Jennifer Castle searches for the perfect combination of words

On her new album Angels Of Death, the time travelling singer/songwriter battles against the finality of death and sends a comforting message down the line


JENNIFER CASTLE at the Drake Hotel (1150 Queen West), June 1, doors 7:30 pm. Sold out.


Around Christmas in 2016, Jennifer Castle left Toronto and moved into a 19th-century church on the shores of Lake Erie with her 9-year-old son. Two weeks later, their family dog was struck and killed by a car out front. The next morning, it took drills and shovels to open up a grave in the backyard, and as they were laying the dog in the frozen earth, snow fell through the winter sunlight.

“That’s when I was like, ‘There are angels involved here, and I want to honour them’” Castle says. “Even when you’re feeling at your worst, they’ll throw down the most beautiful snowflakes you’ve ever seen.” 

Sitting in the dim back room of the Kensington Market bar Thirsty & Miserable on a sunny late April afternoon, Castle says this ordeal was a catalyst for a number of important moments coming together, ones that would inform her latest record, Angels Of Death (out May 18 on Idée Fixe/Paradise of Bachelors).

Through spectral folk and loose, ragged twang, Castle explores the phases and stages of grief, touches on time travel and confronts the grim reaper, building a fluid, natural and comforting vision of death that battles against the idea that the end is as ultimate as it might seem. She rejects finality and embraces an unending cycle of change. 

“I wanted to say to myself, almost like a macho thing: ‘When you put my back up against the wall, I’m gonna transform.’ It’s almost like I was trying to find a way out. I’m gonna transform. I’m not gonna die.”

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Matt WIlliams

The subject matter is as supernatural as it sounds. She tells me the title track – where she addresses a “dead poet” as her only friend – is partly about a horrific night she spent at a friend’s 14th-floor condo, reading the biography of Cuban American artist Ana Mendieta. In 1985, the morning after an audibly violent argument with husband Carl Andre, Mendieta was found 33 stories below their apartment window, dead on the roof of a deli. Shortly after, her feminist art colleagues were convinced they were being visited by Mendieta, trying to tell them she was murdered, Castle says. 

Alone in that 14th-floor condo and inexplicably drawn to the window, Castle comforted herself by acknowledging the presence herself – “Okay, Ana, I believe you” – and taking solace in the poems of W.B. Yeats. It’s in this way that the concept of time travel enters Angels Of Death, via its title track, as dead poet Yeats reaches across time and space to soothe with his words. As ‘We Always Change’ Reprise Pt. 2 – sounding like timeless hymn, bathed in heavenly strings – closes the album, Castle works her own time travel magic, sending out a ghostly transmission that will no doubt provide a balm for some soul in the future.

“To me, that’s one of the goals you can keep yourself busy with as a writer,” Castle says. “Send a message down the line.”

She has a person in mind who might receive that message, coming through a radio somewhere, sometimes just when they need it – someone who, like her, is short on time. So she “writes tough,” she says, removing any unnecessary words or sounds or images, distilling the communication to its bare bones. Angels Of Death deals with staggeringly heavy ideas, but it does so in an environment of economy that makes sure the message comes through clearly. 

“To me, there’s a perfect combination of words,” Castle says. “And if you can find the perfect combination of words, it unlocks this whole other thing. For me, it’s a noble endeavour. Find the perfect combination. Even if it takes you a sec, find it.”

Castle finds those perfect combinations all over Angels Of Death. They surface in the natural imagery and ride-or-die sentiments of its final moments as she sings about living with her muses on the country shuffle of Rose Waterfalls as she travels down south to kiss her grandmother goodbye over the sweet and easy strum of Texas. They’re there as she floats through the album’s thesis statement, Tomorrow’s Mourning: “Passing through the ever omnipresent song and singing along, cuz there’s no way out.” 

By writing tough and finding those combinations, maybe she can take these complex things – death, time, transformation – and find an easy way to talk about them with her young son. Some way that explains why those angels of death would send the most beautiful, snowy morning you could imagine the day she had to help him bury their dog.

“Maybe I can say something like, ‘When there’s a hard time, and something’s been lost, and your heart feels blown open, maybe lots of beautiful things get to come in at that time,’” Castle says. “Maybe there’s a balance to strike there. Maybe loss isn’t just about losing something. Maybe it’s about finding something.” 

music@nowtoronto.com | @mattgeewilliams

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