Best of What's Next: Cass McCombs
Hometown: Baltimore, Md.
Album: Wit’s End
For Fans Of: Bill Callahan, Leonard Cohen, Elliott Smith, Bonnie “Prince” Billy
When Cass McCombs asked me to conduct our interview via mailed correspondence, I found the exercise a bit strange. Phone and email conversations both provide immediate ways to speak with journalists about their work. But McCombs isn’t particularly concerned about discussing himself or his work in a conventional manner, nor does he feel the need to explain the reasoning behind his actions.
Despite making music for much of the past 10 years, few people really know much about 34-year nomad Cass McCombs. The Californian songwriter has embraced anonymity as part of his musical persona. His approach recalls the way like-minded melancholic songwriters Bill Callahan and Will Oldham have conducted their careers. Through avoiding interviews and remaining ambivalent to his public perception, McCombs has created an enigmatic aura around both himself and his despondent and pensive ballads.
As McCombs releases another collection of his poignantly soundtracked stories on Wit’s End the lyrics only add to the mystery of the man. McCombs, who has engaged in this series of letters as “part of an experiment,” provided Paste a look into his insight by answering some of our questions.
I have to admit this is a weird exercise for me. Not in a bad way, but in the manner of doing something you haven’t done much, if ever in my life. I remember as kid growing up, I had written letters to Chicago Bulls players like Michael Jordan and Horace Grant when they were winning championships. I was 6 or 7 at the time…I never heard back. That was the last time I had engaged in the exercise of letter writing in this way until now.
But anyway, I’m just going to write questions in semi-paragraph or bullet points—feel free to answer what you like or don’t like.
- I’m really curious as to why you chose to conduct interviews in this fashion? Was it in reaction to experiences doing phone or email interviews in the past; or were you attempting in a way to revive what has increasingly become a lost form of communication?
- I’ve read that you “don’t think you really make albums,” and that the songs on Wit’s End were just the most recent. I’m curious as to why you approach making a record in that way?
- With that approach to an album—would you say these songs are autobiographical? If so, what were some of the things going on in your life when writing these songs that informed what the record was about?
- I really dug the way you described in another recently published letter “The greatest art of any era comes from anonymous sources.” Not that you’re anonymous per se, but does ‘making art’ inform the way you write songs or do you concern yourself with just creating music as you feel—and whatever happens after happens? I would imagine it’s a combination of both, but I’m curious to hear your two cents on it.
- I’ve been trying to wrap my head about what appeals to me about your music. After thinking on it, I think that your music derives a certain power or conviction within the simplest of measures. Not simple as in easy to play, but it’s powerful without needing the forces of many different pieces. You convey a lot by doing little. Is that something you aim for?
- This record seems a lot more melancholic and stark than Catacombs. Was that your intention and was that the product of the way you’ve been feeling over the past few years?
On a personal note, thank you for writing “You Saved My Life.” It’s a song I first heard a couple years back when I was in an extremely dark place in my life—and it was one of those songs that really encapsulates a certain moment of my life well (at least in my own experience of it). I think we all have songs like that which we carry us throughout our lives. That will always be with me as one of those songs.
I appreciate you taking the time to write me, I’ll try and answer you questions the best I can.
This letter writing is an experiment, no reason why, just to see, that’s enough.
Albums are simply a collection of recent songs; it’s not The Waste Land or The Aeneid. I release collections, and I think others do as well, although they might not admit it. I try and keep it simple and only think song to song. The current thing I’m writing is the most important thing in the world. I was taught: “Keep it simple, stupid.” I write down what I’m thinking in a way that will keep my interest for a long time and keep me amused. When I let out what I feel then it’s done and I’m free, and I’m on to the next, it’s all about the free feeling of release.
I wouldn’t say the songs are autobiographical. Music is the marriage of the feelings of the living to the wisdom of the dead. I’m one of those that maintain that there’s a world that is hidden from the common view and our lives weave with those who came before us. The true-life stories in my songs are political, they show how the hidden people live, how I see people are living today, what it consist of, the real stuff, they don’t preach how people should be living, we each got out own issues we got to deal with before meddling with others. Hank Williams said: “If you mind your business then you won’t be minding mine.”
I am anonymous; at our best we are all anonymous, what I mean is we surrender our influence to the future. I have no idea what will become of my work in the future, the future folk will not be aware of our influence over them, as we are unaware of how our dead influence us. The streets we walk, the language we use, were created by those too many to trace, so we live for the future. This also ties into how the hidden people of our own time influence us greater than our figureheads. I think with my feet, not my head. So I say the future is folk whether the figureheads like it or not.
Simplicity, essence, power. Radioactive water dumped in the ocean, warwarwar—the last thing I want from music is a veil of confusion and vanity. Musicians wake up and create a more loving community by creating heavier music. Violence rules our world and love binds us all—these emotions I cannot only relate to but access through feeling. I don’t need the filter or morality or analysis to make life appear slower or sadder. I project love, music and love, and I pray for peace. A good song cuts straight to the heart, sometimes it doesn’t need to be too many lines—of course, I do love a good story.
Thanks again, hope this finds you well. Rest in peace, live in love.