Producer Ariel Rechtshaid was on hand to record Black's vocals. He explains the process as difficult, considering the rapid deterioration of her health.

"She just taught me so much," McCombs adds. "Karen was probably the most interesting and caring person I ever met."

Black lives on in his music among an assortment of colorful characters. Considering her influence on McCombs, it feels appropriate for her last recording to appear on his best work to date.

Kicking Cass: A kinder, gentler McCombs
Pony Cassells
Kicking Cass: A kinder, gentler McCombs

McCombs lets it slip that his secret to better songs lies in sharpening his focus on writing. "I'm spending more time on it," he says. The more he talks about songwriting, the more it sounds like he's actually talking about his life. "I want to test boundaries in myself, and I want to challenge my own pillars of morality. I'm not satisfied with any kind of structure."

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