By Daniel Colussi
Jennifer Castle is a jewel in the crown of contemporary Canadian songwriters and performers. Over the course of four albums Castle has developed a singular and fascinating voice, one that draws on elements of traditional folk and blues as well as the classic sun-dappled melancholy of the 1970’s California singer-songwriter greats. Castle’s music is sturdy and reliable, like a well-loved pair of Spanish leather boots – timeless and not beholden to trends or fads or retro-grade worship of bygone eras or haircuts. In particular, her last album Pink City represents a remarkable leap forward in her progression not only as a songwriter but also as a recording artist. It’s a gorgeous, probing and melancholic album. Since the release of said album, Castle has toured extensively throughout North America and Europe, both solo and backed up by an ensemble of musician friends. This weekend she will make her first ever appearance in Winnipeg as part of the Folk Festival. I spoke with Castle about her recent touring, her upcoming collaborations, and how mortality really is the great mic-drop of life.
Stylus: You’ve done a lot of touring in the last year – with Destroyer in the US and Europe, and just recently up the west coast from California to BC. What’s touring like for you – do you like it or is it a drag?
Jennifer Castle: Well I think I’m still figuring out what the realities of touring are. It’s ok. I feel very privileged to have places to play. So I don’t complain on the level of making music and I don’t think I necessarily like to complain in general, but when when you learn any industry you learn so much more about this business and what propels it and that has been really eye-opening. It’s definitely difficult to travel – well there’s different ways to travel. I’ve been travelling a lot on my own and sort of being on my own and being everything – being the person who performs and then there were times that I’ve been with a band, like Destroyer, and I was on a tour bus for a month in Euorope and that makes it so much easier for me to be able to just focus on the musical aspect because so many of the other things were taken care of for me. I’m just figuring it out. I feel like I’m definitely a lot wiser now. I was a little bit green when I first started touring.
Stylus: Were those shows with Destoyer some of the biggest shows that you’ve ever played before?
JC: In a way, yeah. As well as when I’ve toured with Owen Pallett. In terms of consistent night-after-night big shows, yeah. But I mean sometimes I find myself in front of a thousand people and other times in front of a handful of people and it’s been the kind of year that it’s been everything in between. But the Destroyer tour was definitely the longest and most consistent sized shows.
Stylus: What about the distinction of performing alone versus with an ensemble. How do you negotiate that in terms of preparing for it?
JC: Well there’s definitely flexibility inherent with being solo and I think for a long time I wondered whether being solo has been viewed as a weakness in a way? As being someone who didn’t or couldn’t have a band, I’m not sure. But I feel like it’s been a real…it’s been about craft for me and being in front of almost any audience and somehow find a connection, and that really depends on improvisation for me. And that’s something that I can do a solo performer. I can just fly into the situation and perform whatever I feel like performing in that moment, or whatever I feel communicating. And so I feel confident in that position. I’m still learning [how] to be with a band. Playing with a band’s great, and playing music – but performing where you kind of have to have more of a set in mind and then you have to just take that set that you’ve practiced and play it for that audience. Whereas as a solo performer I might change something entirely five minutes before just based on the vibration on the place and the crowd. But with a band your locked into something, and that can be thrilling and that can be really exciting. I mean I like both, but I definitely feel very seasoned at performing on my own. I’ve been doing it for a long time and it is a craft and people keep reaching out and telling me that it’s really powerful that I continue to play on my own, and I also agree with that. There’s something about not living beyond my means that has always been a part of my music and any sort of philosophy that I’ve had. I’m not saying I’m bound to it entirely but it’s always been about singing and writing the kind of song that you can sing, like you don’t necessarily even need a guitar. Like stripping it down to: what is that essential thing that I can do? And that’s always been a reflection of a lack of control of living beyond your means in general. Me playing solo has always been a little bit of that for me. Asserting that message in this kind of … you can have anything, really, these days, and out of that over saturation asserting this singular message.
I am starting to be far more interested in touring with a band just in terms of loneliness and desolation that I’ve really heavily experienced over the last year and a half and really kind of facing the music that way which is that you have to go away and you have to be on your own a lot, and travel and think. It is akin to being a writer but not being able to write. I’m used to spending a lot of time on my own in the name of writing, but in the name of touring it’s been a different beast to figure out. So I’ve had really strong bouts of loneliness but I’m figuring that out and finding a way to turn the page a little bit and bring the band out on the road. For the next record I’m hoping that that’s what it will look like.
Stylus: I like your concept of not living beyond your means and operating in some way that facilitates that. I was wondering if there’s a tension of performing solo as a economic necessity or if it also had it’s own appeal in and of itself.
JC: It definitely has an appeal to me. I’ve talked to songwriters all the time who say that when they stop performing solo at some point and start performing with a band and they feel that they can’t go back. And they just feel overwhelmed by the sensation of being alone on the stage and it becomes very frightening because it is an enormously frightening experience sometimes. And I just feel like I don’t want to let that go, I don’t want to lose that because that’s really been where I’ve made art. It’s been alone on a stage, and I’ve just had to abandon what I think I know about the music I’m going to play and meet the moment and that’s really where I’ve felt I’ve been my most compelling as a musician, is making it up alone on the spot. I do want to go forward with the band, but I want to maintain that. It’s been a lot of work that brought me to the point that I can be that confident.
Stylus: What do you have planned for the next album. Your last album, Pink City, is roughly two years old. Do you have any plan or idea of what the new record is going to be? Have you started work on that yet?
JC: I’ve started writing another record and it is on it’s way. It’s fairly joyful sonically, it’s little bit less isolated than Pink City was. Pink City has this sound of a person in a room alone playing music and then these hallucinations of texture and company but it always came back to this voice that was alone. And part of that was totally designed. The record I’m making now is a little bit more shambolic in that it is recorded with a band in an effort to manifest the band as part of my life and we’re trying to record it that way and tackle it that way. There’s little bit of just me playing as well. But it’s joyful in that it’s people coming together to play songs. And the subject matter is really just kind of circling around…it really is circling around notions of mortality for me and I’m just kind of meeting that, that’s always kind of lingered around my life and my thoughts as a writer. And I’m just kind of tackling it a little bit more head on than usual in an effort to kind of let these ideas rest a little bit. I’m looking at life and death, which is an old fashioned subject matter, really.
Stylus: Life and death gives you a lot to draw from.
JC: Yeah a lot to draw from and realistically I feel like somebody told me I was gonna die when I was a kid and it was a bit of a mic-drop for me. I feel like I’ve gone in so many ways but there’s a part that just needs to go back to that moment and say, What do I actually feel about all this? And even just getting older and potentially less innocent and potentially wiser, I just feel like I have to just address it because it looms in my writing anyway and I like it there. Definitely it feels anti-capitalist to even consider mortality, and I like that, I like to be anti-capitalist. So talking about that subject matter, that doesn’t bore me just because it’s historical. But that’s what I’m thinking about with this record.
Stylus: Is this record recorded with a steady, solid band line up?
JC: Yeah, there’s a bit of a core band working right now. Robbie Gordon has come in on drums, he plays with Owen Pallett among others. Dave Clark has moved from drums to rhythm guitar which is a really nice change. Mike Smith and Paul Mortimer are still there. And yeah, we’re fleshing it out more. We’re definitely making some good music together.
Stylus: OK the last thing I wanted to ask you about, which touches on collaboration, is this upcoming Electric Eclectics show in which you’re going to perform with Mary Margaret O’Hara. That sounds really exciting, really cool. What can you tell me about how this show came about and what this collaboration will be?
JC: Well I’m excited. I’m a big Mary Margaret O’Hara fan. She and I were on the same bill as part of the Long Winter project and we ended up improvising together and I mean I really liked her world immediately. I felt visual about it, it was very strange and very nonsensical and I felt it was just kind of like, we both said: That was really fun. And I close my eyes when I play on my own and I go away to completely sonic world and that doesn’t always happen with other people. I can remain very self conscious as soon as I start to meet with other people. But with Mary I forgot about things and I was just immediately moved by being able to be with someone but also to be along within the world of that music.
I don’t know what to expect. It was very loose, we just said let’s do it again and Electric Eclectics was there and it seemed like the right thing and so we haven’t gotten together since and I think we’re just going to start to steer our ships together and see what we can do. It will be a surprise to me and I’m looking forward to it. It is definitely already a highlight of my summer. It sounds like she’s being playing a lot of music with people lately and she’s more out and about than she is usually. I mean…she’s a goddess. She accepts strange things into her music at every moment. It’s so refreshing. It’s so unruly and it refuses to be caught. I love it, I think it’s so cool.
Stylus: That sounds phenomenal. And finally, what about the Winnipeg Folk Fest – will you be playing solo or with the band? And will you be playing new songs?
JC: I will be playing with just myself and I’m really looking forward to it. There’s a lot of really good musicians playing, a lot of the Native North American artists are going to be there,there’s going to be a spotlight on that and I can’t wait to check out some of those shows. And also, just some really inspiring folk music that’s reemerging and finally having the support, so it’ll be cool to check all that out. And then there’s just people that I never get to see that I’m looking forward to seeing. And also it’s a legendary festival in the Canadian music scene and I’ve never been so I’m just looking forward to finally going. And I am playing new music, there’s new songs that are starting to float into the set and right now I have a nice balance that’s not entirely drawing Pink City but bringing in some of my old stuff too.