Distant Voices: How Vox Liminis' album aims to spark conversations on criminal justice

Distant Voices is a new project from Vox Liminis and the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. It sees some of Scotland’s best songwriters team up with people who have experienced the criminal justice system from lots of different angles, with the aim of writing and recording songs that express and challenge the ways we all think and feel about crime, punishment and reintegration.

Those who have taken part in Distance Voices include people in prison, people who have served community sentences, prison officers and governors, social workers and probation officers, victims of crime, families affected by imprisonment, academics and students.

As Vox Liminis Director Alison Urie says, "in a system that often thinks about things – and people - in black and white terms, Distant Voices explores what happens when we share human stories, ideas and emotions; we try to add colour back into the discussion. And we do it by writing songs together!"

The project has many strands. Distant Voices: Coming Home, for example, is concerned with the issues people face when they come out of prison, or complete a community sentence. From the practical difficulties of getting a job and finding (or maintaining) somewhere to live, to the challenges of stigma and prejudice, and of re-joining a family and rebuilding a life, the road home has many obstacles along the way.

It asks important questions, such as 'what does reintegration look like?', 'how are we all involved, for better or worse?', and 'what role can art play, both in supporting individuals and in shaping wider public conversations on these issues?'

This summer, a new album will be launched at Hidden Door. Distant Voices: Not Known at This Address features the talents of Kris Drever, C Duncan, Admiral Fallow, Emma Pollock, Rachel Sermanni, Pronto Mama, Bdy_Prts, Fiskur and Donna Maciocia.

It was supported with National Lottery funds, via Creative Scotland's Open Project Funding

We want to make art together that opens up questions of justice. We hope that by doing so, we might together be able to imagine a more just Scotland- Alison Urie, Vox Liminis

Originally recorded in prisons and community settings, as part of a number of songwriting workshops, each of the tracks has been re-recorded at Glasgow’s legendary Chem19 Studios, in collaboration with the co-writers.

Louis Abbott, Creative Director of Distant Voices (and Admiral Fallow frontman), says the idea of the album came from running workshops. "I had been involved with Vox on a freelance basis for a year or so doing the odd Vox Session (three-day songwriting workshops generally in a prison setting or within the community) before the idea of making a full length album of the co-written songs was born," he explains.

"After successfully writing and recording an EP of songs in 2016 (Silent Seconds EP) the LP was the next logical step."

"Each co-write had its own unique process with the different personalities at play," he says. "For the majority of the songs, an early demo written and recorded in prison was then worked up in the months following the session, all the while involving the co-writer in various ongoing musical and lyrical decisions. We spent January in Chem19 studios with Jamie Savage recording the final versions.

"As you can imagine, the logistics of a continuous, artistic relationship between co-writers weren’t always easy to navigate – some of the participants were still serving sentences during the development period – but thanks to the dedication of the musicians, and the team at Vox, we were able to keep those connections alive. It was an exhilarating thing to be a part of."

The team says they were "ambitious" with the musicians they approached.

"We drew up a shortlist of songwriters we thought would ‘get’ the vision and values of the project," Louis says, "and who we were really excited by musically.

"We set about planning 18 months of sessions in various prisons and criminal justice settings throughout the country. I was keen that a diverse mix of musical and songwriting styles was represented within the songs. From the acoustic / folk stylings of Lau’s Kris Drever, to the synth-laden electronica of BDY_PRTS and the indescribable math-pop of Pronto Mama; there’s something from everyone in the mix."

For Vox, creativity is hugely important. "We see [it] as a means of expression and as a way to build community," Alison says. "Vox Liminis is Latin. It means ‘voice from the threshold’. The threshold isn’t ‘in’ or ‘out’; it’s a powerful in-between space, where voices can speak to each other, and be heard, despite their differences.

"We want to create spaces where diverse people can come together and form connections at the ‘thresholds’ – and we believe that sometimes, through making art together, these in-between places can become common ground for people.

"We want to make art together that opens up questions of justice, and hope that by doing so, we might together be able to imagine a more just Scotland."

Overall, the organisation is hoping that the new album will spark an important conversation about justice in Scotland. 

"Before getting involved with Vox Liminis I had thought very little about the criminal justice system," Louis says, "having never had experience of it in my life.

"This album is a collection of songs that hold universal themes I believe everyone can relate to. I hope that through them we can connect and learn more about the way we treat each other."

The Glasgow launch for Not Known At This Address takes place on 25 May, at Saint Luke's & The Winged Ox. The album launches in Edinburgh at Hidden Door on 29 May. Find out more about Distant Voices at voxliminis.co.uk/projects/distant-voices/.

This article was published on 19 Dec 2019