Jennifer Castle

Jennifer Castle calls Pink City unsettling and transient. We call it her best record yet.


JENNIFER CASTLE at the Great Hall (1087 Queen West), Thursday (September 25), doors 8 pm. $12.50. RT, SS, TF.


Like everyone else with ears and taste, Jennifer Castle is a fan of Joni Mitchell. Comparing the two, however, will piss her off.

“I listened to Blue like everyone else. I was a teenager in a truck before. I mean, god, I sang my heart out to that shit.”

But Jennifer Castle is Jennifer Castle, creator of Pink City, her fourth record, which came out September 2 on Idée Fixe. She’s doing her own thing.

“I’ve read a few things about this album that liken it so much to Joni Mitchell, which is crazy,” she says over red wine at busy Junction bar the Hole in the Wall.

“Joni Mitchell’s alive! She’s living her life out! A) She’s the Joni Mitchell. B) Every white woman who’s released a folk record out of Toronto is the new Joni Mitchell. So it’s not even a compliment – it’s more like a sexist bitch slap.”

The comparison, she posits, is a symptom of a larger problem.

“There are amazing women of colour working in this city who don’t get a ready comparison. They’re doing the most incredible music, and of course the one who is white and has, like, the pretty voice or something – that’s all you hear.”

Plus, a lot of men have influenced her work, too – something critics tend to ignore. “Conversationalists in songs have always lit my fire,” she says of some of her heroes: Robert Johnson, Paul Simon, Neil Young.

Pink City is conversational, too, in an abstract way. If you struggle to interpret the songs, it’s because they’re open to interpretation. The lyrics are written stream-of-conscious-style, so each sentence only has to follow the one before.

“The thoughts are very transient that’s how I like to write. It’s just about moving through. Not owning anything or sticking around on an idea too long,” she says.

The 32 minutes of music sink deeper under your skin and into your psyche with each listen. Ten blues-inflected, loosely structured, sweetly sung folk tunes played on guitar or piano, with myriad local collaborators adding exquisite flourishes: Ryan Driver’s flute, Brodie West’s sax, Michael Davidson’s vibraphone. Revered American singer/songwriter Kath Bloom blows her harmonica.

Academy Award-nominated composer and violinist Owen Pallett arranged the strings on four songs that were recorded by the Czech FILMharmonic (the same orchestra that did the last Arcade Fire album and Pallett’s own Polaris-shortlisted project).

Pink City is inarguably beautiful, and yet there’s something not far beneath the surface, something not perfectly pretty that prevents you from getting fully comfortable.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘It seems kind of unsettling.’ Well, that’s about right. I’m very unsettled,” says Castle.

“But unsettling is not dark to me, it’s not ornery. We live in a very unsettled culture, rich or poor. Socially, we’re like dogs who can’t find the right place to lie down. But I welcome that unsettling vibe to the music because at least then I know, as any sort of chronicler at all, that the sentiment is unsettled. There’s something not right.”

During this very long talk that goes by very fast – on account of Castle being an opposite-of-unsettling person to be around – we discuss a lot of things that aren’t quite right: politics, capitalism, patriarchy.

But first things first.

Castle was born in Toronto and raised here and eventually in Mississauga and Orangeville.

She was obsessed with poetry from age 12. She bought a guitar at 18 just before taking off to London, England, where she got her start playing with British folkies at a historic folk bar – an old bomb shelter-like cellar tavern called Bunjies, now closed.

After a year and a half there and a stint in Vancouver, she returned to Toronto for university and, soon after, discovered the Tranzac Club’s improvisational music community.

That was the beginning of Castle’s deep immersion in the local scene she’s worked with everyone from the Constantines to Fucked Up and Isla Craig.

And now, all these years later, some of those Tranzac players – and lots of those Toronto scenesters – have contributed to Pink City, the record she produced with long-time collaborators David Clarke and Jeff McMurrich at McMurrich’s Kensington Market recording studio, 6 Nassau.

So, why the discomfort?

“As a lyricist, I’m untroubled. I’m just going through it. But as a person living in Canada right now, I’ve been very upset,” she explains.

“The transient writer draws on the upset feelings I have toward being Canadian right now. Maybe the songs don’t make sense as a whole, but I’ll drop in things that are of the here and now. As much as I wanted lightness, or to talk about whatever happened to be going on, I made sure to drop these insidious notes – like cave paintings.”

Some of those troubling issues are the tar sands (“one of the most irresponsible environmental decisions on the planet”), Idle No More, feminism, the government’s disregard for aboriginal women, our society’s lack of old women bestowing wisdom on younger generations.

“I left songs off the record. The songs I did put on were thematic in that they all felt like the person in them has questions, or the ‘I’ in the song has questions and isn’t exactly stoked about the state of things.”

Even the back cover art was chosen to convey discontent: Castle stands cross-armed and unsmiling in an incompatibly pink blazer.

“That’s not how I really am – but that’s not what it was about. It was about capturing this feeling that is not happy. I wanted to feed that lyrical undertone visually instead of having a picture of a ‘folk person.’ I don’t even know what that would be.”

Pink City garnered rave reviews here and abroad, including a five-N one in this magazine (her second in a row – almost unheard of).

That praise isn’t a new thing. Her first record, a 2006 live recording she didn’t initially intend to release, got lots of love from the Canadian media, local record stores, the Toronto Public Library and even a radio station in Paris.

Since her third album, when she switched from her Castlemusic moniker to her given name, she’s had an American record company, No Quarter, working for her south of the border. But with the attention come the well-meaning but annoying comparisons and other shortsighted attempts to fit her into a specific box.

“Sometimes I’ll read a review by a man and it’s all like, ‘This song is all about romance’ and ‘This song is obviously about a breakup,’ and they’re constantly putting me in this romantic female trope. You hear what you want to hear. I never feel like I have a romantic muse. I’m never detailing a relationship.”

Femaleness and gender, she says, don’t drive her music. “In fact, I feel most androgynous when I’m writing,” she says. “I don’t really see the merit in personality-sharing when there is so much happening in the community that makes my little life feel insignificant.”

Yet, ironically, as the title suggests, Pink City is her most “female” record yet.

“My [feelings] are more than ever informed by the experience of being a woman on the planet, a woman in the city. When I announced the record, I was like, ‘It’s a girl.’ You know, I’ve never had that feeling for other records.

“My best friends are guys – I goddamn love them. But it’s nice to talk about my own perspective as a girl. I was a tomboy growing up, so I never would have admitted that when I was a girl I was busy emulating British pop stars – and they were guys. I’m not really a tomboy any more. I’m a fucking girl. God. It’s taken me 37 years to feel comfortable with that.”

Being “a girl” doesn’t mean sunshine and romance, though. On Pink City, it means being on the road and sleeping on floors. It means wishing she could get the hell out of here for a while and go to Europe. It means having to labour as a gardener to support her music career and her family. Everyday life shit.

“I always felt like my passport to the world was a boy’s passport a girl’s passport didn’t get you the same places. Now I feel like my passport is a woman. Female passport. If I can’t go everywhere, then I’m going to go down talking about the places I can’t go. Because I’m not interested now in going anywhere that I couldn’t go.”

julial@nowtoronto.com | @julialeconte

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