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In October 2019, she booked time in the studio with producer, multi-instrumentalist, and songwriter Josh Kaufman, whose resume includes work with the Hold Steady and the National, as well as with Taylor Swift on her two recent folk-leaning albums. Jenkins showed up with voice memos, iPhone notes, and lyrics over the course of a week, and the pair pieced together six of the album’s seven tracks. “She ended up with something totally different than she had gone in looking for,” Kaufman says. “It takes a certain kind of person to not feel the obligation of their previous impulse.” Compared to the more structured and academic approach she took to making her debut album, 2017’s Play Till You Win, the process of putting Phenomenal Nature together was purposefully loose. She wanted to write songs with two or three chords that she could easily play with strangers or her family members.
Observing the world with Jenkins feels a bit like unearthing a new sense, and by the end of our walk around Central Park, she has taken note of dozens of people along the way. There was the woman with a purple beret, bright red hair, and fuzzy scarf (“I’m slowly working towards that in life!”) and the nature lover who informed us that the owl we were looking at was a celebrity (“That’s why I love New Yorkers so much!”). After a man informed us he found his cell phone in a snowbank after looking for it for miles, Jenkins tells me he reminded her of another guy she once met on the same path who told her she looked like a friend who had passed away. More strangers and ghosts, filed away for another time.
Pitchfork: You capture so many interactions with random people on this album. Do you feel like there’s something about your personality that draws people in?
Cassandra Jenkins: Yes, and I don’t know how to stop it. I’m definitely an empath but I don’t know how to protect my energy. I don’t have the tools the way a therapist does. I have a vulnerability and an approachability about me that will put me into a lot of strange situations, for better or for worse. I get to meet a lot of strangers, and often have really wonderful encounters, but I sometimes have a negative interaction, and it takes me a day to recover from it.
Has that always been the case?
I think so. I was a really, really shy kid. My parents had to teach me how to start projecting—I’ll always remember when they made me order a Happy Meal. And I really hated compliments. If you complimented me, I would physically crouch and hide. My parents had to really teach me how to say thank you.
When you practice “everyday acting” who do you find yourself being?
Sometimes my frend Grey, who pops up in “New Bikini,” will call me, and we’ll do these little one-act role plays where I’ll be like, “OK, you’re a telemarketer and I’m a Park Avenue lady who lunches,” and we’ll go from there. I tend to revert to really deadpan characters that are slightly miffed by the situation but tolerating it. But we’re trying to push me into being these really bombastic characters—that would be ultimately the most freeing thing.
In many ways the security guard that I talked to at the exhibition is my mascot of the record. I was struck by the fact that this woman had stopped me and said, “Let me give you an overview of this thing” when in fact it was a completely subjective monologue. I loved the gall of that lady to do that. I think a lot of times when someone is offering an overview of something, it is infused with their personality. Or when someone’s asking you a question, they’re revealing something about themselves.
You held day jobs digitally restoring gems at the Natural History Museum, working at a farmer’s market, and as a photographer. How have all these different gigs shaped how you approach being a musician?
I’ve never been a careerist, especially in music. It’s always been something I live and breathe with my family. Maybe it’s also a combination of a fear of failure, or not wanting to commit myself fully because I don’t want to ruin the thing that I enjoy most in life. It’s part of my mental health practice to make sure I’m always learning about other things and not getting absorbed in the narcissistic act of putting out my own music. This record is a great example. I really didn’t think anyone was gonna hear it. But I loved making it, and it really carried me through a difficult period in my life. Music hasn’t done that for me before in this way.