Moving on, passing through, on her twelve-hour visit to Vlieland, we caught up with New York based singer-songwriter Cassandra Jenkins, who is still riding the waves of her breakthrough album An Overview On Phenomenal Nature, to talk about life on the road.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Photography by: Tom van Huisstede
There are few places in the Netherlands where people commit to their escapism like they do on Vlieland during Into The Great Wide Open, a festival that sees over six thousand people, many of them families with young children, migrate to what (for Dutch standards) is a rather remote place – for a single long weekend. The journey by shared EV’s, trains, and ferries is justified, among others, by the wild, natural beauty that awaits. It’s a place that feels ‘unspoilt’ when compared to the cities where most of the attendees usually reside. Except it really isn’t.
When considered on a geological time scale, the forests got to the island of Vlieland just before the festival crowds did. Trees indigenous to Mediterranean climates – predominantly maritime, black, and Corsican pines – were planted only in the 1920s to hold together sand dunes that were otherwise destined to be swallowed by the North Sea, threatening both the local shipping industry and the mainland. It is just another example of the Dutch employing nature in order to take matters into their own hands.
It's hard to imagine such a grand assertion of human dominance setting foot on the island now – a hundred years later. Within the realm of music festivals, Into The Great Wide Open is at the vanguard when it comes to sustainability. Its goal of ‘climate positivity’ rings somewhat comical, grandiloquent in its own way, but the organisation does largely succeed in leaving the place as they found it. Proving their relevance as a cultural, communal event, while respecting nature’s indifference to whoever’s gracing the stages.
That being said, on the evening of Cassandra Jenkins’ performance at the festival, it’s hard not to look at said pines and imagine that their swaying is to the music.
Fresh off the water taxi, Jenkins descends from her (land) cab carrying the day’s journey with her – knowing she will be leaving the island again in less than twelve hours. Though there is no fatigue about her. Instead it’s as if a soft easterly wind has just gently placed her there.
As we set out for a walk away from the festival site and into the trees, she describes the “many iterations of trying to get here”; the vans and planes that were suddenly cancelled; how her band had come into Amsterdam from London the night before, but had to loop around all the way to Hamburg in order to pick her up. “It was pretty insane. It takes a lot of work to get to an island, but the benefits are always very clear once you’re there.”
"I’d rather let feelings, whatever I react to in the environment, just move through me."
She reminisces: “At home, I feel like in the summer everybody’s desperately trying to get to some island, whatever island that might be. And it always is such a project. I had friends that I used to go to Fire Island with and my friend Jessica would make a full-on PDF for everyone. A ten-page PDF on how to do it. Just to go on vacation.”
The release of her breakthrough album An Overview On Phenomenal Nature in February 2021 had largely been an online affair. But ever since May, Jenkins has been touring ceaselessly. Sometimes alone, with local saxophonists, or accompanied by between two-and-five members of Glaswegian indie band LYLO. “It feels really gratifying to be doing this,” she stresses; to be travelling from place to place, meet people all over the world, to play a show wherever she goes. “There’s so many things just today where things could’ve gone deeply wrong. And things did go wrong, but we navigated it. That’s so much a part of being on tour. I feel like you get into a space where you’re shaken out of the idea that things are going to go the way you think they will. It’s freeing and it’s hard and it’s wild.”
Much of An Overview On Phenomenal Nature originated on a rocky island archipelago called Lyngør, off the southeast coast of Norway, where, after David Berman passed away, her friends put her up for a few days. [You can read more about the story behind the album in a previous interview we did with Cassandra Jenkins.] Much like Vlieland, Lyngør exists largely as a means to escape – a heavenly place that’s hard to get to, but even harder to leave; a wholesome destination you would almost forget has a year-round population and an infrastructure keeping it afloat. Such was Jenkins’ time there: spiritual and sublime, a time of grief wherein the sea and sky were hers to observe.
On Vlieland, the pines make way for a greenish grey structure and an elevated body of water that has some gulls quietly resting. We stop and marvel at this sudden change of scenery for a few seconds. It takes a while before both of us realise it’s the island’s wastewater treatment plant.
As we emerge out of the forest and sit down on a bench overlooking the Wadden Sea, Jenkins admits that she definitely has not been feeling grounded – these past few weeks. “But I do find that even the slightest bit of nature can bring me back there really quickly,” she says, her eyes dancing across the muddy shore, where the tide seems to be coming in again. “Even just right now, I can see the birds in front of us. It looks like they’re looking for molluscs of some kind. I could just watch these guys for a few minutes. It really takes me out of whatever I’m worrying about. And it’s not that they’re sitting there, trying to heal me; trying to give me some kind of spa experience. It’s just about watching them, not really knowing what the hell they’re doing.” Our eyes drift towards a minor tidal rapid. “Nature just snaps me into that observation space really quickly,” she continues, “because there’s so much to observe.”
Taxing as the dichotomy of a ‘natural’ space like Vlieland’s, which calls for patience and observation, and the immediate ecstasy economy of a music festival can be, especially when you’re moving through so many of them in such a short time, Jenkins is striving to be better at transitioning. “I’m trying to find a space where it doesn’t matter where you are, you’re just the same. I’d rather let feelings, whatever I react to in the environment, just move through me.”
During her time in Norway in August 2019, she saw 'purple mountains' in the clouds, wherever she went. Back in Bergen almost exactly three years later, fate – or whatever you might call it – seemed to be on her side once more. A last-minute change of venue saw Jenkins suddenly performing on the top floor of a tower, overlooking the exact kind of fjords-bathed-in-Alpenglow that she’d normally have projected on a screen behind her. Earlier that day, while wandering through the old city, she came across two restaurants on the same street; one called Michelangelo, one called Pygmalion, both of them songs on her current setlist. “When it’s impossible to get settled in a routine and all of your guards are down, there’s all these fun little things that happen. But I try not to think too deeply about them, or get too solipsistic about it. I think it’s too easy to think: it’s all here for me.”
We make our way back to the cacophonous backstage area after twenty-five minutes in a forest the nature of which is transient - just not quite as transient as ours. Speaking to an artist who excels in eliciting magic from such earthly and ephemeral moments, it is hard not to want and find more of that magic in your life. On that, Jenkins offers some final words of wisdom. “I think the most important thing is to try not to drive it yourself. Because as soon as you’re searching for meaning, it always just feels forced and falls apart. But as soon as I open myself to not knowing what I’m noticing, that’s when I really start to feel this thing. For example, I was in Hamburg yesterday and my mom texted me: ‘That’s where all of your ancestors are from.’ I think as an American there’s this temptation to go to your homeland and feel connected to it. And I noticed myself thinking: do I feel connected to my ancestry? That’s what I’m talking about. I was looking for the feeling. Of course, I didn’t find that feeling.”
Perhaps all that phenomenal nature is lost in our hands.