It's been sounding a lot like Christmas at the Hunter Correctional Centre in Cessnock.
The music classes offered to inmates for the last five years with instruction by ARIA-award winning Hunter Valley blues and roots artist William Crighton and his associates, including his wife Julieanne, are starting to pay dividends.
The 20 or so inmates enrolled in the music classes, which including playing music, singing and songwriting, have come together under Crighton and guest artists to create a setlist for a Christmas concert at the prison on Monday, December 18, and possibly a Christmas album, too.
"We thought we'd stick with the classics, like Silent Night, Jingle Bells, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and all those sorts," William Crighton said. "They are done in a way that is pretty unique. They have some reggae tinges, definitely some nice harmonies. It feels like a unique recording, you know. It sounds like a group of fellas having a good time, recording some Christmas songs."
Corrective Services NSW confirmed this week that December 18 had been set for the Christmas concert inside the correctional centre.
While the music instruction program has been ongoing for five years, in the last year it has taken major strides, Crighton said.
"The last 12 months, they've definitely give us more of a licence to do more things, towards the vision we see, making recordings, writing more music, making more stuff happen," Crighton said.
Crighton has brought on a hip hop producer, Nick Howe, to help inmates do their own rap songs.
Meanwhile, he has turned more of his own attention to recording music by the inmates, some of it featuring guest artists Liz Stringer and Jeff Lang, who have come to the prison for sessions.
"We've been making acoustic recordings with them, and that's all available on their entertainment systems, which they have in their pod," Crighton said.
So far, they've recorded about 10 Christmas songs and another eight original acoustic songs.
"Today we were doing harmonies on some of the songs," said Crighton, in an interview after he'd spent the day working with inmates in music classes. "Just the level of focus and dedication some of the fellas have to making it something they are proud of is striking. The confidence level is growing, in the sense they feel far more confident to sing and to harmonise with each other and be part of the process of it.
"When we first started, some of them were a bit hesitant to open their mouths and sing. They are definitely getting into the spirit of it.
"We are trying to build a database of music that's been created in there. That's been the main aim of our program in that sense, as far as the content we create.
"It's for them, and their families and the general public if they are interested once we can get that approved to get them out there."
Crighton is a busy and successful musician, but he has remained dedicated to this project.
"I've been under the radar with this," he said. "It's not something I'm doing for anything other than the music and the fellas in there. It's good people are starting to become interested in the project because I think it does really well.
"I think it helps reduce violence and it helps to give the men in there an opportunity to think and explore concepts that they may not have explored before. When you're locked up in a very confined environment like a prison you need space to grow and writing can definitely do that. And space to reflect on things, and become better people."
The songwriting process is organic, much like a band anywhere in the world.
The music classes are small, a maximum of eight in any given class. They talk over ideas, go through lyrics, put them on a whiteboard, work out the chord progression and the feel.
"It's very open, experimental," Crighton said. "We'll throw some shit at the wall and see what sticks. Much like how you would write in a band situation.
":There are a couple of guys who are more advanced writers, but again, they've just started. They have more of a knack, more confidence.
"You'll have a guy who says, 'I don't write songs. And then, three weeks down the track, they are contributing and writing songs. That's pretty cool for me. That's the best part. The best part of it for me is seeing them write songs, I reckon. I get a buzz when they write a song."