Wish You Could Have Seen It: Cassandra Jenkins Interviewed

A city walk with the feted songwriter...

It’s a hot, bright Friday afternoon in May when Cassandra Jenkins stops in her tracks, the overview she has been offering me on André Breton’s concept of le merveilleux coming to a halt with it. She spots something lying on the pathway that winds around Regent’s Canal, kneels down to pick it up, then becomes lost in the object for a moment; turning it over in her hands, trying to prise some of the memories it holds out of its physical shape.

“For you,” she says quietly, and reveals the treasure to me in open, cupped hands. It’s a ring – a beaten-up piece of costume jewellery embossed with diamanté stones, adorned with a pattern designed to resemble intertwining leaves. The ring itself is bent out of shape. It is, by any evaluation, a sumptuously tacky piece of crap, and I adore it. I slip the ring into my pocket, and we both take a moment to try and recall why we’re here, what we were talking about, which direction we were travelling, how much time has elapsed since the last literal or conceptual detour, and so on.

The reason we’re here is to promote Jenkins’ new album, ‘My Light, My Destroyer’. Three years have now passed since the release of ‘An Overview on Phenomenal Nature’, a poignant time-capsule record largely centred around her time spent processing the news of David Berman’s death in the summer of 2019. Jenkins had been due to join Berman as a live musician on an upcoming Purple Mountains tour; after he died, she scrapped most of the material she’d been planning to release, spent some time with friends off the coast of Norway, and wrote a masterpiece on grief, connection, and turning to the water to heal instead.

The canal seems like an ideal location, then, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that it is ripe for distraction. Joggers and cyclists are everywhere, pausing with barely concealed London rage every time our flânerie interrupts their route. Ten seconds into my first question, Jenkins stops to ask if I want to stop and smell a nearby lily with her, whose perfume we take turns to admire; later, a question about the editing process is abandoned to a particularly lovely cat lounging on one of the boats. She is constantly noticing.

Where were we? Breton? Jenkins is still attracting the glances of every passerby on the path; if nothing else, dressed head to foot in black and a dramatically long coat, she carries the unmistakable aura of an artist. “Right. So he talks about ‘the marvellous’, but he’s kind of talking about chi,” she says, locked in again. “He’s talking about an energy, but it’s specific to a city; it’s a thing that kind of flows through us, something that you can tap into if you turn a certain corner, or run into a certain person. At least that’s how I always took it in.”

The conversation turns to the magic of coincidence, Jenny Odell’s How To Do Nothing, and the dynamic relationship between people and place, how the two can transform each other for good or bad. “I love actively responding to a space, and having that inform your direction and the choices that you make in this very small way, to have an act of intuition,” she continues, her voice beginning to echo as we pass under a bridge. “I try not to necessarily walk the same exact route every time, but let it take you in a slightly different direction and see what that leads you to – see what kind of things you might find, or symbols you might see on the walls. Little audio clips that you’ll hear, depending on who’s passing by. It always feels so magical when you run into someone. It’s kind of that same energy, just letting that flow.”

At its essence, ‘My Light, My Destroyer’ seems to be an album concerned with dissolving the boundaries between these microcosmic energies – a flower, a cute cat, an old friend, a piece of jewellery that catches the light – and the vastness of deep space, supernovae so far away that we can only witness their afterglow by gazing back into deep time. (I think of that moment in Adventure Time when Finn dons the Glasses of Nerdicon, granting him instant access to all knowledge in the universe, and all he can do is gasp: “Everything small is just a small version of something big!”) There are tales of liberating pet stores and keeping the windows clean during your shift at a flower shop, nestled among odes to William Shatner reflecting on the earth from space and witnessing asteroids “the size of a skyscraper”.

Musically, the album is a notably more jukebox affair than her last outing. ‘Clams Casino’ and the surprisingly Weezer-coded ‘Petco’ recall the toe-tapping indie-rock spirit of Jenkins’ debut album, ‘Play Till You Win’, showcasing her way around a guitar solo as well as a playful sense of humour; the music video for the latter concludes with her performing a DJ set for a crowd full of furries, Jenkins herself decked out in oversized paws and cat ears. 

Then there’s ‘Only One’, arguably the most radio-friendly song she’s ever written, and one she describes as “embarrassingly poppy” in its earliest incarnations. The lyrical reference to a “stick-figure Sisyphus” arrived from a photograph Jenkins took in 2020; passing her local massage parlour, she became fascinated by a hand-drawn sign in the window that appeared to detail a crudely-drawn stick-figure pushing a boulder up a hill. She’s “yet to arrive at a conclusion” on its deeper meaning, but something about learning to find meaning in the apparent mundanity of the everyday feels like an appropriate fit here.

This relentless wonder is something Jenkins seems to have developed early on. The songwriter’s mother makes a cameo on ‘Betelgeuse’, showcasing her skills as an elementary school science teacher in a starry-eyed recording of the two discussing the night sky. To say the pair shared in a fascination with music, too, is perhaps an understatement. Jenkins fondly recalls growing up with live performances from a young age – by the age of 12, she’d already toured a number of festivals playing folk music with her family, travelling the country on her dad’s family band bus – and belting out ‘Twist and Shout’ as a child, only to discover the voice that emerged was itself light years away from Lennons’ rasp.

“I was very curious about it,” she says. “What is that? How do I tap into it? It’s not just screaming. There’s something there that’s kind of unattainable, and I want to figure out what the contours of it are.” And did you? “Definitely not,” she laughs, “but I might be the best at doing Cassandra Jenkins. For better or worse.”

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2006, the artist spent some time honing that impression via a dizzying array of genre experiments, New York City becoming a creative home for these different voices in her music and writing. Around this time, she even took in a two-year stint as an Editorial Assistant at The New Yorker (“assistant to the editor,” she politely and self-deprecatingly corrects me, in an oddly David Brent moment). It’s some resume.

Today, that artistic voice feels more refined than ever, even when she’s letting someone else do the talking. ‘Betelgeuse’ sits at the heart of the new album, the middle part in what feels like a triptych bookended by ‘Aurora, IL’ – another astronomy-themed number, this time alluding to William Shatner’s visit to space – and ‘Omakase’, which might just be the finest song Jenkins has written to date. Like ‘Hard Drive’ before it, listening to ‘Omakase’ can be an overwhelming experience. Building from a simple chord structure into a stirring, string-backed epic – “anthemic in a quiet way, like as close to an anthem as I could write”, by Jenkins’ own assessment – the song’s most powerful weapon is its naked sincerity (“Baby, I can’t sleep / when we’re not together”). It is the sound of being in love, for sure; but more than that, the terrifying scale of how much power that love holds over us.

“I think if you had to sum it all up, that song is really about vulnerability,” she says, recounting a story of her and her partner creasing up laughing in an inappropriate moment – that specific category of addictive, guilty laughter that erupts all over again the moment you catch the other person’s eye. “And it destroys you! I love that funny twist on destruction – like, you’ve destroyed all of my composure. There’s something so intimate about that very human, very animal connection of your nervous systems connecting through eyesight, in a flash, that just erupts in this chemical reaction.”

Equally, she adds, it can work the other way: you might catch a look in a loved one’s eyes that signals the end of a relationship, that the person with whom you once planned to build a life around has come to regard you as a stranger, or vice-versa. “I think when you’re vulnerable to another person, you make yourself open to that, and hopefully they’ll hold that space for you in a way that’s caring and loving, and allows you to continue to show the parts of yourself that are afraid to be seen,” Jenkins says. “It takes a tremendous amount of care to be that for someone else. But it’s a good goal.”

We eventually abandon the canal and find a quiet corner of a café in Hackney. The conversation about destruction and vulnerability has segued into an exposition on the album’s title, plucked fairly late in the process from a repeated line in ‘Omakase’: “My lover, my light, my destroyer, my meteorite”. Jenkins waxes lyrical about Canadian poet, essayist and classical scholar Ann Carson’s translation of the myth of Cassandra, in which her namesake yells to Apollo seven times as she’s descending into madness. “And the root of Apollo – the god of light, of course – in that root is not only ‘my god’, but also ‘to destroy’,” she explains. “So she is, in one fell swoop, by shifting the inflection very slightly, saying to Apollo both ‘you’re my god’ and ‘you’re my destroyer’.”

By this point, I’ve reached back into my pocket and placed the ring on the table between us. There’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask all day, about all these distractions and detours for which we spend our life apologising, that magic that can only be found in the interstices of daily life. I read a little from Half Waif’s recent substack entry called The Mind is the Candle, in which she describes being “so immersed in a project that I tune into a new frequency, and every element around me begins to resonate in one magnificent chord,” accessing a new lens on the world in which “everything is connected” and the incidental details – that which might otherwise be out of focus, blurry, discarded – becomes the focus itself. Isn’t that kind of what it is to be an artist?

“Exactly. It’s both that you’re constantly distracted, but you’re also in a constant state of wonder about everything that’s around you,” she says, sitting up, in her element now. “It is about noticing. It’s about slowing down enough to be able to notice, getting out of your head enough to notice. It’s a very beneficial mind state, to be an observer.”

Jenkins picks up the ring on the table, and once again starts to pass it back and forth in her hands, examining it from different angles. “It’s kind of trashy in a fun way, right?” she says. Absolutely, I say. But someone loved it once.

“It might not have been this shiny little object that I noticed on another day though. I might have noticed a used band-aid instead.” She passes the ring back across the table to me, then pauses to reflect. In that moment her sandwich arrives, and we almost lose our train of thought again, a pair of “dopamine hounds”, in Jenkins’ words, battling to stay on task. 

“Keeping that part of ourselves in shape is kind of vital; it’s almost survival more than anything,” she says after a moment’s thought, and in between longing gazes at her lunch. “To recognise when you’re losing touch with that is a great portal to shifting gears into being able to notice the things that resonate with you, and allow you to land on that frequency where you really can hear that magnificent chord.”

I wander back down the canal path in the early evening sunshine and think about leaving the ring back there on the ground, passing it on for someone else to find and construct a new image of who loved it before me, a new movie in the extended cinematic universe of this junk item, a fresh lick of paint on a haunted house. 

‘My Light, My Destroyer’ is out on July 12th. Catch Cassandra Jenkins at the following shows:

November
18 Manchester YES Pink Room
20 Dublin Whelan’s
21 Leeds Brudenell Community Room
22 Glasgow UK Stereo
24 Bristol Rough Trade
25 Brighton Komedia Main
26 London Earth Theatre

Words: Matthew Neale // @matthewgneale

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