Jerry Castle has pretty much been claustrophobic since a babysitter locked him in a closet as a child. So the idea of being encased in a floating tank – unable to move, see or hear – wasn’t exactly an appealing one.
Turns out it may take his career to the next level.
Castle, who plays McGonigel’s Mucky Duck on Tuesday in support of his new album, Not So Soft Landing …, has turned to floating sensory deprivation to both clear his mind and stimulate his songwriting.
The process of floating sensory deprivation is a simple one. A tank is filled with 18 inches of saltwater (which helps someone float), a person lies down and the tank is closed for anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes. During this time, the person is left to nothing but his own thoughts – no light, no sound, nothing. So you can imagine what a claustrophobic type like Castle would feel about this trend at first glance.
“As unnerving as it was, everyone said you have to commit to more than one float,” Castle said. “The more you float, the more you benefit.”
Castle was turned on to the process by his friend Sturgill Simpson, a fellow country musician whose career has taken off the past couple of years.
“Sturgill is a no-bullshit kind of guy; that’s why I like him,” Castle said. “He’s a straight shooter, so when I heard about it, I figured I’d give it a shot.”
That leap of faith has already paid dividends.
Whereas Castle’s previous efforts steered more toward Americana/country, Not So Soft Landing… can safely be described as experimental and unlike anything else in his catalog, while staying true to its roots. Castle in part attributes his tonal shift to sensory deprivation, which has opened his mind and fueled his creative juices.
Plus, Castle isn’t one to adhere to convention anyway.
“I’ve always tried to approach it from Neil Young’s perspective, when he said something along the lines of, ‘If you’re going to do the same shit over and over, why do it?’” Castle said. “Obviously, I’m not in that league, but why keep doing the same thing? It makes me feel dead.”
He’s come alive on Not So Soft Landing…, a fat-free album (it features only ten tracks) that showcases a unique brand of singer-songwriter. Like contemporary and friend Simpson, Castle’s latest can safely be described as “trippy.”
The album also closes with a cover of Blind Melon’s “Change.” The song is a special one for Castle, who saw the band play it during a late-night television appearance on April 8, 1994 – the same day Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain’s body was found at his home.
“[Blind Melon singer] Shannon Hoon had a question mark on his head and a faraway look in his eye,” Castle recalled. “It’s such an unusually imperfect song; he even changed some of the words, but it was so impactful. He said what was on everyone’s mind; he said what I was thinking. I stumbled back across the performance during the recording of the album, and it just hit me.”
Castle’s career has certainly experienced a few unexpected turns as well. He admittedly wasn’t exactly into music for the right reasons early on, and grew frustrated when things didn’t take off as quickly as he’d hoped. He left Nashville for Los Angeles and “bullshitted” his way into a radio promotions job to pay the bills, but later moved back to Nashville. Castle then found out he had a daughter on the way.
“I knew I had to figure out the money thing at that point,” he said. “I didn’t want my kid to grow up how I grew up, so I started doing some writing and ended up at Big Machine [Records].”
If Big Machine sounds familiar, that’s because it’s home to Taylor Swift, arguably the biggest pop star on the planet. Castle got to know Swift early in her career, during the “Tim McGraw” and “Teardrops on My Guitar” days — before Kanye West, the relationship drama and millions of records sold.
While Castle admittedly didn’t expect this level of success for Swift – and, honestly, who could have? – he saw an intangible quality in her that benefits her to this day.
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“The thing she could do at 17 better than any professional I’d ever met, is when it came time to be at a radio station or in front of a crowd, when it came to work, she flipped that switch on every time,” Castle said. “No matter how her day was going, how she felt or how she was acting backstage, it never carried over. Shit, man, that’s a skill; I can’t do it that well. I did know from that gift that she was going to be big.”
Castle long ago moved on from the big Nashville machine, even though he still calls the city home. He admits he’s had to make peace with being a non-Nashville guy in the heart of Nashville.
“There’s plenty of bullshit in this town, but the cool part is there are a ton of cool players,” Castle said. “Whatever vision you have, the people are here to help make that happen.”
Jerry Castle performs 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at McGonigel's Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk.