Songwriting On The Inside: Songbirds’ Prison Workshops

Murray Cook with Anthony. Image credit: Maya Luana
Graham Strahle
| October 29, 2019

Songbirds is a pioneering program of songwriting workshops that is designed to assist inmates in prisons in the Sydney metropolitan area. Music Australia has written about it before and has looked at the reasons why it is a success: delivered by Community Restorative Centre (CRC), a non-profit support organisation in NSW for those affected by the criminal justice system, it not only helps inmates cope with life in prison but gives them a range of valuable skills and experiences they can take with them following their release.

How it works is that outside musicians and songwriters come in to assist with the workshops and provide mentorships for those who have been released. Special focus is given to those of Indigenous background and requiring complex needs. Art classes, also offered by CRC, run in conjunction with these workshops. Recently, the program has begun giving workshops at Mary Wade Women’s correctional centre. Songbirds has an international organisational mentor in Vox Liminis, Scotland, which provides a similar range of offerings in that country. It also has counterparts with Jail Guitar Doors in UK (with Billy Bragg, Mick Jones and Joe Strummer) and in US (with Wayne Kramer).

The values of the program are manifold – that by offering creative outlets and the opportunity for skill acquisition, it builds self-esteem, reinforce identity, reduce isolation, and help towards inmates’ reintegration with society when they exit prison. In short, it helps rebuild lives.

At the end of 2018 Songbirds released its first CD, Songbirds Behind Bars, whose 20 songs were “mostly written and recorded inside NSW correctional centres from Long Bay to Broken Hill”; and in July it gave a concert at Broken Hill during NAIDOC Week. Their material is regularly played on Jailbreak Radio, another CRC initiative that can be heard on Sydney’s Koori Radio, Skid Row and other community radio stations.

Murray Cook is the music project coordinator of Songbirds. As a musician, writer and producer, he has worked with Midnight Oil, Mental as Anything, Warumpi Band, Mixed Relations and other artists, and he also taught music at Sydney’s Long Bay Psychiatric Hospital for 21 years.

We spoke with him to find out how the program is going.

When did Songbirds start, and what prompted you to get involved?

I was very lucky. After 21 years of teaching and performing with Midnight Oil, Mentals and so on, I was thinking of having a break. But Mindy (Dr Mindy Sotiri, CRC’s Program Director) had been overseas looking at similar programs like Vox Liminus in Scotland, where they do a fairly similar thing to us: encourage inmates to write songs, and get musicians to help perform them. Mindy was highly impressed by what she saw and asked if I could do it here. We started in March 2017.

How do inmates react to the idea of writing or playing their own songs?

Often they are a bit shy. Most of the guys on the CD had never played or written music before, and it’s a great credit to Adam Blacksmith (guitarist and singer-songwriter) and Bow (Bowden) Campbell (guitar and vocals in Front End Loader) for their help in making the project happen. We usually go in there and the first session is talking about experiences and introducing the idea of writing a song. Often I get them to read newspapers which I bring in, and they might see images or stories that take their eye, and I suggest they write a song about that.

Lots of the guys or gals can write good poetry or tap a rhythm out with a spoon on the table – to which I say, ‘Well let’s write words or music to go with it’. It really is amazing. Their ideas can be quite funny or quite confronting, but that’s exactly how it is. After the first day, we split into two groups and work on different songs. At the end of that we get together, compare songs and get a bit of rivalry happening. Then I perform, arrange and mix them on my sunroom table and later play them back to them.

They get a real kick out of it. It’s a great way of communicating to their children or their parents, saying to them, ‘Look, I’ve written this song’. Often in their songs they will tell things they won’t say in the prison yard, where you don’t get away with it. If you show any kind of vulnerability in prison you can be preyed upon and it can be used as a weapon against them.

But when it’s in a song they earn admiration and can say to themselves ‘I can do that kind of thing’. Something happens in their life that brings them to say, ‘I’ve failed in the past, but now I want to do the best.’ It takes a lot of courage to come up with that stuff. They are not just a criminal who made some mistake in their lives or got into the wrong company, but a human being. I’m quite often in tears when recording these songs.

Are they involved teamwork the in Songbirds workshops?

You can get a Lebanese collaborating with an Islander, with a bikie. In the prison yard, they might not dare talking to each other because they’re not part of the same gang. Actually they might discover that those other guys are not so bad after all and might end up really good mates. I think, My God, for the power of music.

Often it involves a lot of compromises. I encourage them to look at the situation and say, ‘Okay, that’s a better idea, I’ll go with that’. You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to do this. It’s about saving face, which is all important in gaol – you’ve got to be very diplomatic.

Tell us about the CD, Songbirds Behind Bars, and how you made it.

Because of the restrictions of gaol you can’t bring in laptops or computers, so I use old style gear. It was all recorded live in gaol. Most of the vocals are done by the guys and the gals, and at home I mix and arrange the songs. All the backing is mine – keyboard, vocals, drum machine. Literally we do everything on a shoestring and I left it rough and raw. These are compelling, authentic stories told as they are. If I over-refined it all that might be lost. All the artwork is done by the CRC art program – the guys in the art group listened to these songs and did the paintings, so it makes the whole thing done in-house.

In one track, ‘Too Young’, a Barkindji girl sings a-capella about her brother who died in custody. She was so upset, and when I invited her into our Broken Hill office and put her in front of a mike this amazing voice came out. I was in tears and told her she had the most beautiful voice. I left this song mostly a-capella. On the other hand, ‘In My Cell’ by Shane from Ngara Nura is a big production with eight vocal backing tracks as well as the usual instrumental tracks, which I added.

Does the program allow individuals to reconnect with their traditional cultures?

Yes, and it is fantastic to see. Some of the songs express a yearning, along the lines of ‘When I get out of prison I want to go back to the bush and connect with my tradition, with my culture’. The guys say they want to learn more. ‘Time’s Up’, with a young Koori rapper, Jarrod, is about how he actually dreads getting out of prison because he’ll have no money, be wearing prison shoes, and he fears being cut off from his culture.

It is a win-win situation. Songbirds is a unique program that serves an important social need and is focused on attainable solutions. Their first CD can be purchased online or at the Boom Gate Gallery, at Long Bay Correctional Complex at Matraville in Sydney’s east. It really is a terrific listen. A second album is planned to come out early next year. You can check out all Songbirds releases here.

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