Three days after indie-rock musician David Berman died by suicide, his would-be tourmate, Cassandra Jenkins, was processing the grief thousands of feet in the air. The singer-songwriter was on the flight to Norway she’d forgotten to cancel, to a friend’s wedding she hadn’t planned on attending.
“That seems like a really weird move — to go so far away — but I think that’s what life was asking me to do,” Jenkins tells SPIN over Zoom. “The ripples of this giant, life-changing event weren’t felt there, but I was feeling them. And I was feeling them through the landscape.”
Those ripples fed into the deep river that is An Overview of Phenomenal Nature. In February, Jenkins, 36, released the album, her second, to critical acclaim. Overview is a nimble album, filled with quixotic little paint strokes from her life, as on two highlights, “Michelangelo” (“I’m a three-legged dog/ Workin’ with what I got) and “Hard Drive,” where she chats with a museum security guard from Queens in a way that would make Paul Simon beam.
Jenkins’ songs are like haikus, where plain words sort of stumble into the profound. “The skies replace the land with air/ No matter where I go/ You’re gone you’re everywhere,” she sings, referencing Berman, on “Ambiguous Norway.” That lyric calls back to one of Berman’s, from the Silver Jews’ song, “Smith and Jones Forever” (“When they turn on the chair/ Something’s added to the air forever.”)
“It’s the idea that when someone dies, they don’t just disappear — something goes into the atmosphere,” she said. “I was thinking a lot about transmutation, how the landscape changes shape, more than I was thinking about my own kind of grief.”
Jenkins is perched at a desk wearing white overalls in her mother’s science “classroom” in their New York City apartment. “She’s always telling me fun facts about the moon, or snakes, or molecules — all these things she’s teaching her kids — and I love it, I’m like a sponge.”
When Jenkins returned from Norway, the emotional cleanse didn’t stop. She sold almost all of her musical equipment — “I was having a hard time with reality, of not knowing what I was doing” — a decision she soon regretted when Craig Finn, lead singer of The Hold Steady, asked her to open on his solo tour.
But more than equipment, Jenkins needed new songs.
“I was frustrated by how formulaic my life was feeling, how formulaic a lot of music was feeling to me,” Jenkins said. “[The new songs] read more like poetry because I really wasn’t thinking about music. I was thinking about words.”
Jenkins is a curious soul with a gentle demeanor — two traits that pair well with her pastime of birdwatching in Central Park. The meditative final track on Overview, “The Ramble,” is a collection of natural audio recordings taken on one of her walks — birds chirping, sticks crackling underfoot — set to synths, drone, and guitar.
“I go through phases where I compulsively record everything,” she said. “I knew I had dates [in the studio] coming up, so I just put these voice recordings, scraps of paper, emails I’d written, texts I’d sent, all of it, into one Google Doc,” she said. “I printed it out and brought it to the studio after I actually got together with Craig Finn to be like, ‘hey man, I love your writing. Can you please go through this with a red pen?’”
Finn obliged, pointing out what to cut, where to get more specific. “It was a dream and also kind of a nightmare,” Jenkins said with a smile. And wise, considering how many of her songs take place in New York City — a minefield of songwriting cliches. But Jenkins pulled it off. “[Josh Kaufman, her engineer] would be like, ‘All right, we get it, you grew up on the Upper West Side and you go to Zabar’s for a coffee and bagel, you can chill on that for a minute,’” she said, laughing.
When the album was released, Jenkins was taken aback at how many people connected with it. “I’ll get emails and DMs from people saying, like, ‘I just lost my Mom and this song is really helping me through that,’” she said. “Waking up and reading that first thing in the morning, feeling their pain, is really intense.”
Jenkins pauses. “But as someone who hasn’t always felt comfortable expressing themselves or expressing their opinion in an outright way — especially when I’m talking about things that are difficult — to be witnessed and accepted is so healing and so wonderful.”