Simone Schmidt takes people on a voyage in a musical time machine, of sorts, with her latest album.
With Audible Songs from Rockwood, the Toronto singer-songwriter, who performs as Fiver, tells stories from the perspective of women incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Upper Canada, from 1856 to 1881.
“I was researching a totally different topic – immigration and detention in Canada – and I came across a story [about Rockwood] through a ‘key word’ search on the internet,” she said.
Over the 12-year construction period of the asylum, which used penitentiary labour, male residents were housed in different buildings on the sprawling Cartwright Estate in Kingston.
“The women lived in the horse stables, which struck something pretty deep in me,” Schmidt said.
She penned the 2012 tune Stable Song.
“Every time I would sing it, I was reminded of the curiosity that I had about what life might have actually been like there,” Schmidt said.
She intensified her research, which included weekly trips to the Archives of Ontario, sifting through the asylum’s primary documents, including patient files, architectural diagrams and superintendents’ diaries.
Writing and recording songs took a couple years, with another year devoted to putting the finishing touches on the album, which includes extensive liner notes.
“I wanted to be able to tell people about a range of information that couldn’t be related in song,” Schmidt said of the 30 pages, which include historical information, stories of the women and context of the songs.
In her research, Schmidt assumed she would read that inmates deemed “criminally insane” had committed explicit crimes.
“Instead I found people who were simply poor, unable to work and integrate into the Upper Canadian economy, who didn’t fit the social order of the broader society because they were vagrant, disabled or ‘intemperate.’” she said.
“To this day, poverty and addiction are criminalized in Canada, and people who don’t find adequate care, employment or housing, wind up in jail.”
Schmidt noted there are “too many parallels to mention them all,” when it comes to how the stories – and songs – relate to issues of today.
“I always find that question hard because, if I could boil it down, I probably wouldn’t have spent three years making a record and accompanying book,” Schmidt said, when asked about what she would like people to take from the album.
“I think I would just like people to be with the music, the stories and the writing, and take what they will.”
Lots of talk
Fans in Antigonish had an opportunity to experience Fiver and her Rockwood songs Jan. 17, at the Townhouse Brewpub and Eatery on College Street.
One night later, she played at The Carleton on Argyle Street, as a headliner for the annual In the Dead of Winter festival. In Halifax, Chris Coole and John Showman – who also play on the album – accompanied Schmidt.
“It is pretty dynamic,” she said in describing live performances.
Schmidt added there is plenty of talk between songs to help make them “a little clearer.”
“A lot of these songs are more oblique – they are metaphors of; they are not really true ballads, because they don’t relay much action,” she explained.
“If people hear the context that I am writing them from, they are more likely to understand it.
“So I talk a lot between the songs,” Schmidt added, with a laugh.
She noted she loves talking to people after shows.
“It has been a real pleasure to be doing this all across the country,” Schmidt said.
“The more stories I tell – the more that I hear from people about their own experiences.”
For more about Fiver, visit fiverfiverfiver.com