Canada-based songwriter Jennifer Castle has been writing and recording music since she was a child and has been part of many bands and collaborations over the years. Her unique skill with the written word first disarmed listeners with the release of her debut record You Can’t Take Anyone (Blue Fog Records) in 2008.
Often cited for her humorous directness and honesty, her latest effort Angels of Death continues her exploration of profound themes around the human condition in her familiar and unpretentious way.
Castle has the voice of a friend who knows the right thing to say because she, like us, doesn’t know the answers. This trait in her writing is both comforting and strangely empowering when met with her ability to transform her particular and peculiar relationship to the word into song. Her work is sometimes fun, sometimes gut-wrenching, but always a celebration of the undeniable togetherness we share in life’s bliss and tragedy. In their bravest moments, her songs explore where those two elements overlap.
Having just wrapped a year of touring in support of Angels of Death, we caught up with Jennifer — now five albums deep into her catalogue — to discuss how she uses themes like death and nature to fight the ways in which the transformative power of words has become so threatened, because of, you know, the patriarchy and stuff.
Read the full Q&A after the jump!
For many years, you have celebrated the winter solstice by playing an intimate show on that date. Now that another is upon us, I’m wondering if you could start out by describing your relationship to that event, and what it means to you?
Well, solstice happens twice a year, once on the first day of summer, and once on the first day of winter. Then there’s equinox at spring and fall. Equinox, I think, honors the position of the sun on its journey to the pinnacle point at summer and then later the most diminished point.
Also, my birthday is on the 20th and while solstice is usually on the 21st, sometimes, like very infrequently, it falls on the 20th. It’s also the shortest day of the year, and referred to as the darkest day of the year. So I’ve always just gravitated towards that day, because it’s always been my favorite day.
View this post on Instagram
I always think of solstice as a marker of change, or a turning over of time. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong.
I think it is. It’s a big change and I think it’s marked with light, and I think that important because it’s a natural occurrence, and one where it’s quantifiable in what we actually can see in our skies.
It’s strange to think of celebrating a mark of change because there can be so many variables. For instance, what if nothing has changed over that period of time? What if it flags some sort of stagnation in one’s life or art?
Everything always changes. Nothing stays the same. I take that very seriously. I mean, for me that would be like the cultivation of any sort of practice of flexibility is to have that flexibility in the mind or even in the body to be prepared for the constant nature of change. That idea of “flexibility” as a term is a really good tool to have in your life, truthfully.
Since your record Angels of Death came out this past year, you’ve been talking about death a lot as a theme. Like solstice, death is also a marker of change and growth. As we approach this solstice, what are you reflecting on now?
I think that death as a concept for this record was just a kind of a stand-in for the event — any event that creates change. Death is such an obvious one because, for a lot of people, one minute someone’s there, and the next minute they’re gone and then you have this like thing where you’re like, “That was the day that they died, and then everything changed after that.” But I think that the concept of death obviously takes place all the time and it doesn’t have to be about a life here and then gone.
Were you ever concerned or insecure that committing to such a common theme could be interpreted as a trope or cliché?
I think it’s more about the act of writing. It really is about this justification of constantly feeling creative in the midst of a patriarchal concept of death that is just about there being a final ending, when in fact there is no final anything. This patriarchal version of death just suggests that because a death occurs that it has to be a horrible and negative thing.
It’s just this very Western, capitalist approach to things; the idea that we have to stop death, that we have to stop aging. It’s just implied we always need to be focused on stopping death; the idea you always must keep up, and keep fit! That always turns into, “Okay, you have to buy this new thing now because that thing is getting old.” And that feeds into maintaining youth culture. So everything just has to be new, new, new, new, new.
I think that it’s obviously a denial of reality and I think that capitalism, if it didn’t have a really strong hold on our fear of death, wouldn’t function as swiftly as it does. It scares us, and I think that any natural events for which we harbor massive fear aren’t necessarily that good for us.
As a woman, there was just a point in time where I was talking about these big concepts, and it’s kind of weird: You do all this creation all the time where you can be creating your work, your family, it can be creating next of kin. There are all these sorts of ways in which we create, so why deliver creative energy to this kind of nasty, scary concept of death? What if it was a transformation? I would never use a word like “death” if there weren’t all sorts of beams of light poking out of it.
Did becoming a mother operate as that same kind of creative charge for you?
I mean… Motherhood has grown on me, but I think that ever since I was a kid I’ve been more preoccupied by this concept of death. It just was kind of like a punchline that never faded away. It’s as if, somehow, as six-year-old me, I discovered that you have this life, and everything’s good, and then you just die.
It was like everything stopped at that realization. Then you die. I talk to my six-year-old about this now. I find that fascinating. Every single record I write, it’s like death comes up in every song. It’s death, or money…
Nature. Friendship! Friendship stands in for a lot of things, you know. Every time I mention the word friend, I’m not talking about my best buddy, okay? I’m talking about all sorts of relationships and intimacy of all kinds. Just because I talk about a river, doesn’t mean I’m talking about a babbling brook. Death is the same thing, but I think this one in particular kind of jarred some folks to be like, “Oh, that’s heavy and dark.” But I don’t really see it that way.
When the record came out, a lot of people pointed to the song “Crying Shame” as this tearjerker, but it maintains a sort of tongue-in-cheek vibe. Do you feel any of your songs are sad or dark — if so which ones operate that way for you?
I don’t think that as a writer I’ve arrived at the thing I want to express as completely dark. I’m much more of a comedian than that, you know? There are a lot of punchlines in my work. Usually, if there’s a seed for a potential darkness, it’s already been turned over maybe one or two more times so that the author has already survived whatever dark feeling they’ve had, because you know, to tell a joke you have to have felt it and also somehow overcome it enough to tell the joke about it.
How did you develop the skill to hone these sometimes-bleak emotional territories with such humor?
I think through music, and although we’ve had to say goodbye to Morrissey as a sort of beacon of that type of maudlin humor, he always has been so funny to me. It’s the sad clown thing I’ve always found most hilarious. I mean we’ve had to say goodbye to our love of him because he grew up into a jerk, but that type of humor of the sad clown, or like a mime that is hilarious but has black tears running down their face, has always appealed to me.
As a songwriter, when does a song stop being a personal experience and become a song — a thing that exists beyond you that you don’t necessarily have to relive each time you sing it?
They’re not personal experiences because I write from stream of consciousness. I’m not necessarily narrating any event, but I try to honor two things happening: One is just the fact that there is a stream of consciousness taking place that I’m not trying to guide, and honoring that as much as possible.
The other thing I do is try to drop in things that are occurring that I can see, like if I were to open my eyes and see something while I was in the street when I’m in what I call the stream of consciousness. I’ll also try to jot down my actual GPS: coordinates describing where I am, and what can I see around me. My songs are rarely about something specifically autobiographical.
I don’t mince words because I’m working in a stream of consciousness — editing is a very real part of the process for me. I’ve been writing since I was really young, and I’ve always taken it very seriously. It’s absolutely 100% still the craft of writing and I have to steer those ideas and emotions, but for me I think the most functional way to do that is to let it come up naturally.
So, it’s a continuation of this sometimes-embarrassing dynamic of the listener, desperate to know what a song is about, and the writer insisting it’s the interpretation that gives it life…
Well, I think writing is working when I don’t own it anymore, because then it can be collected. That’s what good songs do. That’s how they function.
But, for example, “Texas” has legitimate events. I went to see my grandma, my dad’s been dead a long time, I was underneath Orion’s belt when I found my black-haired love, my dog, dying in the road.
I wanted “Texas” to function as a song that named and remembered many of the things I’ve had to say goodbye to. I wanted to name my departed.
“Texas” is also one of the most upbeat songs on the record. Given the context, how did it become that way?
Because at that point I wanted to party. I was like, “I want to party with the energies both here and gone.” It was like a nice moment for me to have that experience.
As a presenter of that craft, the product being the song, does it ever degenerate your relationship to it or make it feel less sincere in the act of performing it night after night?
I’ve noticed that I lean on improvisation in terms of another skill to keep things interesting. But, for example, I was just on a tour where I experimented with doing the same set every night for the month. I had never done it, and I wanted to learn the nuances within the song and not compulsively change them, which is what I tend to do.
So, I was just like, “I’m going to try this other thing and see what I lean into if I’m revisiting this song over and over again.”
And what happened?
I got bored stiff. I was like, “Man, this is boring.” There are all of these other things to discover or focus on, like technicality, which I constantly fuck up, but whatever. I wanted to care about something beyond the really intense experience I have when I’m making the songs. Sometimes I feel that there’s a bigger thing at work and I’m trying to answer that riddle, and I’m asking as a writer for myself. What meaning am I negotiating? So I spent the time exploring that.
Is your goal to advance your craft or try something wildly different with each record?
No. Dude. I could sing you the songs that I started writing when I started writing and performing for my grade five-music class. I won’t, but I could. It’s like a five-year-old singing Pink City. They were all ballads!
You live and write outside of the city. I wonder how making a decision to live away from your band and the urban setting has an affect not only on your songs, but also as an artist. Do you struggle with that alienation at all?
I struggle with it. I live on my own. I have my son as well. I would say it’s an enormous struggle, but I’m learning a lot about myself. In basically every social situation I’ve ever been in, I’ve tried to isolate myself and carve out this alone time in any situation. Like if I’m in a relationship, I’m trying to find time for myself, or if I’m going away for a weekend with people for fun, I’m trying to carve those hours out where I am just on my own.
I can never resign myself to communal experience entirely. So that’s kind of annoying, actually. Now that now I’ve really gone and done it, and I’m living on the beach in a small fishing village and I look on the water, I’ve tried to reconcile that a lot of writers feel like they have to do the work, and ruminating and really letting that kind of take shape or form or whatever. Hey, I’m trying to work; I’m trying to get a lot done.
Do you get a lot of work done?
Does isolation ever stop you from getting work done? You could just as soon be strangling yourself by living in an overpopulated city.
Isolation can sometimes make me depressed and that can stop me from working, but I’m trying to figure out how to deal with that now. I think that I’m realizing that depression can find you anywhere.
At that point I’m just trying to cultivate my own sense of self, and to not overthink things in the city and not overthink them in the country.
I feel like the act of ageing itself is very confrontational, in general! There are the ideas that you thought you could keep at bay, or that you could laugh off because you feel so immortal when you are younger… I feel like part of the process of getting older is very theoretically confrontational!
It’s important that artists re-imagine the concept of time, in terms of the time it takes to nurture your work and in terms of the idea of production and what you owe people from it. What are your experiences with that?
I wrote the words “time travel” into this record to at least plant that seed; just to address the time continuum. Isn’t that just another way of saying the word “river” at that point? You know, you’re just going on. I wrote a song called “We Always Change” for my record that came out in 2008 You Can’t Take Anyone, and it reprises on Angels of Death.
I had to revisit it because I didn’t feel like I could be where I am in my life right now and still be singing, “I don’t care about money, I don’t care about time, I don’t care about reason…” because I think that was a lot easier to say when I was like 27 and meant it. Whereas now I’d be like, “I don’t care about money but… I need it!”
But look, these are cornerstones of patriarchy: money, time and reason, right? That’s what that song was originally about. Those are the things we do for the economy. The world is always reminding you that you don’t have all the time in the world, and of course time is against you. Like, “Don’t waste your time!”
I truly don’t care about reasonable thought, so rejecting those things with this simple phrasing in that song was like, my air punching moment, you know? But now that I’m getting older, regardless of whether I don’t care about these things, I still need to re-imagine the sentiment.
If you incorporate those ideas into the verses, they say, “If you turn into a tree, I’ll sway with you; if you turned into the sea, I’ll wave with you…” So you’re saying, “Guess what? Fuck all those pillars, break those down.” These are my truths: transformation and loyalty. I like you, you don’t give up. You keep going, alright? Its not just pure nihilism (although I love nihilism)!
What do you do with your emotional labor songwriters like yourself end up doing for listeners like myself?
I live up on the lake two hours away [laughing]! No, but songs are an offering, too. It’s an emotional offering for me, too! I get to hear it the first time before it becomes a product, but the first time I hear them, they are a vessel for my feelings, too.
Just before Angels of Death was released, you performed at the famous Massey Hall in Toronto, which is this enormous, esteemed old theater where all the greats have played. That night, although it’s potentially a very intimidating room to play for the first time, you owned the room with complete ease. How do you reflect on that evening, in terms of where you are in your career?
I always felt like “the industry” is like that toy game where you put your quarter in and you’re supposed to get the green bear and if you get it you win, and that’s just about as random as the industry gets! You’re like, “Here comes the claw! Pick me, pick me!” But then it’s like, no: It picked the pink one.
Do you want the claw to pick you?
I think that everything is happening for a reason, and I realize that the all-consuming nature of fame and celebrity comes at a price. I think, so long as I can keep my oils essential and I stay close to the source, I feel that when I’m gone for a little bit of time that when I return to that creative source I feel just fine about it. Life is only going to be so long, and I have people that I need and want to invest my energy into and create intimacy with.
I feel happy to have a body of work that’s five records in, and I feel like there are some more in me. These are offerings to the art of song, and I love them. It seems like a feat of magic that I pulled that off, but I’m just so glad they’re there and I hope I get to just keep on doing it.
— Q&A by Kevin Hegge (@kevinheggs on Instagram)