A photo of Jess Forrest in her studio, seated, one arm up on a desk that has an open notebook on it. The photo has been cut in three blob shapes that are superimposed over loose sheets of lined paper.

Aural adventures with Castle If

Electronic composer and producer Jess Forrest on creative habits and her Imaginary Soundtrack series

By: Laura Stanley | Art by: Laura Stanley

For the last six months, my weekdays have started in the same way: to a soundtrack of drills whose high-pitched squeals evoke a dental procedure, the dull thuds of hammering, and earth-rumbling excavation. Beside my building, where a parking lot once stood, an enormous and unaffordable condo is being built and below me, a retail space is being turned into real estate offices—a true Toronto hellscape. 

To combat this symphony that continues to play as I start my workday from home, I listen to ambient and instrumental music, including YouTube playlists with titles like “it’s been a long journey, stop here and have some rest” and “you fell asleep in the car on a rainy afternoon.” Lately, my closest co-worker is the Imaginary Soundtrack series from Toronto-based electronic composer and producer Jess Forrest, also known as Castle If. 

Since the series began in October 2022, Forrest has written, recorded, and produced five full-length albums of themed instrumental electronic music using her trusted collection of analog synthesizers. The sound of these albums range from nautical hauntology (From the Sea) to futuristic synth-wave (Darknet) and many aural adventures in between. With such care taken to create the unique tenor of each recording, I’m apprehensive about admitting to Forrest that I have been passively listening to her music while I work or read. But to my surprise, Forrest is thrilled about my listening habits.

“I have a little bit of an obsession with music as utility and I really want to make something that can disappear for somebody else. It’s kind of hard to make that sometimes because I can’t separate myself from my music as well as I can from somebody else’s, obviously,” says Forrest from her Toronto home. “But the fact that you’re able to read to what I make is the biggest compliment. Making something that’s almost completely ignorable but not so chill that it puts you to sleep—that’s my favourite!” 

Born in Saskatoon, Forrest first felt a connection to music at around three years old. She remembers spending time at her babysitter’s house, playing her sitter’s piano and exploring her fantastic record collection. The first albums that Forrest fell in love with were Peter and the Wolf and the West Side Story soundtrack. As a teenager, Forrest started to write and record her own music and in 2008 she moved to Toronto with dreams of “reinventing krautrock.” In the early 2010s, she released a handful of albums as Castle If but she has since removed them from streaming platforms. 

Forrest’s interest in creating themed recordings has been a constant in her work. In 2017, she released Plant Material, a playful electronic record inspired by her houseplant collection. Her follow-up record, 2018’s Sector 03, was a synth-wave “sci-fi concept album exploring themes of addiction and techno paranoia in a bleak near-future.”

Although Sector 03 was released later, its tracks pre-date Plant Material. To Forrest, Sector 03 is a record that she took too long to write, but Plant Material was a turning point in her relationship with her art. “Plant Material was the first time where I just let go of my desire for it to be perfect, which has been really important for me,” Forrest explains. 

Forrest spent years playing shows and sharing bills with acts like U.S. Girls, Grimes, and Julianna Barwick, but after releasing Plant Material and Sector 03, she decided that live performances were no longer serving her. 

“At that time, I was trying to make a living in music work by playing a lot of shows. But I was really, really unhappy because I have terrible stage fright, so it was such an ordeal every time I played a show,” Forrest explains. “Knowing that I don’t want to perform has also been a huge leap.”

Since largely stepping back from playing shows, Forrest has shifted her attention to writing stock music (also known as library music) and composing soundtracks for film, television, podcasts, and video games. As Castle If, in 2019 she released what now feels like a preface to her Imaginary Soundtrack series: an unofficial score for the 1974 sci-fi/fantasy film Zardoz. On the next Castle If record, 2020’s Beyond!, listeners could blast off from the miserable pandemic present and boogie to Forrest’s “cosmic space disco.”

The idea for the Imaginary Soundtrack series came to Forrest during a year she spent working on a video game soundtrack she was commissioned to write. Over 2021-2022, she was writing around 40 minutes of music each month and had total artistic freedom over her compositions. The routine helped fuel Forrest’s creativity and her list of themed album ideas grew. Once she finished the game soundtrack, she dove head-first into creating the Imaginary Soundtrack series. “I didn’t want to lose momentum, so I just kept going,” she explains. 

Forrest’s original plan for the series was to release six albums in six months—but life got in the way and the timeline was disrupted. Nevertheless, from October 2022 to January 2023, she released a record each month: The Haunting (an eerie album inspired by Italian horror movies), From the Sea, The Verdant Realm (“it has a Mort Garson edge, but it’s spooky and mysterious,” Forrest describes), and Drivin’ Easy (“I imagine it to be the soundtrack of a ’70s thriller car movie”). In March, Forrest released Darknet, and on June 2nd she will release the sixth installment of the series, Exotic Sounds, which will be inspired by the “exotica” genre (jazz-influenced, often campy, lounge music that was popularized in the 1950s and ’60s). But will this be the end of the Imaginary Soundtrack series? “Why stop now?” Forrest says. 

During our conversation, Forrest flips through a notebook to look at her schedule or to jot down notes when I recommend an ambient playlist. She loves making to-do lists and enthusiastically admits, “Habits are my favourite!” In a follow-up email, she shares a photo of the log she keeps to track her daily routine. Tiny boxes filled in with green, yellow, red, or blue ink indicate how many hours she’s worked, glasses of water she drank, if she went on a walk or completed a workout. 

While Forrest’s concrete building in what she describes as a “really uncool” Toronto neighbourhood blocks out the majority of any external noise, a more pressing challenge when it comes to crossing items off her to-do list is drowning out the internal din. 

“I feel like internal noise builds throughout the day as my brain gets louder and meaner and full of more convoluted thoughts,” Forrest admits. “I’m one of those people who wakes up really early and I go to work as soon as humanly possible before a thought can come in.” 

On Forrest’s website, her work is described as “retro-futuristic instrumental music.” On paper it’s a clash of adjectives, but when you listen to a Castle If record, the description makes sense—Castle If albums evoke a future the past envisioned, but has not come true yet (where are our hovercrafts?). In the present, Forrest’s routine grounds her. Not every day is a good day, but she is committed to building the future that she wants.

“I definitely have lulls, but I have a very strong desire to not have a day job,” Forrest exclaims. “All of my days are the same: a third of them are good, a third of them are terrible, and the other third are just fine. Every third day is a lull day and every third day I don’t want to do it—but you have to. You have to do it!”