This is the English version of this article. For Dutch, click here.
Cassandra Jenkins had only known David Berman, leader of cult favourite Silver Jews, for a couple of days. Berman, her, and a number of other musicians were rehearsing to bring his latest record to life on stage. For at least two months of touring, they would be Purple Mountains – or ‘David Berman and His Handsome Grandkids’, as he jokingly called the ensemble – had Berman not taken his own life, mere days before the first show. For Jenkins, this sudden loss, and the events that followed, would result in her most sincere and impactful recording to date: An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, a monumental album, permeated by Berman’s singular spirit.
Written by Ruben van Dijk
Photography by Wyndham Boylan-Garnett
“It’s almost like whiplash,” Cassandra Jenkins says of the time immediately following Berman’s death. “You’re shocked into this moment in your life, absorbing the shock, absorbing the change. There’s a lot of life-affirming stuff that happens in those moments, where you are shocked into remembering that life is fleeting, life is short.”
Jenkins had only made the decision to join the Purple Mountains line-up three weeks before, after having turned the proposition down initially. “I didn’t know him personally, so I didn’t know how kind and funny and warm he was. I knew that he was struggling and I knew that touring with someone who struggles in that way can be really hard, and I had to ask myself: you’ve been in that position before; do you wanna be in that position again, no matter who the person is?” On top of that, she had plans to record new solo material and visit friends in Norway. She ended up cancelling all of it. “I recognized how special of an opportunity it was. Something inside of me knew that I wanted to. And then when I met David, I just felt such kinship with him instantly. I felt welcomed by him in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I was nervous to meet him, and kind of intimidated, but he was so warm, so funny.”
“I think David’s music influenced a lot of other music, whether or not people were aware of it.”
The tragedy that followed left a void in a tight-knit community, one that had been anticipating the return of an exceptional songwriter who, after disbanding Silver Jews in 2009, had spent the last decade ‘playing chicken with oblivion’. After the band’s final album, Lookout Mountain, Lookout Sea, Berman had become a recluse, as he set out to answer for the despicable behaviour of his estranged father, Richard Berman, a conservative lobbyist for the gun and tobacco industry. Apart from occasionally updating his blog and publishing a collection of cartoons called The Portable February, Berman remained mostly under the radar. Collaborations, even fully completed albums with Black Mountain, Stephen Malkmus, Jeff Tweedy and Destroyer’s Dan Bejar were ultimately scrapped. It wasn’t until he met Jeremy Earl and Jarvis Taveniere of folk rock outfit Woods that Purple Mountains, the record that would mark his official return, really came to fruition.
The result was a striking album, more autobiographical than anything he had ever done before, inspired by the death of his mother, his recent divorce, and the enormous credit card debt Berman had amassed. A portrait of a shattered man that, despite the desperation at its core, also turned out strangely comforting. Like no one else, Berman could harvest solace from sadness, to turn a song called ‘All My Happiness Is Gone’ into the world’s most tragic singalong – or at least since Silver Jews’ ‘Honk If You’re Lonely’.
Jenkins: “I think David’s music influenced a lot of other music, whether or not people were aware of it. He acknowledged that. He joked that our band should be called ‘David Berman and His Handsome Grandkids’, making fun of the fact that he was older than us, but not really that much older. We were all in our thirties, forties. I think he was acknowledging his legacy, acknowledging that he is of a generation that we’ve all been really influenced by.”
Berman emerged on the scene in the early nineties, along with his college friends, Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich of Pavement, whom he formed Silver Jews with. A staunch independent, he became one of the most quintessential artists on the Drag City label, alongside artists like Bill Callahan’s Smog and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. “I am a nineties kid and that’s when a lot of his music was really popular – despite itself. It wasn’t trying to be popular. If anything it was trying not to be popular. David’s cynicism of any untrue aspects of the music industry and the way he conducted himself throughout his whole career really were felt.”
Despite their short acquaintance, Berman’s death leaves its mark on Jenkins – literally. Along with her bandmates, she has a set of purple mountains tattooed on her wrist, before each of them going their separate ways. “I travelled, I went to see friends. I think David’s death was a huge part of why my life was changing, but I was also in a new relationship, I suddenly had all these plans that were cancelled, and so I had all this time off that I really didn’t know what to do with.”
She ends up right where she thought she would be before Purple Mountains came into her life; visiting friends in Norway. That particular trip in the immediate aftermath of tragedy would end up at the core of An Overview on Phenomenal Nature. The song ‘Ambiguous Norway’, most of all, underlines the spiritual nature of the album, as Jenkins suddenly sees Berman in everything. ‘Farewell Purple Mountains’, she sings, ‘I see a range of cumulus’, and ‘The skies replace the land with air.’ A reference to the words of a Danish man she encounters, who explains to her that in flat Denmark, “giant sculptural cloud formations” are seen as substitutes for “monumental mountain ranges” like those in Norway (and a nod to Silver Jews staple song ‘Smith And Jones Forever’). When she texts one of her Purple Mountains bandmates about it, she is reminded of Berman’s middle name, ‘Cloud’, as well as a cartoon from The Portable February, entitled ‘Ambiguous Norway’. Looking down on the purple mountains on her forearm, still healing, she is floored by the confluence. ‘The poetry is not lost on me,’ she sings, ‘I’m left asking how it found me.’
“I’m spiritual in the most natural way, in that I feel like I see so much spirit in nature.” Jenkins is a regular practitioner of qigong, as well as reiki and yoga, allowing herself to be “a channel for something that’s already there.” “I think in moments of extreme grief, we can be really conductive, and for whatever reason, I was very conductive in that period. I just felt like I was seeing my experience in everything I was doing.”
The things she sees and the encounters she has in Norway, remain with her long after. “I still had the traveller’s lens on when I got home, which is a pretty psychedelic lens to have. It throws you off your familiar environment so that you’re suddenly seeing it for the first time, in a very different way. One way to throw yourself out of your element is to go to a completely unfamiliar place. You can also do that with drugs – but I prefer travelling.”
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature comes together during a brief period in October 2019, with Jenkins still wearing her ‘traveller’s lens’. Day-to-day observations, many of them scribbled down in a notebook on the way to and from the studio, merge with memories still fresh from Norway. A note left on the kitchen table by her Norwegian friend Ole, encouraging her to “have a swim” because the water “cures everything”, appears as a motive on the song ‘New Bikini’, lining up the fates of a variety of characters Jenkins has crossed paths with at another time.
The song ‘Hard Drive’, too, appears as a collection of vignettes, of seemingly unrelated encounters with friends and strangers – a security guard, a bookkeeper, a therapist. With more talking than singing, synths, and a sprawling saxophone, ‘Hard Drive’ has already garnered many comparisons to the music of Destroyer, but really is most reminiscent of Dan Bejar’s impenetrable lyricism. Much in the same vein as on his song ‘Crimson Tide’, disparate verses here are presented side by side with very little more than two words – ‘Hard Drive’ – tying them together. “It’s an unusual song,” Jenkins admits. “It’s a series of stories that, just because I’ve experienced them, through my lens, all relate to one another. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by that, by seeing those connections in things. If I pull a tarot card in the morning and it has a rose on it, I might see roses all day long – but what a wonderful game to be playing throughout the day with oneself! It’s a lens you wear; when you put it on and become a curious observer in your own life, you allow these experiences to happen, rather than trying to control them or influence them.”
In 2019, Ruben van Dijk talked to Dan Bejar of Destroyer about his collaboration with David Berman and the impact Berman’s music has had on him: “I’ve always gotten deep comfort from his lyrics, even at their darkest. I don’t find them harrowing, I find them soothing, even though they come from a dark or scary place that he’d go to. When he would come back with these words, it was seldom for some gothic purpose. It was always: I have seen some terrible things, and this is how you move through those things; here’s some wisdom that I would now like to deliver about those things. A very powerful light came of that. It was one of the things that inspired me to start writing songs in the first place, when I found out songs were a suitable venue for this strange way of expressing yourself.” You can read the full interview (in Dutch) here.
Just like David Berman would mine his lyrics from the mundane, from the everyday, from extraordinary encounters with regular people, Jenkins, too, finds inspiration and comfort in the specific, not the abstract. “I feel like I have no business with grand wisdom. I am attracted to it, and there are definitely truths that I’m looking for in life. But am I the one to declare them? No. But maybe there is some of that truth in my experience, and I am definitely an expert of my experience, if nothing else. That’s really the only thing I’m an expert of. So hopefully there is that experience, imbued with those larger truths – maybe they’re shining through in the interaction with a stranger or through the landscape that I’m looking at. Just maybe, I can be a channel of that.”
“I really like it when things achieve that balance of handling dark material but presenting them in a palatable way, because I think it’s just much truer to my experience.”
Of all the encounters highlighted on An Overview on Phenomenal Nature, none are more specific than ‘Hailey’, an entire song very literally dedicated to an Instagram post (since deleted) from Jenkins’ friend, model and actress Hailey Gates. ‘New year, new you, new me,’ she echoes in the song’s chorus. It’s the exact caption to Gates’ six-year old post. What made that one post so particularly remarkable? “Well, I think the whole thing for me is that things don’t have to be remarkable at all. If something hits you, it hits you. It can be the plastic bag rolling on the sidewalk in American Beauty, it can be this really extraordinary landscape. In this case I just remembered this post. And I like that it’s taking up space in my brain; it’s taking up really positive space in my brain. I’m thankful to people like my friend Hailey Gates, who are just pumping the atmosphere with beauty, with strength, with an integrity that I really admire. We all have a footprint and we all affect each other, and this song is my way of being aware of that and, in the process, putting more of it out there, to have it be an upward spiral. Here’s a song that’s just a platonic admiration of someone great, celebrating a life of beauty, so maybe you can take a little bit of that and put it forward.”
‘All I want is to fall apart in the arms of someone entirely strange to me,’ Jenkins sings on ‘Crosshairs’. She might as well be the patron saint of small-town small talk, intent on brightening the days of strangers, and her own, whenever she goes out for one of her daily walks. (“Not in a weird way,” she insists, “It’s not like I’m lurking in the park, waiting for people to talk to.”) “It’s really fun to strike a chord with a stranger that you know you’ll probably never see again. You can just share this moment. It doesn’t need to be a moment where you stop and you exchange numbers and stay in touch for the rest of your lives. It can just be a passing exchange: smiling at a stranger in the street if you catch their eye, it makes a difference in their day – or it might. Or maybe it’ll just make a difference in your day, because you feel that smile.”
“I meet great people every day,” she says, even during this past year of isolation. She talks about the people she meets on the paths, walking in the nearby woods, the hairdresser who turned out to have similar health issues, and the person at the pharmacy Jenkins fell in love with over the phone, albeit for three seconds. “We were totally in love. It was really cool.” A week’s worth of morning strolls might be enough to fill a record, if only she had been that kind of songwriter. “It comes in waves. I’m writing things all the time; there’s always something flowing out of me, but it’s not necessarily a statement that I want to put out into the world.”
Initially, Jenkins had not even intended to bring the songs on An Overview on Phenomenal Nature out into the world as such a statement. “I needed songs to play on tour, opening for Craig Finn. I was having a really hard time playing my old songs. I had just gone through so many changes and I just didn’t feel it. So I was like: OK, the only way to go on stage every night and play for people is to write new songs that I can actually get behind and connect with every night. I was almost just going to put it on Bandcamp and have nobody hear it.” Instead she sends it to her friend and Purple Mountains bandmate Katie Von Schleicher to verify if she is comfortable with the personal material on the album; to which Von Schleicher responds by offering to release the album on her record label, Ba Da Bing. “And the rest has just been wonderfully weird ever since.”
The softness and the lightness, the comfort that can be found in An Overview on Phenomenal Nature has resonated since its release, far wider than anything Jenkins has done before; and far wider than she had anticipated. “The writing process was pretty painful. I was crying a lot during that time, and I was actually quite sick at the time. I had the flu, which you can hear in some of the vocals. But there was something healing about just saying: this is how my voice sounds; I’ll have to embrace the gravel and embrace the fact that I’m going through a hard time. And that embrace that I allowed myself, I think, is the healing element. It’s also the embrace that I felt from people around the world who suddenly heard my music and embraced me, in a way that I’d never felt before. We’re all healing together, more than anything.”
“I think my favourite sensation is bittersweet. I really like it when things achieve that balance of handling dark material but presenting them in a palatable way, because I think it’s just much truer to my experience. There’s a lot of pain and suffering. We’re all dealing with something, and the more we can be OK with that, the less we’ll actually suffer. Music is a great opportunity to explore that territory. Being OK with not being OK is kind of the goal, I guess. And I learned that from other people. I learned how to balance the dark and the light from artists that I love and people that I play with. And David Berman was the master.”
An Overview on Phenomenal Nature is out now through Ba Da Bing! Buy the album on Bandcamp.