Cassandra Jenkins Grapples With Tragedy and Change with An Overview On Phenomenal Nature

Photo Credit: Wyndham Boylan-Garnett

There’s no better time to have been gifted with the elegance of An Overview of Phenomenal Nature – the sophomore album from NYC-based musician and artist Cassandra Jenkins – than the current skewed reality the world has been thrown into. Wrapped up in the midst of a pandemic and released last week via Ba Da Bing Records, the album candidly addresses the reality of unanticipated life changes and how to come to grips with their rather uninvited side-effects. Though that notion seems all too familiar to the lost and weary humans of today, the parallel occurred almost accidentally. Taking her listeners on a journey intertwined with poetic and metaphorical rhetoric, Jenkins offers solace where it’s most needed.

Jolted by upheaval in her own life, Jenkins had no other intentions in terms of making an album but to pick up her guitar and write, building a strong lyrical foundation resonant with an ambient folk approach. She wrote lyrics spontaneously, whenever and wherever she felt the calling – even on the subway en route to the studio. “The record is from a very windowed period of my life. I didn’t walk into it with a concept of ‘this is what it’s going to mean,’” she describes. “I walked into it with a set of lyrics and experiences from a very particular point in my life. I just decided I was going to show up, and it was going to be like ‘come as you are.’”

The most shattering event propelling Jenkins to turn to her music was the death of David Berman in August 2019, just weeks before she was set to tour with his Purple Mountains project. “I had a really hard time relating to my older material, and it felt almost impossible to get on stage and sing those songs,” she says. “I basically wrote 25 minutes of music [in two weeks]. It was out of necessity. That happened to be the form of expression it took.”

Jenkins had to cancel a planned trip to Norway to tour with Berman, and in the wake of her grief, she rescheduled it. She translated that experience into “Ambiguous Norway,” perhaps the most heart-wrenching tribute to Berman on the record, though the journey was formative to her writing process in other ways, as well. “I thought a lot about my travels in Norway. It can be very uncomfortable to be completely thrown into a new environment, place or culture,” she says. “The act of throwing yourself into an unknown territory requires you to put down all of your assumptions about the world and about the way that you fit into it. It’s one of the most psychedelic experiences you can have without a substance.”

On her return to NYC, the “afterglow” of this experience brought on a new kind of curiosity as she was “hit really deeply” through every human interaction and conversation she encountered; then, the pandemic threw her into isolation before she’d had time to fully reflect on the beauty and tragedy of the previous year, and songwriting took on yet another cathartic function. “I think it was the first time that I outwardly addressed my anxiety. I don’t even think I was intentionally doing that, but now that I’m here and COVID is happening, anxiety has been a really serious problem for me,” she says. “It’s about going through changes and suddenly going through more changes before I even had time to process the first one.”

Jenkins resorted to the desolate, ghostly pathways of Central Park, finding comfort in the tranquility and in the art of walking solo. Inspired by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff, who provides immersive experiences through recorded video and audio walks, Cassandra transformed the physical activity of walking into a means of creative expression. Alas, a song entitled “The Ramble” was born. “I wanted to provide that sanctuary for the record, to give the record that place,” Jenkins explains. “I’m actually going to take you on a walk with me and hopefully give people a place to rest their minds on that.”

Tracks like “Hard Drive” have a similarly immersive, intimate approach. Through Jenkins’ lens, we encounter a cast of characters portrayed with a mix of spoken-word vignettes, lyrical phrases and jazzy ambient tones: a security guard, a bookkeeper, a psychic. Each character’s story unfolds, one after the other, though Jenkins’ dialogue with them, ultimately revealing striking observations on humanity. “I found these connections and meaning between all of them that made a lot of sense, and through the filter of my lens, they became a set of tarot cards,” Jenkins says. “When you look at them side by side, they start to have meaning.”

Turning to her own perspective, Jenkins gives a diaristic account on what it means to be human on album opener “Michelangelo.” She revisits past trauma in order to make sense of life’s by-products: that moment of processing current trauma, falling into abeyance, attempting to understand the cards that have been dealt while moving forward simultaneously. Here, Jenkins investigates “the human tendency to dwell on the things we’ve lost,” illustrated with a powerful metaphor: “I’m a three-legged dog, working with what I’ve got/And part of me will always be/Looking for what I’ve lost.” The track arrives at no grand finale, but instead oscillates with the distorted strumming of a wild guitar solo in lieu of a chorus – quite fitting for a song heavily meshed with themes of trauma and loss.  

Providing an intimate account of her own reflections, Jenkins wants listeners to witness “someone being okay with not being okay” for themselves. Through her eloquent formulation, ethereal vocals, and gnarly guitar riffs, she hints that unexpected change is unfortunately out of our control. “I think we all have the opportunity to go through these changes, but sometimes it’s forced on us, sadly, by tragedy. It can be any number of things that can knock us off of our feet,” she warns.

But perhaps more importantly, Jenkins hopes the album can provide others with a blueprint for productive, healthy coping mechanisms. “I hope that I can also emphasize prioritizing mental health as much as we prioritize other aspects of our health,” she says. “I want [listeners] to find a sense of peace within themselves just knowing that we’re all in moments of great transition, all the time.”

Follow Cassandra Jenkins on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

Sarah Mary Chadwick Makes Friends with Ennui

Photo Credit: Simon J Karis

Multi-instrumentalist, visual artist and intrepidly candid singer-songwriter Sarah Mary Chadwick will release her seventh full length studio album, Me and Ennui Are Friends, Baby, on Friday, February 5th, via Ba Da Bing Records/Rice is Nice. Known both for her solo work and for a decade spent as frontperson of Batrider – which formed while Chadwick and her bandmates were still in high school in New Zealand – Chadwick has explored some dark places and difficult terrain. Going solo certainly sent her on a new trajectory – one that has kept listeners compelled to discover what she’s just done and what she’s doing next. Her latest album justifies plenty of curiosity and attention, not only for its exploration of intense emotions – she is, as ever, starkly honest, articulate and unfiltered – but also for the approach to recording it.

Ennui is almost entirely singing and piano, all recorded live in one day with Chadwick’s friend, bass player Geoffrey O’Connor. Chadwick and O’Connor recorded on a Yamaha upright piano in her friend’s studio. The upright added to the “bar-roomy feel of the record, which wasn’t intentional but definitely came through when we were recording,” Chadwick says.

It immediately follows 2020’s Please, Daddy – a painful, introspective work that, according to Chadwick, was more ambitious in terms of instrumentation. Though it seemed a logical trajectory to do something more complicated after its release, the stripped-down nature of Ennui is a result of Chadwick’s conscious desire to free herself of expectation. “The last record had Geoff engineering, a drum and four other musicians. This was just me and Geoff sitting in a small, intimate room for a whole day,” she says.

“In terms of doing it in one day, my thinking has always been that there’s only so good I can play and sing a song,” explains Chadwick. “It doesn’t get better if I do it 50 times. I think you lose a lot of energy if you iron things out. I wanted to capture a lot of energy in this record. I usually only record in one or two days, with only two or three takes of a song.”

It’s all part of Chadwick’s effort to retain some of that “demo energy” when recording songs for her albums. “My process is the same for music and visual art. Working fast, you’re not afforded the space to second-guess decisions, so you get into the habit of making decisions quickly; you just make choices to realise what you think is important,” she says. “For me, that energy is so important. If you’re doing it right, you’re making good decisions that enable you to realise what is important about art.”

Even while making choices that seem intuitive rather than heavily and lengthily considered, Chadwick is deliberate. One of those choices is the cover art for the album, revealing her parted legs in shorts that don’t cover everything. It’s quite brave, confronting even. “I wanted to free myself up from having to put my own artwork on the cover every time,” she says. “It’s a candid photo that my partner took. I like the colours of it. It works well as a cover and as an image. The album itself is quite earnest in parts, so it’s a nice counterpoint to have something a bit garish, a big vulgar, as cover art.”

Chadwick is very much in the practice of constant creation, always engaged with visual art and music. When putting together a record, she books the studio three months prior and works each week on new songs, which typically take half an hour to an hour. “When I was quite young, I was concerned with stagnant periods and writing block but now I don’t encounter that ever,” she admits. “Doing lots of work subsequently makes me feel not guilty for when I don’t want to work or can’t be bothered. It makes my downtime guilt-free. I have always been in the habit of having something ticking over.”

Having the deadline ensures she has selected songs which are in the process and refines them in preparation. She’s already working on the next album and is considering doing demos to prepare, in contrast to the off-the-cuff nature of Ennui. “I’m always writing,” she says. “Because we’re just about to put this one out, I don’t feel pressure to rush the next one, which means the next one will come pretty easily.”

Perhaps, for Chadwick, there is a security in constant creation and self-analysis, working hand-in-glove to keep her on an even keel. Readers, beware: the following discussion may be triggering or difficult; those struggling with mental health issues may want to take a breather here.

Both Ennui and Daddy are the continuation of a trilogy of albums, beginning with The Queen Who Stole the Sky, that focus on Chadwick’s attempt to take her own life in 2019, following the death of her father and a close friend, as well as the intense breakup of a long-term relationship. They openly explore the event itself as well as the trauma that precipitated it, and continue the healing process Chadwick has undergone in its aftermath, particularly her views on psychoanalytic therapy.

“I’ve always had, since a child, depression and anxiety, but it’s gotten a lot better in the past six years. I’ve always seen psychologists on and off since I was a teenager but never found it particularly useful and was disappointed by it no matter how much work I put into it,” admits Chadwick. “It became clear that it wasn’t my fault. I started psychoanalysis and that was far more rewarding. The more I put into it, the more it gave back.”

Rather than process first and write later, Chadwick made the writing of these albums part of her journey toward healing. “Did I want to explore it? Definitely, I did,” she says. “I was in treatment five times a week afterwards, and the experience only informed my creative process. I draw unconsciously and very naturally on day-to-day things.”

Chadwick has released her latest batch of records through Rice Is Nice, run by Julia Wilson and Lulu Rae. Chadwick met Jules through an ex-girlfriend. “Jules is a really, really dear friend and a great person,” Chadwick says. “We’ve worked together since 2015 and done over four records together. Jules works super hard on things for me and she’s not doing it for finance, since I’m a relatively small artist, so I’m really grateful for the fact she does so much because she loves me and she loves my work.”

Chadwick is scheduled to do a series of launch events, in which she’ll play music from the trilogy of albums for small crowds in Melbourne. The events will be live-streamed so international audiences can tune in.

Despite the emotional weight of Ennui, there’s something triumphant in its self-deprecating tone. Perhaps Chadwick’s Bandcamp describes it best: “On Ennui, Chadwick is free, there is nowhere for her or us to run from the need to very presently and repeatedly articulate her trauma until it is simply, ‘articulated out.'” Another brave choice from an artist who, decades into her career, still stuns with her bravery.

Follow Sarah Mary Chadwick on Instagram and Facebook for ongoing updates.