Exorbitant real-estate costs aren’t just a worry in Vancouver. A few years ago, folk-country songwriter Jennifer Castle was driven out of her native Toronto as prices rose, pushing her to the sleepy shores of Lake Erie. There, living and working in a freezing 150-year-old church where she was forced to wear gloves at her piano, she found herself totally isolated.
“I moved into a rural situation,” she tells the on the line from her Ontario home. “I was nearing the end of my 30s, and I was suddenly given a lot of time on my own. I had just gotten off a tour, and I think all of those things wrapped up into a really in-depth moment for me, when I had the time to write, and I could really think about things.”
Castle isn’t sure what motivated the subject matter for the record that she created there, a 10-track album named Angels of Death. Nearing her 40s, she suggests, may have been a catalyst for the extended rumination on mortality, or the passing of her family dog, Ribbon, two weeks after her arrival at Lake Erie. More significant to the singer than pinning down the seed of inspiration, though, was her decision to write about death not as life’s final act, but as a factor in determining its course.
“Writing about death as a transformation was important to me from the get-go,” she says. “The writer in me was acting a bit rascally, saying, ‘If death is a fact, how do I get out of this? If I stand in opposition to this fact, how does that start to play out?’ So I thought about a more matriarchal concept of death—not compartmentalized into here and gone, good and bad, but more akin to mirrors. If you align with what you see in the natural world, life is more cyclical, and it’s constantly transforming. The patriarchal ideas of death are scary, and they’re not very kind to humans, or any living thing. It says that death is a punishment, and the fault of our lives. For me in my own life, it became time to bring it into a better place.”
Writing primarily on acoustic guitar and piano, Castle has created an ambitious folk-country crossover, tingeing her clear, swooping vocals with accents from slide guitars and strings. Scattered across the record are references to departed artists, including Irish poet W.B. Yeats and Cuban-American multimedia creator Ana Mendieta, to showcase how individuals can survive beyond death. While the musician had previously been content with relative anonymity, Angels of Death—her fifth full-length—represents Castle’s first steps toward embracing a well-deserved fame and legacy of her own.
“Previously, I thought that there was something that comes from being well-known that I’ve felt ashamed about, or secretive about,” she says. “I think I’ve always been too afraid of shining too much light on my work. For me, it’s almost like if I shine this big spotlight into this cave, can I still go into this cave, and is it still going to be a cave? Because I still need my own cave—I think we all do. That’s where I go to write. I’ve also seen a lot of people blow up and get huge, and then feel completely alienated from this thing that they had which was probably really good in their lives.
“I always write the songs for myself first—it’s the itch that I have to scratch,” she continues. “I want to protect beautiful, noncommercial elements of my soul. I feel protective of it because I love it, but I also think I should be a bit more of a big girl, and think that if there’s any way I can provide for my life, I’d like to also invite that into my life as well. It’s hard work to make ends meet. But I want to keep my writing as beautiful as it’s always been.”
Jennifer Castle plays the Vogue Theatre on September 15, as part of the Westward Music Festival.
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