Music In Conversation
Kamikaze Jones with Jennifer Vanilla
The Joy of Artificial Flavoring
Becca Kauffman is the government name used by Ridgewood-based entrepreneurial song and dance avatar Jennifer Vanilla, an ever-ebullient fixture of the Brooklyn performance art community. Once a member of the mercurial avant-funk band Ava Luna, now Kauffman utilizes their penchant for mutability to explore and push beyond the trappings of their assumed identity. Whether staging guerilla dance spectacles in Times Square or turning nonsensical self-help aphorisms into sinuous club bangers, Jennifer Vanilla functions as a neo-camp critique of modern main character syndrome, a living hologram that playfully deconstructs the artifice of relatability. With songs that celebrate the virtues of quantum disentanglement, Jennifer Vanilla nimbly teleports from corporate training simulations to computer generated paradises, cruising on the strength of a trademarked catchphrase or an irrepressible groove.
Committed to the long con and the art of the sale, Kauffman’s debut album Castle in the Sky, released on Sinderlyn Records in early August, is a sonic pilgrimage through multiple manifestations of a commercially manufactured consciousness. Co-engineered with musician Brian Abelson, this kaleidoscopic electro-roulette expands the outer limits of the Jennifer Vanilla universe. Encompassing inverted ad copy and sensual tongue-in-cheek platitudes over rubbery house arrangements, Castle in the Sky envisions an augmented reality in which Laurie Anderson is a playable character in Sonic the Hedgehog (“Jennifer Pastoral”) or where Robert Ashley is candy flipping at Bushwig (“Body Music”).
Kamikaze Jones (Rail): We first met when I took one of your virtual voice-over workshops during quarantine. For those not in the know, outside of Jennifer you are a prolific voice-over performer, primarily for television. During the workshop you mentioned how queer people are accustomed to “cosplaying normalcy” and that sentiment really stuck with me in terms of how we navigate the voice as an instrument or a performative vessel.
Jennifer Vanilla: Voice is always entering a third space; it’s embodied and disembodied in quick succession. With voice-over work the body is removed entirely from the equation, behind the curtain, never to be revealed. No one will ever know who the owner of that voice is. Our imaginations automatically produce images that correspond to our collective cultural indoctrinations. Like, “What does a young cool mom sound like?” That's my demographic, and that’s what I get a lot of auditions for in the commercial space. I’m neither young, nor a mom, but…
I do commercial voice-over work because I’ve always yearned toward an approximation of normalcy, especially as a child. Exoticizing the mainstream, and how it was reflected to me in the media growing up, was a way to lampoon but also internalize it. When I was a kid I would make tapes of fake radio shows and sell fake products, and I guess that’s really stitched into the DNA of the Jennifer Vanilla project.
Rail: Another thing that came up during the workshop was how I launch into this default “hetero-stoner pizza boy” voice, which is probably ingrained code switching that I do in scenarios I perceive as hyper-masculine. With you it seems like there's a whole bustling office of Jennifers. I hear everything from insistent QVC salespeople to delusional motivational speakers. I’m wondering if they all come from the same foundation or if they’re discrete entities?
Vanilla: First, I’ll say that I’m beginning to dissolve Jennifer Vanilla as a persona. As a character it’s starting to feel very limiting and boxed in. I’m trying to cultivate more vulnerability in my art, which I don’t like, but it feels necessary.
Maybe I’ve aged out of it. It was once a useful engine to practice power and authority. That’s the typical commercial voice for a brand or a product; “Take it from me! I’ve tried this and trust me, you’re gonna wanna try it too!” But it came from a place of disempowerment.
Rail: Hearing you talk about leaving the scaffolding of the original concept, it seems like Castle in the Sky is an apt metaphor for that, and speaks to the interplay between the synthetic and the organic that you’ve cultivated, which reaches a fever pitch on this record. It deviates from what people might associate with the classic “Jennifer Vanilla” sound.
Vanilla: I definitely think of the record as a path, very Wizard of Oz adjacent. There’s a process of transformation taking place, and a sense of arrival with the [titular] final track, but it’s a destination that can't be grasped. It’s a distant promise that keeps you moving forward.
Code-switching is something that the disenfranchised become more accustomed to. I think it’s common for queer and other marginalized people to have a widened range of vocal expressions and modes of communication, maintaining an eternal flexibility to adhere to certain codes of conduct. You become a keen observer and imitator of things you don’t feel a part of.
Rail: “Vanilla” as a construct or an extract reinforces that.
Vanilla: It’s definitely an extraction. I’m sure many performers understand the dynamic of needing to be witnessed in order to be activated. The idea of Vanilla for me was, “I’ll just start with a plain base, and the audience can add in the flavor.” I think of Jennifer Vanilla in the early days as a nouveau-stock character, a communal archetype that exists for you to project upon.
Rail: A majority of artificial vanilla flavoring comes from the secretions of a beaver’s anal glans. Are you familiar with this?
Vanilla: I had no idea, damn that’s good. Obviously anything that’s advertised as sweet and purely pleasurable has some kind of rancid underbelly, and that’s definitely started to seep out of the pores of Jennifer Vanilla too. Originally, I thought she was a two-dimensional character who wanted the best for everybody, but over time I got carried away and found her traveling on some extreme power trips. I soon discovered that Jennifer was not so innocent, not so vanilla after all.
Rail: The id of this character is definitely acting out on this album, I would say most prominently on “Humility’s Disease,” which has malevolent breakbeat energy.
Vanilla: When I first performed that song live, a friend was concerned that it was breaking the mold so brazenly. For me it’s the most brutally honest song I’ve ever written. Part of the gag with early Jennifer was that she was benevolently narcissistic. She had just beamed down to our planet, programmed only to introduce herself and to be personable. Jennifer was highly absorbent of the culture, trying to learn as much as she could, but very susceptible to capitalism. It’s funny that I’m referring to her as “she” because in this earlier stage she was so hyper-feminine, but that has also changed.
Rail: The Jennifer who fell to earth and their multitudes/fluidities …
Vanilla: I would constantly say the name Jennifer over and over again and it became one of those words where the more you say it the more multivalent it becomes. I created T-shirts with slogans that appropriated pre-existing phrases and replaced the operative word, often something like “God,” with “Jennifer.” That interchangeability allowed for Jennifer’s darker motives to seep out of the cracks in her facade, and “Humility’s Disease” addresses this domination of the ego, what you might call the “Jennifer” complex.
Rail: Your aesthetic for the music video, this Nickelodeon Satan with the rippling abs, reminded me of the eighties fantasy film Legend, where Tim Curry plays the Lord of Darkness. You could be playing their infernal offspring.
Vanilla: This makes a lot of sense now, because someone referenced Tim Curry after watching that music video, and I thought they were just giving me a compliment. One of my oldest inspirations for this persona was Little Orphan Annie, but maybe now I’m shifting more toward Rooster.
There’s obviously something perverse and unsavory about discouraging humility, and reveling in cycles of shame. I mean, I’m a Jew, so I don't believe in the devil.
Rail: Is Jennifer also Jewish?
Vanilla: Honestly, sometimes I wonder if Jennifer is my Gentile side.
Rail: How does utopian queer club music inform your work? On your prior EP, with songs like “Space Time Motion,” you create these cosmic Jane Fonda workout bops.
Vanilla: The dance floor has always felt like a place of infinite possibility for me. I love to contort my body beyond language, to suggest new methods of being and becoming. I think of it as escapist but also rooted in reality; the concept of moving in place but not attempting to go anywhere. We can have subjective inner experiences alongside one another, and create overlapping psychic environments. There's so many different ways to hold your body, to present a certain attitude, and to play with gender expression. It's fun to ride through the spectrum of that, to explore what parts of your body you associate with particular parts of your identity.
Rail: The song “Body Music” functions on two levels for me, one as a self-empowerment rave anthem and the other as directly transcending the limitations of Covid isolation.
Vanilla: Well, none of this music was written during the pandemic, except for the ballad “Cool Loneliness,” which probably makes a lot of sense.
Rail: That ballad reaffirms this dichotomy between organic and synthetic textures; on one hand it's a campy take on a mid-nineties quiet storm slow jam, but it also works as an intimate confessional moment, outside of the initial parody.
Vanilla: It’s in part about that disconnect we experience between physical and digital realms, and what happens when the screen is dark and it's just you in the material world? What kind of dependence have we developed on this consensual surveillance? How do we move or sing through it?