Wednesday March 04, 2015

Canadian singer-songwriter releases album with maximum-security inmates

Zoe Boekbinder

Zoe Boekbinder (Photo: Prison Music Project)

Listen 12:45

Shelburne, Ontario native Zoe Boekbinder had to venture deep inside to gather material for her latest album: behind the walls of California’s New Folsom Prison.

If New Folsom sounds familiar to you, it's probably because it sits right next to the original Folsom Prison -- where singer Johnny Cash recorded his legendary live shows in 1968, for the highly-acclaimed album At Folsom Prison.

The Prison Music Project is scheduled for release sometime next spring -- long before most of the inmates featured on it expect to be released themselves.

Boekbinder got the idea to make an album of songs and poetry written by inmates about five years ago, when she agreed to perform in New Folsom as part of the institution’s art program. She describes the experience of performing there for the first time to As it Happens host Carol Off:

“I played three concerts...by myself, solo. The first concert was around nine in the morning -- way earlier than any concert I’ve ever played in my life.” It was in the law library of C-Yard, which houses the prison’s general population. Boekbinder played for about 30 men, who she said listened quietly and attentively.

Artist rendering of Zoe Boekbinder

Artist rendering of Zoe Boekbinder (Wendy MacNaughton for the Prison Music Project)

She held her next concert in solitary confinement. “[It] was a pretty small room, lined with ten cages about the size of telephone booths. They have a little metal stool in them, and a little metal table. These inmates in white jump suits were led in, each individually by a guard. They have ankle shackles and handcuffs on.” She explains their ankle shackles are removed outside the door, then they’re led into the cage, where they place their hands through a little door to have their handcuffs removed. 

“[It] was a really crazy experience, to play for literally captive people”, says Boekbinder of the audience of about six men she played for in solitary. “In this really blatant way they can’t move more than a few inches. [I had] to put up a sort of barrier so that I wasn’t reacting the way I really wanted to...of course it was incredibly heartbreaking to see that.”

Boekbinder is currently working with nine men to produce the Prison Music Project album. One of them is 72-year old Kenneth Blackburn, whose song “All Over Again,” you can listen to here:

Artist rendering of Ken Blackburn and Zoe Boekbinder

Artist rendering of Ken Blackburn and Zoe Boekbinder (Wendy MacNaughton for the Prison Music Project )

“He’s been incarcerated for several decades, and he has life without parole. So he’s gonna die there,” explains Boekbinder. “His health is really bad. He has tremors. He was clearly once a very adept piano player, and guitar player and drummer. But his hands shake now, so the rhythm is off. I think it really adds to the recording that you can hear that...his age and circumstance.”

Boekbinder also recorded a version of Mr. Blackburn’s song herself:

And you can find out more about the Prison Music Project at prisonmusicproject.com and zoeboekbinder.com/prisonmusicproject.