Songbirds: Ballards Behind Bars – Community Restorative Centre Project

Blog by Laura White – Mastering Bookings Manager

You can imagine the variety of requests and bookings we get through the doors at Studios 301. Every project is different and every project is memorable in some way. Songbirds is one of those projects. Steve Smart and I were fascinated about the technical aspects and logistics for this collaboration and how, with some credible industry supporters, they manage to get a great cause across the line in one of the strictest of environments. 

Steve, who needs no introduction into the music world, with his ridiculous amount of credits under his belt, veteran of the music scene, master of the versatile, has mastered the last two instalments of the Songbirds project and we were really keen to know more about the inmates, their stories and the recording process. 

Songbirds is part of the Community Restorative Centre, which has been around for close to 70 years supporting people affected by the criminal justice system and aims to change lives positively within their communities in NSW. The project facilitates songwriting and arts workshops in NSW prisons which is inspired by successful overseas prison-arts programs such as Jail Guitar Doors, Bread and Roses (US and UK) and Vox Liminis (Scotland).

Under the guidance of Director Murray Cook (musician, teacher, songwriter and performer), the program aims to create an environment for prisoners to share experiences and work with acclaimed and successful artists to produce tracks they have written. Songs are written and recorded inside the prison walls from Long Bay to Broken Hill. 

And the credible supporters part? They also need no introduction but on this album tracks were produced by five times ARIA winning producer Paul McKercher (Iggy Pop, Hoodoo Gurus, Midnight Oil, Cruel Sea, You Am I) at the state-of-the-art Free Energy Device studio and features cameos from a stellar cast of musicians, including Jim Moginie (Midnight Oil), Scott Johnston (Rose Tattoo), Abby Dobson (Leonardo’s Bride, Baby et Lulu) and Bow Campbell (Front End Loader, Dead Marines) and of course mastered by Steve Smart at Studios 301.

We invited Murray into 301 to chat about the project as we were so fascinated by the overwhelming talent coming from within those walls. We really wanted to learn how Murray delivers each instalment with such class and faces constant limitations of minimal technology whilst adhering to strict prison regulations. Obviously each artist’s name is protected and published in their first name for privacy issues but it really doesn’t deter from the stories they tell and the medium in which they choose to represent themselves. 

Every aspect is thought of, even down to the symbolic cover art of the album, designed by an inmate by the name of Tiny. His “Magpie”  featured on the cover is representative of the healing power of music and the freedom it can bring. The songs and albums are transformative and a release of something albeit maybe figuretly for the time being. 

I think the most beautiful thing about this project is the way each person is given a platform creatively, and kudos to Murray, who makes each song shine. The project in Murray’s words is really about using the music as a transformative and healing venture for the inmates. The program doesn’t stop there either, it continues to support participants with music and creativity, linking people with continuing opportunities and organisations that help them post-release of both album and human. Murray believes that projects like these can reduce social isolation that is definitely a factor for not just prison for the covid world as well.

Check out Murray and Steve having a chat on the Mastering Couch on our socials.

If you would like to donate to this and future projects you can do so here: