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Art can often be a constant process of refinement, but Cass McCombs has finally perfected his approach. This week, the 35-year-old singer-songwriter is set to release his most ambitious project to date, a sprawling two-disc album titled Big Wheel and Others. On none of his previous albums has the California-born, Brooklyn-based drifter so finely honed his songwriting talent.
With his 2008 breakthrough, Catacombs, McCombs found a balance between two of his strongest abilities: haunting love ballads like "Dreams-Come-True Girl," and poignant character studies like "Jonesy Boy" and "Lionkiller Got Married." Big Wheel and Others is a more focused culmination of these abilities, but it also marks a new chapter in his career.
In the past, McCombs's songs have, more often than not, been a reflection of the artist and society at large. But new songs like "Big Wheel" are strikingly direct. McCombs has a unique talent for inhabiting characters, but on Big Wheel and Others, the voice is usually his own, the lyrics bolder and more sincere.
McCombs has been painted as a misanthrope in the media, mainly because of his reticence toward interviews and social media. But in conversation after a surprise performance at Bar4 in Brooklyn, there's no smoke screen, no façade. He has the air of an artist comfortable in his own skin, unencumbered by the Internet's mix of nasty comments and empty back-patting.
Considering his stance on social media, you would think he'd be up for trashing it a little bit. But weeks later, over the phone from LA, he simply says it's not for him.
"To each his own," McCombs explains. "I play music. That's how I communicate with people."
While clearly dodging the question, he's also got a point. When you make music as intensely revealing as his, there's really no need for constant elucidation. In a perfect world, most artists would share this view, but we live an age of oversharing where the curtain is always up, which makes McCombs one of very few artists to save all of his bleeding for the music.
This can make navigating an interview with him somewhat tricky. (His publicist once told a Nashville publication that McCombs would only conduct interviews with female journalists because it allowed him to open up more and speak more freely.)
It's a bit of a coup to even get him on the phone.
There are rules, though. No questions about who played on the album or where he lives. He wants to talk "ideas in music on a universal level."
McCombs recently injured his hand skateboarding, and he explains he doesn't believe in Western medicine. He's been visiting shamans who have recommended herbs and a strict diet of hot food. He's toyed around with meditation as well, but playing music, he says, is already quite meditative.
Onstage, it's clear what he means. Even while wincing through a six-song set at Bar4, he locked into the hard-stomping groove on "Big Wheel" with eyes closed, head bobbing side to side.
"That's really where it happens for me," he says. "I don't really feel like I can totally express myself in a studio. I'd rather be onstage."
As the opener on his new album, "Big Wheel" is at once its centerpiece and also something of a mission statement. Hearkening back to McCombs's early 20s, when he worked brief stints as a construction worker and a truck driver, the lyrics consist of shout-outs to steamrollers, bulldozers, and "driving far alone" intertwined with a peacenik ideology that has colored much of his recent work, including a tribute to jailed folk hero Chelsea Manning.
Since the early 2000s, McCombs's creativity has thrived on his penchant for traveling. Though he divides most of his time between LA and New York, when he isn't touring he often sets out driving cross-country, crashing on couches, visiting friends and writing songs along the way.
"Traveling and continuing to travel and listening to people's stories has truly affected the way I write songs, because I'm able to directly put people's stories into a song," he says. "It's very direct."
In his lyrics, McCombs adopts the voices of people he meets on the road: outcasts, rejects, those relegated to the fringe of society, whose existence says something about where we are or might be heading. On another new song , "Joe Murder," he sings about a drug dealer who cuts his product with milk sugar. "Such a frugal drifter," he sings. "But not all who wander are lost."
McCombs says one of the most inspiring people he met while traveling was cult actress Karen Black, with whom he collaborated on Catacombs for "Dreams-Come-True-Girl." In the late stages of the ampullary cancer that took her life in August, Black contributed vocals to "Brighter!" on Big Wheel and Others, casually ad-libbing the line "brighter my ass."
"Every person she met, she instilled in them a sense of dignity," McCombs reflects. "She didn't project any amount of hatred, although we had once talked about writing a 'Fuck You' song. She was just so open to feeling things and expressing herself that the idea of writing a 'Fuck You' song probably sounded fun and light to her."
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.
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."