Every moment of Fiver’s ambitious new concept album, Audible Songs from Rockwood, feels like Simone Schmidt is rearranging my bones. And in a way, Schmidt is. This nuanced collection of era-specific tunes unearths the secret lives of some of the country’s most vulnerable women from more than 150 years ago.
Inspired by Schmidt’s two years of research into the real Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane (1854-1881) — reading the asylum’s patient files, superintendents’ diaries and architectural diagrams — every creak and crack of Audible Songs sounds authentic.
Schmidt (also of the Highest Order, and formerly of One Hundred Dollars) wanted the songs to feel like vintage, forgotten field recordings, and the accompanying material strengthens the mythology while deepening the listener’s connection to the very real source material. The presentation and packaging of the comprehensive liner notes —credited to fictional ethnomusicologist Simone Carver and arranged by Schmidt as Fiver, her solo project — are an artful, methodical and thought-provoking treasure that challenges settler colonialism, the prison system and the very notion of Canadian history. And it never once feels like a gimmick; Schmidt has too much respect for the real women whose lives were mined for 10 of these 11 tracks, and has put too much work into nailing the old-time folk sound with a faithfulness that borders on obsession.
Schmidt spoke with CBC Music about incarceration, freedom, the instinct to complicate things rather than making them easier, and took us on a track-by-track of Audible Songs From Rockwood, one of the most fascinating and musically satisfying records you’ll hear this year.
When did you first find out about Rockwood? How long have you been aware of it?
I think it was 2011, and I was just researching prisons in general and I found an article in the Kingston Week Standard about the Rockwood Asylum and how women had been incarcerated there, before the asylum had been built, in these horses' stables. That really piqued my interest, and actually that became the first song for the record [“Stable Song”]. I was singing the song at shows for many years and so it was always on my mind. And I decided to apply for money for time to research the case files in depth. It took a few years of applying and then I got a little grant to do it, so I started my research in 2014.
It's a pretty ambitious project.
I didn't know what it would entail when I began it. [Laughs] Because the first song came so quickly, I felt, "I'll just go in and find all these case files," and I imagined them to be thick and full of stories that would be ample material for songs. I was really surprised that they were very thin, and the documents were few, and that really challenged me to recognize how little I knew about the time in question. I thought that it would take me about a year, but it ended up taking maybe three years to complete the full vision … I came to the idea of making these recordings kind of like fictional field recordings that were collected by a fictional song collector. And that was a device I developed midway through the project that allowed me to deal with issues that were coming up. Like, problems I was having in doing the research. And the main problem I would say, was trying to account for how much fiction I had to spin in order to make the songs.
Was it interesting to you to see that thinness, the sparseness of the material? There's a real absence of humanity when you reduce someone to a series of medical or socially judgmental diagnoses.
It was stunning in terms of considering what is in the historical record and what isn't. Because I’m not clear that they weren't taking better notes about the patients, I just know that they're not in the archive. So that becomes a question about, not just like the lack of humanity, which was clear, for a range of other reasons. People who are incarcerated are automatically being withheld from a basic human right, as I see it — freedom. The questions were more around how we document anything in Canadian historical records.
And who gets to be the documenters.
Yeah. If your whole life is reduced to the comments made by judges or police or your doctor, then, are you still you? And aren't you already a fiction, then?
That's a chilling question.
Yeah. Then trying to figure out a creative device to deal with these questions.... In history when we omit complication, we forward a truth that is often unfair. A lot of the new historians that I read are trying to complicate settler colonial history to give a fuller view of what the history of this state is, and I thought I would try my hand at doing that, too.
‘Waltz For One’
“It's about a young woman who has a lover she can't see anymore and I think of it as a love song, first and foremost. Her backstory is she's been working at a farm and she fell in love with a farmhand and then got pregnant and this was out of wedlock, so her father was really ashamed and he fed her this abortive, which is lye and salt, and then admitted her to Rockwood. He sued her lover for ruining his property and the seduction. This was historically rooted in British laws surrounding master and servant relationships and at that time in Upper Canada, a father pretty much owned his daughter. So the idea was that if your property was damaged, you could sue for reparations.
"I felt like the whole situation was just so disfiguring for her and she's also grappling with the inability to see the person she loves, and it's a brutal song of reckoning whether or not the love that you have can exist any more or if you need to just extinguish it. John Showman came in and he played fiddle on this track, and we did two takes and they were both on the recording in the footage, in the middle section. And the remarkable part about that was that he played the first one and he just nailed it. I couldn't have asked for more, but then he said, ‘No, can you mute that track, I’m going to try it again.’ And then he played a second one without listening back, and then when they were played together they actually just fit perfectly.”
‘House of Lost Words'
“This song's coming from the thickest case file that I found. It was a series of letters [regarding] an inmate who I’ll call Deirdre for our purposes — I redact most of their names from the actual liner notes— and this exchange between George, her husband, and the medical superintendent at Rockwood and the letters span 30 years. There aren't that many of them, there are about six, and the exchanges kind of show how George is saying that he's going to come pick up his wife and send money in the meantime for her clothes and the superintendent is like, ‘Yeah, you should come because she's totally fine.’ And George never arrives. Thirty years later another letter arrives from Deirdre's daughter who asks about her mother, and inquires about whether she's still there and says she’s always wondered about what happened to her. And the super writes back to her and says, ‘She's fine, you should come and get her.’ And then Deirdre dies one year later of ovarian cancer.”
“The Lonesome Ace Stringband really shines here. That's Max Heineman on bass, Chris Coole on banjo and John Showman on the fiddle. The song’s about a woman whose sister found her trying to chop the head off a cat, which I read as an act of mercy. There's this brilliant moment in the last chorus where you can hear Max slap the bass, right before the last line, and it sounds like an axe chopping. That's the sonic highlight for me, 'cause think it was just accidental.
“Christine Shmitt’s singing harmony with me, and she's got her own record, so, you should check that out. She's a great, great singer. I've never heard anyone sing like her. This is a song of someone who's losing their memory and contemplating their own insignificance, while having to recall what their life might have been like. A lot of people in Rockwood had epilepsy, which is still stigmatized, of course, but it isn't any longer considered a form of mental illness or insanity or whatever you want to call it. This is my take on a kind of old-time frontier song. The Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee had fought alongside the British Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War, so they were driven out of their territory, which is what we call New York now. They were given this land, which was six miles on either side of the Grand River, as a sovereign nation. They weren't subject to the king, but allied to the king.
“I think it was 950,000 acres of land that the British promised the Haudenosaunee and then Canadian and British law, over the course of so many years since that time, whittled that land down to 46,000 acres, which is about five per cent of the land that was originally owed to them. There were many ways in which that happened, and the singer of this song would have been part of one of the ways that happened, and that was through illegal squatting of migrants on that land ... I just wanted to sing about this movement, being shuffled around a territory, and about the disappointment of the new world. Which was supposed to be this blank slate that you would move to and then be able to make money at, but for so many people, actually was cruel. And that's because it was a total fiction that was told to them before they migrated. And of course that had terrible consequences for most Indigenous people whose very existence was eventually denied.”
‘Hair of the Dead’
“That was kind of a classic dream song and I'll kind of leave it up to the listener to figure out what the meaning might be. Part of what I’m doing on the album is looking at the different kinds of songs there are and old-time and folk music, and really thinking of the inmates as songwriters, so they would have adopted certain forms or certain conventions. So, this is one, it's about a dream, and there's a pretty meta chorus in it which is ‘All that's lost in good time will be found again,’ which relates to the entire enterprise as an album. Cris Derksen plays on it, which is awesome, 'cause I was like, ‘Can you come in and ah, drone in D?’ And she's just got that amazing shallow voice. I felt really lucky that she created that sonic foundation for the guitar.”
‘Worship the Sun (Not the Golden Boy)’
“This is a character who surfaces in the case files and the main detail that they had about her was she was part of the Brook's Bush gang. The last living member of the Brook's Bush gang, which inhabited the Don Valley in Toronto. That would have been the eastern extremity of York at the time, close to the jail, and it was a gang that had a lot of people who were just trying to live outside of the society's prescribed way. They don't want to live in a religious orders house; they wanted to be able to drink and gamble and have sex. There were a lot of sex workers who were in the gang. One way that they made money is that they charged a toll on a bridge. One night, this is what I read, this MLA, John Sheridan Hogan came around and he was crossing the bridge and a few members of the gang killed him. That's what they're best known for is the murder of John Sheridan Hogan.
“The guy who was saddled with the guilt of the murder was James Brown. And it's pretty much widely understood that he was a scapegoat, so I wanted to explore that idea. He was the last public hanging in Toronto, and so there's a lot of articles about the trial and a lot of information about the gang as a result. But I wanted to kind of talk about the singer of the song as peripheral to that history. And actually not caring so much about being peripheral to that history.”
‘Carry On Warm’
“This is a song of a woman who gave her name as Ida Bye. Seven years in, it's revealed that she'd given a fake name. She was found in a farmer's field, the farmer turned her in. She purposefully misrepresented herself, so there are many reasons you might imagine her doing that. But I saw it as the permission she was giving me to inscribe a lot of different things that someone who was vagrant in upper Canada at the time would have experienced. She tells a lot of stories. I don't know if you've ever met anyone who seems like they've lived it all and you think, ‘I can't imagine that this has all happened to you.’ She's kind of that person. She also has a pretty oblique way of communicating. Her chorus is like, ‘Carry on warm or carry me cold, stranger I come, stranger I go.’ So it's not clear that she's telling you the truth at all."
‘Pile Your Silver’
“That's a tune from a woman whose delusion is stated as believing that she owns the farm that she's worked on, that her father owned. And she gets this fear that someone's gonna steal her farm, so her crime was that she shot two times with intent to kill. I was thinking about the delusion of property ownership and, you know, in a society where one can own property, how unjust it would feel to be a woman at the time who took care of most things, from raising the kids who worked the farm to working the farm in every which way. Backbreaking work. And then not being able to own the farm simply because one was a woman would be devastating. But then I was also thinking about what delusions are born of the fiction of property within settler colonial society. This idea of owning land really does need to be interrogated because there’s a range of fiction that has been made up to the advantage of settler colonial society. What delusions do these conditions beget?”
‘Yonder White Mare’
“That's a tune of a woman who's got epilepsy. She used to be a servant, like many of the women who end up in Rockwood, and wouldn't have been desirable as a servant once her epilepsy interfered with her ability to work. I think a lot about insanity and illness and disability and how they have these moving definitions depending on what room society makes for different people and how we accommodate each other. I guess she would have just not been able to integrate into the economy anymore and so would have wound up in a common jail and then with epilepsy would have been declared insane and put in the asylum. I don't. There are a few ways you can read the song, about whether or not she's happy to not have to serve or not."
“That would be the first tune I ever wrote and it relates the experience of being incarcerated in a stable, a stable as interim housing for 25 women at a time while the Rockwood Asylum was being built by penitentiary labour from the Kingston penitentiary, right down the street. For 12 years, women would have lived there in these cells that had formerly housed animals. There's this description by a groundskeeper who worked at the time, Mr. Evans, and he just talks about how it was pretty bad. But, actually, when the women were moved out of the stables into the main asylum, maybe conditions weren’t all that much better. The song details how the walls are washed with lye and there was no light except for a small slat. Food was given through a hole and generally people were kept from physical contact with each other.
“I think a lot about prison expansion now, and the lack of meaningful alternatives that we're willing, as a society, to come up with so that people aren't put in solitary confinement. Think of how a lot of trans people have been put in solitary confinement over recent years simply because there's no alternative made for them and they're not allowed with their true gender. It’s important for me to not see all these things as just part of the past, but actually the root of our contemporary carceral system.”
“Max Heineman sings that tune. He's this amazing singer. Sings with the Lonesome Ace Stringband and the Foggy Hogtown Boys, and this is one of the more comical things that happens throughout time, which is that people elope from the asylum. This is a particular guy, Daniel McGinty, and he gets out and then is seen all around town ... [he] gets out and it's kind of like this bizarre excitement and he's gonna go see his lover. He's just out on the town having a good time. And then he gets delivered back and just gets re-admitted. It's a funny tune. Max is such a tremendous singer, I wanted him to relay it.”
Fiver's tour dates:
April 15: The Wheelhouse, Prince Rupert, B.C.
April 16: Dodge Cove CC, Dodge Cove, B.C.
April 18: Skidegate Small Hill, Skide Gate, B.C.
April 19: Howard Phillibs Hall, Masset, B.C.
April 25: Quill & Cauldron, Quadra, B.C.
April 26: Linnaea Farm, Cortes, B.C.
April 27: Copper Owl, Victoria, B.C.
April 28: The Vault, Nanaimo, B.C.
April 29: China Cloud, Vancouver, B.C.
May 6: Blacksheep Inn, Wakefield, Que.
May 9: Sala Rosa, Montreal, Que.
May 11: Artspace, Peterborough, Ont.
May 12: TBC, Windsor, Ont.
May 13: Taproot, London, Ont.
Pre-order Audible Songs from Rockwood here.
Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner