Jennifer Castle. Credit: Darryl D.

Instrumental: Jennifer Castle’s Breath Work Brings Life To Monarch Season

By: Matt Williams

Last month, Jennifer Castle released her sixth full-length album, the soft and sparse Monarch Season. It was recorded at Castle’s home on the north shore of Lake Erie, though that’s not because of pandemic lockdown house-boundedness—it’s just coincidence and timing. Monarch Season was finished in 2019, and was simply metamorphosing from caterpillar to butterfly in the months since. “We were like, ‘Should we wait and release it at another time?’” Castle says over the phone. “And I was like, ‘No! It’s kind of like the days of no tomorrow.’ What other time would you be waiting for?”

After the lush textures of 2014’s kaleidoscopic Pink City and the phantasmal, otherworldly country of 2018’s Angels of Death, Monarch Season occupies much more hushed territory. It functioned as a bit of a palate cleanser after the big energy Castle had been hosting on stage with the live iteration of Angels of Death.

“I think I really needed to connect with the source of my songwriting,” Castle says. “I got to take stock of where I am as a singer and a performer, and see what can I do with the song at its most bare minimum, an ‘if-my-life-depended-on-it’ sort of thing. ‘What can I share? Am I still connected in that way?’”

Because of its minimalist infrastructure, Monarch Season places Castle’s breath front and centre, with every whisper and inhale adding to the sonic tapestry of the album. More than most artists, breath seems to occupy a sacred space in her songs, through a singular delivery that fuses it with her poetry. By using the harmonica—often laden with effects on her new record—she pushes that breath into stranger, wilder, but no less intentional, territory.

Listening through the record, it seems so obvious that breath really has a place on something this intimate or stripped down. How do you think breath specifically affects Monarch Season?

Well, it’s all over the record. Because, well, I’m alive and I’m breathing, but also because the songs are one-takes. I had been playing a lot, I had been touring a lot, and I had been performing solo a lot. And I had been aware of the fact that my own singing ability, my capacity was really at a good place. I was really musically fit, and hitting all my ranges. There’s something very athletic about singing for me, which is that I can tell if I’ve been doing it a lot, just like probably any other sport on that level, or martial art or anything—it’s practice. There’s so much important emphasis on practice for me that I’m practicing at doing it, not necessarily sitting at home being like, ‘Okay, it’s time for me to practice.’ That was one of the reasons why I felt confident enough to say to Jeff [McMurrich], ‘Let’s do something at my house, because I think I can kind of pull it off right now.’ I was very well-oiled, so to speak. And one of the things I love about harmonica is that it really is just kind of breathing through this mouth harp. And in many ways, it’s the sound of the manipulation of the breath. I know that wind instruments are like that, too, as well as just singing, but it was a new texture that I hadn’t really played with—almost this robotic breath sound. I think of the harmonica melodically but I also think of it as accompaniment of another timbre of my own breathing. When I’m not singing, I can switch to this more robotic sound, which is why I like that Jeff kind of glitched it out with delay and things. The only real distortion we put on the record was on the harmonica, it was almost like the second voicing.

You can really hear your breath in the harmonica. You can hear when it kind of comes back and gets weaker, and when you push in. Which I assume is usually probably done away within production or something on many records.

Yeah. The harmonica, where it sits on this record, is really this fine balance between super rudimentary—so you’re just like hanging on to it for dear life with your mouth, breathing. And then, for example, if I just stopped singing, then you get these big harsh blows. Then as my lung capacity begins to get breaths in and adjust, something more melodic can emerge. I like that both of those things are present on this record, because I think that if I was a really pro harmonica player, I wouldn’t be at peace with any sort of struggle, or anything that sounds like an attempt. Whereas I do think that there’s a bit of a gesture of attempt with this harmonica, and I like that. It’s kind of like reaching for the stars.

I love hearing that kind of thing in pieces of art, where you’re not just sculpted to the nth degree.

Yeah. You’re not like, ‘Look at what a pro I am.’ You’re more like, ‘Listen to what a dreamer I am.’ Like, ‘Imagine I was the most insane harmonica player.’ That’s almost the feeling of this—’Imagine if I was.’ And then with our imagining, we get there together.

When did you first pick up the harmonica and start seriously using it?

Yeah, when it all panned out, and I heard them as a collection, I liked the might of the harmonica, I thought it spoke to a younger version of myself. Like I said something important, and then I blow it out, you know? It felt like a camaraderie to me. It’s kind of energy is not like the sax solo energy. It’s more just like me fist pumping through my own song. There’s a defiant quality to it. And it just sits in a nice place for me.

Jennifer Castle’s Harmonicas. Courtesy of Jennifer Castle.

How do you feel that your relationship with the harmonica has changed over the years?

It really feels very personal to me. It really feels like the manipulation of my voice and my breathing, and that’s the energy I share when I play it now. I’ve always had a kind of motto when I play, a personal motto, which is that I didn’t want to live beyond my means, as a musician, when I started. That was one of the reasons I stuck to being solo for so long. I felt like, if I can’t play it, then it won’t get played. I need to be able to distill everything down to that one gesture so that it can always be on my person. I didn’t want to be like, ‘I’d love to play all the songs! But I can’t, my band’s not here.’ I always wanted them to be able to first and foremost exist right by me. And so the harmonica feels just like a really personal gift to myself. It feels still like an extension from the source.

Your delivery is so unique, and I feel like that has a lot to do with when you breathe and how you use your breath. Do you or have you ever done anything like breath work?

Yeah, I do a lot of breath work. I was a long-distance runner for a very long time until more recently. And I noticed that my lung capacity has always been really good for singing and then also as a distance swimmer. When I was a bit younger, before I had my son, I noticed that when I was singing, too. I would be like, ‘Wow, now that I’m training my breath through swimming, I have bigger, longer note capacity—to hold notes when I’m singing.’ So that’s kind of why it’s always been a little bit athletic to me. I’ve noticed these differences through sports stuff. But now I do yoga a lot. And I have been doing a lot of breath work this year for yoga, more than I’ve ever done. And I noticed it last fall, actually, just around the time of making this record—just personally when I was singing, I was like, ‘Whoa, I’m really holding some notes here. My diaphragm feels fit.’ Because I’d been doing these breath exercises.

Are you conscious about the way you use your breath while you’re singing? Or does it just happen naturally now that you’ve been doing this so long?

I think about it, and the Angels of Death—the singers, Victoria Cheong and Isla Craig—helped me because they do breath exercises. They do vocal warm-up before they sing. So I got to kind of be aware of those because I learned from them. But more than that, I realized that when I’m nervous, the best thing for me to do is to make sure I’m singing out of my stomach. Because if I’m nervous or insecure, I’m not sure of myself, my voice will come more through my throat and then I recognize a fatigue that comes with it. So usually, within the first few moments of singing live, as I get on the stage, it’s kind of about me making sure that I’m pushing my voice down into the bottom of my stomach, and that the notes are coming from the deepest part. Sometimes it even sounds like I’m making a very low voice at the beginning of my sets. But it’s mostly just to make sure that I’m finding the depths of my stomach, because it really has endurance, if I’m singing from my belly.

I remember reading something about Allen Ginsberg talking about Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour—Ginsberg saying that Dylan had become like a pillar of air in the sense that there was nothing between him and what he was singing. It was all just one phenomenon. I was reminded of that idea while listening to Monarch Season.

I feel like, light and air—those are your two main aims, right? To reflect light when you’re performing or sharing art, so that it can illuminate other people’s lives. And then I love this idea of being a pillar of air. I feel so connected to the idea of the breath. I know that’s really the only difference between me being a living artist and the moment I go on and I’m an artist that used to be alive. The difference is that I’m just here to sing through my vessel and my breath at this time. But I really do like the idea of sharing songs in a long-time way when I’m passed and gone. I love the idea of being the vehicle for them—getting to be a vehicle for them now, and that the distinction is that it comes through my passage.