The artist discusses their newly-released album Castle in the Sky, discovering their non-binary identity and the gradual queering of Jennifer Vanilla

BY ELEANOR NOYCE/AC CALLAHAN, IMAGE VIA 537MEDIA

A self-described entrepreneurial fantasy vessel and avatar-cultivation experiment, Jennifer Vanilla (they/them) is brought to life by New York-based performance artist Becca Kauffman. Their debut album Castle In The Sky landed on Friday 5 August, featuring tracks Body Music, Cool Loneliness and more. Critically acclaimed by the likes of Vogue, Stereogum, Pitchfork and Polyester Zine, Jennifer Vanilla is a concept that cannot be contained. Endlessly free-spirited, Becca Kauffman’s eccentric dance music alter ego’s latest endeavour is the soundtrack to life in full colour.

DIVA: Congratulations on the release of your debut album, Castle In The Sky. Could you tell me a little bit about it?

Jennifer Vanilla: The album has been in the works for four years because I’m a perfectionist! It’s a collaboration between Brian Abelson and I. It’s called Castle In The Sky because that’s an impossible dream, but we still try to get there, no matter how impossible. I think we all have our own castle in the sky.

DIVA: Your single, Take Me For A Ride, came out in June. Is it a good taster of what we can expect from the rest of the album?

I love that song, it’s one of my favourites. It’s the second track on the album, but it’s the main opener after the first warm-up track. It’s the ultimate invitation to the rest of the album. It really sets the scene. Like, come with me, I’ll be your guide, let’s go on this ride!

DIVA: How did you create the name and identity behind Jennifer Vanilla?

It popped into my head quite intuitively. I was on a road trip with my old band, Ava Luna, looking at street signs. I saw the name Jennifer and the word Vanilla came into my head, and I decided I liked it. At the beginning of this project, Jennifer Vanilla was high-femme, her pronouns were she/her and she only wore pink. There’s been a progressive queering of Jennifer Vanilla over the years. Ultimately I’ve found it really empowering to slip on Jennifer Vanilla like a glove and do thing things I might not have enough courage to if I weren’t inside of this persona.

DIVA: You’ve spoken about how you used to perceived Jennifer Vanilla as almost a drag act, and their character as a social mirror. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Performing is incredibly vulnerable, sharing what you make in public, on a stage. There’s a younger part of me that always felt like I fell short of womanhood or femininity or those standards, so Jennifer Vanilla was a big kick. There’s a lot of gender experimentation inside of it. I think of Jennifer Vanilla as confidence drag. In terms of the social mirror, I wanted to “peel back the curtain” and showcase embarrassment in a way—it felt like the character provided enough of a protective layer to just be brazen about humiliating things.

DIVA: Whilst in the production of this album, you realised you were non-binary. Has this influenced your creative processes?

I’m still figuring out and learning about the dimensions of my own gender. It was literally the night that NYC shutdown due to covid, that I was like “I’m a they”. During the last two years there hasn’t been this kind of social mirror of people’s perceptions of you from the outside, so there was an opportunity to just sit and think. In the past I’ve adopted many different gender expressions through Jennifer Vanilla. I think non-binary is a neutral slate for me to start exploring different directions, and now I begin.

DIVA: What key message do you want your fans to take from your music?

One of the things that inspired me to start a music project was my love of dance. The inner bloom that can occur on the dance floor and the release that can ensue. The most revelatory moments that I’ve had in my body were when I was experiencing my life from the inside out, rather than from the outside in, and music helps me do that. It would be cool if that happened for someone with my songs.

Castle In The Sky is out now. To keep up with Jennifer Vanilla, follow them on Twitter and Instagram.

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