Inspiration is a fleeting thing. And sometimes, it comes at inconvenient times. Just ask Cass McCombs. The other day, the singer-songwriter was on a plane when some ideas for lyrics sprung to his mind, but the pen he brought on board had burst. Something about the air pressure, said the flight attendant. Our hero soldiered on, covered in ink. “I had a stack of napkins, and I was wiping as I was writing,” he recalls. McCombs’ constant head froth resulted in two new albums in 2011, Wit’s End and Humor Risk, the titles of which, he insists, shall remain unexplained. “It’s the same with everything, all the lyrics, the imagery, it’s intended to be ambiguous,” he says, “especially morally.”
That’s probably why McCombs’ music is so powerful to his cult of fans. They can make it their own. Beloved in West Coast board sport scenes, his music been featured in several skateboard movies and in Thomas Campbell’s surf film The Present. The video for the gorgeous, ‘60s-pop-style song “Dreams Come True Girl,” from the love letter-like 2009 album Catacombs, takes place in a punk rock club turned indoor skate park.
But just because they’re open to interpretation doesn’t mean his lyrics aren’t precise. McCombs insists that his research is exhaustive. He cites “Love Thine Enemy,” the gentle rocker that kicks off Humor Risk and takes its title from the New Testament. “That song is about a relationship with a friend I’ve had for a while, kind of a back-and-forth thing,” he says. “I’ve probably intentionally hung out with that person to put together ideas. I’m always doing that.” So then, does being friends with Cass McCombs mean you’re a potential song subject, perhaps unwittingly? “Sometimes, I’ll ask them,” he says. “I’ll call and tell them I’m writing a song and I need them to refresh my memory. Other times, I’ll be with them and they’ll say something too priceless not to put down into a notebook.”
Known as a prolific and endlessly brilliant songwriter in the indie world, McCombs is nothing if not dedicated. He lives in his music, which is why he’s a musician’s musician, like a Bob Dylan, eccentric and somewhat difficult, and totally true to his craft. For years, he did no press, and recently, he only did interviews by hand-written letter—you know, the kind you send through the mail—because he wanted to use the opportunity to improve his writing skills. “It got to be too time consuming,” he says, now on the telephone, sadly. Talking definitely isn’t this guy’s strong suit. Questions are followed by long, awkward pauses as he forms his words slowly, almost painstakingly. “I don’t know,” he stammers, asked what book he currently has his nose in. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m reading. I don’t know.”
His songs are a much easier listen. Long hailed as a kind of songwriting savant, McCombs combines aching melodies and uncommon harmonies with themes of personal struggle and classic literature. Beginning with enigmatic albums, he’s grown more direct in recent years, but he won’t say much about the meaning behind his songs. He thinks it’s the listener’s job to come up with their own interpretations. “It’s open,” he says emphatically, and you know he means it. Earlier this year, he told the L.A. Times in a letter-interview that he’d like to hear a new version of the melancholy song “County Line,” from Wit’s End, something that suits its R&B style. “I wish some real singer would redo it, so I don’t have to hear my white boy voice anymore,” he wrote. Not by accident, the song has two videos. One is a string of footage of junkies getting wasted and the other documents a road trip that goes to Mexico, Texas and Mardi Gras. “I don’t understand why one image needs to be locked into a song forever,” McCombs says now. “I wanted to make two. Maybe there will be a third. Maybe other people will make their own. Who knows?” Ambiguity forever.