The world gives Cassandra Jenkins a warm welcome
The musician talks about making her breakthrough 2021 album, recording conversations with life-changing strangers, feeling cared for and more in advance of a Columbus tour stop with Courtney Barnett
Several years ago, Cassandra Jenkins began saving voicemails and capturing snippets of conversations with her phone. The urge to record the people she encountered didn’t arise from a need to obsessively document her everyday life. It stemmed from curiosity.
“Whenever I'm in a space where I'm having a new experience and my eyes are kind of blown wide open, I start to feel the need to record things. It's almost like looking through the lens of a camera changes the way that you see the world. I feel like I use a recorder in that way,” Jenkins said. “It shifts my lens and I become more of an observer.”
In 2019, while visiting an exhibition at the Met titled “Phenomenal Nature,” the New York native found herself in conversation with a chatty, insightful security guard who offered up an overview of the show, which turned out to be more of a personal monologue rather than an objective summary. Naturally, Jenkins recorded the interaction.
“Sometimes you meet someone and they're speaking to you so genuinely. It's not an act,” she said. “I think maybe we're craving that even more because so much of our lives right now is structured around social media and this very self-conscious way of communicating to one another. And when I meet someone who's just themselves and just talking to me, and it's not put on, that's when I start to really turn on and start to feel things.”
Part of the conversation with the security guard made its way onto the song “Hard Drive,” the centerpiece of Jenkins’ acclaimed 2021 album, An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, a gorgeous record full of folk melodies, ambient textures and personal revelations. Jenkins wrote nearly all of the songs between August and October of 2019, a period when she was initially scheduled to play guitar on the road with David Berman’s newly formed Purple Mountains. But just before the tour kicked off, Berman took his own life.
Jenkins spent the next few months wandering and processing. References to Berman and Purple Mountains permeate the songs, which felt both right and fraught since Jenkins had only spent a few days with the revered singer and songwriter.
“To talk about David, who's somebody that I didn't know, was a really scary thing for me. Obviously what happened had a huge effect on me, but it's strange. Like, am I allowed to mourn this? Is this for someone else to mourn?” she said. “But I did feel like I made something that fulfilled this assignment, which was, I had a tour coming up with Craig Finn at the very end of 2019, and after having gone through everything I had gone through, I didn't feel comfortable singing my old songs. I felt like my life had changed so much; I couldn't put on these old clothes. And so I made these songs, I sang them on this tour, and that felt good.”
Craig Finn’s influence also contributed to the way Jenkins wrote and performed “Hard Drive,” which features Jenkins speaking, voice-memo-style, during the verses. That wasn’t the original plan for the song. In the studio, after struggling to find melodies that fit naturally with the lyrics, Jenkins began rhythmically speaking the words, and producer Josh Kaufman encouraged her to stick with it.
“I felt like a real cheeseball, but I decided to go for it,” she said. “I was thinking specifically about Craig and the way that he tells stories. When you have people like that, who you know and love, in your mind, it's easier to give yourself permission to try on some of those moves. It's kind of like seeing someone else do a dance move and being at home watching the YouTube video and doing it yourself. You might feel like a dork, but eventually, maybe you can take it to the dance floor.”
In retrospect, Jenkins’ chaotic 2019 was only the beginning of a topsy-turvy period. In the early days of the pandemic, Jenkins would wake up at 5 a.m. and walk through a mostly empty Central Park while listening to birds and watching the vegetation begin its spring transformation. Sometimes she recorded the sounds, which show up on Phenomenal Nature closing track “The Ramble.” At the same time, death was ever present.
“A stone's throw away, you had this hospital being erected outside of Mount Sinai because the hospitals were so full. People were dying. … But I was taking a lot of solace in seeing New York City wildlife and seeing nature finding its way as it always does. That was giving me faith in this moment that was so terrifying,” she said. “When you have nothing to hang onto, just watching a leaf sprout up out of the ground is a great companion.”
The pandemic also forced tour postponements and cancellations that have continued into 2022. “Doors are constantly opening, closing and switching directions. It's like a fun house,” said Jenkins, who was a last-minute addition to the current tour with Courtney Barnett, which stops at Kemba Live on Wednesday, Jan. 26. “This tour that I'm on right now happened within 24 hours of me hearing that almost all of my shows for January and February were canceled. So within that day-long period, I went from having nothing to having this monumental experience with this artist that I've been a fan of for so many years.”
Jenkins never expected Phenomenal Nature to reach as many people as it did. (“I was kind of embarrassed about it, honestly. I didn't feel confident in what I had made,” she said.) But the record ended up on countless Best of 2021 lists (including mine), which has led to surreal moments as the intensely personal album became public in a big way. In October, Jenkins performed at the Bowery Ballroom, and during the concert she gave a shout out to her driving instructor, Darryl, another character who shows up on “Hard Drive.” “I was like, ‘Darryl is here everybody!’ And everybody screamed their head off,” she said. “To honor that person in that way was just so ridiculous, and I couldn't believe it. I felt like this was the season finale of my mini-series.”
The success has also led Jenkins to rethink her use of discreetly recorded voice memos. “I'm going to have to change my process, because I'm maybe going to tread on some legal territory that's dangerous. Once you become more established, you have to be more mindful of these things,” she said. “There's no malice in using the recordings, but it could still feel exploitative. … ‘What is my intention here?’ is always a really, really big question. It's always going to be an intention of adding value to something and honoring where it came from.”
In November, Jenkins released (An Overview on) An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, offering up previously unreleased demos, alternative versions of songs and more voicemails and voice memos, including a version of “Hard Drive” with the extended security guard conversation. Listening back to the source material, Jenkins was overcome with emotion.
“I cried a lot,” she said. “Especially when I listen to ‘Hard Drive’ and that security guard edit, I'm just like, this woman gave me so much. She changed my life, and I'll probably never see her again. It's this thing you can't really put into words. Sometimes a stranger will say something and it'll change your life.”
Revisiting the songs also reminded her of the “collective strain” so many people have felt the past couple of years, as well as the encouraging messages she has received from listeners in response to the album. "This year has been so crazy, and I felt myself exhaling a lot of that,” she said. “I get teary-eyed just talking about this, but the fact that ‘Hard Drive,’ a song that I wrote about my experience, reached so many people this year, and that so many people reached out to me to say, ‘I listen to this song on my way to work’ and ‘This song gets me out of bed in the morning’ and ‘I have been really depressed and listening to your music really helped me...’ I feel the positivity that comes from making and releasing music that is from the heart.”
“This is the first time I feel like I've really expressed my voice and it was given such a warm welcome,” Jenkins continued. “It's the first time where I feel like someone heard me and recognized my voice, and that's a huge thing to feel. … To feel very cared for really chokes me up, and I feel very cared for by the world right now.”