Jill Brown: Barlinnie Prison Blues

By Callum McSorley

“They do like doing Johnny Cash,” laughs Jill Brown, a Glasgow musician and former STV newsreader with an unusual take on what makes a good gig venue, and a good backing band.

Though tonight she’s just finished playing for the international delegates at the INSP’s 18th annual conference, Brown plays the majority of her shows at some of the country’s biggest and most notorious prisons – recruiting musically talented offenders to fill out the band and play covers of their choice. And as you might expect, the Folsom Prison Blues singer is a popular pick.

Standing on the banks of the Clyde, as the sun sets over the Glasgow skyline, the striking singer explains her motivation.

“I decided to play places nobody else wanted to play, where they might not get access to live music. My aim is to try and give them some kind of normality and to restore a sense of dignity, because that gets taken away from you in prison,” she says. “It’s a really brutal environment, a really harsh environment, it’s not a holiday camp like some people seem to imagine that it is.”

For Brown, it is also about rehabilitation. “It gives them a bit of entertainment and perhaps a sense of hope that things are still going on in the outside and they can hopefully be part of that when they come out.”

Admittedly, her mother has a different opinion: “My mum always says I go to Barlinnie to depress the prisoners because my songs are a bit melancholic.”

Brown even plays for protected prisoners, including sex offenders, leading to quite a high turn-over in band members. Tonight it’s just been her and guitarist Andy Craig playing a stripped-down acoustic set, her songs a mixture of soul, folk and blues.

However much she enjoys her work, Brown admits that some of her musical colleagues have found it a tough gig. “I really like it but I’ve gone through quite a few guitarists who won’t play because they find it intimidating,” she says.

Brown’s last gig was at Barlinnie, a notorious prison in the Glasgow suburbs. “It’s not a common environment,” she allows, “and there are quite a lot of rigorous checks you have to go through. I go in and rehearse with the prisoners, which is just basically all guys. I just treat them as people and it’s quite relaxed really.”

On top of her difficulty keeping musicians, Brown also has to work hard encouraging prisoners to open themselves up enough to get involved. “We were quite warmly received,” she says of the Barlinnie concert, “but in prison it’s not the done thing to show any sign of weakness, so they can be quite a difficult audience because they don’t want to show emotion, including any sense of excitement or appreciation, but they usually do change.

“Once I’ve done all my usual chit chat they seem to kind of warm up and if they like the music that’s obviously helpful; if they don’t like it it’s tough.”

Fortunately Brown is used to standing up for herself. As she told the INSP audience early before introducing her song, ‘There’s A Right Hook Coming And A Little Bit More’, “I’m the only female in my amateur boxing club – so don’t mess with me!”

In addition to prisons, Brown also plays in homeless shelters and rehab centres for drug addicts and alcoholics. It means the crowds aren’t always what you might expect.

“People don’t really adhere to the conventions of being an audience – they talk through things, they scream through things, they shout through things, they decide they’re going to go to the toilet in the middle of the gig,” Brown says. “It’s quite off-putting but really it’s quite good to get used to that, because you’re not going to always captivate people’s attention. No one’s going to love you all the time.”

Brown is very particular about the kind of shows she plays and agreed to perform for the street paper delegates when she heard about the amazing work they do around the world, helping the homeless lift themselves out of poverty. In fact, she’s so committed that she made it along despite a nasty sore throat – several times demurely turning her head to one side during the show for a rasping cough.
This powerful sense of right and wrong seems to run through the rest of her life too. For her other job, she runs a PR and crisis management consultancy. Extremely unusually for the business, she refuses to take on anyone who doesn’t make a positive contribution to society.

A sore throat is no obstacle when you’re as motivated as this to do good for your fellow man, then. “I’ve got a strong sense of social justice,” she says, seriously, “and so everything I do is about making a difference in people’s lives.”
Photo: Kirstie Gorman