In 2014, Toronto musician Simone Schmidt began visiting the Archives of Ontario, home to the original case files of Kingston's Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Though the institution has been shuttered for decades, what remains is a decaying relic of inhumanity and violence. Snuggled against Lake Ontario, the asylum – separated from the peaceful shore by a narrow gravel path – is unfit for visitors because of asbestos and disrepair. Despite the unwelcomeness, it is to Rockwood that Schmidt went, gathering a sense of what those who lived there saw and felt – field notes for a new album dedicated to them.
Beyond this amateur sleuthing of bygone medical immoralities, Schmidt is best known as the prolific lead member of local psych/alt-country bands One Hundred Dollars and the Highest Order as well as solo endeavour Fiver. With the latter, Schmidt, helped along by a vast assembly of backing musicians (the Lonesome Ace Stringband, Alia O'Brien of Blood Ceremony and others), will on April 21 release Audible Songs From Rockwood, an eerie corrective of suffering written from the imagined perspective of women incarcerated there in the mid-1800s. (Patients deemed "insane" were sent from nearby Kingston Penitentiary.)
According to the 32 pages of liner notes that accompany the album, "the insane were the epileptic, the hysteric, the apoplectic, the manic, the angry, the intemperate, the spastic, the prostitute, the idiot, the lead veined, the limp, the lame, the vengeful, the forgetful, the ill, the old, the disobedient, the slow, the fast, the temporally loose, the sexually prodigious, the ambivalent of spirit, the lazy, the free or a combination of any of these." The booklet goes on to tell of the history and conditions of Rockwood, based on Schmidt's research. The details are harrowing and violent.
Schmidt – a self-described "non-historian non-academic" – scoured years' worth of medical records and patient diagnoses written by Rockwood's medical superintendent. The songs on the album are an attempt to answer the project's essential question: What would these women say for themselves, if anyone had ever asked them?
"My lips may betray in a quotidian way but by the look of your law, I have nothing to say," go the lyrics to Worship the Sun (Not the Golden Boy). "Three of us squatters, Iroquois land, I could not rise to the New World's demands," go those to Haldimand County.
"I treated each song like a short story, framed by a larger narrative that is critical of the enterprise itself," Schmidt said in an interview. "I hope people consider the fraudulence of the paternalistic roots of Canadian medical, psychiatric and correctional institutions. I hope people can question the cruel practice of warehousing people for profit and recognize that, in general, the majority of people who are imprisoned live in a negative relationship to the law from the get-go, because they don't integrate into the economy or can't work due to their psychological or emotional difference."
Musically speaking, Audible Songs From Rockwood is an absolutely grand, enjoyable album. Schmidt's voice is omnipotent, hearty and analeptic. But the horrors therein are heavy and at the forefront of the project, not just dozing around in the undertones. On what shelf do we store the work of an artist who spends years researching untold human rights violations, then turns the findings into an Old Time-influenced folk record?
"I want people to spend time with it – do the long listen, the repeat listen, read the liner notes and take away what they will," Schmidt said. "I put a lot of different elements in the same room, from melodic themes, word play and parody to the transcription of historical documents, art that some of my favourite artist friends made to the music … I hope people make connections. They will if they take the time."
Schmidt is a respected figure in Canadian music but bafflingly under-discussed. When asked about a possible Polaris Music Prize nomination, Schmidt's response sounds weary, a surrender of sorts. "I don't make work with prizes in mind or think about how it will be received. If I did, I would never have made a traditional-sounding acoustic record in 2017. … I would like to be able to afford to continue to have a career and the mobility to play to larger audiences. I have a following that has stuck with me across projects, despite shifts in sonic palettes and my total disregard for branding and I'm grateful for that.
"Historically, a lot of great songwriters were people struggling with the dominant paradigm – difficult people, differently gifted people," Schmidt continued.
"That's what I see among some of my contemporaries who are incredible singers and songwriters and who hold song as sacred but just can't interface with the artifice of the music industry. I guess that's also part of what I was getting at with this fiction I made about songs at Rockwood. There's no doubt in my mind that song would have been refuge to some of the inmates. It always is."