Leigh Celent: Castle Black—A New Riot Grrrl Rises

In 2019, a year during which pop princess Ariana Grande headlined Lollapalooza, Castle Black frontperson Leigh Celent is a welcome breath of fresh indie-rock air. Celent and Castle Black have created a new sound of uncompromised work that have drawn comparisons to nearly every type of underground rock from the last four decades. To say the singer-songwriter is a star in the making would be a severe understatement, and she has only just begun to scratch the surface.

Crediting the recent addition of drummer Joey Russo and bassist Scott Brown for finally bringing her songs to life, the trio have been building a reputation with their ferocious live performances. And lyrically, Celent’s angst-ridden tales of dark, frank, and deeply personal stories recall the glory days of the riot grrrl movement. This is ironic, however, because the singer-guitarist only began her musical journey early this millennium after abandoning her previous passion: dance.

Although the Brooklyn-based trio remain the epitome of a struggling artist, travelling from gig to gig in Celent’s brother’s aging Jeep Commander, they refuse to sell out. Not that they would turn down a manager’s assistance and a few dollars, but they continually donate their time to benefits, including the recent Elephant Talk Festival (for Autism research) and the upcoming American Dissonance Festival in Trenton, New Jersey (which will support the current legal battle involving the notorious “NJWeedman,” a well-known marijuana activist). Since beginning work under the Castle Black moniker (which was inspired by the also notorious structure to the North in Game of Thrones), Celent has independently released five EPs. The latest, Dead In a Dream—the first to feature Russo and Brown—is available at the band’s live shows, through the Bandcamp site (or app), and can be streamed, along with previous EPs, on Spotify. Recorded by Michael Abiuso at Behind The Curtain Media in Brooklyn, New York, Dead In a Dream was mixed by Mark Plati, who has previously worked with David Bowie, The Cure, and Prince.

During a break from recording their next EP and after an evening’s rehearsal, Leigh spoke with The Aquarian about creating music and the struggles of being an up-and-coming, independent, DIY artist.

How long has Castle Black existed?

The first EP came out in 2015, but the current lineup has been together for less than a year. I had been songwriting and there were different versions of things before that, but things [started to come together only four years ago.]

Dead in a Dream is the trio’s fifth EP. Why haven’t you recorded a full-length album?

Are we supposed to follow a specific model where we must release full-length albums? Listeners’ attention spans have changed. Also, we do not have enough time or money to record anything but EPs. We have the material to record 10 songs at a time, but there is something about this shorter format that I’ve latched onto. I like telling short pieces of a whole story.

Do you consider Castle Black “DIY”?

It is by necessity. You do everything yourself until something else happens.

Castle Black has been building a loyal following. Why not hire a manager?

At this point, we are still losing money. Our show attendance is inconsistent, which is why we tour so much; to play shows in New York City less frequently. I’ve been told that managers will approach us and that is what we hope will happen.

Were you raised on a diet of independent music?

As a kid I was dancer, so I listened to music you danced to, like big band. I didn’t get into indie-rock until the early 2000s.

Given the current state of music and your indie approach, do you consider yourself “born late”?

I was told that this is my first time on Earth by someone who believes in reincarnation, but I have always felt out of place. A lot of those themes are in my music.

You also sing about other people who are misfits.

I may be singing about other people, but the lyrics are about me. I often use pronouns when I simply can’t use “I.”

Did you write poetry before composing your first song?

I did. As a kid, when I wasn’t dancing, I was writing poetry.

Every music critic has had a different take on Castle Black’s music. I wonder why everyone seems afraid to say that the trio is original?

I understand people need to classify things, but it can become frustrating. Scott jokingly refers to our sound as “Math Grunge,” because we have so many signature and tempo changes.

Lyrically, the band has been compared to the riot grrrl movement of the nineties.

Although I wasn’t into it when it was happening, I have since gone back and listened to Bikini Kill, but otherwise, I am still learning about it. I get [what those artists] were doing. It stood for something and their words meant something; they weren’t just fluff.

Dead in a Dream is the first Castle Black EP to feature Joey and Scott. How have they changed the band?

Joey and Scott have brought the music to life. Before, the songs may have been good, but there was nothing special about our live shows. Something was missing. The vibe just was not there. Our sound has changed, and we’ve become more interesting to watch. Joey and Scott have helped take Castle Black to the place I had always envisioned it should be.

Castle Black’s music is not readily available to casual listeners.

We hope that will happen at some point, but for now our music is available at our shows and through Bandcamp and Spotify.

These days, it is hard for an indie artist to get exposure. Touring is one of the few avenues available.

I guess. At this point in our career, we still haven’t been offered anything else (like a record deal).

How difficult has it been for Castle Black’s members to undertake extensive tours with no financial support?

We were driving around in a car that eventually died, so we are now using my brother’s Jeep Commander. Scott is really cramped in the backseat, especially when we travel with a few of our dogs.

Not only are you wedged into the vehicle with your gear and clothing, but you also bring your pets along?

We don’t bring them along on the long tours, but we do take them along on shorter [jaunts]. Joey’s mixed dog is under 25 pounds, while Ranger, my Boston Terrier-French bulldog mix, is under 35 pounds.

Was you dog named for the New York Rangers?

I am not a sports fan. The name was inspired by the rangers in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Although, Ranger does have a New York Jets jersey. My mom, who often watches him, has bought random jerseys for him. She also bought him a Dallas Cowboys jersey.

What inspired the name Castle Black?

Even before the television show debuted, I was a Game of Thrones fan. I had read the books and I took the name from one of the castles.

No promoter, club owner, or concert goer ever thought you were a heavy metal band?

I don’t believe we’ve ever disappointed anyone when it turns out we [play music other than metal]. We did play somewhere recently where the soundperson told us that we had to ‘turn it down; turn the volume down.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? How is Joey going to turn down the volume on his drums? He is a hard hitter and we’re a rock band.’ The soundperson said it was going to be ‘soft set.’ And I explained ‘We don’t play soft.’ And we didn’t. I guess we were louder and harder than some people expected.

Castle Black is performing at the American Dissonance Fest in Trenton.

People we know in Philly are throwing a fundraiser for the “NJWeedman”—a well-known pro-marijuana activist who is having some legal issues. It is happening at Weed Man’s actual place in Trenton.

Castle Black has performed at a variety of benefits.

It has, and I still feel that we’re doing not enough of them…. We do benefits whenever we can, especially if we believe in the cause. It also helps if the benefits are close to where we live. When we released the song “Sierra,” we donated a portion of sales to an organization that sends educational help to underdeveloped African countries. The organization teaches kids from a young age, for instance, that rape is wrong, and the song is about sexual violence against women.

Castle Black play at the American Dissonance Fest in Trenton, New Jersey on August 24. For more information, please visit castleblackmusic.com or americandissonancefest.com