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A Songwriter Gives Voice To The Silenced Women Of Rockwood Asylum

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In her new album as Fiver, Simone Schmidt imagines the songs that might have been sung by women incarcerated at Ontario's Rockwood Asylum in the 19th century.

Canadian singer-songwriter Simone Schmidt, who performs under the name Fiver, undertook an ambitious project with her latest album. Audible Songs From Rockwood is Schmidt's way of telling the stories of real people committed to Rockwood Asylum, a 19th-century institution near what's now Kingston, Ontario.

"The Rockwood Asylum was built between 1856 and 1868 on the north shore of Lake Ontario," Schmidt says. "It was built as a way to deal with a class of criminals and persons designated insane that the Kingston Penitentiary and the Toronto psychiatric institution couldn't handle."

In a conversation with NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro, Schmidt explains how she researched the women who became the characters in her songs and provides context for a few of those songs. Hear the interview at the audio link, and find highlights below.

Interview Highlights

On the process of researching the inmates at Rockwood Asylum

The case files of anyone who was incarcerated in a public institution over 100 years ago are available to any member of the public. So these ones were in the archives of Ontario ... They're handwritten, and so you really get a sense of the script of the superintendent who would have been filling them out. And they have all kinds of information — although very little, when you think of these case files being the only thing left of a lot of the people.

On the story of the narrator of "House Of Lost Words"

I got everything from a series of letters between a superintendent and one of the inmates' husbands. The husband writes to the superintendent to check on his wife, and he's writing from Temple, Texas. And the superintendent writes back to tell him, "Your wife's fine, you should come pick her up," and what happens over the course of these letters is you realize that the husband never comes.

Then there's another letter that was dated 30 years later, from the inmate's daughter, who wonders where her mother was and if she was still alive. And the superintendent, of course, writes back and says "Yeah, your mom's totally fine, you should come pick her up. She's in sound body and sound mind." And then you look at the case file and it also says that the same woman died a year after that letter was sent. So you know that she lived 33 years in the asylum.

On taking refuge in the characters in her songs

It's that feeling of displacing oneself into the consciousness of another. And so, if I were to tell you more about my life, then I would be describing what it is that I'd be taking refuge from. ... It's that joy of obsession, I find. And even when it's somber material, or when it's difficult material, I don't necessarily find it that much [more] difficult than what it is to live in this world.

Web editor Rachel Horn contributed to this story.

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