Artist Spotlight: Cassandra Jenkins

    In the summer of 2019, New York-based singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins was set to join David Berman on his comeback tour as Purple Mountains, only to find herself mourning his loss mere days later. On ‘Ambiguous Norway’, a highlight from her magnificent new album An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, we see her landing in Oslo, unsure what to do with the now purposeless tour outfit that’s arrived in the mail. “The skies replace the land with air,” she sings, “No matter where I go/ You’re gone, you’re everywhere.” As a whole, the record – which follows and in many ways expands on her 2017 debut Play Till You Win – is less about processing that particular moment in time than it is about learning how to navigate and grapple with the nature of change.

    Jenkins doesn’t claim to have all the answers, and despite what the album’s title might initially suggest, she steers away from any objective or definite conceptions of reality. But in relaying various observations and musings about life – both her own and others’ – and stringing them together, she ends up revealing small truths that we all share or can at least relate to, as if gesturing towards some form of transcendence through connection. Returning to New York after having started work on the album in Norway, she collaborated with multi-instrumentalist, producer, and engineer Josh Kaufman to flesh out these seven songs, incorporating sparkling layers of keys, saxophone, guitar, and strings. Sifting through the light haze of the instrumentals like a sunray peaking through the clouds, her tone remains conversational yet gentle, her writing as perceptive as it is affecting. “Empty space is my escape/ It runs through me like a river,” she sings on ‘Crosshairs’, yet there’s a comfort in the subtle ways she tries to fill that space, lifting the paddle out of the water only to appreciate the view around her.

    We caught up with Cassandra Jenkins for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her new album, the myth of Cassandra, conversations with strangers, and more.

    How do you feel about the response the new album has been getting so far?

    It’s really unexpected, and it is kind of heartwarming because I think the music I’m making doesn’t have the goals of a lot of music that even I’ve made in the past several years. I really let go of any specific ambitions or specific hopes for where my music would fall or land. And this music that I made was really just so that I had songs to play, because I went through a lot of really dramatic changes in my life and found I couldn’t relate to the songs I had written before, but I did have shows on the horizon that I needed to show up for and like, I needed to do my job. But it was sort of out of necessity; I needed new music and I needed it to resonate with where I was in my life at the time. And I felt that need, which I maybe hadn’t felt before, that really deep desire to be able to channel what I was going through because it felt painful to try to just phone in whatever I had been doing before. So maybe that’s felt in the music, and maybe that’s a quality that resonates, because I’m trying to just be able to express myself in a way that I can connect with people. I wasn’t thinking as much about the recording process as I was about performing and standing up in a room full of people every night and just realizing like, playing the same old songs, I couldn’t do it.

    So I think there was a really different energy going into this record than there was before. I was really going through a crisis in my life where I’ve changed, and my life hasn’t quite adjusted to that change; it’s like this conflict of being in two places at once and not knowing how to navigate that. So with that crisis comes an opportunity to change, and I think this music has been helping me change and marked a change. But yeah, I mean, if I had told you a year ago, like, “I’m writing this song, it’s like six minutes long, it doesn’t really have a chorus, lots of spoken word, wailing saxophone throughout, fretless bass, it’s gonna be a hit!” And not that it’s a hit, it’s sort of an anti-hit, but it’s funny that it has had any kind of reception at all. So I’m just riding high, because this is the icing on the cake and the cherry on top that I was never asking for. It’s also stressful to go from being, like, completely alone in isolation to now talking to lots of people suddenly reaching out to me and saying things like, “I was really depressed and the song helped me today,” and it’s like, I really feel that person and I feel grief for them, I hear that and I read that and feel empathy. So I’m trying to try to absorb all of this without getting kind of piled under it.

    You mentioned these changes in your life, and I love something you mentioned in a press release, “Nothing ever really disappears, it just changes shape.” Would you mind talking about how you reflect back on the past few years? What would you say is the biggest thing you’ve learned?

    Yeah, that quote is taken from a conversation with Ben and Katie, who are my label representatives. They asked me to talk about it and I just remember I was actually quite sick at the time and just recovering from an illness, just like looking up at the sky and trying to think about my music and sort of musing about it in that way. I look back fondly on that moment.

    It’s been a really, really difficult few years. Things got hard and then they got harder, and then they got harder. And things changed, and then they changed again, and then they changed again, and just – I feel like that has forced me to be at peace with the chaos in my personal life and just the chaos of being alive in the world, the fact that nature tends towards chaos. And the more we resist that, the more painful it’s going to be. And the more at peace we can be with the fact that things are changing at every moment of every day, the more we can enjoy the ride. Much easier said than done, especially with illness, with grief, with loss. And all of us are experiencing that to much greater degrees than we were a year ago. I feel like in my own personal experience of this time in the world, I almost got a head start in adjusting to the fact that the way that I thought things were going to go was absolutely not how they went. And expecting things to go the way that you think they are is setting you up for a lot of pain, and it doesn’t mean we can’t have dreams, we can’t have goals, we can’t have things to look forward to at all. It might sound really bleak, but in fact it’s more in praise of flexibility, in praise of keeping your eyes really open to endless possibilities, for better and for worse.

    But instead of expecting things to always get worse, I feel really lucky that suddenly, in my own personal life, things suddenly got insanely wonderful in a time when I never expected it. And I have to not be doom and gloom and say, “Well, things are definitely going to just keep getting worse because that’s how things have been going,” but to say, “No, things can just change on a dime, all the time, in a myriad of ways.” And I think it’s just encouraging me to really appreciate the time that I have with the people in my life when I have them.

    That’s definitely a lot to process, but I’m glad things seem to have taken a good turn in the end.

    Yeah… If the end is now!

    Right, of course! If the end is now. It’s interesting, when you talked about expectations, I was actually thinking about the origin of your name and the myth of Cassandra, who was blessed with the gift of prophecy. I don’t recall exactly how that story goes, though.

    Yeah, I can recommend a really great book, it’s called Cassandra Speaks and it’s by Elizabeth Lesser. She’s a Buddhist, and she started a wellness institute in upstate New York called the Omega Institute. And she talks about the myth of Cassandra, and throughout my life people have talked to me about the myth of Cassandra, and what I really love about that is that you really find out a lot about the person telling you the story through the way that they tell the story, because there’s so many different versions and we’re all attracted to different versions of the story. My understanding is that she was cursed by Apollo because she rejected him and he responded by rescinding the gift of prophecy. He spat in her mouth and said that no matter what she said, people wouldn’t believe her. So you end up with this woman who is so gifted but no one believes her, she actually goes mad. Unfortunately, part of her story is that you have this hysterical woman, and that’s like a trope in Western storytelling that needs a different ending, honestly. And so this book that I’m reading is sort of talking about that, how we need to change that narrative. But yeah, there’s this phenomenon called the Cassandra complex, of course, where you feel like you know the truth but no one believes you and that it’s maddening. And a lot of women in today’s time can relate to that; I think it is a little bit validating to have this idea in mind.

    I was not named after the Greek seer. I was named after my mother whose name is Sandra, and she put a “Ca” at the beginning of her name, and hence I was born. She did know about the myth, and of course that was part of the allure of that name for her, but she wanted to name me after her but not exactly after her, which I really feel because I’m a lot like my mother. And I also feel I’m taking a lot of what she’s given me and trying to make it even better, trying to improve upon the gifts that she has given me and the experiences she’s had in life. I think we’re all doing that for our parents, taking what they’ve given us and trying to just direct it forward, to heal forward. And so the fact that I have this little extension on my name feels appropriate.

    That’s really beautiful. To change the subject a little bit, I’m wondering if you could talk about your relationship to nature, because it is something that comes up a lot on the album.

    Yeah. I’m a birdwatcher – I started bird watching maybe five years ago, I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t started doing that from a young age. I feel like every single person on this earth would benefit from having some knowledge of birds, because once you open up that lens it really just becomes more and more expansive. For me, it’s also a way to practice mindfulness. I think for anyone who tends towards hypervigilance, myself included, something like birdwatching is incredibly healing because it sort of gives you a home for that tendency. Hypervigilance is to always be super aware of your surroundings, which is to often aggravate a fight or flight state, but if you give it a task, it can be so incredibly healing. And if that task is looking for a bird in a tree, it gives you something beautiful to focus on. I feel like the more I focus on nature, the less I focus on myself, the better I feel, the less I’m involved with my own ego.

    Did your relationship with nature change at all over the past few years, or have you always felt a strong connection to it?

    I’ve always had an interest in it. I mean, my family on my dad’s side, they’re all veterinarians, and I grew up seeing how they cared for animals; they actually specialized in exotic animals. I think I thought I was going to be a veterinarian when I was a kid, so I’ve always had an interest in animals, wildlife preservation, all that. But I think with this record, I became much more aware of landscape and how light and landscape interact in different parts of the world, and how that affects the psyche. Like, being in Iceland for the first time – I’ve never seen light like I have there. And I’ve also never heard music like I have there; the musicians there are so incredible.

    Are there any other places that stood out to you during your travels, or even just moments in being in those places that have stayed with you?  

    I’ll just share one story that really influenced one of the songs on the record, which was, I was sitting on a dock and mourning the loss of a bandmate and feeling very estranged from my home in the US and the American landscape. And this Danish fellow rose up to the dock, he finds me sitting there writing in my journal, and out of nowhere he just starts talking about the clouds and he says, “You know, in Denmark, it’s a very flat landscape, but we have giant cloud formations, they’re giant cumulus clouds. And we call them ‘Denmark’s mountains’ because we don’t have mountains, so we need to find them in other ways.” And the clouds sort of take the place of mountains there. I just loved that idea, that transmutation of landscape and sky and the fact that they’re sort of fluid. And that we as humans kind of need to have a relationship with something like a mountain or that we need to feel ourselves feeling small in the landscape. It’s part of our experience. And I just love that that guy came up to me and started talking about this stuff, and who knows why but it was really beautiful. And it just gave me this trust in, like, no matter where I go in the planet, there’s just going to be experiences like that and realizations like that.

    Do you find yourself writing a lot of that down? You mentioned being aware of your surroundings, but do you also find yourself wanting to record as much of that as possible?

    Yeah, I would say. I write things down in my journal, I write a lot of things down in my phone. I go in waves, like there are points when I just won’t be connected to my phone at all. And then there are points where I am just recording everything obsessively, like voice memos and voice recordings and little notes in the Notes app and scribbling things on napkins, stuffing them in my pocket. I go through phases that are almost like the way that parents record everything that their children do with the first years of their lives and I’m like, “I will never look back at this,” but for some reason I’m compulsively recording. And in this case, I ended up writing a record with a lot of that.

    Usually a lot of the lyrics and ideas that I’m writing are coming from conversations that I’m having with people. Same with social media and Twitter – it’s always like, I feel like I’m always striking a chord when I’m actually just writing down something that happened in conversation, not something I’m thinking like, “Oh, I’m gonna write a tweet today.” Usually my favorite use of that space is when I’m actually just sharing something that’s happened.

    How focused of a process was it going through all that material for the record?

    It was not very focused. I really just pulled a lot of notes together, kind of shuffled the deck, tried to see what fit and made a lot of songs that way. And then some of the songs I had ideas for but they needed verses, so I would kind of like fish through my lyrics for that. Some of the verses I was writing on the subway on the way to the studio, some of them I was writing melodies before I would go to sleep at night. It was very all-in. But I also remember at the time I was going to poetry readings, I was going to friends’ parties and shows, like I was pretty active too at the time.

    I was thinking about ‘Hard Drive’ and looking at some photos of the actual exhibition, ‘Phenomenal Nature’, and they’re really fascinating. And in the song, we get to hear the security guard’s thoughts on it, but I’m wondering if there’s anything about these works that kind of struck you as well, enough to want to name the album after it.

    See, I really think that the album was named after the security guard and not the exhibit, interestingly enough. Because I loved the fact that she stopped me while I was walking through the exhibit, enjoying the show. I mean, the work itself is really beautiful. But then the security guard is like, “Hey, I’d love to offer you an overview on the show.” And so I was like, “Great, tell me your overview.” And I really loved the idea of someone presenting to me an objective synopsis of works of art but then actually what she was doing was giving me a completely subjective monologue about politics and art and feminism and spirituality. And that, to me, is so funny and so human and I just I love people, I love when they do things like that, where they actually just tell you about themselves even though they’re claiming that they’re talking about something else. And so I really think that I named the album after her approaching me and this idea that she was framing her views as something else. And I think maybe I’m doing that too on the album, I’m not telling you what I think about this work of art, I’m telling you about my experiences around this exhibit and all the things and the people that I’ve met around it. So I’m also not presenting an overview of phenomenal nature, I’m doing the same exact thing; I’m giving you a completely subjective diaristic experience of a few months of my life that are in no way an overview on nature at all.

    At what point did you decide you wanted to combine spoken word with a more vocal part?

    I had three verses written, the first day that we worked on that song, and I was like, “Okay Josh, here’s these verses, you know, they rhyme, I just want to figure out what’s the pulse of the song. And I’ll figure out a melody later, but let’s just figure out  how they fit into the form.” And then at the end of the day, I was like, “I can’t really find a melody for this.” I got to the studio the next day and I was like, “I can’t think of a good melody, let me try this stuff” and then I felt awkward and Josh was like, “You know, I think it’s just a spoken part. And I think you need to just accept that.” I was like, “Oh, that’s kind of bold when you combine that with also fretless bass and like, wah-wah guitar!” But I was also like, “What do I have to lose?” So it was not my intention and then it ended up going that way.

    In contrast to that, ‘Hailey’ is almost the opposite in terms of structure – it’s more of a straightforward acoustic track. And especially because you had a lot of material to go through for the record, I’m curious what the idea for including it was, and having it be the penultimate song. 

    Hailey is a friend of mine who I adore and really look up to. And a lot of this record was about mourning and the loss of friends and the loss of plans, and I really like the idea of celebrating someone who’s very much alive and the challenge of writing a platonic love song. I had written that melody a long time ago, I was on my bicycle and it was just like [sings chorus]. When I’m on my bicycle I’m often humming things like that and I was just like, “Maybe I can turn this into a song.” And I also feel like it’s kind of rare to make a song where you have a woman celebrating another woman in this very plain and simple way. We tried it in a bunch of different versions, it was like a pop song and it was like a dub, kind of chill song for a second, and then we realized it just needed to be this simple sweet melody, because it’s really just a simple, sweet song.

    It’s an interesting shift as well to have a song about a friend, because a lot of the album revolves around strangers and conversations with strangers. Which relates to something else I wanted to talk about with regards to ‘Crosshairs’; that song has some of my favorite lyrics on the record, especially the line, “Time spits in my face/ And turns us like stones/ Into drifters.” And you mentioned in the statement about the track that your relationship to time has changed during the pandemic.

    Yeah, that’s what I was thinking about.

    Could you talk more about that, how your relationship to time has changed?

    Actually, when I wrote that lyric I was like, “Oh, this is my most, like, I’m-a-songwriter kind of lyric where I’m I’m going to talk about time in a metaphor that rhymes with the line before it.” [laughs] It just felt like, “Okay, I’m gonna let myself just be a songwriter right now.” And I do like that line, because I do constantly feel like time is just such – excuse my French – time is just such a motherfucker. Because we’re just feeling it in so many different ways all the time and I’m feeling myself aging, I’m feeling time slipping away all the time. And also, I look back at that time in my life – I drew like a little timeline of the album and I was doing so much in any given day, any given week, I was flying all over the world and playing shows and recording with people and going to rehearsals just non-stop. I’m doing a fraction of that in a month’s time that I’m doing in a day now. So many people I talk to can’t remember if something was a year or two years ago because this year has just frozen in time in this really bizarre way, but it’s still passing, we’re still all getting older. When I was traveling, I felt like I was squeezing so much in life into every moment, and it feels very much the opposite now. But that’s really a choice.

    I feel like the past two weeks of my life, so much has happened and so much has changed, and you know, to villainize time is kind of a funny thing to do, which is sort of what I’m doing in that. And I hadn’t actually thought about the myth of Cassandra and the fact that Apollo spits in her face, but there’s maybe something to that too, now that we’re talking about that. But I think there is just this – you know, we resent the fact that we have such a limited time on this earth, but that’s also what is at the crux of what is so incredibly powerful about that too. The fact that it’s so limited is what makes it so precious. So I think I’m just always in dialogue with that.

    [sighs] Yeah, it’s hard to talk about time right now. It’s like my relationship to time is that it just feels like everything froze, and life just stopped. And it feels like nothing will ever be the same again, but in fact, that’s happening all the time. It’s happening every day. So it’s just interesting that we’re all experiencing it collectively.

    Yeah, definitely. Your answer makes me realize now part of what resonates with me about ‘Crosshairs’, which is that because time makes everything feel so precious, that feeling that you capture so beautifully in the song about wanting to feel some form of connection to even just strangers, that has only gotten more intense during this time.

    I’m so happy that that resonates because when I wrote it, I wasn’t thinking about that stuff, I was thinking, you know, we all contain multitudes. And there’s this freedom in engaging with a stranger that, someone who sees me on the street has no idea who I am, where I’ve come from, what my life experiences are, so I can really be anyone to them. And I can be anyone to myself. But now, I depend on strangers for human interaction. I go to the park and I talk to people. And in New York people are down to talk, you know, and I love that I feel like I have friends everywhere that I’ll never see again, but there’s something about that need for connection where people are being more friendly with each other and more open because we need that. And then also just like, you know, until an hour ago, you and I were strangers. But it feels so good to connect with you because you’re the only person I’ve seen all day. And because it’s been a lovely chat, but it’s like, it’s so extreme, to go from seeing no one to then just, you know, having this deep emotional conversation with you for an hour. It’s wild.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Cassandra Jenkins’ An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is out now via Ba Da Bing.

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