Chris Castle found his sound in a one-bedroom apartment in Huron — 200 yards from the shores of Lake Erie.
The former country music writing prodigy moved there when he separated from his wife, Julie, in 2006. In a space furnished with a futon mattress on the floor, cardboard boxes for tables, a 12-track digital recorder and some acoustic guitars, a bass and drums, Castle, now 33, found his artistic groove.
“I was singing things quietly to not bother the neighbors and finger picking instead of strumming,” Castle says. “I couldn’t get loud, so I was playing quietly. It was a new sound for me.”
That apartment is more than 500 miles — and a lifetime — from Nashville, where Castle had spent his teen years writing country music songs.
He moved from New London to Nashville, by himself, at 15 and wrote professionally alongside men such as Earl Bud Lee, author of Garth Brooks’ mega-hit “Friends in Low Places.”
In his first year in Nashville, Castle penned 250 songs. None of them really ever went anywhere, though, and Castle soon began to chafe at the formal songwriting process in Nashville, one that could have him sitting in a conference room with someone he had never met and writing a song in two hours.
In the summer of 1998, at age 22, Castle cut all ties with Nashville. He didn’t return until 2007, when he recorded Hollow Bones in Monotone, his first CD and the direct result of his six months in that apartment. One year later, he released his second disc, Crazy Wind.
This month, he will release Songbook Vol. I, his third CD in as many years.
The 20-song anthology is composed of early demos that came out of that apartment, along with live performances and new songs.
Initially, Castle moved to Huron so he could focus on finishing his undergraduate degree in political science. He had given up on his dream of having gold and platinum records and had played just a couple benefit shows in the previous four years. But a funny thing happened.
Away from family life, away from everything save the thoughts ticking through his brain, Castle started writing songs again.
“The longer I was there, the more songs started popping into my head,” he says. “Eventually, I just stopped going to class. I was just writing songs.”
The songs are honest, bare-bones portrayals of Castle’s life. They embrace his Appalachian ancestry and his folksy sound and, in many ways, are autobiographical.
The tale of his father’s suicide is recounted in “Both Ends of a Gun.” A Vietnam veteran and troubled alcoholic, Castle’s father took his own life in 1985, just as a 9-year-old Chris had started singing in bars with live bands.
“Those songs were the most honest songs I’d ever written,” he says.
Today, Castle is back at home with his wife. He credits Hollow Bones in Monotone with helping save his marriage.
“It makes a lot more sense for me to continue chasing that unicorn instead of getting that degree, and my wife realized it,” he says. “But it took writing that entire record. I said, ‘You’re not going to like some of it because it’s about us, but give it a listen.’ And from that day on, she was 100 percent supportive of me being a musician.”
Castle has learned being a musician is more about making good music than chasing a platinum record.
“I want to be Picasso. I want to be Rockwell, or I want to be Mark Twain through a three-minute song,” he says. “I want to be those guys more than I want to be Hank Williams now.”