In a crevice between allusions and arcana, after musing on the uncanny youth of the author Stephen Crane but before introducing a bass fiddle player called Fritz, Cass McCombs slips into prayer. “Take my brooding but not my fear / Take my false clarity but not my tears / Take my resentment,” he sings in a brittle falsetto on “Krakatau,” a looping, filmic, melancholy track from his new album, Heartmind. “I’ve had plenty / I surrender them all effortlessly.”
Heartmind, out this Friday via Anti-, is McCombs’s 10th album, and “Krakatau” is far from the first time he has spoken to a higher power in his songs. Over the past two decades, McCombs has established himself as one of America’s greatest songwriters and one of American music’s foremost mystics. He sings about “sacred trash” and “Medusa’s Outhouse,” and, on a beautiful country song called “Prayer for Another Day” from 2019’s Tip of The Sphere, he sang that he wanted to “live in a magic mirror / In the real world.” In songs and in interviews he seems bereft by the notion that capitalism could interfere with the sanctity of music-making, and his reliance on improvisation and live performance to write and develop his songs bears that out. The last time we spoke, he recommended I take a copy of the Bhagavad Gita with me to Target.
Heartmind is as rich and confounding as anything that McCombs has released. In its melodies and structures, it has the same wristwatch-like quality as all of his best work, beautifully simple on the surface despite the intricate complexity underneath. At points, he’s playful, like when he sings about the morning after the apocalypse on “New Earth” or when he dreams up a new cast of characters on “A Blue, Blue Band.” But it is also, sometimes quite clearly, an album moved by grief, dedicated to McCombs’s close friends Chet JR White, Sam Jayne, and Neal Casal. (“There’s a lot more too,” he says now.) The notion is particularly hard to shake on “Belong to Heaven,” where he sings to a friend who “surrendered undefeated.”
Over the phone from New York (“I’ve moved around a lot,” he says when I ask where he’s been based for the past few years,) McCombs was as reflective and prone to free association as he is in his songs, discussing grief, improvisation, and Sufism with a disarming humility.
The FADER: What was listening to music like for you during the pandemic? I personally found myself listening to things I didn't expect. Did you find the same thing in lockdown and isolation?
Cass McCombs: That's an interesting idea. I get most of my records through record stores and thrift stores and I try to find things in unexpected places. When they were closed, that was tough for me because I don't really enjoy the experience with [digital] music as quite as much as the tactile version of it. And so I struggled with that, and I think I just went into a more interior space and tried to make the music that I couldn't find, in my mind at least.
Last time we spoke, you told me how performance has impacted your creative process. You said that when you perform a song live, it reveals itself more and more, that instrumentation can change and even lyrics can change, the whole atmosphere can change. But for two years, you just didn’t have that — it just fell away. You lost that spontaneity. Did that make the process behind Heartmind more challenging?
I love playing and I rely on the interaction between other musicians to get where I want to go. I need other people. I'm not a solo musician in that sense. I get a lot of energy and excitement from other players, a great rhythm section. Music is about feeling. Not always about feeling good, but it feels good to make music. And so the rhythmic aspect of it is important. So when you don't really have that rhythm in your life, things can feel a little out of whack.
How do you deal with that lack of rhythm? How did you compensate for it?
I got with some friends here and there and jammed, just free jamming with no expectation. You’ve got to keep your dexterity up. Your fingers, you have to move them or you're going to lose them. It’s like exercises. Some of that can be done alone, but it's different when you're playing with other people.
I think it helps when you go to write a song, just to play with people. And maybe put yourself in uncomfortable situations. I think improvisation strengths the writing because [you’re] operating in a different language. It's not so much about chasing one specific idea, like a composition. That's like polishing a jewel. But improvisation is different.
Is improvisation something that somebody can do alone, or is it just a completely different process?
Let me think about that, actually. I think it can be done alone. I know there's some great experimental musicians who improvise in interesting ways. I just personally just enjoy a drummer or another guitar player or something, just the interplay between two different minds. Unexpected things come.
It’s interesting to think about those other voices, because one of the few songs that came out between Tip of The Sphere and Heartmind was “Don’t Just Vote,” which is of course a collaboration with Angel Olsen, Bob Weir, and Noam Chomsky. But also it's kind of a collaboration with yourself. It's a response to the Cass McCombs who wrote “Don’t Vote” 12 or so years ago. At what point did you realize that you wanted to revisit “Don’t Vote,” that you wanted to write something about the election and communicate so directly with your audience?
I have mixed feelings about it because I think it's a pretty misunderstood song. I will say that one reason why I wanted to do that is like with any of my songs, I like the idea that they can be updated just at any point and not being too precious about the original intent. But also the song is not about the election. Lyrically it's about pretty much everything else but the election. It's actually literally not about the election. And I'll also say that there is a third part coming soon.
I found this version to be optimistic in a lot of ways. Thinking beyond the ballot box, using one’s imagination when participating in democracy. Do you think of yourself as an optimistic person?
I don't know if I think about myself as an optimist per se. I think I can have an optimistic outlook on certain things. But — not just with that tune, but a lot of my tunes — I like giving the listener the benefit of the doubt. I think people are smarter than people give people credit for. And even if the song is misunderstood or misinterpreted, listeners should be allowed to have their own autonomy even in misunderstanding. I'm okay with that. I think I'm optimistic about the intelligence of the listener.
This is also an album about loss in some sense; you've written that it was a way of some extent coping with loss of three close friends.
There's a lot more too.
Have you used creating music to be a part of a grieving process before?
Always. Music is cathartic, it's nutritious. There are lots of different purposes for music, but I would say one is definitely to express things and work through things that elude us otherwise. That can only happen in the realm of musical thought and expression. So when there's things that are confusing or frustrating — horrible, dark feelings — music is a beautiful way to be honest about those things, and also maybe imagine ideals. There's fewer and fewer places where we can explore idealisms. I think music is a good place to do that. I hear a lot of people talking about practical things, and that's fine and everything but music doesn't necessarily have to be practical.
It's not a one-to-one ratio with music. It's like a one-to-a-billion. I mean, music is alive. Go back to what you’re saying about live music being a living thing. It's alive and it's mutating and the song wants to live in any possible form. That's how I see it. Music is like birth. It's enjoyment.
Music is alive... It’s alive and it’s mutating and the song wants to live in any possible form. That’s how I see it. Music is like birth.
Some people — and I was initially guilty of this too — might read that this album is dedicated to the memory of your friends and assume that there's a finality to it. Memorializing people can feel like the end. But actually it's not like that at all. It's keeping things alive. It's organic.
When we lose people, they show up in unexpected places. Their memory — whether it's their living memory or maybe it's their spirit — can guide us. I can get a little esoteric about these kinds of ideas about the spirit. Particularly with when I think about friends that I've lost that are musicians. To have played music with these people and seen them in the fullness of their creativity and life, and then they disappear… it is a very stark loss. But in some ways, I think their music is still playing in my heart or my mind. And so, is that their spirit? That's my question. If they live in our memory, are they still living? They were making music, and then music stopped. But it didn't stop, really.
When you are trying to channel these people in your own music, do you consciously bring in their style, motifs, or aesthetic?
I can't really play like other people. It's more of just a general feeling. But I would also like to add that there's different forms of loss. There's physical loss of a body, but some friends are lost just the way that we lose people, just through the course of our lives — people from our childhood or family members. Sometimes there's people who lose their minds. Although that's a pretty general term: what does that mean to lose my mind? But they're not the same. Or at least the dynamic between ourselves is not same as it was. There's a loss of that intimacy. That's just something I've been thinking about. I guess I'm growing up and feeling that more.
There's a fluidity to that, and it seems comparable to the fluidity and organicness you talk about with music. That it's not just a sad thing. It can be melancholy, sure. But it's not a miserable thing like you said, it's just things are alive and therefore things move and change. You lose some things, you gain others.
Absolutely. I've always loved the idea of the Irish wake. So many other cultures embody this spirit, that it is both melancholy and joyous at the same time. I think that's a beautiful thing.
A little earlier you said that you wanted the freedom to explore idealisms. What does idealism mean to you?
Well, specifically with me, it changes form all the time. It could be something as obvious as an ecological resurgence or something as pragmatic as a cynical hyperbole or paradox. I could take it back to the cynics of old, what their approach was, this dog-like existence. Everything is what you suppose it to be. That's a form of idealism.
That puts a lot of weight on you creating something. You can create what you choose. It’s as real as you want it to be.
Well, yes. That's why I try to keep my creations as malleable and waterlike as possible. There's not one message I'm trying to say ever. I hope everything that I'm doing can easily be mutated at any moment. That's idealism.
I don’t think it’s the job of artists to conform. It seems unartistic to conform, to me. So if you know what you want to do, just do that. And people might think that you’re a little strange or maybe even insane.
In the liner notes, you include this quote from the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi: “So my heart has become capable of any form, my heart has become receptive of any form.” What’s your relationship with Ibn Arabi’s work and with Sufism?
I'm not really an authority to be able to speak to Sufism but I have read his work among other Sufi poets for many, many years. I grew up with a lot of Sufis, and family members leaned to Sufi philosophy. What's interesting about Sufism is this idea that the divine is always in a constant state of revealing and concealing. And it's just always going toward, in a way, the other. It's always in a transitional phase, which gives it a mystical quality, if you look at every little thing in the world as being transitional.
To me it's a liberating feeling, not to feel like trapped by conceptions of who I'm supposed to be or what my outer expectations are. My inner expectations are really the only thing that seems to be consistent in those things. The interior life seems to be strongest when we have a feeling of peace in the knowledge that it's always transitioning away and to and from and back again. It's just a very peaceful way of looking at the world to me.
You said before that music isn’t one-to-one, it’s one-to-a-billion. I've always got the impression that you thought that the way that people talk about music is just very capitalist. Maybe that there is an expectation of a trade-off — that people expect you to create a product and you are absolutely not creating one. Is that fair?
I think I still hold firm that outlook.
Has that become more of a challenge? Rarely do I get to have a conversation now without being told that things are getting worse, that the reception is worse, that the process and the cycle has become uglier. Has it been difficult to maintain that outlook?
It's a challenge. It's never-ending. I wouldn't say it's worse; it was already bad. It's just not bad but worse, maybe, I don't know. If it was bad, it was bad. And I'm more interested in thinking about how it could be better than why we've gotten to where it's gotten.
How could things be better?
I think just approaching it the way that you want to approach it, and everyone be damned. There's pressures for artists. There have always been these pressures to conform, and I don't think it's the job of artists to conform. It seems unartistic to conform, to me. So if you know what you want to do, just do that. And people might think that you're a little strange or maybe even insane. But it's pretty simple, I think.
And if there's consequences, just bear the consequences. I think it's better to bear the consequences of following your own heart or your own feelings and sparing the consequences of betraying your heart. That's something I could not survive.