Cassandra Jenkins On Purple Mountains, Ninja Turtles, & Other Inspirations For Her Magnificent New Album
The New York singer-songwriter walks us through the touchpoints that informed An Overview On Phenomenal Nature
An Overview On Phenomenal Nature is one of 2021’s most extraordinary albums, and it naturally (supernaturally?) emerged out of extraordinary circumstances. In 2019, when the reclusive Silver Jews mastermind David Berman returned with his first album as Purple Mountains, he recruited New York singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins to play in his live band. But in August of that year, just three days before the Purple Mountains tour was set to begin, Berman died by suicide. Reeling, with nothing but time on her hands, Jenkins traveled the world attempting to make sense of her thoughts and feelings.
The resulting songs are strikingly unique and emotionally stirring. Theoretically An Overview On Phenomenal Nature is a singer-songwriter album in the same folksy indie rock vein Jenkins was exploring on her 2017 debut album Play Till You Win, and on opening song “Michelangelo” it sort of stays in that mode. But as the album progresses, a gorgeous dreamlike quality sets in as Jenkins and producer Josh Kaufman bring everything from saxophone to field recordings into the frame. As she reflects on life and grief and the many characters moving in and out of her own story, the sound of the album loosens into an impressionistic blur. At times it resembles Destroyer’s soft, jazzy soundscapes teetering on the brink of new age; the genre field in my promo MP3s reads “Ambient Indie Folk Rock.”
Jenkins fills up these canvases with thoughtful, conversational vocals that spill over all the way into spoken word on the stunning centerpiece “Hard Drive.” Her lyrics are clever and vivid, often just as funny as they are heartbreaking. Specific references to Berman are in there, as well as other people Jenkins has encountered along the way — and like Berman, you can hear her smirking when she supplies an amusing detail. She makes for a calming and inviting narrator, but one of the most powerful songs on the album is the extended closing track “The Ramble,” on which she mostly lingers in silence and lets the music sweep you off into infinity.
A few weeks after the album’s release, Jenkins sent us a guide to its inspirations. Written with the same exploratory spirit that animates Jenkins’ lyrics, striking a similar balance of melancholy and whimsy, it contains a lot of fascinating information for people who hope to burrow deeper into some of the most remarkable music of the year. Press play on An Overview On Phenomenal Nature and read through her thoughts below.
I had plans to make a record with Josh Kaufman 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) led 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. Here is a list of a few of the things that made their way into the songs.
1. Phenomenal Nature, Mrinalini Mukherjee
The month of September 2019 was a bittersweet free time — I had just spent the past month traveling after the projected Purple Mountains tour had been cancelled, and when I got home I was still seeing the city through the eyes of a traveler. I started taking voice memos of everything, talking to a lot of strangers, and walking everywhere. Recording everything felt like a way of trying to make sense of everything around me.
I ended up at this exhibit and was so blown away by the body of work. The objects themselves are beautiful — towering, intricately woven organic shapes, sometimes bestial, sometimes yonic, botanical, colored with beautiful dies and suspended and standing like totems and thrones.
The album title is pulled from a voice memo of a security guard at this exhibit. I loved what she had to say, and I especially loved the way she approached me with an “overview” of the show, when she was actually presenting her personal opinions about art, politics, feminism and spirituality. There’s a lot of humor in that for me — the idea of offering some objective truth, when we’re really sharing something about our completely subjective point of view. Titling the record with the same phrase gives it that same twist.
As a side note: There’s a lot of internal meaning on this record. The building where the Met Breuer stands holds some significance for me around this music, because it’s also the home of the former Whitney, where David was employed at one point, and where I attended a memorial poetry reading a few days after his death. There are many landmarks, personal sacred grounds of sorts, on this record, and this is one of them.
2. A Clean Sweep, a film by Lucien Smith and Glenn O’Brien
I saw this on view at the uptown Gagosian gallery. It’s got this beat poetry rhythm to it that really does it for me. Unanswered questions weave through horn melodies (of Miles Davis “Flamenco Sketches”) over a film comprised of classic New York vignettes.
“The way where? Out You can’t get there from here. In? Maybe in. What are you waiting for? The time? Have you got the time?”
It was just existential and wandering enough to match my mood, and I thought about it a lot when I was making “Hard Drive” and “The Ramble.” I had a voice memo of the film on my phone and would play it in the studio when we were working on the record. When Stuart (Bogie) was recording sax parts, we joked that he was embodying a New York sax player on the street corner in a trench coat beneath a street lamp, and I imagined him creeping in & popping up in “A Clean Sweep” like the sax player from SNL‘s “The Curse” skit.
3. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Some of my favorite lyrics are the ones I ultimately decided to cut out of the songs. The first verse I wrote to “Michelangelo” was:
Call me Michaelangelo
I’m a teenage mutant ninja turtle
My DNA looks pretty strange
Must be something in the water
The whole song is about me wrestling with certain difficult truths about my experiences with trauma and my health. I have a genetic mutation that predisposes me to a lot of cancers, some of which we’ve already caught a few times. It’s pretty scary, but I think it’s important to remember that not all mutations equate to a malady. Take the turtles, for example. I was also surprised to find that the I Ching, the book of changes, in French is sometimes translated as the “Livre des Mutations.” A mutation, a change, a death sentence, a superpower, natural, supernatural. Who’s to say?
4. The Spiral Staircase (at the Inn Of The 7th Ray)
The Inn of the 7th Ray is a famed restaurant in Topanga Canyon, California. Their website reads, “The rumors of what was once where the Inn now stands abound. Aimee Semple McPherson’s private retreat. Topanga’s First Church. A sacred Chumash Indian meeting place at the intersection of two creeks. Now: your secret getaway.”
When I played in Eleanor Friedberger’s band, one of my favorite songs to play was her song, “Inn of the 7th Ray” from her record Last Summer, and I’ve always wanted to go ever since. So when I visited LA for my friend’s birthday, I took him out to dinner at the restaurant (and texted Eleanor on the way of course). Another friend suggested we ask the guy at the bookshop about St. Germain, as if it was some kind of password. Thinking I might get a book suggestion or a curt response, we ended up with personal lecture about the history of the multiverse and the nature of human consciousness! The lyric “He said you know the mind is just a hard drive” is a direct quote from the bookkeeper. It was one of so many overarching statements about the nature of the mind & spirit, by way of the Purple Flame and the alchemist and ascended master, St. Germain. Another quote I wrote down is “reality is backwards.” I wish I had recorded this entire conversation but he was so intensely focused that I felt like pulling out my phone would have ruined it.
5. Purple Mountains
When I was invited to play in Purple Mountains touring band, I had to learn to play this entire record really quickly. With the task of learning the material in that way, I sidelined the kind of deep listening that can happen when I’m not thinking about learning song structure, and remembering cues, etc. Since then, without ever listening to the music, the songs have been slowly sinking in and I feel like I’m learning about them more every day.
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 ice cream 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.
I could write an essay about every song on this record, and my experience of learning these songs. “Snow is Falling In Manhattan,” for example, paints such a sweet ghost, scooping the cat in and taking care of the brownstone, eventually taking on the first person and singing the last verse. It feels a little less lonely some days, with that ghost in my thoughts. It’s with me always.
6. Ole Brodersen
Ole is long time friend and one of the characters mentioned in “New Bikini.” He and his partner Tine hosted me at their home on the island of Lyngør, off the southern coast of Norway a few days following the cancellation of the PM tour.
Ole is a fine art photographer, who shot the image I ended up using as the cover for the album.
Without knowing it, I started writing a lot of Phenomenal Nature during those few days I stayed with Ole and Tine, jet lagged, either at night by candlelight after they had gone to sleep or drinking my morning coffee on their dock at 2 in the afternoon. Here’s a note I woke up to one day, which ended up being the seed for the entire song:
Ole’s photographs are made & printed on Lyngør, which is a car free island society where he grew up and lives as the 12th generation in his family. His father is a sailmaker, his grandfather was a captain, and I met him while he was circumnavigating the Atlantic Ocean in a pilot cutter built in 1894. I love his dedication to his work and the way he captures the feeling of being present in a landscape – making images that are, to an extent, a direct imprint of the environment in motion.
The album cover image is taken from his “Tresspassing” series, where various objects are introduced into untouched nature, such as: floats, lights, kites and pieces of sail, etc. and their movement is recorded during one long exposure.
Janet Cardiff is one of my all time favorite artists. I revisited this audio piece when I was finishing up the record. She uses binaural mics to record the audio that guides you through central park, on a tour with an accompanying map. It collapses personal and geographical histories, with a collage of environmental sound, conversation, and music. It’s the best date you can take yourself on if you have an hour free in Manhattan one day.
It’s hard to tell what’s real, and what’s recorded, and when you finish and finally take your headphones off, it’s as though somehow the high fidelity knob got cranked on the world around you.
Over the years I’ve attempted my own versions of audio guides. My original version of the last track, “The Ramble,” was a guided tour in the same vein, taking the listener through the Ramble in Central park. I ultimately decided that what the record needed was something more meditative and open, less guided. If you want the audio guide version, reach out to me and I’ll send it to you, along with my guide to the Museum of Natural History.
8. A Hero Of Our Time by Mikhail Iurevich Lermontov
When I was on tour with Lola Kirke in London in 2018, I wanted to see a play on a day off. I had no idea where to begin and ended up at the Hunch Theater’s adaptation of the Russian novel, A Hero Of Our Time. It’s all about a toxic male protagonist whose character is likened to a virus — virtually everyone who comes in contact with him winds up perishing. That was a surprisingly healing revelation for me — I was able to see my anxieties around this type of person more clearly because of this play. When I wrote the verse in Michelangelo, “You’re a virus, and you come back at the first sign of weakness, treatable not curable but I’m building up a resistance,” I was thinking about this play. This was a year before COVID hit, so it’s taken on entirely new meaning now, of course.
9. Ambiguious Norway (a drawing)
This is a drawing from David’s book, The Portable February. While I was in Norway, a Danish chef I met on the island invited me to hike to a part of the island where there are often spectacular cloud formations. He explained that in Denmark, the land is so flat that they call cumulus clouds Denmark’s Mountains. “We don’t have the steady, monumental mountain ranges like you do in America, so the giant sculptural cloud formations take their place. They come and go, but they’re just as monumental.” I wrote to Katie von Schleicher, who also played in the PM touring band, about the Danish mountains. She responded, “mountains become air, landscape transmutation, it’s not lost on me” and sent back one of David’s Cartoons, a black outline of a house with a pinwheel that read, “Ambiguous Norway.” The confluence of experiences knocked me off my feet. It’s not lost on us.
10. Hailey Benton Gates
I had a song called “Halley” on my last record (an ode to Halley’s comet) & I liked the idea of a follow up song. Hailey is a friend and a long time inspiration. She’s a fiercely brilliant writer, director, journalist, actor, model, and the list goes on. Sometimes a friend will do or say something that just stops you in your tracks, and I remembered seeing this one instagram photo/caption years ago that felt like it deserved to be the chorus of a song. I loved the stark confidence in a place (social media) that can often be riddled with anxiety, and in some ways I’m simply passing that on. Much of Phenomenal Nature focuses on grief and loss, and I wanted to allow space for celebrating life and the living. There’s something so vulnerable about writing a love song for someone, especially when it’s so simple and platonic, and I like that challenge. Besides, there should be thousands of songs written about Hailey, if there aren’t already.
An Overview On Phenomenal Nature is out now on Ba Da Bing.