Cass McCombs reflects on her music and what inspires her to grow

Musician Cass McCombs’ new album has achieved something he seeks in his writing: growth.

Since his first album in 2003, “A”, he has wanted to avoid repetition. Nineteen years later, and despite being hailed by The New York Times as “one of the great songwriters of his time”, he still finds songwriting to be a mysterious process. There is no predictable method. Developing his craft requires digging through layers of hard earth — “mostly shale, rock and dirt,” he says — in order to tap rich veins of inspiration. He describes songwriting as an act of devotion.

Why we wrote this

What makes growth possible? With the arrival of his 10th album, “Heartmind”, acclaimed songwriter Cass McCombs discusses what inspires him to grow.

“Heartmind” covers eclectic subjects, including the travels of a fictional jazz-blues band, a demobilized soldier struggling with his conscience, and the birth of a new Earth in which “dinosaurs descend Market St.” Mr. McCombs says his songs are like inner dialogues. He tries not to edit too much, capturing how deep his thoughts can be one minute, contradictory the next. Humor occupies a prominent place in his songs.

“The idea was to do something that sounded like something we had never heard before,” says Mr. McCombs, who is also a published poet. “Like a new territory. An unknown country. Somehow futuristic.

When Cass McCombs finished recording his 10th album, he emerged with something different than he had originally planned. While living in Northern California, the songwriter had been inspired to write about the Old West. His previous album included a precursor, a track called “The Great Pixley Train Robbery”. But he intuitively found himself instead making an album called “Heartmind” (debuting August 19) as a way to deal with the loss of several friends.

“Music has its own spirit,” says McCombs, whose American style encompasses folk, jazz, country and psychedelic rock improvisation. “He always does the opposite of what you want.”

Mr. McCombs’ new album has achieved something he seeks in his writing, however: growth. Since his debut in 2003, “A”, he has been keen to avoid repetition. Nineteen years later, and despite being hailed by The New York Times as “one of the great songwriters of his time”, he still finds songwriting to be a mysterious process. There is no predictable method. Developing his craft requires digging through layers of hard earth — “mostly shale, rock and dirt,” he says — in order to tap rich veins of inspiration. He describes songwriting as an act of devotion.

Why we wrote this

What makes growth possible? With the arrival of his 10th album, “Heartmind”, acclaimed songwriter Cass McCombs discusses what inspires him to grow.

“If you rest on your laurels or trust in things that have worked in the past, then the recipe is only mediocrity,” says Mr McCombs, who is also a published poet. “So you’re not going to create anything new.”

Eclectic Stories

“Heartmind” covers eclectic subjects, including the travels of a fictional jazz-blues band, a demobilized soldier struggling with his conscience, and the birth of a new Earth in which “dinosaurs descend Market St.” Mr. McCombs says his songs are like inner dialogues. He tries not to edit too much, capturing how deep his thoughts can be one minute, contradictory the next. Humor occupies a prominent place in his songs.

On the opening track, “Music Is Blue,” Mr. McCombs describes his relationship with the muse as a marriage with ups and downs. But the cheerful chorus concludes: “I would have no other way / I love her, she loves me.

“Cass’ lyrics have always really stuck with me. They tell such great stories,” says Nicole Schneit (aka Air Waves), whose upcoming album “The Dance” features Mr. McCombs on a song called “Alien.” “He dives a little deeper than the others. … They can be very deep subjects, but he will make it rather catchy.

“Heartmind” is dedicated to the memory of three fairly young musicians and McCombs collaborators who passed away in 2019 and 2020: Chet “JR” White, Sam Jayne and Neal Casal.

There’s a song on the album that talks about the loss of a musician friend. But that’s not gloomy praise. On the lively “Belong To Heaven”, angelic female voices coo on a drum rhythm that slams like a clapper board. Mr. McCombs’ warm guitar lines are a throwback to the soft rock of FM radio in the 1970s.

The rest of “Heartmind” is steeped in the spirit of Mr. McCombs’ former collaborators. As he said in a press release, “Their memories have guided me throughout and I hope they live on through the music.” The result is the most energetic and musically upbeat album of his career.

“Something new”

Breaking through presents its own challenges because you’re upping the ante for the next time, he says.

“Lots of rock music [relies] on established rules and structural things that people have already established years and years ago,” he says. “I’m interested in working with people who want to throw that away and come up with something new.”

When Mr. McCombs walks into a recording studio, he arrives prepared with songs built on solid foundations. If strong, they can support the experimental ideas of producers, engineers, and guest musicians such as multi-instrumentalist Wynonna Judd
Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Danielle Haim of sister trio Haim.

For example, the title track “Heartmind” features an instrumental coda in which the prevailing winds of a saxophone and Irish uilleann pipes converge. It’s not a combination you hear every day.

“There hasn’t been a lot of conversation or deliberation about the arrangements,” says McCombs. There was, however, much talk of finding musical progression.

“The idea was to do something that sounded like something we had never heard before,” he explains. “Like a new territory. An unknown country. Somehow futuristic.

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