“I turned 40 when I was writing this record,” Jennifer Castle tells me soon after we meet in a Toronto diner about as long, wide, and old as a school bus. “That makes you take stock of stuff.” Castle does not laugh wearily or look at me with a grim plea for sympathy, as some would. Her tone is bird’s eye observational yet appreciative, with a quiet resilience — it’s audible even above the griddle of sizzling bacon two foot away from the counter where we drink our coffees.
Like her speaking voice, Castle’s singing carries the joy of life. It’s what helps keep the artist perched on the vanguard of celestial country and fantastical folk, a title she affirms once again with her fifth album Angels of Death. The project is an exploration of mortality, a subject demanding dimension, and Castle delivers as only she can. On lead single "Crying Shame," she sings: "It's such a shame that I thought this river knew my name," a salutary tribute to the ever-changing cosmic forces that define our lives without knowing one jot about us. The album is never entirely moribund or doleful, even in the face of utter meaninglessness: “Grim Reaper,” neat with fingerpicked notes like falling tears, is a loving testament to the act of writing as a salve against death.
Writing began Angels of Death soon after Castle had returned from touring her fourth album Pink City. She left her gardening job and the creative embrace of downtown Toronto, taking her ten-year-old son to Fort Erie, an Ontario town of just over 30,000. It took time to adjust to her new home, where being an artist is more of a novelty than a career. But her work helped: Castle wrote and recorded Angels of Death in a converted 150-year-old farmer church. She found endless inspiration in the space and its surroundings: the pews, which Castle helped move out, and the stained glass, and the way the moon appeared over the lake’s steep cliffs, just a kilometer away. “You can't help but be conscious of what the past of a church is,” Castle says, her low voice filled with a spectrum of history’s gravity.
A plate of french fries arrives, and Castle asks me if I’d like to share them. I thank her and pick up two of the deep brown husks, tasting the old oil’s chicken grease as I chew. The offer is another of Castle’s generous turns in the wide-reaching conversation we shared.
Did you have a religious upbringing?
There was nothing strict. We would go to church on Christmas. It's more mythical to me. It's more just like the kind of normalcy: Christianity it's [everywhere], but I haven't really examined it. I haven't really put my mind to these concepts before even though they are all around me.
Do you remember your first ‘holy shit’ moment when you were digesting all this ubiquitous spirituality?
There wasn't a particular thing, but when the song “Angels of Death” crystallized, it opened a door, maybe, and I was like, “Oh, there's a door I can look through. I feel like I can start to pull these mythologies and make sense of them somehow.” It's like you're looking at the stars before and suddenly somebody points out the constellations – I can start with some sense of direction. I'm not an expert at it, and I abstract everything, so it goes through whatever course of abstraction process I go through.
A lot of those abstractions on the album orbit around death, or the spectre of death. What role was it playing in your life around that time?
Well, our family dog got killed outside of the house a couple of weeks after we moved in. That was a bit of a catalyst to observe grief. It was so close that everything was activated: Loss, grief, confusion, sadness, shock. But I've had, say, a family member die before and it was so absorbing that I couldn't see the forest for the trees. And this was absorbing too, and I don't belittle, but I was able to also just exactly start observing [the feelings] as soon as I started to feel them, as well.
I would hate to pin that to the other meanings that came from writing that record. But that was a moment where I was like, “Oh, now I've just experienced a before and after. A here and a gone.” So, everything is reframed then. You just start asking all those other crazy questions.
“Being a writer, when everybody’s listening, you’re in a different situation. And it’s kind of nice to have the shade.”
During the process of songwriting, were you also doing the constantly reframing and readjusting that comes with asking the “crazy questions?”
Mmhmm. Recalibration is constantly happening within my music, and I like that to show. Part of what I like is trying to recalibrate while also trying to continue with the story. I like that, because that's what life kind of is. I honor the confusion of trying to make sense of things. I think that's a part of being human. And I'd like to honor that in writing. I always feel like that also gives a lot of space for writing. That moment, finding your coordinates is interesting for writing.
When you finish a record, do you feel like you’ve come through this period of confusion with a sense of growth?
Sometimes it just feels like you've come through it because you've been left with other questions. And you get to move on to the next question. I hear people ask musicians that a lot, “How do you know when a song is done?” And I say, "I know the song is done when I get to sing the song." Usually, there’s a moment [during songwriting] where you're like, “Oh, dare I back away? Yes, this is done.” [But] sometimes I need to be pushed to go further because I'll start asking that too quickly.
Can you give me an example from the new record?
The first song on this record is a nice example. It's called “Tomorrow's Mourning,” and it appears as a really stark piano ballad. I was originally writing it out on guitar, and it retained this sort of jangling sense from the moment I'd written it. And when we were trying to record that, Jeff, who has been my co-producer for almost a decade. He was like, “You're keeping in a jangly world. I think that there's a shield. Let it go. Take it to the ballad.” And when I did that, I felt it really resonated with me. I had to take it one more. The lyrics hadn't landed in the right context yet.
Sometimes there's just an idea that comes ready made. Sometimes it’s not. I don't like overthinking, either. I hate to take it beyond too much of the realm of the heart. I like the first instinct a lot, I really do.
You’ve used the word “honor” a lot, and I was wondering how you felt about the honor of having a song written about you, Daniel Romano’s “Jennifer Castle.”
It's Dan's song. That's what I say, first and foremost. I just was like, “Okay. I'll take my turn being the focus of your song. And I will learn what that feels like because I've done that to others.” Maybe not explicitly, but there are certain phrases in some of my songs that I know I'm speaking exactly of this one person.
Dan’s also been very sweet. He always says “There was this one show, back in that skate park that you were playing, I watched it, and for me, it was like time stopped.” I was like, “Oh, whoa, I never think that somebody is having that experience.” I felt like Dan had to just try to get me to hear one compliment because I ignore them so fiercely.
Why is that?
Being a writer, when everybody's listening, you're in a different situation. And it's kind of nice to have the shade. For a while, people would be like “You should be bigger.” I was like, “I don't need to hear that.” Because I'm working, and it's the devil I know. The devil I don't know is what the hell does it feel like if the whole world was listening. And I don't know that I want to know what that feels like.
I've watched a lot of artists blow up, and sometimes I felt like they haven't been able to find their way back to the thing that it was that they were doing that blew them up into whatever. I'm like “You were doing something probably so humble and simple, and I hope you get to find your way back to that. Because that's probably like a really important thing for you, that you were doing.” I don't want to pretend this is something it's not. I don't know. Hyperbole is weird. You gotta slay that dragon.
Still, you have made an undeniable sonic progression since Castlemusic that’s maintained a distinct sonic singularity
Yeah. I hope so. I can't speak about my technique very well because it's like trying to describe your own face. But, I know there's something I do, and I always kind of do that same thing. It does run through a sense of process with me. I want to make sure that I'm being as smart as I can about it.
It's a big responsibility. Songs are awesome. Everybody is making great songs. I want to make sure I'm making good songs, as great as I can make them.
Who do you feel responsibility to? Or what?
The act of writing. I do feel like a student in that regard, and it's a privilege that somehow I kept doing it since I was a young kid. But I've been a very serious, little young writer since I was, like, 10.
Do you have any pre-writing or pre-recording rituals? For example, Toni Morrison will have a pre-dawn cup of coffee by the window, and John Steinbeck liked to sleep in the room he was writing in.
I like to light my candle. If I'm in my proper daily-ness of writing, then I honor that. It doesn't even feel that ceremonious, but that action occurs. In the daytime, in the morning, it doesn't matter. It's like, [mimes blowing out a candle], that's it.