Toronto musician, Simone Schmidt, put advocating for homeless in encampments ahead of album launch


Simone Schmidt does her best to keep her activism separate from her music, but it’s clear from the long delay in getting her third album as Fiver out into the world where her priorities lie.

Conceived and recorded over several trips to bucolic Scotch Village, N.S., during 2017 and 2018 with the deftly musical improvisational trio for which it’s named, “Fiver and the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition” has been sitting in the can since April 2019, well before a certain global pandemic upended everyone’s best-laid plans, and was eventually slated for release on esteemed indie label You’ve Changed Records last September in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 stranglehold.

Schmidt, however, wound up delaying the record’s release yet again last fall because she deemed her all-consuming work on behalf of the estimated 1,500 people living in Toronto’s scattered homeless encampments with the Encampment Support Network too important to disrupt with the distractions of her “real” job. The grassroots organization she co-founded with artist friends Jeff Bierk and Ginger Dean last June helps provide denizens of the many tent cities that have sprung up around the GTA during COVID with basic necessities of life and focused advocacy at City Hall.

Even as the new May 7 release date approached, Schmidt joked in an email last month that she was “probably botching my rollout because the city posted notices of trespass in all the encampments and so we’re trying to challenge that and it takes most of my days.” So far, evictions from crowded locales such as Trinity-Bellwoods and Alexandra Park and Lamport Stadium have been avoided, but the network’s task of defending Toronto’s most vulnerable and neglected isn’t going to get any easier during the days and weeks ahead.

So, yes, if Schmidt’s face looks familiar despite the fact that you’ve never heard of Fiver or the Highest Order or One Hundred Dollars, or any of the acclaimed, genre-blurring music this self-deprecating singer/songwriter has been conjuring with various bands for the past 13 years, that’s probably because she’s been a fixture in the local news for months giving a voice to our less fortunate neighbours, typically deprived of a voice at the institutional level. And while it’s not at all within Schmidt’s nature to exploit her years of committed activism — she was an organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when One Hundred Dollars’ debut, “Forest of Tears,” arrived back in 2008 — it does seem fair to point out that all the songs she’s written giving vivid life to the neglected, downtrodden and misunderstood classes over the years come from an honest place.

“Yeah, imagine if I was just pulling all that s--t out of thin air,” laughs Schmidt, who was moved to mobilize ESN with Bierk and Dean after they were shocked to witness the demolition of a homeless encampment beneath the Gardiner Expressway.

She has since essentially given herself a full-time volunteer job at a time when she and most of her fellow musicians have lost the ability to earn even a meagre living from playing shows and touring.

“We just organized a lot of our artist and musician friends who were out of work to provide daily outreach to the encampments. And with that comes a certain ethical imperative, as you recognize the things that are being said about how the crisis is being dealt with are actually not what you’re witnessing on the ground. The city is largely investing in an infrastructure of displacement rather than housing and trying to ‘invisibilize’ these people.”

Such observations, she notes, “are not at all distant from the record and what I’m speaking to on the record,” as the riveting “Fiver and the Atlantic School of Spontaneous Composition” is shot through with the uneasiness that many feel at a moment in history when the rising cost of living in Toronto and its ongoing transformation into a “carnival for the rich” is starting to displace a lot of the population, the artist class among it.

“Musicians are actually ideal people to do outreach,” says Schmidt. “You have all these people who are, like, ‘gig’ workers and we are not a unionized class of labourers, and we generally have to learn so many aspects of our trade and cut costs just by doing everything. So you have all these people who have learned how to do everything. We talk to a lot of people in general, we endure precarious conditions and, in some ways, I think we recognize a continuum in terms of the housing crisis. Many of us are just this far away — ‘CERB far away’ — from having to leave this city because of the high cost of living here.