As the lead singer of cult Brooklyn band Ava Luna, Becca Kauffman has always reveled in their craziness. Of their whoops in “Sears Roebuck M&Ms» to the whimsical word of «Steve Polyester”, Kauffman’s unpredictable personality helped push the band’s craziest songs over the finish line. Kauffman further explored this potential under alter ego Jennifer Vanilla, a pseudonym under which they created tongue-in-cheek electronic music that parodies the camping advertisements and fitness class that once dominated pop culture.
On their 2017 compilation It’s Jenniferthe music itself reflected this period: disco, lodgea track built almost entirely from a Sample “Glass heart” in slow motion. If this collection was a comedic pastiche, then 2019 JENNIFER EP showed a more serious reverence for dance music – and now their debut album, Castle in THE sky, picks up where the EP left off. “Dance is an expression of emotion/Often a kind of aspiration/Towards complete physical well-being and fulfilment,” they recite breathlessly over a piano-house beat in “Body Music.” With production from longtime collaborator Brian Abelson, who co-produced and co-wrote the album, they push beyond their comfort zone, experimenting with jazzy sax solos and genres like dance-punk and R&B.
When Castle in THE sky brings the fun, that’s largely down to Kauffman’s production choices and their vocal inflections. Instead of sanding down the rough edges, they leave these songs just a little jerky. Synth pads sound unbalanced; the drum machines click awkwardly. They never take anything too seriously, even when they appear to be reciting mantras. When they exclaim “We’re going down in the wrong direction!” atop the midnight dance floor of “Take Me for a Ride,” they growl and accentuate their words. “Take this as an invitation/I’ll be your guide,” they sing in a nasal trill before a repeated chorus of “on and on” warps and bends in every direction.
More Castle in THE skyDuring Kauffman’s four-year genesis, they realized that they were fluid and non-binary, and that Jennifer Vanilla was always an outlet to explore their queer identity. Castle in THE skyThe personal moments of feeling attached to this journey, albeit indirectly. ‘Humility’s Disease’, a goofy dance-punk adventure, explores internalized shame and the difficult process of overcoming it: “Was I built with a feeling born of error?” they ask. “Are you rigid, are you open to learning?” On the R&B ballad “Cool Loneliness,” they navigate the dissonance between how they feel on and off stage. In these songs, you can hear Kauffman letting his guard down as their character traits mostly fade away. It’s a compelling insight into the internal conflicts beneath the gleaming veneer of the music.