Toronto artist Fiver aka songwriter Simone Schmidt will be performing at the Calvary United Church on Friday, January 12. The show is being co-presented by the Skeleton Park Arts Fest in a collaborative effort with the Prison4Women memorial.
She will be performing form her new album, Audible Songs From Rockwood – a series of songs based on the experiences of women housed at Kingston’s Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane between 1854-1881.
I sent Simone a few questions via email about her experience reading through the asylum’s archives for two years and turning that experience into an album. Learn why she chose these archives to write about, how this experience made her view our current mental healthcare system and her thoughts on these patients’ experiences.
Keep up with Kingston: What drew you to these particular archives? Was the plan always to turn it into an album?
Simone Schmidt: I read an article in the newspaper at random, while doing research about detention and incarceration in Canada. Somehow got onto this article about how the women inmates at Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane were housed in the horses stables as an interim measure for 12 years while prisoners from the Kingston Pen were building Rockwood as it stands today. It rattled me to think about and I wrote a song right away. That was back in 2012, and so I sang that song for a few years, and every time I sang the song, I would wonder about what life was really like for the people there. Information about Rockwood hasn’t been widely published (though a great writer, Kathleen Kendall is releasing a book about it in the next few years), so archival research was the only way to find out. And yes, it was always with the intent of writing an album because I’m a songwriter and that’s my way.
KUWK: Why did you decide to make an album based off of these archives?
SS: At first I thought it would be really simple – I imagined that the archive would have straight forward information about simple stories from the “Criminally Insane” – and I would write those into traditional old time verse. I’ve never made a traditional sounding record despite adoring Anglo North American music, Bluegrass, Blues, Old Time and the like. To date I’ve always recorded country, folk rock and rock records. But I was exposed to great acoustic music as a teenager, living in Toronto, sneaking in to the Silver Dollar club to watch people like Jenny Whitely, Joey Wright, Chris Coole, and John Showman rip bluegrass on Wednesday nights (those last two will be touring with me). My favourite songs were story songs, and the ballads that go on forever. But you know, a lot of those songs are written by men for men to sing – songs about outlaws and heartbreak at the hands of a woman. So when I first came up with the idea, I wanted to write other peoples voices into the form and sound of traditional music, and I thought the archive would have women outlaws from my geographic region that could be recalled and remembered in song.
The problem was, as I discovered quickly, most of the case files were pretty blank – bereft of detail. I didn’t find any of the kind of stories of outlaws I’d imagined – some women only had one sentence written about them after living at Rockwood for decades. It often wasn’t clear if they had committed a crime, and in fact to be determined “criminally insane” could mean that you’d plead insanity at trial, or that while in jail, you’d become insane, according to a doctor. So I had to go deep into the superintendents diaries, and government commissions, and so on, and try to understand why that might be, and what it might mean. Rather than abandon the project, I thought about how I could grapple creatively with how to remember people who aren’t actually given time in the historical record, with respect to what we can and can’t know about them. So I kept digging.
I ended up finding the opinions of judge, doctors, police – the men in power. There were stories about migration, abuse, adultery, and about the criminalization of difference and disability. You know, to this day, criminality and insanity are defined and redefined over and over again by those in power. This makes criminality and insanity particularly slippery to talk about without full context. The process of researching the context brought up so many questions about who writes the history of Canada as we are taught it, the power inherent in the archive, and power dynamics within the carceral systems. So, throughout the 3 years I was writing the album, I learned about how British Loyalists dispossessed the Michi Saagig Nishnaabeg of the land that is now called Kingston, about Upper Canadian settler colonial history, the imposition of British law, the social conditions at the time, and I learned about the inception of the Canadian Correctional System and Mental Health Care System as we know them today. Rockwood was effectively a dumping ground for settlers who could not integrate into the economy and society – like the servant who has epilepsy, or the depressed wife who suspects her husband of cheating, or the debtor who has a history of sex work. I had to learn about their historical contexts in order to fill in blanks in the case files, and develop their characters, whose songs I’d then write. Some songs are confessional – about life before or after Rockwood – but some of them are just songs about dreams, poetic thoughts, songs that I imagine a character might have written to pass the time, or deal with their emotions. Songwriters don’t always tell the truth, we use metaphor and sing what sounds good. I ended up having to write 30 pages of liner notes to accompany the album to draw people into the problems and questions that I came upon, because good songs aren’t usually that explicit.
KUWK: Do you have a favourite song on the album? If so, which one.
SS: I wrote around 50 songs for the album, and many of them were unbearable – bad bad songs. My 11 favourite tunes are on there. Part of figuring out which songs would go on the album was choosing which tunes would provide a good balance for the listener, for the record as a listening experience.
KUWK: Are there any anecdotes that stood out to you while reading through the archives? If so, can you share?
SS: I won’t get into the songs – the album comes with 30 pages of liner notes that expand on the songs, their historical context and the like, and in the show is equally as much about me talking about the stories as it is singing. But I should say that there is much doubt as to whether Dr. Litchfield, the Superintendent of Rockwood, was ever accredited as a doctor. He, like a lot of British men, was able to skip around the colonies and assume a position of authority in a place where his past was not known.
KUWK: Is it strange reading about these experiences so thoroughly but not being able to enter most of the property due to the asbestos?
SS: Less strange, more just the feeling of longing to go somewhere you’re not allowed.
KUWK: Did reading these archives change your perspective on the current mental health care system?
SS: I think the archives made me think a lot about the overlap of the mental health system and the prison system – that’s what Rockwood was explicitly. So my research lent a more concrete feeling to the notion that Progress is a myth. In the liner notes I touch on a Commission into the Kingston Penitentiary in the 1840’s – this Commission explains why the Upper Canadian government must open a dedicated facility for “the Criminally Insane.” The striking thing to me is that the Commission discusses how people in prison are “goaded into insanity” by their treatment at the hands of a particularly violent warden, who not only beat them, but threw them into segregation for long periods of time. I had the vague misunderstanding, prior to doing this research, that trauma informed understandings of mental health were new. I thought that it was only within the past 20 years that the system acknowledged that punishing people with violence and segregation causes them to become undone. But according to this Commission, they knew it in the 1840’s. So isn’t that appalling to know that segregation is still used in prison? And then to read in 2017 the story of Adam Capay, the young man who was held in solitary for 4 years? And then to also know that Trans Women are often held in segregation because of transphobia in the system. It’s hard to draw absolute parallels between the past and the present, so I mention that because it’s so explicit. But currently, according to a CAMH study from 2012, 69% of women in federal prisons are being treated for “mental health” problems. That’s a lot of people being locked up and treated for mental health.
KUWK: Are there any other archives that interest you?
SS: I could find interest in any archive. After a conversation with a friend, a settler who worked for years as a nurse in a remote northern Indigenous community, I think the archives of colonial nursing stations would be important for settlers to reflect upon. In a time where the word “reconciliation” is being thrown around a lot, settlers have a lot of learning to do to understand the systems of power from which we’ve benefitted and continue to benefit, while Indigenous people are dispossessed of their land, and oppressed under colonial rule. Part of that is knowing the history of these systems.
KUWK: What are you most looking forward to when you perform in Kingston on Jan. 12?
SS: The P4W Memorial Project, for sure. I’m interested to see that very important work.
I’m also happy that I’ll be playing with Chris Coole and John Showman – I’ve mostly been touring this show solo so having them accompany me will be wicked.