Songwriting in prisons

Last year I did some songwriting sessions at various prisons across the North West. Part of that work was for a project called ‘Changing Stories’ run by a Manchester based charity called TiPP (Theatre in Prison & Probabation).

I’m fascinated and a little obsessed with songwriting as a process. One of the challenges of writing with a group in prison is that people will often say ‘No I can’t do that’. I use various methods for creating structure, so that people are not working on a blank sheet but adding their own ideas to  pre-existing structure. One song written in that way was “I’ll watch the sun”. It was created over 3 weeks at 3 different sessions at HMP Thorn Cross.

The men were given a prompt to write a line of text. The prompt was “As the morning breaks…” They had to complete the line and then pass it on to the person next to them who has to respond to it with a second line and try it make it rhyme. This is done to a stopwatch. Adding a time limit to the writing process focuses the mind – it doesn’t matter what comes out as long as something does.  By passing the paper along it removes any anxiety that this is your sole work and it might not be up to scratch. It’s a group effort and we share the outcome, whether it’s good or bad.

I wrote a blog for TiPP about the process which you can read in full on their website.

Artist Paul Gent was at the sessions to observe the process and his drawings really convey the energy and chaos from which creativity comes. Paul’s drawings feature in this video along with a recording of the song that we made at the final session at Thorn Cross. The men involved in writing the song also play on it. There’s some on percussion, some on guitar and I taught 3 or 4 of them to play the song on Ukeleles (One of the reasons the song only has a couple of chords is to make it easier to play for beginners) We joined at that session by a singer Mercy Levett who also played the piano.

TiPP do amazing work and it was a pleasure to be part of their team for this.