Cass McCombs: Music Is Blue
photo: Ebru Yildiz
The way Cass McCombs sees it, a song is never quite finished. It’s one reason why, despite recording 10 solo albums over two decades, the idiosyncratic singer-songwriter isn’t always fond of making studio records.
“Why I kind of don’t like recording is because it implies that recording is a song’s final arrangement, and I don’t agree with that,” McCombs says. “You just can’t pin [a song] down. But you can pin down a recording. I mean, it’s called a recording: You’ve recorded, you’ve logged it, you’ve given it a number and you’ve put it in the system. It just seems mechanical. But a song doesn’t really operate like that.”
Instead, McCombs views songs more like living, evolving things that can morph structurally—and even lyrically— depending on the players and the setting. It’s kind of like the way McCombs has ebbed and flowed over the years, never quite staying in one place or genre, but always remaining decidedly himself.
When it came to recording his 10th album, Heartmind, released in August, McCombs embraced the fluid nature of his songcraft and career. “I was very open to [how] these songs could go in any direction,” he says. “I’m gonna play it the way that I played it at home, but we don’t have to do it any one way, you know?”
It’s not unusual for McCombs, 45, to approach recording in that manner. Frank LoCrasto, who has supplied keys in McCombs’ touring band since 2016, experienced this while recording 2019’s loose and jammy Tip of the Sphere, the first time he contributed to one of the singersongwriter’s albums.
“Leading up to the recording, I was constantly bugging him: ‘What are we going to do? What’s the material? Can you send me some demos?’” LoCrasto recalls. “[Cass would say,] ‘We’ll figure it out.’ I got to the studio, and I had no idea what we were gonna do.”
McCombs had a notebook with 30 or 40 songs jotted down. “We’d be sitting there and he would open up his book and start playing a song,” LoCrasto says. “We’d learn it, do a few takes and then move on to the next one.”
It was, of course, by design. McCombs has a history of casting a wide net on his albums, welcoming collaborators from across genres and scenes: Big names like Mike Gordon, Wynonna Judd, Joe Russo, Angel Olsen and Danielle Haim have all appeared on his records, alongside jazz heads and renowned indie session players. Often, he’s trying to get those musicians to bring their style, unique phrasing and fresh perspective to a song. “Sometimes, to get that feeling, it’s really the first take,” McCombs says. “That one where you didn’t know the song—that’s your true self.”
For Heartmind, McCombs found a willing creative partner in Shahzad Ismaily, a New York jazz musician who plays bass in Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog and has worked with Tom Waits, Lou Reed and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Ismaily owns and operates Brooklyn studio Figure 8 Recordings, where McCombs tracked Tip of the Sphere. (Ismaily added Moog and hi-hat to a few tracks.)
It was Andy Kaulkin, the head of McCombs’ label, ANTI-, who suggested the two collaborate more closely for Heartmind. McCombs ended up enlisting Ismaily as a co-producer on five of the album’s eight tracks. (Longtime friend Ariel Rechtshaid and Buddy Ross, respectively, co-produced the rest.) “He’s an inspiring mind and a very good musician,” McCombs says of Ismaily, who was receptive to McCombs’ improvisatory approach. “It was a very natural, collaborative thing.”
Though Ismaily briefly saw, and met, McCombs during Russo’s 2015 residency at Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Three’s Brewing thanks to one of Figure 8’s engineers—Sam Owens, who performs as Sam Evian—he purposefully didn’t do his homework before working with McCombs on Heartmind. “I had zero understanding or awareness of who Cass McCombs was,” Ismmaily says, noting that they did have a few phone calls and that he read the musician’s 2019 book of poetry, Toy Fables before they officially started working together. “I got to walk toward him completely fresh.
“I’m a very instinctual, spontaneous kind of person—I’ve always been like that,” Ismaily adds. “So it suited me that Cass would start by saying, ‘I don’t want to send you any songs. I don’t really have anything recorded. I don’t have any sketches. I have some lyrics on a sheet. And I know how they go.’ So it was absolutely mystery style, all the way up until the day that we walked through the studio. There were moments where I felt a little bit anxious about that because I wanted it to go well. But I gave up on that and just went with what suits me anyway, which is how to make it feel great in the room at that moment.”
Ismaily suggested they start recording as a duo, building the basic tracks. As the songs would reveal themselves, they’d bring in session musicians to fill in the gaps. “Almost everything that took place was deeply improvisatory,” Ismaily says. “A jazz trio would come in and no one would say anything to them. I would play them the song, we’d do three full takes, and they would leave. The depth of these players in that sense—and how pointedly they could connect to the center of a song—was so beautiful.”
Heartmind is a compact album. It is just eight songs and clocks in at only 40 minutes, making it easy to split on one vinyl record. It features some of McCombs’ strongest songwriting to date and a disparate yet cohesive sound. There’s knotty rockers (“Music Is Blue”), rootsy Americana (“Unproud Warrior”), Dire Straits-y pop (“Belong to Heaven”) and an experimental, Yo La Tengo-esque slow-burn (“Heartmind”). Like much of his work—and McCombs himself—Heartland is hard to fully pin down. Yet, somehow, it all just works.
A San Francisco Bay Area native, McCombs splits his time between California and New York. (“Does anyone ever live anywhere?” he wonders aloud.) McCombs was active in the Bay Area DIY scenes as a teenager, melding folk, rock and psychedelic improv. “I have a complicated history with improvisationalrock music, if you want to call it that, because, in my high school years, that’s what I did,” he says. “It was anything goes—there were no rules.”
Though his ramshackle 2003 debut, A, was a mixed bag of freaky folk music, by 2009’s Catacombs McCombs had grown into a Pitchfork darling most often classified as an indie-rock musician—even if he didn’t always fit in with what indie meant then (or means now). “I really have a warm feeling for the indie approach that we had,” he says. “I was embarrassed by it for a long time. But now I’m like, ‘Fuck it, no, it’s hella cool what we did.’ We did it the hard way with broken-ass equipment. We somehow played weird house shows. I don’t know how it all worked out. It just kind of did.”
As he evolved, his improvisatory tendencies would slip out. He recruited Gordon and Russo to play on 2013’s Big Wheel and Others; he jammed onstage with the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and Phil Lesh; he participated in the 2015 Brooklyn Is Dead Relix event with Russo, Real Estate’s Alex Bleeker, Soulive’s Eric Krasno, Darkside’s Dave Harrington and many others; he formed the cosmic-country band The Skiffle Players with Circles Around the Sun’s Neal Casal and Dan Horne.
Indeed, McCombs has always straddled different scenes and sounds. It’s an easy catchall to label him an indie-rocker, but he also writes sensitive Laurel Canyon folk, chamber pop and blue-eyed soul. He dabbles in spoken word performance and writes poetry. When he wants to, he can rip extensive guitar solos or get experimental and weird.
“I don’t know where I exist. I’m still trying to figure it out,” McCombs says. “It’s like, ‘E.T. phone home.’ I don’t know.”
It’s an outsider ethos he borrowed— knowingly or not—from the Bay Area and one of their biggest exports. “When the Dead ended, for us, this kind of community developed and got interested in different kinds of music and styles and it mutated in a different direction,” he says. “One part of the ethos was always trying to do something kind of outside. The Dead always seemed outside—not just the Dead but the whole Bay Area thing. I came up through that and you see it in all forms of Bay Area culture. Bay Area hip-hop is outside of mainstream hip-hop. When we were doing our thing, we wanted to be as outside as you possibly could be. We thought that the inside was not interesting at all.”
As a songwriter and a person, McCombs is careful in how he chooses to reveal his true self. “Cass is fairly quiet, reserved, guarded, held back, heavy and serious,” Ismaily says.
“So much music that you hear these days seems like it’s almost therapy for the person who wrote it,” LoCrasto says. “I guess in some ways, you could say that maybe it is for him too. But he’s definitely not writing for himself. He’s telling stories. He’s like a poet.”
His lyrics can be incredibly deep but also off kilter. He’s satirical, like Mark Twain, even if not everyone gets the joke. “I am pretty distant at times, but I abhor irony,” McCombs notes. “I’m like anti-irony. It just really makes my skin crawl. But I love satire. I think irony has somehow replaced satire. And it’s just not interesting to me.”
Some of the more upbeat songs on Heartmind have a satirical bent. “New Earth,” co-produced by Buddy Ross (Frank Ocean, Bon Iver, HAIM), imagines a post-apocalyptic world that’s decidedly more pleasant than the one we currently inhabit. “Why does everything have to be this doom and gloom? Can we imagine another scenario? Is it possible we have the imagination to conceive of a brighter day?” McCombs says. In other words, maybe the apocalypse is a good thing. “Or at least funny,” he retorts.
Over a jaunty, almost tropical instrumentation, McCombs imagines a San Francisco that humanity reinhabits. There’s a passage that feels weirdly prescient, if coincidental. “It was a bad day/ Tweeting was muted all season/ Now it’s a glad day for the same reason,” he sings. “It was a bad day, Mr. Musk was in a bad way/ Stewing in his bullion like a phony chef/ So he left The Bay/ Now orchids mock him spread so wide/ With such a lurid flavor his foul name could not/ Hide.”
“I think that it’s kind of cool when people put certain aspects of our times in songs,” McCombs says, referencing the billionaire tweeter who purchased Twitter long after “New Earth” was written. “Songs can be anything you want them to be. They can be an imaginative space, they can be an escapist form. But also, it’s sometimes cool to put current things happening in songs. I try to just put it all in there one way or another.”
“Karaoke” will go down as one of McCombs’ best songs: a three-and-a-halfminute piece of jangly pop perfection that’s irresistibly catchy on the surface. Dig deeper to reveal the meaning behind the playful, meta lyrics.
“An allegory for phoniness,” as he puts it, during “Karaoke” the narrator wonders if their lover truly wants to be with them, or if it’s just an act, all while referencing classic songs someone might perform during karaoke. “Your eyes expressed a Vision of Love/ Your arms outstretched to me,” he sings. “We met Under the Boardwalk/ But did it mean anything?/ You sang a melody, unchained/ But will your love godspeed to me?/ Are you going to Stand by Your Man/ Or is it just karaoke?”
“With satirical humor you do have to put more of your heart into it,” McCombs explains. “With irony you can kind of check out and be a little snot. I think satirical writing is the person, it really is who they are, in a way, somehow more than confessional writing.”
There’s a depth to Heartmind beyond satire, of course. The album is dedicated to three musician friends and collaborators who passed away in recent years: Casal, Girls’ Chet “JR” White and Love as Laughter’s Sam Jayne. Despite that, Heartmind isn’t mournful; the bright, buoyant “Belong to Heaven” is the closest he comes to an overt tribute. “Music was all we needed/ Yeah, you’ve got to give it away to keep it,” he sings. “You surrendered undefeated/ Now you belong to Heaven.”
“Grief is a real, painful thing,” he says. “It’s hard to write songs about it. It’s hard to talk about and it never ends.”
McCombs comes across as a contemplative person, one who would rather pause and think before answering a question but makes profound observations in a casual manner. Working with McCombs, Ismaily came to understand him in a way that made him appreciate his craft even more.
“I understood over the course of making the record that Cass was a significantly deep person, as a lyricist and as a thinker,” Ismaily says. “He feels unintentionally philosophical, but not in an academic way. I feel like he’s approaching his humanness in a similar fashion. And maybe he’s doing it by being very introspective about his own life experiences and a friend’s life experiences. Because now that I’ve spent time with him, I feel like I see him. He’s someone who watches a friend’s life and ruminates on it beyond just crossing paths with them and having dinner. He feels like he has the same internal imaginations about their life and his own life. The way that he immortalizes a friend is very sweet, very loving and very three-dimensional.”
The half-sung, jazzy “Unproud Warrior”—which features contributions from Judd and her husband, Cactus Moser—is a stunning, moving narrative about a soldier who enlists when he was 17 and returns home from war, juxtaposed by a list of teenagers who wrote iconic books, like Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. On paper, it comes off as complex and overly wrought; on Heartmind it’s rendered beautifully by McCombs, Ismaily, and a cast of collaborators. It’s a perfect example of why McCombs has endured as a musician for more than 20 years.
“There are songs that I paint over and take forever; some songs I just spit out and it feels better that it’s not not edited,” McCombs says. “The kind of beat-poet approach is to just accept the flaws, and if it’s ugly, well, that was who you were at that time. Songwriting is an interesting test of one’s will.”