The back catalogue of nomadic songwriter Cass McCombsinvokes many tropes of classic American songwriting. On his latest release, the 2013 double album Big Wheel And Others, McCombs’ contemplative folk musicality is aptly complemented by his lyrical universality and melodic familiarity.
McCombs’ storytelling has an empathetic depth, philosophically musing on life, love and death with both sorrow and dry humour. His seven albums don’t exactly sound archaic, but his traditional spirit doesn’t correlate with the drive for stardom dominant in contemporary rock music. McCombs’ personality matches the relative anonymity of his music; in fact, even though all of his pursuits are conducted under his name alone, he rejects the tag ‘solo artist’.
“I’m not a solo artist. I’ve never performed solo in my life, so that’s a misperception. Just because it says my name doesn’t mean that I’m a solo artist,” he says.
When McCombs comes to Australia for the touring Laneway Festival, he’ll be joined by the same group of musicians he’s been playing alongside for a number of years. He explains that it isn’t a master/slave arrangement. “Every man and woman expresses themselves in the moment the way they want to. There’s no direction at all. If you’ve got something to say, just say it, do your thing, express yourself. It’s vital for your survival so let it out immediately. That’s our philosophy.”
This call for everyone’s impulsive input might seem a naive attitude, which couldn’t be practically effective. McCombs says it’s more about mutual understanding. “I just think it’s the easiest thing in the world, actually, to express oneself. Our society’s built to inhibit us and stop us from expression. But once you’ve liberated yourself from that bondage you realise that it’s just like, ‘Oh, that was easy’.”
McCombs’ confidence in the simplicity of self-expression helps to explain his prolific release history. Seemingly, processing his thoughts through song comes quite naturally, yet he doesn’t have a go-to songwriting method. “All the songs have a life of their own and a creation point. Most of the time I cover my tracks anyway – I can’t even remember how the thought originated,” he says.
Of course, songs can arise in any number of ways and exploring the mystery of music often leads to discoveries that couldn’t have been premeditated. “There’s no reason to do it if you know the outcome,” says McCombs. “If you think that you know everything, then you know nothing. If you think you know nothing, well, you’re a little bit closer.”
An open-minded, almost childlike attitude is valuable in any creative activity, but surely good songwriting must be directed by some roughly formulated intention? McCombs doesn’t quite agree. “There’s so much neuroses going around in music, as if people can ‘choose this lyric’ or ‘choose this style of music’. Choice is nonsense. It’s automatic. What you’ve done is what you did. There’s no choice, you just did it.”
Not that McCombs is suggesting creativity is merely a catalyst for pre-determined outcomes. “I’m not talking about destiny. There’s no destiny, there’s no fate. But our options only appear in hindsight, they don’t appear in front of us. Only in hindsight do we see, ‘Oh, I could have made this other decision.’ We get neurotic about our past. Therefore our past is almost insignificant. It puts the seeds of doubt in our minds.”
“It’s much better to just create and not worry about neurotic elements.”
Cass McCombs plays at Laneway Festival 2014 at Sydney College of the Arts, Rozelle on Sunday February 2, but if you miss it, catch him at Oxford Art Factory on Thursday February 6 with support from Melodie Nelson. His album Big Wheel And Others is out now through Domino/EMI.