At Work: Cassandra Jenkins

Justin Jacobs on April 21, 2021
At Work: Cassandra Jenkins

In August 2019, Cassandra Jenkins’ world was turned upside down overnight. At the time, the folk singer and multi-instrumentalist was preparing to embark on a major tour as part of Purple Mountains—a project that was intended to mark the triumphant return of indie-rock hero David Berman. But, three days before their first show, Berman committed suicide. Jenkins was stunned and entered a long period of mourning—realizing that she needed to escape the traumatic haze, she boarded a plane to Norway.

And, on the day that she was supposed to be kicking off her Purple Mountains run, Jenkins instead woke up at a friend’s house on a tiny island off Norway’s coast to a cup of coffee and a note: “Baby, go jump in the ocean.”

“That note—it was a signpost. You’re on a journey and seeing a sign that nudges you in the right direction is so comforting,” she says now. “There is healing in helping each other.”

The experience led Jenkins to write “New Bikini,” the gorgeous, piano-and-saxophone drenched meditation that anchors her new album, An Overview of Phenomenal Nature. The seven-song collection is a departure from Jenkins’ prior release, 2017’s more straightforward folk Play Till You Win. Phenomenal Nature, rather, features free-form, slowly unfolding “found” songs—as in, the treasures Jenkins recovered while swimming through deep, unmooring grief.

“My life changed so quickly, and I became incredibly open to things being not as I expected them to be,” she says. “I tapped into the same energy and intuition as a flower growing out of the cracks of a sidewalk. The same life force that allows nature to grow in unusual places.”

When she returned home to New York City, Jenkins entered the studio with “a stack of papers and iPhone voice memos” with producer and musician Josh Kaufman—famously the co-producer of the 2016 Day of the Dead compilation. “I wrote some of these songs on the subway while I was on the way to work with Josh,” Jenkins says. “But the studio was where these ideas truly crystallized.”

Phenomenal Nature could be called “ambient folk” thanks to its loose, atmospheric feel, but the emotions it taps into aren’t shapeless—the album is a deep dive into darkness that manages to emerge full of light, gratitude and healing.

Now, after more than a year of global tragedy and pain, Jenkins knows her music could be more resonant than ever.

“I’m confident this album can bring some solace,” she says. “But also some sense of wonder.”