words & interview by tom johnson
photography by wyndham boylan-garnett
““The supple water is forever changing.
It’s almost like it never happened, which gives me hope
that one day it will be like it never happened.”
– Sophie Mackintosh, The Water Cure
Most records that feel like a true journey, do so with their staying power; long, sprawling works that give the time and space for beginnings, middles, and ends. Somehow Cassandra Jenkins performs such a trick with seven songs and half-an-hour of music that make-up her incredible new record An Overview of Phenomenal Nature, released today via Ba Da Bing Records.
Recorded in just one week alongside Josh Kaufman (Bonny Light Horseman, Taylor Swift), the album is both fleeting but wholly immersive, Jenkin’s soothing voice coupled with the guts and heart she pours into each track, conjuring a space that seems to roll on and on, like the wide-open road that’s referenced within.
It’s hard to see An Overview of Phenomenal Nature as anything but a document of change. There are countless references to the desire for it, the tools needed to achieve it, perhaps brought on most notably by Jenkins’ closeness to David Berman at the time of his passing:
“After David passed away,
my friends put me up for a few days off the coast of Norway,
and every morning they’d say:
‘Baby, go jump in the ocean
it’s cold enough to get your blood moving’
The water, it cures everything.”
It’s here where Phenomenal Nature not only exists but comes alive, in this meeting between human lives and nature, the give and the take that can feel so powerful and yet so quickly forgotten, broken. It’s a record of death, desire, delicacy and it handles all of these varying elements with an exquisite touch, seemingly knowing exactly when to brood and when to let go. And then it draws to a close with a seven-minute instrumental, all calm and bird song, face to the sun, eyes on a horizon that hums with a new colour; a gentle purple to signal a new day coming.
GFP: Can you take us to the origins of this record? When did the project start to take shape and do you remember your initial hopes for it?
CJ: Josh Kaufman and I had plans to make a record in August of 2019, and was prepared to come into the studio with a collection of songs I had been working on over the past few years. A series of changes in my life (tragedy and good fortune alike) lead me to scrap those older songs and push myself to write completely new ones in a very short period of time. All of the lyrics were written in this windowed period of my life between August, September, & October of 2019, except for the last song, which was written during New York’s April lockdown.
How did the physical recording process manifest itself?
The record started as google doc of my lyrics, all culled from my journal, voice memos and notes on my phone that I compiled, somewhat frantically, before heading into the studio. Once vague shapes of songs formed out of those fragmented lines, I printed everything out so that each morning Josh and I could look through the stack of papers and pick the song we felt like tackling that day.
It was also a collaborative process. The studio is in a small space in Dumbo, Brooklyn, packed to the gills with Josh’s gear. Once we picked a song we felt like working on, we’d experiment with guitar melodies and chord changes I had in mind, and organ or drum loops Josh was playing with. Josh is a master at fostering a simultaneously fast paced and relaxed environment. He would hop between the board and the piano, and we built the songs like molding clay, adding and taking away until we felt like we had something we liked. It was rarely driven by a “sound” we were going for, and more driven by lyrics and the tools at hand. I’ll never forget walking in one morning to Josh playing fretless bass and absolutely loving it. From that point forward I knew we weren’t making the pretty spanish guitar/vocal record I had previously envisioned.
You recorded the album very quickly. was that by circumstance or design?
Complete circumstance. My life took many unexpected turns during that period, and Josh is often booked months in advance. I had a tour coming up (opening for Craig Finn) and I wanted to have a new set of songs to play on tour. So we worked on as many songs as we could in that time frame, and that’s the record. There are plenty of songs we didn’t get to, and I wonder what the record might be like had we chosen one of those, or if we had a few more days.
Having a limited time frame, and a 10-6 schedule meant I wasn’t able to overthink things, which was simultaneously out of my comfort zone and totally freeing! I had to let go of my tendency to get bogged down with perfectionism and deliberation because I didn’t have time to overanalyze or second guess anything. There were points when that inevitably crept in, and I’d obsess over a note or a guitar part, which Josh patiently entertained, still knowing when to get us moving again.
There’s a beautiful sense of balance across the album. How easy (or difficult) is it to capture something that feels so loose and free?
Thank you! I think the balance comes from it being about a very specific time in my life, and my desire to never let things get too heavy or too precious. There was a lot of room in the writing process that allowed for experimentation and imperfections to have a place in the music. I like the integrity of a specific performance of a vocal line, or sax part, and creating a space where I can let it breathe.
There are references to nature scattered through the record but it also feels very human-centred. What do you see as the record’s beating heart?
I’m totally fascinated by the intersection of psychology and geography. The record’s beating heart is really in the idea that every single person I meet has some wisdom to share, and that our physical environments have a huge impact on our psyche and our encounters. We’re antennas for the wisdom in our natural environment, and we can always afford to be more tuned in.
You travelled three continents in the time preceding the making of this album. What was the nature of those explorations and what did you take from them?
It was a whirlwind – last night I went through my calendar and photos from those three months and it’s hard to believe how much I was doing on any given day, especially compared to my life right now. There’s a psychedelic quality to travelling – it shakes us out of our habitual ways of seeing and experiencing our environment, and puts us in a new angle in relationship to ourselves. When I got home, I was still operating through that lens, which just made me a sponge for all of the characters and conversations around me. Have you ever noticed something new on the same street you’ve walked down 100 times? I think there are a myriad of ways of inducing that kind of awareness, and travelling is a potent one.
You’re quoted as saying “the goal is to be more fluid, to be more like the clouds shifting constantly”. Did you learn anything about yourself during this process?
Absolutely. I learned to trust myself and my instincts more, and the record is both a byproduct of and a catalyst for that process. It gave me faith in my ability to express myself more freely, and to do so without overthinking it, or over filtering it. It might seem paradoxical, but the more I let myself be vulnerable, the safer I feel in my own skin and in the world. Maybe because vulnerability is a form of risk, and every time I take that risk and find myself still standing, it’s fortifying. I want to learn how to harness a sense of safety in the world, no matter how much of life remains completely out of my control. My experience has often been that when I find myself getting comfortable, that’s right when things are about to really change again. The ultimate goal is to get more comfortable with the idea that things are always in flux. And luckily I’ll never run out of opportunities to practice that.
What do you hope other people take from the album?
I hope there’s comfort in the record – the kind of comfort that comes from a place that acknowledges how tough things can be. And I hope that there’s some hope in it too – the kind of hope that isn’t tied to a specific outcome. I’m learning how to be kind to myself, to accept myself, and to prioritize my mental health, and to be more open about all of that. I hope that in doing so, I’m creating the space for other people around me to do that too.
As a final aside, you were rehearsing with Purple Mountains when we sadly lost David Berman. If you’re comfortable talking about it, how was that experience and how do you look back on that time?
That experience had a profound effect on me. I felt so honored to be there, and really couldn’t for the life of me figure out why I, of all people, was getting to play guitar in that band. And then I met David at our first rehearsal and felt immediately so at home. He was so funny, welcoming, curious, and warm. One day he showed up to rehearsal with icecream cake and joked that we should have been called “David Berman and his handsome grandkids.”
I was really looking forward to getting to know him, and it’s still really emotional to look back on that time, and to write about it, even though I didn’t know David well. I feel so grateful for those few days and for my bandmates Jarvis, Katie, Cyrus and Josh. I meet so many people who were deeply affected by his music, his poetry and his correspondences, and I continue to learn about and appreciate all of it. I think David’s music made people feel less alone, and I hope we can all carry that torch for one another.
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is out now, via Ba Da Bing
You can buy it here
A Music Journal ~ Issue SEVEN
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