Cassandra Jenkins | The Family Interviews

 
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Meet Cassandra Jenkins

Ready to be enchanted? Nay, dare I say, spellbound?! Go give Cassandra Jenkins a listen. This New York chanteuse will lull you into a cosmic-acoustic infused stupor. With lush vocals and delicate string guitar, her latest release Hotel Lullaby is worth letting your brain turn into a pile of mush.  

Below, we chat with Jenkins about Chuck E. Cheese and intimacy in music. But not intimacy at Chuck E. Cheese. Because that’s weird. 

Grab some gooey cheese pizza and plushie, this one’s a doozy.

 
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CHARMING STORY:

A MAD-LIB By Cassandra Jenkins

Once upon a DING DONG, there were three little pigs. The first little pig was very FRESH-TO-DEATH, and he built a house for himself out of PRINCESSES. The second little pig was MATHEMATICAL, and he built a house out of PENGUINS. But the third little pig was LUMPIN’, and he built his house out of genuine PLOP DUMPS. Well one day, a mean old wolf came along and saw the houses. "OH MY GLOB!!" he said. "I'll SCOPE.and I'll FLOAT and I'll blow your house down." And he blew down the first little pig's FUNKY JUNK and the second little pig's WAGGLE SAGS. The two little pigs ran to the third pig's house. Thereupon, the wolf began blowing, but he couldn't blow down the third little pig's CANDY house so he ASTRAL PROJECTED off into the forest, and the three little UNACCEPTABLE pigs moved to Chicago and went into the sausage business.

 

Would you rather…

have to live for two years inside a Chuck E Cheese, or the guitar center on 42nd street? 

Ok, upon first glance I found this question to be triggering but the more I think about it the more I feel SEEN– thank you! We are what we eat. Do I want to be a glutinous plush toy prize sucking on a lollipop in one hand and a slice of pizza in the other? Or do I want to be a moquette palimpsest soaked with decades of blues guitar solos and crushed dreams left to dry under fluorescent lighting? 

Guitar Center has saved me a bunch of times, and maybe I could get really good at the drums, but between the two consumerist play dens, I’m marching straight to Chuck E Cheese’s where I can find my inner child buried in a pit of red yellow blue green balls. We’ve got a lot to talk about. This could take a while. 

If you had an hour to kill, would you play on your phone or go look for people to meet?

As much as I want to engage with the present moment! be spontaneous! meet my soul mate! etc., I am writing to you from the Nashville airport and my flight boards in 1 hour. What a perfect place to use my phone to reflect upon and respond to these great questions! This question really answered itself. Like all things, it truly depends– phones are a black hole for time and space, and they have such a hold on us and our relationship to the present. I do my best to be discerning about how and when I carry and use mine, but I’m similarly discerning about strangers. I have a really open and empathetic (energetic) composition, and I have protect that to a certain extent. It’s all about eye contact. 

Are there other genres of music that you have been looking to break into?

I really want to break into creating music that’s not so self conscious about genre or its influences. It was really fun to make a record that so blatantly fans on 1970s cosmic country, etc., and to see an idea through from start to finish, and it was a valuable experiment and learning process. I’m interested in really different things now. I want to break into going against what is safe and comfortable. I want to break into working harder. I want to break into playing more and downplaying less. I want to break into being subversive without screaming, and making dangerous art that’s not wearing an I’m-Dangerous-Art sandwich board. A friend recently challenged me to be as three dimensional in my music as I am in real life. I loved that criticism. I’m feeling more motivated than ever to respond to it in kind.

There is a romance and intimacy to your music. How do you maintain that personal sensitivity while collaborating with others?

Intimacy with self is really important, but playing music with other people is one of the primary ways I access intimacy. Not to mention my romantic life and professional life, for better or for worse, have been historically intertwined. I love singing in harmony because it has the potential to be as intimate, if not more so, than a physical encounter with someone. After all, harmony singing is a physical act–responding to another person in real time by combining our breath and the sound created inside & out of my squishy guts in order to intertwine with someone else’s air-guts. I try to remember that, when music can get so heady and cerebral and be about so many things other than finding an intimate connection with someone you’re playing with or for. I’m much less focused on trying to play something perfectly, and more on connecting to how I’m feeling, and how a room is feeling while I’m playing. 

In the past I used to get so nervous that I would basically black out from the anxiety of stepping into the environment of a live stage and really disconnect. I think that’s a common way of coping with the fears that arise from performing. It’s no wonder I’ve felt compelled to keep doing it and overcome those fears which permeate a lot of life. I’ve slowly inched towards learning how to handle that space. Intimacy never gets old, it only gets more interesting. 

What has been a recent innovation in music that you admire?

The first thing that comes to mind is sensory percussion, maybe because it’s an obvious example of technical innovation, and exciting to watching my friends who are skilled percussionists marry the acoustic drum kit with the infinite possibilities found in digital synthesis. But if we’re talking recent as in human development, I think a lot about the work of Pauline Oliveros and her innovations with regards to deep listening. Her work really transformed the way I think about and listen to music and sound. She was such a visionary, rest in peace. 

When writing lyrics do you prefer to tap into themes of shared experiences, or more personal experiences?

Lately I’ve been thinking that the more personal and intimate I get, the more universal it can be. I think I’ve avoided a certain intimacy for years, and now I’m more curious to find the edge of what I’m comfortable putting into words and saying out loud. Chances are that if I’m afraid to say something, I’m not alone. That’s territory ripe for making connection. 
In writing songs, I’m hoping to share insight on a more shared experience, through my own story, as gritty or as beautiful as it comes. Lyric writing can be a process of observing my own mind, and becoming more aware of the mental & physical cues that tip me off when I’m approaching something truthful, or when I’m avoiding/cowering away from honesty. My instincts tell me that if I can feel myself lying, chances are, so can everyone else. Not that we don’t want to be told lies every once & a while– if used playfully and skillfully, conscious lying can also be brilliant set up for a really good joke. Being 100% sincere 100% of the time would get boring and miss out on some opportunities to surprise and bewilder ourselves and others.

When attending concerts do you prefer smaller venues with more intimate performances or larger stadiums/festivals? Why?

Intimate performances. I really love feeling the presence of each person in a room, seeing how quietly I can sing while still being heard, and leaning into those spaces. I’m on my way home from playing the Bonnaroo festival for the first time, and while it seems like a really freeing experience for a lot of people, and I’ve learned how to play for the noodle dancers 200 ft. away, I find it to be so far removed from what draws me to writing and playing music. A notable moment from the festival was getting pulled into a fast moving current of people on the edges of the expansive sea of people (tens of thousands) gathering as Childish Gambino took the stage. I’ve never felt that sense of collective rush manifested so physically before. It was fascinating, but I can’t say I liked it. Another notable moment was seeing Courtney Barnett. I loved her set– she seemed so at home on stage. One day I’d love to see what she does with an intimate performance space. 

What is your worst habit?

Some of my worst habits developed out of some good ones. Like rigidity and future thinking. I’ll tour manage any and every situation I can get my hands on, even though I know deep down that so much of life is so far out of my control. And while TM Cassandra can really get sh*t done, and come in handy when that role is required, I need to remember to chill out and go with the flow sometimes! Also! Drinking coffee! It’s 11am and I’m on cup #2! Can! you! tell!? 

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What draws you towards the tradition of Americana within music?

After playing the Cosmic Country Showcase at the Hideout in Chicago, I fell in love with American country music all over again. So many of those songs are about emoting through every day experiences, and the cast of performers that night showed me how uniting, powerful, and radical it can be to emphasize emotion in the face of a capitalist world. I’m thankful to have grown up around the tradition of American fiddle tunes because it was so social, and playing that music allowed me to share a language and become friends with people of all ages from all over the country. The tradition is still changing, and I’m really drawn to people that interpret the tradition in interesting ways. Sam Amidon is my favorite example. We met when we were kids, and I’ve always been inspired by his musicianship, sense of humor, creative expression, and ways of thinking around art and music. It’s at once reverent and radical.

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What was your first date like?

My first ‘date’ was in high school with another musician in the same grade– a talented, quick witted and soft spoken piano player. A couple weeks ago I stumbled upon his postcard tacked to a bulletin board in a local shop, advertising piano lessons in my neighborhood. It’s been nearly 20 years since I’ve seen him, and I wonder if he remembers this as clearly as I do. I wore my favorite hat– a tweed newsboy cap with John Frusciante’s autograph sharpied on the brim, checkered pants, a dELiA*s catalogue sweater vest, and my prized hand-me-down John Fluevog platform mary janes. We took the subway down to Smalls, a jazz club in the west village, and a place I understood to have had a vibrant scene in its hay day. We went for the late set, but the plan was to hang for after hours, because that’s when certain players were rumored to unofficially grace the room after finishing their regular paid gigs. At some point someone spilled a cup of scalding tea on my lap but I didn’t budge from my seat. We sat behind the piano drinking apple juice until 3 in the morning before traveling back uptown. He walked me home. I don’t think we kissed that night, though I do vividly remember him as my first French kiss while “Help!” played on the TV in the background. We didn’t own cell phones. 

If you were given a limitless budget what would you incorporate into your live performances?

Gosh. I would just like to collaborate with a lot of people all over the world and be able to support them. I mean, yeah, surround bird sound that I could control by moving my hands like a technofauna sorceress would be so fun. But mostly I’d like artists and musicians to get paid better. I feel like I’m always calling in favors, and if I could give something concrete to the people who have supported me for all these years, that would probably feel really good.   

Any final comments? (This is your electronic soapbox for one last answer.)

I really like what you’re up to. Thanks for asking me to spill my guts on your website! Let’s do this again some time. <3 

 
Sean Maldjian