Redemption Songs: Conviction Records Is Offering Hope

Founder Jill Brown on this powerful new project...

All too often, music’s flirted with romantic notions of criminality.

‘Jailhouse’ rock. ‘Murder’ ballads. ‘Outlaw’ blues. Songs that dance on the knife-edge of violence, often strummed by hands who’ve never held a blade or held up a post office.

But a life of crime isn’t some usually a Bonnie and Clyde cinematic trip. It’s desolate and desperate. More often that not, it’s borne out of social deprivation and chaotic lives. And for aspiring musicians on their way out of jail, there’s often little-to-no support to help them get their lives back on track – let alone get their records out there.

Conviction Records aims to change some of that. Taking root at a series of songwriting workshops at Barlinnie Prison, it’s a social enterprise with rehabilitation at its heart.

A record label devoted to platforming the music of ex-offenders, all proceeds from its sales will be used to support their transition to a better life outside of jail: bridging the gap by building transferable skills and breaking old patterns of behaviour.

They’ll offer a range of courses in social media, presentation and positive personal impact skills. Workshops will be offered externally, as well as to those signed to the label.

Brought to life by musician and former journalist Jill Brown (facilitator of the workshops), she’s teamed up with Eric McLellan, former right-hand man to legendary A&R guru Seymour Stein, to offer these ex-offenders a hand-up, the opportunity to upskill – and most importantly of all, a spark of hope amongst the darkness.

We met to chat about the vision, future ambitions and the redemptive power of music.

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Could you tell us a little more about the project and where it came from?

I’ll keep a long story very short. Over the past ten years, I’ve been going in and out of Barlinne, putting on concerts with prisoners and my band. Mainly, it was covers that the guys wanted to do, occasionally their own songs.

Before lockdown, I decided to do song-writing workshops. It was just a pilot. It was really the guys in the prison who came up with the idea. They led me to it. They asked – what do we do with our music on the outside?

A record label seemed like the most obvious next step for them. And it’s obviously very different, because you’re giving them a chance to use their own words.

When you were working with the prisoners, what sort of music were they gravitating towards?

It was a real mix. Sadly, people just can’t get away from Oasis! So that always turns up in some form. But there are a few people who do like Johnny Cash. I was like, we’re not going to do that because it’s so obvious. Like, ‘you must do Johnny Cash’, with prison music. A lot of blues music, a bit of The Beatles. Nothing particularly obscure, just popular music.

Within the workshop, what was the level of access to instruments? Were the prisoners allowed to play?

They didn’t really have to – because everyone was hip-hop! They all wanted to do hip-hop, and they were already rapping – so I guess it was just a development of that.

Within the songs that they were writing, were there any stand-out lyrical themes?

They write about trying to build a better life for themselves when they get out. One guy wrote this thing about wanting to be a better father, because he had a young son. They don’t celebrate crime, let’s put it that way. It’s all about how they can make their life better when they get out, and various emotions that they might have gone.

So songwriting gave them a space to express what had happened to them, and a framework to explore what they wanted for the future?

Well, you have a lot of thinking time in jail. So I think it’s inevitable that those are the themes we dwell on, really. Because generally, no-one wants to go back there. There are some who are institutionalised who’ll re-offend to get back in. Because they don’t have any other life.

Within the prisoners you were working with in those workshops, what was the age range?

This time, it was probably guys in the 20s and 30s. But before, people of all ages. For some reason, when you say songwriting workshop, it seems to always be interpreted as hip-hop. I don’t know why, really.

Did you ever try to guide their listening? Or to steer them towards new music?

Well, no. Firstly, because it was a short pilot. And secondly, because hip-hop is not my specialism. They would be the ones who’d teach me about it. And it was so good for me to discover new things – I would tell them about people, and they would tell me about people.

They knew a lot more than I would about hip-hop. Where we complemented each other was that it was my job to create the melody, which they don’t do, and any words which were sung, which is what they don’t do. But then sometimes they wanted to sing it. It was all new to them.

In terms of the aims of Conviction Records, is it about music as a rehabilitative force?

In short, it’s giving a voice to people who are on the margins of society.

 Inevitably, a level of rehabilitation will be a part of that. But I’m not going to claim that if you come to me then you’ll come out miraculously transformed.

For ex-offenders, the act of people believing in you and giving you time is really important. For anyone to recover from anything, really. To be heard. To have your own words heard. That’s the part that I have to play.

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In helping those people realise that they have a valid voice?

I was a television journalist, so I tell stories whatever medium I’m in. It’s about drawing people out of themselves, encouraging them and equipping them to do that.

The social enterprise will do a lot of training which is not related to music: confidence training, social media training. It’d be great if we discovered the next Jay-Z, but we also have to be realistic about it. We have to get people accessing things, who are not necessarily signed artists. It’ll offer a whole suite of training.

Employability skills and things like that?

I think even employability is even a level above. Often, people who are in jail have very chaotic lives and they don’t have a lot of self-esteem. Even before you get to employability, I think believing in people and getting them to believe in themselves is foundational – and is the most important building block.

Establishing a base level of confidence in themselves, and their attributes?

Yeah. When you’ve been in prison, you’re not going to come out and go for a job interview.

I think the general public probably like to hear about employment – but when guys are released, they come out with a polly bag of their clothes and that’s what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about someone who’s ready to go to a job interview – it’s really about building a support network for them so that they don’t end up back inside again, and they’ve got a bit of hope, and they’ve got something to focus on.

It’s more basic. Although hopefully, it’ll lead to that. Trying to get to grips with yourself, and your life.

Will it be open to all ex-offenders across Scotland?

To begin with, we’re going to start with Barlinnie. Otherwise, it could get quite overwhelming. But as we go on, we’re planning to extend our reach.

Could you tell me a little bit about Eric’s involvement?

Eric McLellan, our A&R guy (former right-hand man to the legendary Seymour Stein, who discovered Blondie and Talking Heads)- he’ll decide what we take on. He has a saying – there are two types of music in this world: good and bad. We’re not necessarily just looking for hip-hop artists with the label. We’re just looking for talented artists, in whatever genre.

I met Eric at an event called Wide Days. He was a speaker, we were at one of the pre-launch events and hardly anyone there. For me, because i’m a professional opportunist – as all journalists are – i was like, ooh – let’s go for a bowl of chips and a glass of wine!

We kept in touch, became friends. I kept him up-to-date with what I’ve been doing and asked if he wanted to get involved with this. He was delighted, because his job is to find new talent. And this helps him find talent that most people would never get any access to. And talent who wouldn’t have had a platform to get signed or found.

It’s hard for any artist – let alone if you’ve got a criminal record. Let’s face it, we all know really talented artists. Trying to navigate the music industry these days – with Spotify, and whatever, is really difficult. Adding onto that the fact you’ve been in prison – you’re going to be way down the pecking order.

Do you have any artists on your roster?

Well, we’ve just started. We just need to work our way through. One of the ways we’ll find people is through songwriting workshops, which we can’t do just now obviously, because of COVID.

It’s all in its very early stages, but the first person who’s contacted us is extremely promising. We’ve got one guy. I don’t want to say too much – he’s voice and acoustic, but he shows promise. We’ve got other people who’ve contacted us. Eric thinks he’s pretty Dylan-y.

What do you want to achieve with the label?

To make a difference to people’s lives, really. I’m an artist myself, but I feel it’s very self-seeking. And I worked in television, which is all about yourself. I wanted to get away from that and do something tangible to make a difference in people’s lives.

You have to go with your strengths. I’m not one of those polymaths who can turn their hand to anything – but music is just something I can do, that I enjoy. Whenever I went to Barlinnie, I really enjoyed it. And that’s where I realised I could contribute: by using my skill-set to meet the need.

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You can donate to the label by purchasing Jill’s track ‘Promised Land’ – co-written and produced by ex-Prides drummer Lewis Gardiner – via Bandcamp for any amount.

All money raised will go towards setting up the unique enterprise, and towards the workshops. Find out more HERE.

Words: Marianne Gallagher

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