With Pink City, Jennifer Castle Earns Her Place on the Roster of Great Canadian Songwriters

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I’ve always bristled at the term “American.” When used from the perspective of the U.S., it engulfs all of North America (and cuts off Mexico, Central and South America). Viewing “American” music, one may not notice the number of Canadian artists who have contributed and influenced considerably the greater “American” music canon, especially in the recent century. Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, The Band and The McGarrigle Sisters are just a few examples, not to mention the stream of contemporary musicians/ bands, including Mary Margaret O’Hara, Arcade Fire, Chad VanGaalen, The Sadies, The New Pornographers, Constantines and recent entries such as Mac Demarco, The Barr Brothers and The Shilohs. There should be a place at this Canadian roundtable for Jennifer Castle.

Toronto-based, singer-songwriter Castle has steadily released contemporary, folk-based solo recordings (the first two full-length albums were released under moniker of “castlemusic”) that have deep ties to her Canadian folk heritage, one that leans more towards Gaelic folk and sea shanty influences, while sifting in U.S. country and Appalachian roots. Her latest release, Pink City, is a culmination of Castle’s subtle, unique songwriting skill. With the assistance and collaboration with producer David Clarke and engineer-producer Jeff McMurrich, Castle opens her compositions more towards a contemporary-classical, minimalist approach, recalling the work of Kentucky-reared, contemporary composer-vocalist Robin Holcomb.

Though it’s not to say Castle’s palette from which she builds the foundations of her songs is vast; they range from the classical ballad, “Working for the Man” to the Van Morrison Astral Weeks’ improvisational romp of “Sparta.”

the two outstanding gems, however, lie neighboring in the heart of Pink City, in succession. Castle’s vocals rolls with the piano chords on the spare hymnal ballad, “Like a Gun.” A minimal string accompaniment, arranged by Owen Pallet, allows space for the stark chorus, that Castle slyly changes the narrator’s perspective from “he” to “I” by its conclusion. “Oh I’ve been like a gun. I’ve been always going off. I’ve been always in the gutter and always into trouble…but it’s harder on the double when I always feel like I’m carrying around someone or another.” Singer-songwriter Pallet, as the record’s string arranger, approaches his orchestrations like a film score composer, namely as Bernard Hermann, which perfectly suits Pink City’s bare assemblage.

The seemingly simple surface of “How or Why” catches the listener off-guard with its brisk pace of vocals, guitar and strings. Castle’s small detailed, disconnected scenes reflect what makes up the narrator’s transient interior life. “We Left the water to boil in an old ancient pot. Left the meal on the table and the cellar lights on. I don’t know how or why, but here is my song.” The recorded sounds of water pouring from a pitcher and footsteps going up concrete stairs slip in, recalling classical artist (and fellow Canadian) Glenn Gould and his radio sound-collage documentaries for the CBC. There’s a sudden turn in “How or Why” where the melody takes a Nick Drake-like ascension that exemplifies how Castle throughout Pink City expertly inserts her melodic complexities. Like the deceptive aspect of Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys melodies, it’s more difficult to sing along to Castle’s music than it may seem.

The pulse that courses through Pink City is Castle’s vocals. Haunting is a loaded adjective, especially in music criticism. There’s a long queue of vocalists and singer-songwriters who apply theatrical elements – whether in the delivery or the orchestration surrounding the vocals – to try to sound haunting. Castle simply is. Her vocals are unforced, fluid, matter-of-fact, almost deadpan. The notes are executed with elegance, vulnerability, loneliness and a pocket of isolation, akin to describing a writer’s literary voice.

Her lyrics run in the same vein. They’re concise, vividly descriptive without overtly connecting the dots. “And as for all my time alone, when no one else is home,” Castle sings in the rolling folk-based “Down River. “It’s all around me. I had to slay a dragon just to clear my throat.” There’s a brief pause, and on mic, and she clears her throat. A harmonica solo by Kath Bloom swiftly sweeps in. These small engaging details contribute to her intricate musical quilt of Pink City.

Accompanied by a group of Toronto-based musicians, including pedal steel player Stew Crookes and organist-reedist Ryan Driver, who both contributed to her preceding 2011 Castlemusic, Castle exhibits a progression in her songwriting and musicianship from her previous effort, while maintaining its starkness and economy. Pink City feels elevated and more confident. The record’s unexpectedness simply comes from Castle’s compositions and her voice, with unadorned, sophisticated arrangements and instrumentation, rise to a new level, one of an important songwriter and artist. And though it may be part of the “Canadian” character to deflect attention, Pink City earns it.