Cass McCombs Is a Folkie (or Punk, or Pop-Rocker, etc.) Apart
Photo by Rachael Pony Cassells
"It'll be a big winter party," says singer-songwriter Cass McCombs of his upcoming concert at the Bowery Ballroom. "It will get cold," he warns, addressing the oncoming chill in the face of December's uncharacteristically warm weather. "We will have to warm ourselves. It will be great to play a long-ass show."
McCombs did just play the Beacon Theatre in November, but that was a succinct set opening for My Morning Jacket; his fall tour with Kurt Vile was spent performing similar duties. At the Bowery Ballroom, McCombs climbs back into the driver's seat to headline a one-off show celebrating the December release of A Folk Set Apart: Rarities, B-Sides & Space Junk, Etc. The compilation's title is only partly self-explanatory: Singer and songwriter he may be, but, comprising songs from 2003 to 2014, this assemblage runs from punky to poppy; some numbers come framed in jazzy arrangements and some add soul flourishes. The title is more cryptic wordplay than straight description, though there is folk music here, too.
Like McCombs himself, his work isn't easily pinned down. He has a house in Northern California — and is a California native — but has also gained a reputation as something of a rover, due to time spent in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. He chose New York City deliberately for the only record release show (so far) for A Folk Set Apart.
"I've been in New York on and off for a long time. The city is accepting of drifters; it's a generous city, very welcoming of travelers," the 38-year-old says, speaking from Brooklyn. He talks in a sultry drawl and his words free-fall rhythmically, like Beat poetry. "We might tour," he adds, though it sounds like that thought is immediately back-burnered on account of some more pressing matters at hand. "I'm in the middle of making a new record, and there's a lot more work to do with that. Sometimes it goes fast, but sometimes it's a killer. We're in the rabbit hole right now. We're in the nightmare. No kidding. It's growing though, but I'm struggling."
Until the new record appears, A Folk Set Apart's nineteen songs — five of them previously unreleased — should satisfy fans and casual listeners alike. As these retrospective compilations often do, the record pokes around in the dusty corners of creativity and artistic/personal evolution. McCombs spent the Nineties playing in bands, but by the turn of the new century he was booking shows under his own name. (Even so, he's not just a folk guy set apart with a guitar and some words; McCombs generally makes music with his longtime squad of adroit players.) Overall, A Folk Set Apart presents snapshots of an artist in motion and offers the listener a glimpse behind the curtain. It brings us further into McCombs's creative process. Or perhaps not.
"Maybe it's revealing, possibly," he offers. "I would imagine it would be revealing that someone — myself, in this case — would grow in a decade. Or evolve, or devolve. Get older, wiser, or stupider. It doesn't reveal anything to me.
"It was fun putting it together, though," he continues. "I got nostalgic for the people I played with and shared time with making the songs. It's a trip down memory lane. Any album is only one version of, or example of, who someone could be. It's not who I am. This album is an example of a weird Mr. Potato Head with his tongue where his eyes should be. It's cubist. I like it."
Neither does McCombs offer up any critique of his early work, accepting the songs from that period with obvious affection. "I remember when we did an early version of 'I Cannot Lie,' here in New York, in an apartment," he says of one of the cuts from the new compilation. "It was done on a four-track; we did it really scrappy-style and it worked. I just love it when things go like that. Many of these early songs were recorded like that: like, 'Hey, we're going on tour, let's record something so we can make fifty bucks.' "
He doesn't want to polish up that scrappy style and rewrite his own musical history with the benefit of hindsight and better equipment. You get the impression this was exactly the way these songs should be, and the only remastering done for the compilation adjusted the originals' crude volume levels. Grammy-winning producer Ariel Rechtshaid — who worked on several tracks on the compilation, as well as two of McCombs's previous records, Catacombs and Wit's End, and whose résumé includes credits for Haim, Sky Ferreira, and Vampire Weekend along with songs such as "When We Were Young," from Adele's 25 — first met McCombs in Los Angeles over a decade ago. At that time, McCombs was friends with Rechtshaid's roommate, and he heard them talking about the new CD single for "Sacred Heart" (from McCombs's second album, PREfection), which McCombs had brought with him. Rechtshaid asked if he could take the CD and listen to it while he ran errands. "I wasn't that interested, really; I was just being sociable. It's what we do in L.A.: You drive and you listen to music," says Rechtshaid, speaking from Los Angeles. "Then I heard it and I was blown away. I fell in love with his voice, his lyrics, and his melodies. It was shocking how much it took me aback."
Best living songwriter or not, for now McCombs is in the rabbit hole, in Brooklyn, probably working out his next record. As casual as McCombs sounds about the recording process, he remains intensely driven. "I haven't stopped since I was a kid," he says. "I am always listening and learning old songs, and learning the history. There's so much, it'll never stop. It is about the skill of playing and expanding that skill. It's a big challenge to find new ways to destroy the barriers that you create. You do it; I do it. We always create barriers. But I'm just walking around doing the same old thing, walking the streets, talking to people."
Rechtshaid, among many others, looks forward to hearing what's next from McCombs. "Even from the first day I met him, I felt he was so much more evolved than any musician I'd met. Maybe too evolved," he adds. "After years of working with Cass, to me he is part of the family of musicians I know whose music didn't become more mainstream — the mainstream came to it."
Cass McCombs plays January 7 at the Bowery Ballroom. For ticket information, click here.
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