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Fiver Honours the Forgotten Women of a Criminal Insane Asylum on 'Audible Songs From Rockwood'

Sarah MacDonald

Sarah MacDonald

"There are problems that come up in thinking about historical voicing and objectivity—about how we read historical sources as objective. I wanted to take on a voice that challenged that."

It may seem coincidental that in Canada's 150th anniversary year that the folk act Fiver—helmed by Toronto's Simone Schmidt—would release a record about the histories of women before and after Confederation. The histories Schmidt retells, however, are ones not so often spoken of publicly. Coincidental or not, Fiver's Audible Songs From Rockwood via Idée Fixe is a necessary piece of art and history about the lives of women in an asylum for the criminally insane in the earliest years of Canada as a nation and it deserves pause and consideration.

Simone Schmidt is prolific in Toronto's music scene and dishearteningly underrated. Schmidt orbits both folk and rock scenes with Fiver and the psych-rock outfit The Highest Order, bridging a gap between the two genres. On this record, Schmidt tackles the subjects of mental health, incarceration, erased histories, and how those are all woven into the lives of several different women. The Rockwood Asylum was established in what was then Upper Canada, before Confederation, in 1856 and was meant to house those deemed criminally insane. Those definitions were far looser; insanity could be determined, as an example, by simply being a teenager in love and unable to focus on the work at hand and taking that out on the people closest. As well, anyone who had plead insanity in a trial would also go to a place like Rockwood. 

Schmidt's curiosity with Rockwood occurred as she was reading about incarceration in general and she came across files that spoke of a horse's stable where women who were criminally insane were kept. After many grant rejections, Schmidt finally received one to continue on this arduous work. Schmidt spent a few years in the Ontario Archives and going to Rockwood near Kingston, ON every few months, and reading secondary source material to contextual the period she would come to write and sing about. Extensive liner notes—written by Schmidt in as an assumed fictional identity of Simone Carver—go along with the musical work. These notes, however much a cheeky play on the Smithsonian Folkways tradition of drier storytelling, are vital to grasping the enormity of this work. It takes its listeners through Indigenous and First Nation histories, long forgotten land sales, superintendents' daily activity logs, and the brief mentions of these particular women, all whose names, save for one, are redacted.

Schmidt's voice trembles and quakes on Audible Songs; taking on these characters, giving a voice, but not necessarily the voice of real women who lived through this experience. Read our interview below:

Noisey: What motivated you to make a record about women in an asylum near Kingston, ON? Was there a story you heard from this place or time period that sparked interest? 
Fiver: I'd been researching incarceration in general many years ago, probably 2012, and then I came across this article about the Rockwood Asylum. When you research incarceration, you just find out all sorts of things. But the story that really got me obsessed was this story about women being put in horses stables. There was this interim period between 1856 and 1868 when the asylum was being built. It was being built by penitentiary labour. They had all these women who were designated criminally insane and they had to decide where to put them. They put them on the estate where the asylum was being built but a building that had previously held horses. I read that and thought of a song right away. I was signing that song at shows for a few years and I started just wondering what it would be like to learn about all of the other women who were there, specifically. I had never done any archival research but I applied for a grant to do some. I got rejected a bunch but then finally got in. 


Would you call this a concept album?
Sure.

The songs are more fictional; pulled from primary material but made into a story. You also made yourself into a character. How come?
I thought it would be another layer to making it clear that these were fictional. That these are fictional songs. When I started talking about the project, people were like, "are they real songs?" As if I might have found lyrics in the case files. Having had the experience of doing the research I can say that is totally impossible. But I thought, also, that I did the research, there were all these problems that came up in thinking about historical voicing and objectivity. About how we often read historical sources as objective. I wanted to take on a voice that challenged that historical objectivity. It's also a riff on the Smithsonian Folkways archives. A lot of those albums come with great extensive liner notes and they are written in this stuffy, anthropological manner. And I thought, often they feign an expertise which is pretty much impossible. You don't go somewhere, record some people, and say you're an expert, which is why I am not an expert on the lives of these women. So I wanted to poke fun at that narrative voicing. I do hope that that comes across in the way that it is written. Definitely it's a book so you need to read the whole thing to understand that. It's a joke.

Take me through the process of the idea for the record to researching it to putting together the songs.
Sometimes you can follow certain singers or characters of the songs through newspaper articles and databases and things like that—do different searches. I read a lot of the diaries of the superintendents, which are daily and boring often, and sometimes quite exciting. You get a sense of their characters; maybe you get a sense of the people in charge more than the women. 'Cause the women have, maybe, one to six lines written about them. There was a woman who lived there for 36 years and only has 6 lines written about her. So, yeah, that research happened throughout different times in two years and then I'd be with it much like you'd be with any knowledge that you have. For me, a lot of the process was thinking harder and having experiences that informed what I read or what I'm reading so the songs would come to me as they came to me. Just read over and over and over and try to follow threads.

Why are the names redacted except for one?
The one I didn't redact is because I felt like she gave me permission not to redact. I found her in this ledger of all of the inmates and it has columns and the first thing on the column is the number of the inmate and you can correspond that to a name to other files if they exist. Her name appeared short in contrast to the other Marys and Margarets and Catherines, it was Ida Bye. I looked at her case file and it turned out she had given a fake name and it had lasted for about seven years. She was found in a farmer's field and had been taken to the local jail and then ended up in Rockwood, which was common. She had withheld any real information about herself. She became a character I could invent a lot about. And I think this is an interesting thing to consider, the fictions we write, and the way in which we can protect [ourselves] from being known.

Of the other women that you have redacted, are you giving them a sense of preservation and giving them voice?
I don't think of it was giving voice. I think I wanted to remember them in a different way and I'm an artist, and a songwriter, so that's how they are being remembered. I just didn't...I think I decided it was private to be known as they actually are in their case files and for elements of their story to carry on, which is a beautiful thing, unless they get conflated with real people.

Let's talk about the track "Waltz For One." Who is the woman in this song and what is her story?
This is the 16 year-old who is working as a servant before getting pregnant and the case file reveals that the psychiatrist determined she was impregnated by one of two farm hands at the farm she was working at. The case file says she was impregnated and that effectively she has gone mad asking for these two other workers for their help. She's burning her clothes, not acting proper while being incarcerated. The crime's not clear, right. A lot of the people at a given area at Rockwood weren't people who committed a crime. They were brought there by their family. So her father brought her, and he clearly had a lot of shame about his unwed daughter being pregnant. And one of the interesting things I found in my secondary research was this tort of seduction. This very bizarre, to me, and yet totally obvious thing that happened where women were considered the property of their fathers. It's rooted in a British feudal law. If you had a servant who was damaged and you were the master, you could sue whoever damaged them because they weren't people, they were property. All of these men in Upper Canada were freaking out in the mid-1800s because their relationships were changing; their relationships to their daughters were changing; they were working outside and had less control over what their daughters were doing. When they felt that they might be losing the income their daughter might have brought them or the help they would be getting at home regularly, they could sue.

Of course her actual song is a song of love. Of bemoaning this intense feeling of love and not knowing whether it's something to express or rein in. And regret, you know, and a strange relationship to the father who is ashamed. It's interesting to consider consent and consent in this crime of seduction because it consent doesn't matter. This crime that's committed by a man and, you know, the suing happens by a man. And it's all about a woman's body and the right to her own reproductive freedom it does not exist and is not at all involved in the discussion. 

Why did decide to make this the first track on the record?
It sounded right. I mean that's a weird balance that you're working with when you're making a record like this because you want to make sure you're representing people properly and that there is a balance to the narratives. But it's also a sonic balance and for me, when I try to make a record, I think about it first and foremost in terms of sound. I read them as short stories, you know, but if they had no music, the tracklist would be different.

How did you go about piecing together the song from primary sources and what you intuitively wanted to write as a songwriter and musician?
That's a really hard question because I think that's a question about songwriting always. Songwriting is a thing that isn't cut and dry. There's so much involved in determining how much is involved in determining what one wants to sing over and over again, and what melodies call for what words. I think there are people who would describe songwriting like a science. That there's a formula. I don't see that, even when there's a form, there isn't a formula. Perhaps there are for bad songs but I don't think... yeah so, I don't feel particularly didactic as a songwriter. I inhabit characters. Often I'll write a backstory to a character and they will be singing a feeling I have and maybe that feeling is transported into a different setting. Maybe that is used to ornament the reverse, you know?

Is there something overarching that links all of them together other than their common histories in this place?
I don't know. [laughs] I'm not sure. Do you think there is?

To me it sounds a little— I don't want to say purgatory because that Christian language is….difficult for that time—but they seem to be in limbo where they are not necessarily able to be to be themselves but they are themselves. That's what i got.
I think about songwriting as something people go to in distress often. But I think of great songwriters throughout the ages who have found song as their only retreat. So, yeah, these would be the most talented songwriters at Rockwood who would have restored to song to express themselves. It's interesting you say they might feel like they are in limbo because that is quite often the feeling when you're quite perturbed but can't affect any change.

Do you think we, in a societal sense, are still okay with erasing histories?
Oh, entirely. I think the foundation of settler society is to erase history. Even in efforts it would seem to reconcile with terrible instances of abuse in settler colonial society there is a deep reluctance to admit the entire foundation is genocide. I don't think people have trouble erasing that. Even ideas in pan-indigeneity where people don't know specifically which land they are on. They might know the overall idea. We're segregated where we are here so we often don't learn from each other. I see that as something that allows the continued dispossession of that land from people of this country not knowing the history.

What is the one takeaway from the process of making this album and learning about these women at Rockwood?
That is something that cannot be answered. I spent a lot of time with and I wrote some stuff. I hope people can look at the liner notes and what I've included and think about all of information and be with it all as different parts that are interacting in different ways. I like art for that reason—there isn't just one takeaway.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sarah MacDonald is an Assistant Editor at Noisey Canada. Follow her on Twitter.