How Taking Chances, Joan Didion and Death Brought Jennifer Castle's 'Angels of Death' to Life

How Taking Chances, Joan Didion and Death Brought Jennifer Castle's 'Angels of Death' to Life
Photo: Cash Honey
Jennifer Castle was already grappling with ideas about grief, writing and legacy on the songs that would become her new album Angels of Death when something tragic happened that would inform the second half of her writing process. Two years ago — on a day that Castle just happened to pick up Joan Didion's book about grieving, The Year of Magical Thinking — her dog Ribbon was killed after being hit by a car.
"That moment clarified a few of the things I had been getting at, for me," Castle tells Exclaim! now, over the phone from her home in Port Stanley, "and really put me in the headspace to write and finish the record. Because I was tangibly experiencing grief."
Some of the most powerful songs on her third album under her given name, Angels of Death (out now on Idée Fixe/Paradise of Bachelors), arrived late in the writing and recording process, including the quietly uttered "Grim Reaper," the dreamy "Stars of Milk" and album standout "Crying Shame" — not to mention "Texas," on which she pays special tribute to Ribbon.
Like Didion's book, Castle's Angels of Death is about the strange, messy and magical ways the living experience death, loss and change. "It was time to talk about what happens with the people that are left and make sense of that," Castle says. "Everybody knows, rearranging is messy; before it gets tidy, it's messy. So it was that kind of scrambly moment where these beautiful things keep occurring even the moment after something very tragic happened."
Tragedy, sadness and loss aren't always because of actual death, though, and Angels of Death also touches on heartbreak, the joys and frustrations of writing and imagination and other kinds of transformation. "It doesn't matter that I sat down and was trying to keep my nose to this idea [of death]," Castle says. "What ended up becoming bigger than the sum of its parts was just this insistence on transformation; some of the hard times that come with that and also the levity that comes with that."
Angels of Death was the product of a musical transformation, too. Castle moved outside of her comfort zone by doing something she'd never done before: record live with a band. Along with co-producer Jeff McMurrich and friends from Toronto, including pianist Jonathan Adjemian and Paul Mortimer on lead guitar, she spent a weekend at Dexter Sound, a church on the shores of Lake Erie (where she briefly also lived with her family) recording.
"It challenged me to not rest on my laurels and bridged the gap between what I do live and what I do in the studio."
While she "shined things up," as she puts it, on 2014's Polaris-shortlisted Pink City and 2011's Castlemusic, for Angels of Death Castle gambled by building on live takes, which placed limitations on what could be changed or added afterwards in the studio because everything was bleeding into everything else. But it also made the record sound more urgent.
"It ended up being this thing we had to work with," Castle says, "and it ended up feeling vulnerable."
That austerity and vulnerability reminded her of her 2008 album You Can't Take Anyone, the last time a bunch of her songs were "just kind of left as is," and the gamble paid off: over just three days Castle and company captured stark and spacious, gorgeously vulnerable piano ballad "Tomorrow's Mourning," a ripping, rollicking band performance on the title track and honky tonkin' "Rose Waterfalls," as well as the expansive, psychedelic "Tonight the Evening."
Though that's not to say that a certain morbidity doesn't haunt Angels of Death. And when, a year later, she returned to Didion's book having wrapped recording, it felt like the closing of a loop for Castle.
"I could see what [Didion] was getting at. I honour the fact that I picked it up and held it in my hand that morning and a year later, after I had written about [grief] I read her book and was deeply soothed by it."
Angels of Death is out now.