Toronto-based musician Fiver (Simone Schmidt) chats about her latest album, Audible Songs From Rockwood.
Fiver will be performing a trio of New Brunswick shows this week beginning on Friday January 19 as part of this year’s Shivering Songs festival. Her most recent album, Audible Songs From Rockwood, is a collection of fictional field recordings inspired by patients of the Rockwood Asylum in Kingston, Ontario, Canada’s first asylum for the criminally insane. Over the course of two years, Fiver (Simone Schmidt) delved deep into patient case files and the diaries and journals of the asylum’s superintendents as part of her research for the project.
In advance of her upcoming east coast dates, we asked Schmidt to explain a bit about the album and the research that went into project.
How did you first become aware of the archives and what was it about those stories that made you want to write an album based around them?
I became aware of the archive when I started searching for information about the Rockwood Asylum. In 2012 I read about Rockwood in the newspaper in passing, while I was researching Immigration Detention in Canada, which is this brutal contemporary practice of detaining people without charge, indefinitely, simply because they don’t have their immigration papers in order. At any rate, I stumbled upon this story about how in the 1850’s, as penitentiary labourers were building the Rockwood Asylum on land that had been dispossessed from the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg by the British Imperial army, the settler colonial government of Upper Canada put people they had designated “criminally insane” on the Cartwright estate where it was to be built. For 12 years women were living in the horse’s stables on the estate. That stark image inspired a song right away, and I would sing it around and get more and more curious about the lives of people at Rockwood. When I looked for more information about Rockwood I couldn’t find it because no one has written in depth about it – although this wonderful scholar, Kathleen Kendall, will be publishing a book about it in the next few years. The only way to figure out more was to go into the archives and find primary documents to satiate my curiosity, so I did.
As for why I wanted to write an album about them – I’m a songwriter, so my way of communicating in the world is to write songs. I’m perpetually writing an album.
Can you tell us a bit about the process of collecting and researching and what stood out about the specific stories you chose for the record?
The process was riveting. I’d go into the Ontario archives and look at brittle case files, arrest warrants, and the patient directories. It’s quite stunning to see the handwriting of the judges, doctors, superintendents – their scripts are distinct, and you get used to reading them, and start understanding how subjective the rulings and reports are. I thought it was cool to see how the administration issued new forms for intake at different junctures, and what changes could be gleaned from those. The most stunning thing was how little information about women at Rockwood there actually was – perhaps because some documentation is missing, and perhaps because not much was written about them. But I kept thinking I was learning more about the men who locked up the inmates, than the inmates themselves. So I had to try to piece together what people’s lives were like in other ways – by looking at court documents, or trying to find their names in papers, things like that. And then I realized how little I actually understood about settler-colonial history of Canada and how much I’d have to try to understand the laws, the history of various administrations and policies that resulted in these women being incarcerated, so I started reading commissions and secondary sources about the emerging legal and prison systems at the time.
As for the specific stories that appear on the album – I guess I wrote 30 pages of liner notes to talk about what stood out about the archive, and the particular stories, so check that out. The stories I chose mostly were based on case files that brought to mind a clear image or lead to more information that would help me flesh out a character. I most often journal as characters, and considered how their social context might inform their experiences. From there I’d write their songs in character. For instance, Mouser is the song of a woman who tries to chop the head off a cat. Worship The Sun (Not The Golden Boy) is the song of the last living member of the Brooks’ Bush gang – her case file was sparse but I was able to read so much about that gang and the murder of an MLA for which they were responsible, and from there I developed her character. Haldimand County is the song of a woman who had epilepsy and was an illegal squatter on the Haldimand Tract, which is Haudenosaunee territory. I wrote like 50 songs, then chose the ones that were actually good, and the ones I could perform and arrange in a compelling way. I narrowed it down to 11.
This album is deeply personal on two levels – the stories that inspired the songs are connected to the lives of real people, and then there’s your personal connection as a songwriter and a storyteller. What’s it like presenting these stories for others to enjoy?
I do a lot of talking in the show. I know the stories intimately because I in part made them up, and I try to give context to the songs, so that people can hear, on first listen to the song, what I’m getting. A lot of the tunes are pretty oblique – poetic, and don’t actually address the stories in clear ways. The show can feel tiring sometimes because, unlike other sets, where I get into a musical groove, there’s a lot of starting and stopping. But I feel a responsibility to the songs to present them in a way so they can be understood and have their impact beyond simply being a weird or enjoyable listen.
Have there been any unexpected circumstances arise as a result of this album? Have you met people directly connected to the characters involved since writing and recording these songs?
Nope – the names of most of the women are redacted, out of respect for how much fiction was written into the blanks of their songs. But I have connected with people who are survivors of more recent institutionalization, like my new friend Cindy Scott. She’s a survivor of the Huronia Regional Centre in Orillia – it was open until 2009 and was a place where people with intellectual difference were housed. There’s been a class action lawsuit from the survivors there who experienced egregious abuse at the hands of staff, and she works with a group called “Remember Every Name” to try to bring about awareness of the atrocities that were committed there. She came to one of my shows, and then we teamed up for a show in Orillia to address the broader community and share information that to this day, is not well known at all by the general population of Orillia.
On a personal level, what has been the greatest reward from completing this challenging project?
I learned so much, and because I keep performing it I’m pushed to keep on learning and figuring out new ways to talk about settler colonialism, and the roots of Canadian prisons and mental health systems. That’s the gift of musical performance and live storytelling – it always changes and compels you to learn new ways of speaking.
Do you see yourself seeking similar channels of inspiration on future recordings? Will Simone Schmidt become an archivist’s conduit?
I don’t exclude that possibility.
Audible Songs From Rockwood was released in 2017 on Idée Fixe Records.
Jan. 17 | Antigonish, NS | The Townhouse Brewpub and Eatery
Jan. 18 |Halifax, NS |In The Dead Of Winter Festival
Jan. 19 | Fredericton, NB | Shivering Songs
Jan. 20 | Parkindale, NB | Parkindale Hall
Jan. 21 | Sackville, NB | Thunder & Lightning