“I think I would argue I’ve been touring too much for someone who doesn’t really have too many resources, but I was just so ready to get back out there after all that time,” says New York-based folk singer/songwriter Cassandra Jenkins. This May Jenkins was a featured artist in a VICE article about musicians who have contracted COVID since returning to the road. She tested positive in March, putting her touring on hold, forcing her to hole up in a hotel room and find a way to pay for all the expenses that would accrue. Yesterday, during a phone chat, Jenkins tell me that the experience of getting COVID “destroyed” her savings… However, like so many artists, she admits to being anxious to begin playing live again last fall, and being grateful for much of it, despite the conditions: “November was like the Wild West of touring, with no COVID protocols but, for a lot of people, that was their first show in two years, and you could feel the catharsis. That was palpable.”
Even with her bout with COVID, Cassandra Jenkins quickly returned to the stage, and spent much of June playing European festivals – including Primavera Sound in Spain, Loaded in Norway, Syd for solen in Denmark, Best Kept Secret in the Netherlands, and Sideways in Finland – and really enjoying playing live in the setting. “Recently, I’ve been enjoying festivals and seeing my friends from all over the world,” she tells me, and goes on to say that the modified environment certainly adds to her enthusiasm: “In the summer, when I’m loading my gear in and out it’s the sunshine and not the freezing cold or snow… It’s been so fun to see people and meet people at the merch table, which is outside, so I feel comfortable.” She also says that the camaraderie of a festival has helped to lift everyone’s spirits: “I got to see Sharon Van Etten four or five times. I’ve just loved seeing a lot of my friends outside, doing what they do best… There are so many things about touring that are so much more difficult now, but at least I get to see my friends.”
Cassandra Jenkins is currently touring behind An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, her second full-length, which was released in February of 2021. During our chat, she tells me that the album feels like her most personal release yet: “I really feel grateful that my voice came through on these recordings. I was not really making it for anyone but myself, and I feel like a lot of my humor and voice and general character came through in this album.” The album was, however, met with widespread critical acclaim, most notably by Pitchfork, who gave the album an 8.3, which Jenkins tells me was a major milestone: “I just felt understood.” But she tells me that it is the responses from her fans which stand out most for her: “I think a lot of people have this relationship with it because it came out at a hard time, so it’s quite common that people who are reaching out to me are saying, ‘Thank you for helping me through a hard time.’”
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is Jenkins’ first album on Ba Da Bing Records (home of PHILTHY favorites Arc Iris, Lady Lamb, and Sharon Van Etten), who she tells me are about, “Championing art above all other things.” But she also tells me that it is a more intimate affair than most people realize.
“It’s amazing. When I was putting it out it was just like two people, me and Ben Goldberg, and then Katie Von Schleicher and Pam Nashel… It’s really rare for people to respond to music in a very organic way. It’s all very low budget, low everything. We didn’t have a lot of resources… This is basically just two people, with me and Ben. You need to remember that. I mean, I’m going to the post office and sending everything myself… Music’s been really commodified. It’s treated like everything else we consume.”
Tonight Cassandra Jenkins kicks off a US headlining tour in Hudson, New York, which will have her at our very own Johnny Brenda’s this Monday, July 18th, which she tells me she’s incredibly excited about: “I’m excited that I finally get to play headlining shows in the US, which I’ve never really done, other than New York. I’ve never played Johnny Brenda’s, somehow, even though it’s such a legendary place. (I played World Café Live a long time ago.)” However, she also has a handful of upcoming US festivals: “I’m so excited for the Newport Folk Festival, Pickathon, and Outside Lands, which are festivals I’ve been to as a fan, but never gotten a chance to play.”
Despite her enthusiasm to be playing live again, Jenkins does want people to know how difficult it is for touring musicians to survive on the road in times like these: “I had to strip the band down in order to make it work without losing a lot of money. I want to be upfront about that because I don’t know if people understand what it takes these days.” And while Jenkins tells me that she’ll be playing all of the songs of An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, in addition to some new songs, she’s also careful to emphasize that the performances won’t be that of a typical indie rock show.
“It’s going to be quite ambient… I’m playing a lot with field recordings, with live mixing, and drones in different keys. There will be some field recordings that you’ll recognize and also field recordings that I’ve done on the road… I guarantee every single show I’ll play this year will be wildly different, and some people will like that and some people won’t [laughs]. As an artist, I always want to hear something different at every show.”
The live shows on this run of dates will include four people, on guitars and keys, but Jenkins will also be supplementing their sound with a particular type of local players: “We’re also going to be using local sax players in every city to keep costs down. We’ll have Great Time’s Jill Ryan in Philly; the one in DC I’ve never met, so I’m excited for that; in Newport I’m playing with one who I think plays with The National, but he’ll be sitting in with us for a few songs. At this point I’m collecting sax players all over the world!” Jenkins will also be bringing one special friend on this jaunt, singer/songwriter V.V. Lightbody, who will be both opening shows and playing keys for the headlining set, who Jenkins tells me will also be helping to keep her sane and balanced. In fact, she tells me that this tour will actually fulfill a longtime dream of hers and Lightbody’s: “We both have Buick LeSabre’s (It’s like a bus of a car.) – which I think were both owned by our grandmothers – and we’ve always joked that we’d go on a Buick LeSabre tour and that’s what we’re doing!”
*Get your tickets here.