Speaking from New York City, Cassandra Jenkins tells Rob Hakimian all about the emotional stakes that went into the creation of her new record An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, including conversations with strangers, the loss of David Berman, the impact of art, and entering the studio with no clue what the end result might be.
“I’m one of those people that, no matter where I go, people kind of just talk to me,” Cassandra Jenkins tells me. “I’m not sure why, but that’s just something that I carry around.” It’s certainly understandable to anyone who has had the chance to speak to the songwriter, even for a short time. During our conversation, she sits and then lies on a couch, so engaged and engaging throughout that it feels like I’m sitting opposite her in the New York apartment, ensconced and protected from the cold outdoors, where blankets of fresh white snow are visible through the windows.
This ability – if you can call it that – to attract people into speaking to her has played a key role in the creation of her new album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature. Throughout the album, people continually pop up, and whether they’re friends, acquaintances or random strangers, all are given time and space, as their effect on the songwriter was usually a deep one. “I’m a very, very sensitive person. I’m very empathetic,” Jenkins says. “Sometimes I really absorb people’s energy, for better or worse, and I’m really affected by it. A sensitive human being like myself has to be careful, but it’s mostly a blessing. I’m fascinated by people.”
True to that fascination, for a while Jenkins was “recording every conversation I was having with people, just kind of collecting obsessively”. She didn’t initially have any intention to use them in any way, but ultimately they did end up giving her an outline for some of the ideas that form the new record.
Key to the album is a recording of a security guard at the now-shuttered Met Breuer gallery, who appears on “Hard Drive”. Visiting the museum to see the Mrinalini Mukherjee retrospective Phenomenal Nature, Jenkins was approached, unbidden, by the woman, who said “I want to offer you an overview on Phenomenal Nature.” Not only did this become the title of the record, but it was the “springboard for the whole thing”, according to Jenkins. “She really gave me the pause to stop and realize that, really, every single person might have some wisdom to offer, if you are willing to turn the key with them into their world,” she says. “She was a great example of that – whether or not I agreed with everything she said. She’s sort of my mascot for the record.”
Another crucial inspiration whose spirit lurks throughout the whole record is Silver Jews and Purple Mountains leader David Berman. In summer 2019, Jenkins was drafted at the last minute to become the guitarist of Purple Mountains on tour, shortly before the singer tragically took his own life. Although Jenkins only knew Berman for four days, and she admits that she “learned more about him in the wake of his passing”, the effect he’s had on her has been profound.
She was extremely excited to get to be in Purple Mountains – “one of the best bands I’ll ever play with” – and, like the rest of the members, she has a tattoo of mountains on the inside of her left wrist (“maybe I shouldn’t have had so much tequila that night”), while hanging in her wardrobe is her matching navy blue suit the band were all planning to wear on stage through the tour. Beyond these physical tokens, her connection to Berman can be heard in the fragility of her voice as she recalls him, the tender tributes she pays him throughout An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, and the fact that, for a while, she carried around a copy of his poetry collection Actual Air wherever she went. “Even if I did only know him for a short time, I really felt very aligned with my life in those four days of getting to meet him and play with him,” she says. “It really felt like certain dreams coming true.”
Jenkins’ plans for that summer had been to visit friends in Norway and attend the wedding of some others while there. When the unexpected call came for her to join Purple Mountains, she cancelled everything – except, fatefully, her flights. So, mere days after the shocking news of Berman’s passing, Jenkins found herself taking the semi-impulsive decision to change plans once again and fly across the Atlantic to attempt to heal; “the flight was, oddly, the exact same time and day of our first show tour,” she recalls. There in Scandinavia, she had time and space to reflect, find some kind of peace, and write a few fragments that would end up as songs on An Overview on Phenomenal Nature.
One of these seeds became “Ambiguous Norway”, a song that takes its title from one of Berman’s cartoons – it’s not a sly reference to Wilco’s “Impossible Germany”, although she likes that idea. The weightless and transportive track finds puts us right in her headspace in the shellshocked aftermath of the event, admitting, “Landing in Oslo / There’s still something in the air / No matter where I go / You’re gone, you’re everywhere.” Another song written about her time there, “New Bikini” features people passing along a recommendation of jumping in the ocean, because “the water, it cures everything.” Although there are traces of cynicism in Jenkins’ delivery, she did in fact find some solace among the Norwegian waves: “I jumped in the water every day while I was there – it was like an electric shock for your nervous system.”
Shortly after her return to the States, she went into the studio with producer and collaborator Josh Kaufman to start working on her new album, although she didn’t know what it was going to be. “I just knew that I had lyrics that I wanted to put down,” she recalls. “I kind of anticipated that we would walk out of the studio with a Spanish guitar and vocal record, a very quiet and demo-y sounding thing.”
The resulting An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is a far cry from that expectation, and even from her previous record, 2017’s Play Till You Win. This time around, Jenkins and Kaufman created songs that aren’t rigorously structured – in the studio, they composed clouds of guitar, tender synth drones, saxophone and gentle percussion, with some violins thrown in periodically, adding to the daydreaming atmosphere. These amorphous arrangements provide a perfect vessel for Jenkins’ bare words, which are grounded in tough personal experience, but scarce enough to leave plenty of room for the listener’s imagination, which is where the instrumental soundscapes take over. “This is very much like building from the ground up versus having a piece of marble and chipping away at this perfect statue that you’ve already envisioned,” Jenkins says. “It was like not even coming in with clay, it was making the clay out of water and mud and seeing what we ended up with.”
It’s natural for Jenkins to reach for an artistic metaphor – she is a visual artist as well as musician, having studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and worked in photography for many years – “I think visual art influences my songwriting more than anything else,” she says. But, while there are references to Michelangelo and sculpture on An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, it is not at all a theoretical or hifalutin work – in fact, it’s rather the opposite. “I think I have this tendency to want to be an expert in everything that I’m looking at,” she admits. “I realized that this record was actually very much a departure from that anxiety; it was more about allowing myself to just be the expert of my own experience, so regardless of what the artwork that I’m looking at is about, I’m just talking about my own experience of the artwork.”
This makes An Overview on Phenomenal Nature easily accessible on an emotional level. It’s a record that is about humanity, and it’s guided by someone who isn’t placing their views on a pedestal. Jenkins simply relays her natural inquisitiveness about human nature, and in the process she bravely opens up and sings unguardedly about her own pain and methods of processing it.
This openness is evident right from the off, as Jenkins begins the record with the lines: “I’m a three-legged dog / working with what I got,” a metaphor that is emblematic of the way she is trying to re-adjust her thinking about her past traumas. “Look at a three-legged dog and the way they seem completely unfazed by the fact they have three legs; you don’t see them looking around for the leg that they’ve lost – they’re catching frisbees,” she says. “As humans, we have such a tendency to push against our experience and add so much narrative to our difficulties, when we could just accept them and suffer so much less by doing so.”
Obviously, being rational about the way to manage trauma is much easier said than done, and An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is testament to that. It’s a record that finds Jenkins picking over painful memories, both fresh and ingrained, but never does she try to preach or claim any kind of authority on the matter. Instead, by setting her own thought processes to beautifully sussurating and gently expansive soundscapes, she has created a soundtrack for healing, in whatever way the listener needs. “It was healing to make and there was a lot of healing happening as I was making it. So perhaps that’s just in the soil of it,” she reflects. “I didn’t have that intention, but I’m happy that something that’s as personal as it is can be that way for someone else.”
Cassandra Jenkins’ An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is out now on Ba Da Bing! Records (read our review).