessly on one of my songs, and I cried through the whole thing. It was such a magical experience.”
This year, you can catch the all-local workshop “Wheatfield Soul” featuring Field Guide, Fire & Smoke, FONTINE, Matt Foster, Andrina Turenne, and William Prince—taking place at Big Bluestem on July 7 at 4:15 PM.
“Winnipeg Folk Festival has been helping every artist that comes through town fill their audiences for as long as I can remember," says William Prince.
A festival highlight for artists aged 14-24 is the STINGRAY Young Performers Program. On day one, participants work with mentors (chosen from the festival’s lineup) to craft and perfect their songs. On the second day, they perform in front of a Folk Fest audience.
“The mentors are truly an invaluable thing,” says Winnipeg-based YPPer Ethan Lyric. “Last year I had Del Barber. He has been so helpful, even after the program, connecting me with so many people I wouldn’t have had the chance to speak with before.”
The connections and confidence artists gain from the festival last well after the three-day event ends. In fact, through ongoing concerts and community programs, the Winnipeg Folk Festival works to support Manitoba’s music scene all year long.
“Winnipeg Folk Festival has been helping every artist that comes through town fill their audiences for as long as I can remember," says Prince.
This year will mark local singer-songwriter daiisu’s first experience with the fest.
“I'm super stoked to work with a mentor,” says daiisu. “I hope I'm able to become more confident with my performance abilities and learn how to ease my stage fright even more.”
As a YPP mentor, Andrina Turenne values the opportunity to work with young artists.
“I had great mentors, and still do,” says Turenne. “I think the exchange between different ages/backgrounds/genres is so helpful in grounding us in who we are and what we have to bring to the table.”
Year after year, the festival experience allows for artistic growth, no matter how far along one is in their music career.
“Winnipeg Folk Festival was the first big stage I played and it became a reference point for all that followed,” says Turenne. “I feel so lucky to have had a chance to grow as an artist at our festival, and this year will be a big milestone for me as I'll be performing under my own name for the first time.”
For Manitoba musicians, Folk Fest can feel like a celebration of all the work they’ve done in the seasons leading up to the fest, while also offering a jolt of motivation (and tangible support) to continue their creative pursuits throughout the seasons that follow.
In a way, the Winnipeg Folk Fest allows our music community to become an interdependent, encouraging, and thriving ecosystem.
“What makes the Winnipeg music community strong is our interest in each other and our support of one another,” says Turenne. “It's beautiful when events are organized to celebrate that.”