Cass McCombs is an American singer-songwriter who makes often-sad music steeped in storytelling and poetry. He has released six albums: A (2003); PREfection (2005); Dropping the Writ (2007); Catacombs (2009); Wit's End (2011); and Humor Risk; all recorded for two of the greatest indie record labels, 4AD and Domino. Wit's End served as a semi-breakout, due merely to the fact that it was one of the best albums of 2011, and met with much critical acclaim for its elegant, downcast melancholy. Born in California in 1977, McCombs has lived a famously nomadic existence; and, for this interview, spoke whilst "just staying for a few weeks with different friends" in New York. McCombs often declines interviews, and those he does give are often cagey and terse; and so it went for much of this telephone conversation.
Interview: 14 October 2011
Every time you release an album it seems as if you're living somewhere different. Do you feel like a wandering minstrel? Has a life of touring influenced how you are as a person?
"Not really. I got into it pretty late. I'm old. So I got a lot of my traveling out of the way before I ever went on tour. These days, I don't tour too much, you see. Because I don't really always have a steady band. And we don't really make a lot of money at it. I wouldn't call it my job, because I don't really get paid so well at it. I'd much rather say to people that I don’t have a job, but I have a passion, and that's music."
If you're considering yourself currently unemployed, when was the last time you had a job?
"Long time. Ancient history man. Like, ten years. I don't even remember. D'you remember what you were doing ten years ago?"
With the last record, you chose to communicate with the press via handwritten letters. Why so? What does letter-writing mean to you? Do you see it as a symbol or motif for something lost? Did it mean something beyond a mere different way of doing things?
"I suppose I wanted to do it to retain control. At the end of the day, these interviews are going to be recontextualized by the writer. You can just cherry-pick things that I might say, and take them totally out of context, if you want. At least with the letter, there's an original document that they all come from. And, in many cases, publications just printed the entire letter. Then, it became almost like a mini-essay. It was a direct communication between myself and the writer, and also the listeners. I didn't think of it as being a 'better' way of doing it, it was just clearer."
That feeling of a lack of control, the fear of things being taken out of context, is that a fear you also have for your music? That it can be misinterpreted or misrepresented by people, thereby changing its very definition, in a way?
"No, because I don't have an editor. My music is directly from me. And if people take the time to listen to it —and not just, say, five second snippets— then there is no misinterpretation. I want people to interpret my music in their own way. My music is totally wide open, for anyone to make whatever they want out of."
So you're never disheartened by the way it can be taken? How it can get reduced?
"No, I don't care. I don't care if people like my music. My words are written in a way where the meaning is open to interpretation. There is no key to unlock a meaning. They touch on certain ideas to make the listener stimulated. And, hopefully their imagination comes up with their own meaning, their own interpretation. That’s the whole point of it."
So a song like "Mystery Mail," which is so full of specific detail —proper names, geography— doesn’t have a very specific story to tell, and a singular way to be read?
"Even in stories like that, there's still a lot of grey areas. You can find grey areas in a newspaper article. You look at a newspaper, it's impossible not to question what the hell is really going on beneath this story that you've been given. That’s what a reader should do: think for themselves."
Are you at all worried about the nature of music consumption these days? As in: the way people are listening to records by streaming them online or skipping through files, as opposed to spending devoted time with an album?
"No. It doesn't matter to me whatsoever. Because my music, I know, doesn't appeal to everyone. It appeals to a very small group of people, y'know? And most of them get me. In a second. And all the other people who don't, I don’t know what happens with them. I don’t know why they don’t. I guess I'm not trying to make a big, overarching statement. Y'know? I’m not interested in that."
Were you surprised when you first discovered that phenomenon, of being understood by people?
"No. Because I’m honest with my listeners. And, to begin with, my music has always been closely tied into my friends lives, and their artwork. I show it to them, I bounce ideas off them. So, I already know that a communication already exists, so it's only natural that it will find more people. My music is already a response to my friends' creativity, so it's a communication. It only makes sense that people that I don’t know will be inspired, and continue that communication. And then someone will continue it after them. And someone after them."
Did you always have that feeling about what you were doing? That you were a part of this dialogue, this exchange?
"I don't know. I guess it's something that I've slowly realized. Maybe I always knew it? To begin with, I've always been musical. I've been doing this since time began. At first, I learnt music to better myself at my instrument, to challenge myself at my compositions, to study and read about and listen to as much music as I possibly could. To find a firm footing. And, from there, what seemed important to me was to trust the advice of my closest friends."
What was it that marked the end of that research phase?
"It hasn't. I'm still learning. I'm still growing. I hope I'll never stop. Creativity is a by-product of learning. There should never be more creativity than learning; that would be lopsided."
What were you learning from, or drawing inspiration from, when you were in the process of making Humor Risk?
"I don't think any of the music that I listened to in the lead-up to making it is pertinent to the album. There are other things that are more influential. Real life things. My music isn’t influenced by music. If anything, it's influenced by itself. Or, at least, my friends’ work."
What things were a more pertinent influence on this LP?
"Changes in my life. More importantly, changes in my friends' lives. A lot of my songs aren't even about my feelings. I don't really care to talk about myself and my feelings this way. I want to write about ideas and people that inspire me. If I take influence from anyone's music, it's music from decades ago. But mostly, I'm influenced by the people who are around me."
When you say you don’t care to talk about yourself, do you mean in interviews, or in songs? Or both?
People these days are conditioned to look at art through the lens of the artist, that their work has to be a product of their life, their experiences. How do you feel about people doing that with your albums?
"I feel people doing that. And I would always try to steer them away from doing that. To a more poetic interpretation. Of not just my music, but of all other people's art. It's so tiny to think that each individual is solely responsible for their art. Art doesn't come from within the singular, it comes from everywhere. I can't believe I'm the only who says this, it’s plain-as-day to me."