Jennifer Castle :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Late last month, on the Winter Solstice, Jennifer Castle re-released a live recording from the Music Gallery in Toronto from 2006, the first recorded output of her now treasured career, and a document harkening back to the early days of when she recorded under the name Castlemusic and played with a wild and rambling sense of discovery and abandon, allowing the spirit of her own poetry to lead her fingers on guitar. 

Castle has since followed that muse a long way, building a body of work that feels singularly devotional and wonderstruck. Her poetic ruminations—as stark and plainspoken as they are wrapped in mystical metaphor and imagistic vapor—continue to mine the connections of the natural world and our own existential debts in stunning fashion. With both enchanting grace and unadorned honesty, Castle sings what she lives. 

We recently caught up with her to discuss the re-release of Live at the Music Gallery, her musical origins, the omnipresence of the personified world in her music, her connection between singing and water, the urge to wander, and where she goes from here. | c depasquale

Aquarium Drunkard: What was the atmosphere of these early shows like?

Jennifer Castle: Around that time, I was really just starting to find my own little place in the music world. I was calling the project Castlemusic and had just been playing music for about five or six years, just 4-track recording myself. I was beginning to lock in to a performance that there might still be a thread to connect to right now, whereas before I was really just searching for a feeling. I was starting to discover my inner world when I was playing, and suddenly started closing my eyes and I wasn’t stopping between songs. All these things had started and I had found a new frequency that I started to write on and things felt like they were locking into place. So, when that happened, that feels like a door that I walked through that was a hallway that has led to where I am now. It was kind of intense.

AD: Your earlier songs definitely feel like they might have been poems first and that you were sort of searching and sort of rambling in real time on the guitar for the music.

Jennifer Castle: Yeah, totally. 

AD: I read somewhere that you’ve been writing, in some form or another, since you were ten. What kind of stuff were you writing back then and what led you to that practice? 

Jennifer Castle: I was definitely a very avid writer. I’ve talked about it before and realize that it can be really misquoted because I was like, “I was a very serious young writer” (laughs). But I was taking myself very seriously—I brought my journals and diaries around with me and never shared a thing of it with anybody, ever. For me, it was such a cool way out of whatever scenario I was in. I really loved it because it was really just like stepping into another world for me. And it was, like, at such a young age, a kind of parallel goal for me. Around that age, if people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said something like, “an astronaut,” but there was always this other parallel life where I was like, “a poet!” So, yeah, they were often just like little poems, but also a severe honesty was in my journal, which was why it was so important that no one read it. It was a severe honesty that I don’t have in my daily life—it’s not that I’m, like, a liar (laughs), it’s just that I have a need to get to some sort of truth in my journals, as I’m sure we all do. 

AD: What led them from becoming poems to songs?

Jennifer Castle: I didn’t start playing guitar until just after I graduated high school, so I did not consider myself a musician for those years. I did not know I could play a note, I was never taught music. I loved to sing and loved music, but I had no idea, and it was a very impulsive buy—I just saw a guitar and thought, ‘I’m going to buy that guitar.’ And then I wrote a song, like, that night, and remember thinking, really vividly, that, “oh, I’m never going to write another poem – these are all lyrics.” I had just realized something—I think I wrote a poem about how I was no longer going to be writing poetry, like I’m now doing this thing—and it was really just that crystal clear. 

AD: When did you reach a point where you felt comfortable sharing this stuff? I feel like your music has certainly grown to become more literate and so there’s a metaphorical remove in your songs.  You use literary devices really wonderfully, but there is also often that stark honesty still as well.  

Jennifer Castle: I always feel like a couple of things are happening when I perform, but one of them is that I’m always telling the dead truth. I really do believe that it’s an abstract art, and I’m so glad about that, and I don’t feel like a diarist even though I keep a journal, I don’t feel like the words perform that way. But they do feel dead true to me. But I had moved to England when I was nineteen and I was reading a bit of poetry in a café, and my friend had told the owner that I had just started playing guitar and he asked me if I wanted to play over the next week. And I did, I played three or four little songs that I had written, and he said I can have twenty minutes the next week, and it kind of just kept going from there. And it was mortifying, it was so mortifying. I was so nervous. But, that’s cool, I’m glad all that happened, because it just kind of kept unfolding from there.

AD: Are the songs on Live at the Music Gallery some of those earliest songs you were playing at those open mics?

Jennifer Castle: No, those were a batch I had written closer to that show, whereas before there were all these other songs, that might be on 4-track somewhere. I honestly don’t remember them, but I remember all of the songs on Live at the Music Gallery, and I really just played them that night and, with the exception of “Veins,” never re-recorded any of them, which is another reason it felt worth re-visiting.

AD: Right, what has it been like revisiting these songs after all this time? Do you hear them in new ways or hear a through line at all to your most recent work? 

Jennifer Castle: It’s been funny, I can really hear two things: I can hear the songs being totally there and present, and I can hear the player totally improvising and figuring out what performance is. To me, it’s really raw, and I actually have a hard time listening to it. I had to put myself in a place to just listen to approve the masters. Like that first song, “Sailor’s Blessing,” I’ve sang that acapella for years and years and years, but I know on that particular show it’s just like, “where is it going to land, where is it going to go?” So, I can really hear the precariousness and the improvisation that I was playing with at the time, and then I can also just hear these songs that are also really just sturdy. For better for worse, I’m not saying whether they’re good or bad, I’m just saying that they also are just kind of there. So, I think that tension is what might be interesting, that these songs have something very sturdy about them and then there’s something really fragile and precarious about them. 

AD: How did your collaborative partnership with Ryan Driver, who accompanies you on flute on the first few songs, come about? 

Jennifer Castle: I had moved from Vancouver to Toronto and went to a show that first night and a band that Ryan was in, called The silt, were playing and I heard this band and their songs were so solid but also totally whack and bent and going through some sort of weird filter of reason. And I needed to immediately know who this band was, they made me feel like I played normal music, at least what I had been trying to do on my own at that time. So, I was really just a fan of Ryan and I knew I had this show coming up and, you know, it was kind of a big deal at that time, because the Music Gallery was this really cherished spot, and the bands I was playing with were in that folk community that was happening. So, I asked Ryan, for sure, if he would play with me and (laughs), yeah, he’s playing with me still. 

AD: It’s great. His playing on the songs adds this really cool sort of mystical, spiritual jazz tones to them. You play the one traditional, “Going Down This Old Road Feeling Bad,” and “Make a Man” feels very old-time bluesy, and you had mentioned “Sailor’s Blessing” which feels like some old folk hymn. I’m interested where these influences were coming from and why you decided to play this kind of blues and folk music, albeit in your own unique way?

Jennifer Castle: I loved the blues and listened to it a lot growing up because my dad did. He loved Muddy Waters and B.B. King and I loved Robert Johnson and Buddy Guy. But I had no idea I was riffing on blues music. I remember at that particular show, after the set, a friend called out “Make a Man” as a blues song and I really hadn’t even been aware of that as a structure that I was working with, I was kind of discovering them as I was playing them. But, sure, I listened to a lot of British folk music too. I had discovered Anne Briggs around that time and really loved her. She sang acapella too and I really felt just such a kinship with her music. And Elizabeth Cotton for sure, I took her arrangement for “Going Down This Old Road Feeling Bad.” I was beginning to listen to The Grateful Dead and Neil Young … lots of stuff … I love Cole Porter. When I was learning how to play guitar, I was really into the Cole Porter songbook. 

AD: Yeah, oftentimes it can feel as though you are, in addition to all those other things, a singer first and foremost. And the way you use your voice is really interesting—you have this very tender, fluttering falsetto and then sometimes you go really low in a kind of theatrical way. You said you’ve always loved singing, but where and how did you discover your own voice? 

Jennifer Castle: I’ve always loved singing and singing has always been a really transportive experience for me. So, it’s always come with my eyes watering when I sing, since I was a little girl, because I would make up songs alone, often when I was outside, walking through the meadow, walking by the river, my neighborhood had a ravine that I’d always wander around. And I’d always sing and it always make my eyes water. Still to this day, a new melody makes my eyes water. And it’s not about the lyrics, it almost feels like something to do with a yawn: some sort of physical experience when new melodies are coming out of me. It flushes my eyes with water and that can often be a gateway to a session or a trance that I can go into, and then I can bring the melody in. That’s been happening to me since I was really young. But I didn’t know that’s what singing was about or what music was about, because I wasn’t a musician, never had any sort of lessons. I just loved music, the radio was always on, it was really special to me, and I made it, but I had no idea that I was musical. I was in a school play once in eighth grade and the teacher commented afterwards that I should go into singing lessons, and I had no idea that that was a compliment (laughs). I was kind of confounded and they said “yeah, your song really transformed the gym into a jazz club,” but I had no idea what it all meant. I had never had an experience like that before and had never sang in front of anyone before, and then I never did again for a really long time. So, when I did start singing, I sang low. The first feedback I got from that first show in London was from this old British folkie guy and he was just really sweet and encouraging and he just said, “get a capo, you’re singing really low” (laughs). And, you know, from there, just started to discover range, and also a lot from singing along to other people’s songs. I really liked to tone match, like, can you sing it so similar that you can’t even hear your own voice layered on top? So, I would do that all the time too. I just sang along. 

AD: It’s really interesting to hear you talk about making up songs amongst areas of water and nature when you were young, because those are such prevalent themes in your music to this day. In your songs, you’re often taking something down to a body of water in a sort of sacrificial essence or as a point of salvation. You have this song “For My Friends” (You Can’t Take Anyone, 2008) and you talk about all the sorrow of your friends and family and taking it down to the lake. What does that mean to you? 

Jennifer Castle: I remember at the early stage of being able to count how many songs I had (like, “now I have ten, now eleven”), and I was, like, every single one of them talks about water (laughs). I think that’s puzzling out our connection. I won’t speak entirely for myself because if there is any collective messaging or collective consciousness that runs through our songs then I think its puzzling our connection to water, no doubt. And it’s really just a state of being. So, I allow for that to be a bit transmission-based, even just reminding me about the water, because I don’t often write intentionally to say something; I just discover what the song is through fumbling around it a bit and then I just kind of let it live. But, yeah, “For My Friends,” especially for the Castlemusic era, I would say was, for sure, my personal national anthem. If there was the country of Castlemusic, it’d be like all rise to sing “For My Friends” (laughs). That kind of encapsulated any kind of self-mythologizing I had going on back then, and one hundred percent, took it down to the lake. And I still live, at this moment, just right on the brink of the lake. And I do find rivers and streams and I do gravitate towards them and they sing too, and they talk as well. And so, because I’m always talking or singing to myself—really, very often vocalizing to myself—I think I find a comradery with that type element that is so loud. I also like wind (laughs), but water is really just always sounding. And I also do that, I’m also sounding. And it’s also like white noise, so people can’t hear me sounding when I’m around water, it’s kind of like a camouflage. Because almost as soon as I get alone I often just start vocalizing or making sounds or just being verbally musical, but never if somebody could hear me. Like, if anybody could hear me I would never be doing that. So, that’s how I know whether I’m alone or not: if I’m alone, I’m making sound. Sorting something out, vocalizing, just speaking out and filling my space with my sounds, in many ways. Water does that. 

AD: The moon, I guess somewhat obviously too, is a prevalent companion and device in your work.

Jennifer Castle: Yeah, it’s intrinsic. The moon governs water, and I have a lot of sympathy with that with the birth work I’ve done. I always remind people that are having a baby that they’re governed by the moon and this is all about water. This is going to pull water out and with that is going to bring a baby and tears and whatever kind of whatever kind of water needs to come out or move. Whatever water needs to move is going to do that because the moon is governing that movement, and that’s us too, right? So, like I said, it’s really just a state of being. And in terms of linking that back to blues music, because you know, when I’m dead and gone, I’m not going to beat myself up about the fact that there were just a few themes that I kept touching on. I’ve obviously thought about it, but one thing that blues music did teach me is that it’s completely okay to ruminate and contemplate these same sorts of things over and over and over and over, as we tend to do. So, I’ll think about that but try to cut through with a couple of phrases or sentiments and try to hone in on those and make them clear as a bell. 

AD: Right, and they can express themselves in different ways at different times. On the song “Remembering” (Castlemusic, 2011) you use gardening as a sort of process or veil for grief, whereas other times you’re just kind of among the trees in splendor. So, it may be just a few themes but there’s an endless well to draw from. 

Jennifer Castle: Yeah, totally. And that’s a good way of putting it, as you just did: it’s normal to just sort of be rambling around, and you’re just in the natural elements, and then every now and then you suddenly pluck from them something really clear, and then you’re just sort of back rambling again. With gardening, I didn’t grow up around any necessarily lush gardens, but I worked as a gardener throughout my twenties and that just kind of happened to me. It’s almost like, whatever I’m just rolling around in my hands just ends up happening, you know? So, I’ve grown with gardening as gardening has grown in my songs. 

AD: When you released the album Castlemusic, you switched your recording moniker to your own name and also embraced a larger, more atmospheric sonic sound. Were those two changes interdependent? 

Jennifer Castle: I’m sure I could have remembered more at the time exactly what that change was like, but I think everything was just kind of going direct, like in astrology, like the way Castlemusic is maybe in retrograde and then Jennifer Castle is kind of going direct. I just understood it enough that I started to braid in more elements. At first, it was really important to me that nothing be manipulated and that it just be that I sit there and those are the songs, you know? I don’t know what switched but I just started to hear things a bit differently, maybe from playing in bands a bit more and spending more time in studios. I liked to bring, with Castlemusic and then Pink City (2014), the hallucinatory effect. I still feel like they sound like a person in a solitude place, but then I like the idea of all these sonic hallucinations happening. So, I just started to follow that muse a little bit. 

AD: What is it the sort of culmination of that full band experience in Angels of Death (2018) that made you want to strip it back down for your most recent record, Monarch Season (2020)? 

Jennifer Castle: Well, I loved touring Angels of Death with the band, but I also simultaneously toured it solo a lot too. And I still really love to just sit and play my guitar, I just love to do that. And I tour so often just on my own, as a support artist, And, so, I’m so often representing my songs by standing in front of an audience that does not know me whatsoever. That’s, like, a really normal experience for me, to be supporting other people. And people will often come up afterwards, if they’re just kind of meeting me, and they’ll oftentimes ask for a record that was just like that set I just did. And I didn’t actually have that record, something that’s more exemplary of me just sitting with my guitar and singing a song. So, not just with the intention of filling my merch table, but I felt like, yeah, I should make that record—something really homespun and I was doing it so much that I called Jeff (McMurrich) up and said “come up to my spot and it’s right by the lake and we’ll make a record in a day or two.” And it’s just me playing, doing so much of what I’m doing right now, in that spot. 

AD: You do something really interesting on Angels of Death, where you bring back this theme from the song called “We Always Change” on You Can’t Take Anyone, it’s this lyric about shapeshifting with one’s lover. I’m curious why that came back and why it felt right to be a kind of reprise theme for Angels of Death

Jennifer Castle: Well, we actually recorded a sort of ‘Saturday Night’ version of “Angels of Death” and it really is to me, I don’t know, the most Saturday night sounding song on that record. We’re all just going for it and we recorded a version of “We Always Change” like that too and didn’t end up using it because it was just kind of over the top, but we had the vocal overdubs for it and ended up using it as sort of a shape, and put the steel and strings on it and then let the song go. And I thought that was cool because the record, in itself, is all about this transformative concept about death and finality, and instead I’d see what happens if turn it around a couple more times in my hand and see what else my take on that would be. So, that song kind of ended up just being a kind of midwife and a companion piece for Angels of Death and I felt it needed to be on the reprise. And, also, it’s cool in theory, I think, if “We Always Change,” as a song in always changing, as we do ourselves so much, so maybe it will resurface again in another way sometime.  

AD: Yeah, I love that. You quote this really beautiful, uplifting Al Purdy poem on “Angels of Death.” It’s this incredibly evocative passage about in the loopholes of time our past selves glancing back at us and waving. Where did you come across that poem? 

Jennifer Castle: That poem is called “For Her, In Sunlight,” and I really hardly know any poems by him, but at the time I was writing the songs for Angels of Death, my friend had asked me if I had any interest in trying to put some Al Purdy poems to music for another project, so I had a book of his out and I’d flip through the pages. And so, I was writing the record and it all kept coming back to this idea of writing and the actual song “Angels of Death” was about a dead poet, somehow in its initial fragmented way, and then I got to that stanza and it just leapt off the page at me, I don’t even remember the rest of the poem. Just that stanza stayed with me, because I felt like it was saying exactly what I was trying to say, in that it was actually coming from a dead poet. And that last line of the poem, he says: “As if both had imagined the other, as the seed imagines the flower,” and as soon as I put that in to what I already had I completely understood the whole rest of the record. And it was almost as if like, with the permission of this dead poet, we went forward with it all making sense. You know, when you’re particularly puzzling something, it has to make sense. And I was puzzling these concepts at the time and when I found that, it really helped me braid in that this is also about writing, and about poetry, and about time travel, and about sharing certain messages throughout the lineage, and then also with this heavy concept of death, to have this beautiful vision of people you love waving at you from the mirage, I was so touched by it. It was just so optimistic and I needed that kick of optimism or it could have been dour, you know?

AD: Absolutely, it comes in very much like a ray of light. Like gospel. 

Jennifer Castle: Yeah, like we all survive. Like, the news is good!  

AD: You talk a lot about muses and poets too on the song “Rose Waterfalls,” which is one that very much has a Flatlanders feel, for me at least, and you covered a song of theirs, “Keeper of the Mountain,” for AD’s Lagniappe Session. Something about both yours and Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s cadence feels akin to me. Do you listen to him a lot? 

Jennifer Castle: You know, I haven’t delved too much into their music, but “Keeper of the Mountain” my friend and I would listen to at the end of the night sometimes. I can’t remember, I think it would get passed around on mixtapes from our friends and I just remember being so in love with that song. And when I recorded it for you guys I hadn’t ever played it or really embodied it before. I’m really glad I remembered it at that moment, I’m so glad I did. 

AD: It has images that feel very much in line with your own work. Like the line, “If I hear the river moaning, it’s just the way I’m feeling, the river’s not complaining.”

Jennifer Castle: Oh, man, that was everything to me. I would go on about whether people were taking nature as personally and I felt like the mark of my maturation process or adulating or whatever will be when I bloody stop taking everything that happens in nature so personally. And I think that’s probably what we do as humans, but I was just figuring it out. And then he just says it so plain, right? It was just so arresting when I heard it and it was so liberated for that moment.  

AD: You both personify things in a way that really expands the songs and how they communicate. You have a song that you’ve only ever performed live once, at your 2017 Massey Hall show, called “Please Take Me (I’m Broken),” and in it you talk about Greek mythology and the creative use of ‘playing ball’ with the universe, and you have that lyric, “Please take me back to those other realms, they seem much kinder on a dreamer like me.” Can you talk about that poetic and maybe vulnerable instinct to personify things that might otherwise be silent or indifferent? 

Jennifer Castle: If I imagine that I’m working or when I’m past and gone, what I will clock out is being that sort of energy more than any other role I’m in, I’ll clock out of that sort of sympathetic and twinning with whatever natural thing is occurring. And because I’m interested in and tend to talk about labor and the work we do, and just on behalf of my own upbringing and the narrative of making money and the grind and success, the day dreaming aspect for me is a reaction to that, and so I actually see daydreaming as a sort of resistance, just like looking out the window or taking an extra thirty seconds on your walk back from the bathroom or something, I’m always looking for that moment to check out and to dissociate a little bit or to just vibe with whatever is going on externally, whether it’s sonically or visually, and just have a union with those things, and not be so focused or task-oriented. I really love that song because it speaks just really plainly about that. And, as I’m sure others can relate, I’m trying really hard to be like ‘I’m a kite,’ but I’m having my string be taut and held to the ground. I’m working on my anchor, I’m working on not floating away, I’m working on not hiking all the way, but turning back around and heading home. I’m always working on getting back, like, if I’m deep sea diving, I’m not forgetting to turn around and come back up to the boat Like, that’s my mission: is to return from whatever wandering or daydreaming I’m in. I’m always working on that, and that song is just really sympathetic towards that and romanticizing that, about a place for dreamers or the idea that maybe the people that succumb to the imagination had a better break of it. 

AD: You have a son, right?

Jennifer Castle: Yes, his name’s Sonny. He’s thirteen. 

AD: I’m interested in how, in raising a kid, especially at the age he’s at, you reconcile those two things: the grind that’s so intrinsically cultivated in us and that impulse and desire to just dream and allow yourself to drift along. 

Jennifer Castle: I’m sure he’ll have an earful about it when he’s older (laughs). He already is, he’s having, you know that moment when you step back and have a look at your mom and be like, ‘who the hell?’ Like at first they’re that person who’s making your sandwich, or picking you up, or zipping up your coat, and you’re totally related to them and they’re also just highly functioning in your life. And he’s coming of age which means he’s kind of looking around and having that moment, like, “Oh my gosh, that lady raised me?” But, I found it incredibly challenging. I did. But what’s also interesting about that, like I was saying before, there a is a total difference between me being alone and me being around somebody, and when I’m alone, it’s within literally one millisecond that whatever that sonic or dreaming thing is begins. And that is only when I’m alone. Except, Sonny, is the only one who has ever been around that, in many ways, since he was a baby. Whether in the room or in his car seat, he’s heard me singing and working things out as if I would do if I were alone, so he’s the only one who’s ever been privy to what I would consider to be alone. Which is cool, and I will hopefully not forget to ask him what that was like. He’s probably be like, “You talk to yourself a lot” (laughs). 

AD: What have you been up to or into recently? 

Jennifer Castle: Well, I was working on a farm for the past year. Throughout the pandemic, that was kind of mind blowing — I got to do a full season as a farm hand on a small organic farm around where I live. I just finished that last week and that’s been taking a lot of my brainpower. I’ve been reading metaphysical stuff like Kundalini style readings and yoga readings. I’m also reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek right now. And listening to Bob Dylan, and, oh, this Ethiopian keyboardist, Hailu Mergia? 

AD: Oh, he’s amazing. 

Jennifer Castle: He blew my brain open this year. I didn’t know him and heard this one song, and, he’s got such a touch. The second it’s him, you know. I went down the rabbit hole with him. And I’ve just been writing a whole bunch of music too.

AD: Are you always writing songs? 

Jennifer Castle: The first year of the pandemic, I don’t know if I wrote. I might have written a little bit, but I don’t know what I did. But this year and especially since this summer I’ve started to write again and started to figure out what I was writing at. 

AD: You’ve done some really cool stuff, collaboratively, that’s very different from your own music. You’ve sang with Badge Époque Ensemble and then, on the wholly other spectrum, with Fucked Up, and your voice seems like it can just naturally fall in and adapt to whatever musical setting the song calls for. Do you ever think about that in terms of future sonic directions, or does that only begin to come once an album has begun to be worked on? 

Jennifer Castle: I mean, I like being asked to do stuff. If I can. If I can embody it and step into it, then I will. It was really fun to sing Max’s parts for Badge Époque, it was gymnastics. I really do like to sing. It’s really cool to sing and it not be braided in with my writing, because it functions so differently as a vehicle for a feeling that I’m trying to convey, and then, there’s something just kind of athletic and fun and skillful about singing, and I don’t often get the opportunity to do that when I’m singing my own songs because there’s just other work to do. And I would love to sing. I think that’s kind of a place that I hope to go, as a singer, and to think of the stage unfolding for me that way. Because, you know, you gotta be into my songs, in order for me to sing, right? It’s pretty dependent. And that’s cool, but it would be really fun to just sing too. So, I’m hoping to do more of that.

AD: Yeah, I feel like I’ve heard it hinted at in some moments in your music, something that suggests at a more soulful and kind of r&b vocal approach. 

Jennifer Castle: Yeah, it comes really natural. I love to sing it and I was raised around that music. It’s all good. I hope to get to sing throughout, you know, the next several decades. It would be really awesome to keep doing it. 

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