Agent: Jonathan Mattson
Territory: North America
Record Label: Sinderlyn
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Territory: North America
Record Label: Sinderlyn
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Pitchfork | Stereogum
Legend has it that Jennifer Vanilla was born inside a dewdrop high up in the sky, atop a leaf on the tallest tree on the highest mountain in an idyllic realm known as “Jenniferia.” The newly awakened babe heard a whisper in the distance, a name that danced and flitted upon the breeze: “Jennnnnnifffffferrrrrr.”
Born without genitalia, the humanoid alien Jennifer Vanilla soon opened a portal to the eastern coast of the United States using a magical braid that became entangled with the earthling artist Becca Kauffman. Together, the two embarked upon a musical adventure that ignited the imaginations of countless humans.
The baby Becca Kauffman was born at the banks of the Charles River Basin at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts during Earth’s topsy turvy late 20th century. Conceived by a lesbian bachelor through self-insemination using a sperm donor, Kauffman, who uses they/them pronouns, realized after the fact that Jennifer Vanilla’s sexless origin story mirrored their own. Kauffman first heard the name Jennifer Vanilla while sitting in the backseat of a van on tour with their former band Ava Luna. A quintessentially 80s name (the decade of Kauffman’s birth), Jennifer became Kauffman’s everyperson, an archetypal mold for building connection with strangers.
In the early 21st century on the bustling streets of New York City, Jennifer Vanilla is a container, a portal, a joy delivery system, a self help regimen, a social mirror, a Times Square celebrity, a shark-toothed advertiser, a kicky talk show host and an ebullient mascot. Kauffman inhabited Jennifer and transformed through Jennifer, and vice versa. This conversation in fantasy was, thank Jenniferia, dutifully documented and took shape as the full length album Castle in the Sky, to be released on Sinderlyn Records.
Collaboratively crafted by Kauffman and co-writer/co-producer Brian Abelson, Jennifer Vanilla’s debut full length is a deft and mercurial “jennifreaky” journey, traversing 90s dance music, no wave, post-punk, art pop, new age and experimental R&B.
“Consider this an invitation, I’ll be your guide,” Kauffman beckons on the album’s sauntering second track, which, like much of the album, is driven by Kauffman's nimble and virtuosic vocal delivery. Variously steely, theatrical, sensuous and authoritative, Kauffman’s vocals harken the sparkling precision of Ann Steel, the growling tenacity of Laurie Anderson and the wispy tenderness of Shelley Duvall in Faerie Tale Theatre. “People who make that direct address to camera as an interlocutor and conversationalist inspire me as someone behind the mic,” Kauffman says.
The first track of Jennifer Vanilla’s debut album includes field audio from the moment Jennifer Vanilla became irrefutably real – a dog had run onto the subway tracks in Manhattan, causing chaos on the evening of Jan. 2, 2019. Becca Kauffman spotted the hound, but it was Jennifer Vanilla who called in the tip and ended up on the nightly news. “This woman who calls herself … The Artist Known as Jennifer Vanilla,” was the newscast’s inaccurate introduction to the sexless alien.
Jennifer Vanilla performances often are exercises in the transformation of reality through fantasy, testing the limits thereof, while the songs of Castle in the Sky are an artifact of that laboratory. Many of these songs took on numerous incarnations over the course of years before arriving at their album form, mutated in direct response to audience reaction. The fantasy was always open to interpretation: blurring the boundaries was the point. “We could each be enacting our own personal fantasy of what was going on throughout the show,” says Jennifer Bear, who would recite poetry during Jennifer Vanilla shows written by their real world counterpart Elsa Brown, a vocalist and lyricist on the album.
This process accelerated during a United States tour in winter 2019, when Kauffman and collaborator Brian Abelson would tweak songs nightly while learning about the people who love Jennifer Vanilla and how to bring the songs to life. Abelson (who also releases music as See Other and other aliases on labels Lobster Theremin, Haus of Altr, and Sorry Records) says the songs took on wildly different forms during that period. Gradually, sonics shifted from synthetic to analogue, with a posse of accomplished live players contributing to the album, including Teeny Lieberson (Lou Tides, TEEN, Here We Go Magic) on guitar, Boshra Al Saa-di (TEEN, Saadi) on bass and Thesan Polyanna on saxophone. But the production approach stayed in an electronic space, with Abelson treating studio recordings as sample sources to unify the album’s sound.
The conversation of the record is one of transformation and reassurance – created over the course of four years, during which Kauffman had the realization that they were gender fluid and non-binary. Kauffman realized sometime in 2021 that their Jennifer Vanilla alter ego was far more queer than they had consciously perceived; it functioned as a sort of drag in its playful fantasy, always defined through a carefully nurtured relationship with the audience.
“How much shame was I born with? Was I born with a built sense of wrongness?” Jennifer asks on “Humility’s Disease,” a propulsive sprint at the album’s center that Kauffman describes as “a critical shortcut from self hatred to narcissism.” Abelson says the track was unique in that Kauffman arrived at the studio with the lyrics and vocal melody fully formed in a demo recording, while most others were hewn through a drawn out collaborative process. But the instrumentation underwent a transformation in service to the dance gods, from a subdued meander set to a dub techno sample to an aggressive post-punk manifesto. “It's a general theme of what we did – build on an initial idea and if it wasn’t quite working, we’d see if it fit in another context,” Abelson says. Like much of the album, the song is organized around a sense of travel and motion – Jennifer enticing the audience to move their bodies, running toward an avalanche of questions. “Where in the waves are you? Are you under, are you over, are you blue? Where in the crowd are you? Are you active, are you dreaming it’s true?
“I think if I, Becca, was watching Jennifer, I would feel inspired to take chances,” Kauffman says of their alter ego. But at this point, the line where Becca ends and Jennifer begins is up for debate. Jennifer Vanilla became a way for Kauffman to test drive their desires and curiosity, reflecting fantasy back through the mirror of an audience and seeing what sticks – even Kauffman’s artistic endeavors that exist outside of the Jenniferian realm, like a recent reenvisioning of a neighborhood intersection as part of their MFA work in Art and Social Practice, are still informed by the Jennifer Vanilla toolkit.
“That’s what the process of living inside of an alias has been for me, a way to identify the vision, see where you’re at, and close the gap,” Kauffman says. “I started Jennifer Vanilla so I could learn in front of people, and display a kind of curiosity and openness which I would probably be far too fearful to do without the cover of an alternate identity. It’s a distinctly Jennifer kind of courage to be curious out loud in this exhibitionistic way.”