By Mike Dunn
CALGARY – With increasing numbers of people in Canada being aware of and accepting of those with mental illness, and those who suffer from them learning to cope with the challenges those illnesses present, Toronto-based artist Fiver has explored some of the darkest historical elements of those afflictions on her new record, Audible Songs From Rockwood. The album finds singer-songwriter Simone Schmidt inhabiting the psyches, in field recording style, of a number of fictional patients at the Rockwood Asylum For The Criminally Insane, as gathered from case files dated between 1854 and 1881.
Schmidt, who also works with Toronto psych-country group The Highest Order, and was in underground country group One Hundred Dollars, took two years to research the case histories of patients, and the album has an immediacy, a subtle yearning easily at home in the classic Appalachia of the arrangements.
“I read an article about women who were incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum before the asylum was built, this period of 12 years when prison labourers from the Kingston Penitentiary constructed the asylum,” says Schmidt. “They had nowhere to put people who were designated criminally insane, those being people who had plead criminally insane at trial, or even those who were in jail but weren’t adhering to the social order of the institutions. The ‘social order’ of the Kingston Penitentiary in particular was one of silence and work. If you couldn’t be quiet all day and work, they deemed you criminally insane. Because Rockwood Asylum took 12 years to build, they need to do something with the people who couldn’t live in the other institutions so they sent the women to live on the Cartwright Estate, where the asylum was being built, housing them in the horses’ stables. I wrote a song from that almost immediately, and wanted to explore the history further. It took me into the roots of our institutions in settler and colonial society.”
While those methods for diagnosing mental illness in the past might seem very dubious now, Schmidt doesn’t feel we’re that far removed from the antiquated methods of history. “I don’t think that the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) is that much more of a precise science, and I would argue that I think that people who can’t conform to the dominant notions of what it is to be a productive person, or to fit into the economy, are often incarcerated, whether that’s in a mental institution or a prison, quite often their freedom is withheld.”
Fiver performs throughout BC in September, including a stop September 8 at The China Cloud (Vancouver). Following that she performs September 15 at Hillhurst United Church (Calgary) and October 7 at McDougall United Church as part of Up + Downtown Fest (Edmonton). Schmidt’s other band, The Highest Order, will also perform at Up + Downtown.Audible Songs From Rockwood, Fiver, Hillhurst United Church, McDougall United Church, The China Cloud, The Highest Order, Up + Downtown Fest