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Interview: Jerry Castle on new album, latest single Make Do and songwriting

The singer-songwriter’s new record Midnight Testaments is out in October.

Jerry Castle
Credit: Jerry Castle

Jerry Castle may be a relatively new name to many UK country fans – but he’s about to become much more well-known.

Raised in a rural town in the Appalachian Mountains, he got his start performing in bands and has also worked as a songwriter in Nashville, as well as performing alongside artists including Old Dominion and Sturgill Simpson. His song She Kills topped the Roots Music Folk Chart back in 2016, and now he’s going back to his Americana roots with his new album Midnight Testaments which is due for release in October.

I recently spoke to Jerry about the album and his brand new single Make Do (which is out today), as well as his approach to songwriting, working with Amanda Shires and how he’s been keeping busy during quarantine.

How would you describe your music?

The description that we’ve been using is cosmic country meets Appalachian soul. The cosmic country part comes from delay or reverb in particular spots on the record. I have a record that I put out in 2016 [Not So Soft Landing…] that was very, very much ethereal and texturised in that way. I think Gram Parsons was the first person that used the cosmic country description. It looks like Spotify actually even has a playlist now that uses that. But that’s that part of it.

The Appalachian soul part – I’m obviously from the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia, and there’s a couple of things. One, when we were recording the record there was this particular track and I don’t remember what the track was, but the way that I record my songs is I would write them the night before or two days before and bring them into the studio and then everybody would sit and listen and make a decision on how they were gonna approach the song. The keyboard player on the session, Micah Hulscher who’s actually Margo Price’s keyboard player as well, said ‘wow,  this is basically a soul song’. I kind of remembered that and then I thought about it a bit more as it went on, and I was like, ‘well where’s this soul element coming from?’ And of course I looked back on how I was raised and when I was first born it was gospel music from the very, very get-go – our family sitting around drinking beer [laughs] and playing gospel songs. But yeah, that’s where the whole cosmic country meets Applachian soul description comes from.

Your new album comes out in October – can you tell us a bit more about that?

So the name of the album is Midnight Testaments. Again, the testaments part comes from the soul part of the influence, and then the midnight part – I found a lot of times while I was working on this record, it was very late at night. I’d be sitting up by myself working on it, particularly with the songwriting ideas. I don’t really finish songs that late at night, I usually do that during the day. But usually the ideas would come late at night. So it’s kind of where the name came from.

With this record I had just recorded another record that hasn’t been put out. I played it for some people and the feedback I was getting was, ‘well part of this record feels like it’s an older alternative record, part of it feels like a country record’. And so I got that from several people and I just thought, ‘you know what? I’ll go back in the studio, record more songs and we’ll see if it tips one way or the other at that point’. So I booked a day per week for a three-week period in the studio.

And the way I approached the songwriting process during that, the first five days of the week I would just kind of meditate on the songs and let ’em simmer. If I had ideas I would document the ideas – like if it was a melody I’d hum it into my phone, if it was a lyrical piece I’d write it down. But I wouldn’t sit down and try to finish songs. I just let it go. And then two days before it would be time to go into the studio I would sit down with all of my ideas that I had and see which ones jumped out to me the most.

So that first week of doing this, when I sat down I was like, ‘I gotta write these songs, I’m going into the studio in two days and I don’t have anything to record’. And so when I sat down to write it made me very anxious the first go round. I was like, ‘God, I can’t go into the studio with one song’. So I ended up, that first week, having three songs. And then I went into the studio and recorded them and was like, ‘oh it seems like this is really tilting’. That first week tilted the hands a lot more country-sounding, more traditional Americana, roots. And I was like, ‘well it worked this time, why not try it again?’ So the next two weeks I did the exact same thing. During the week I would meditate on song ideas, lightly document them and then sit down to write two days before I went into the studio. Literally I wrote more and more songs during that three one-day-per-week period. So that’s kind of how Midnight Testaments was born.

Is that approach fairly typical of your songwriting process? Or has it changed over time?

Nah, as far as records I change up on every record so I don’t get into a rut. So I put out a 2016 record, a 2018 record [Brand New Hello] and a 2020 record. Now prior to that I had spent a fair amount of time doing writing appointments on Music Row and writing to ‘get a country hit’, if you will – go into a room, sit down for a three-hour period and at the end of that three-hour period you’re going to have a complete song for better or for worse. So the real goal there obviously is you can’t just sit there and think [laughs]. Or you can’t just go, ‘I need to sleep on this one’. You’ve gotta set something out. And that’s pretty typical of how Music Row is. It’s got even more intense in that way I think. Now you have three to five writers in a room at a time, and you have a track person now so you have someone sitting there programming everything. And the song’s pretty much done overall, written and everything.

So I had been through that part of it and I ended up developing writer’s block from doing that. And you end up writing a lot of inauthentic things as well – things that aren’t actually coming from your heart or from your soul. I mean there’s some people that I’ve seen that do that and it’s like a game to them. Hell if I could do it like that and it was a game to me I’d do it as well, but I don’t like that for me. It ended up giving me writer’s block so when I came back and started writing again, I’ve just changed things up every time.

The 2016 record, I wrote that record from I spent a bunch of time in a sensory deprivation tank and I would keep my phone beside of me so that if I had an idea then I could get out and type it in really quick or hum whatever the melody was. And at the end of that process I was pretty much writing entire songs in my head before I even got out of the tank. I was hurrying to get out of the tank to hum the song and sing the song and write down the lyrics. So that’s how I did that one. 2018, it was a concept record, I had a whole storyline before I even sat down to write but I already knew what I was gonna write. And then on this record obviously the approach that I’ve just explained to you.

Were there any songs on the new record that were particularly easy or particularly difficult in terms of the writing?

Good question. Probably the easiest was Make Do, the new single that’s coming out. It was the last song written on the record and it was not written like the description I gave you as to how everything was recorded because it was not part of that. It happened back in May after quarantine was already goin’ on and just one night I went to the studio after everyone had gone to bed. I went in and I wrote that song without having any idea in mind, I wrote that song in 30 minutes. Pick Up Your Guitar, it was very similar to that. I had just found out that an old bandmate and I sat down and wrote that song in its entirety in probably 20 minutes. So those are the easy ones that come to mind. I don’t really have anything on this particular record that I felt like I was beating to death, which I have definitely had with songs before. A lot of songs will be that way where you come to that place where you’re stuck. But I don’t think I have anything on this record that feels like it was particularly difficult.

You’ve also got the song Charades with Amanda Shires on the album – how did that come about and what was it like working with her?

I’ve known Amanda for a long time. She was introduced to me from another artist out of Texas named Bonnie Whitmore, and she had brought Amanda to a show and Amanda sat in with me. And so when it came to doing this song I just sent a message and she happened to be free and came over. Amanda’s funny and quirky and easy to work with and all of those things. So it was fairly easy and fairly quick.

You’ve mentioned Make Do and have just shot the video for it. Can you tell us a bit more about the song and the video?

Yeah, so as I mentioned it was back in May during COVID and having a realisation of the lack of control. With music I’m so used to the answer has always been, ‘well if you need to make things better you can go out on tour or if you need a bigger audience you can go tour’. That’s always been a tried and true method. This record, besides Make Do, was completely finished going into the year and we were planning to be out touring in the spring, and obviously I had no control over that. So I think subconsciously when I sat down to write and see what I could come up with, that’s really what came out was ‘gonna have to make the most of the hand that you’re dealt’. And if things don’t work out the way that you foresee or want to, then there’s no need to be miserable along the way while you’re doing it. Once I kind of got on to that whole thing, from the first pre-chorus where it says ‘I’ve got my line in the water’, I think once that happened the whole water, riverbank, that became the scenery for the whole song.

And then the video, we just shot that, we just finished that video yesterday actually. Obviously with COVID you can’t get large groups of people together still to do the video shoot. So it was just me on a riverbank, me by a dam, and trying to still make that fun. I’ve done three other animated videos this year which has been kind of a new thing, and those animated videos – if there’s anything cool for me that came out of COVID it’s that. I had never really done animated videos but again because you can’t really go get a bunch of actors together to shoot videos that came up. It just felt like with Make Do with it being kind of a more organic song, it really felt like it was time to have the real me [laughs] in the video.

What else have you been doing during quarantine to keep busy?

I actually have so much stuff going on that there’s more stuff to do than there is time in the day. I’m the person that – I do have somebody to help manage me and obviously I have all the normal pieces of the puzzle, publicity, radio, promotion in multiple countries. But I’m the person that tends to run the label part of things and so there’s that. I’m constantly doing that. The video stuff, trying to get everything organised, trying to figure out when is the right time to execute setting up the tour ’cause you don’t want to set up the tour just to have to cancel it again, y’know, so my hands are kind of tied with that. There’s some writing, there’s some recording. Make Do was recorded in quarantine so I recorded my vocal and acoustics and sent it to the next person and then they would record their part and send it to the next person. This was the first time I’d ever done that. You know, just a lot of the same stuff I would normally be doing off the road.

Lastly – when this is all over and we can travel safely again, have you got any plans to come over to the UK?

Yeah, the UK is kind of a priority for us right now, as far as what our game plan is. As soon as everything starts letting up and we anticipate that I’ll be able to tour over in the US by the springtime, we’re kinda hoping that we can start doing some stuff. And then the UK I’ll come over and do some festivals and set up shop there a little bit right after that, hopefully the summer of next year.

Jerry Castle’s new album, Midnight Testaments, is out on 16th October. His latest single Make Do is out now.

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