Cass McCombs on singing about whistleblowers and collaborating with Wynonna Judd 

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You don’t need to go further back than the trial of Chelsea Manning to understand that bringing corruption to light is a risky undertaking. Nearly a decade ago, the former U.S. Army soldier, who at the time still identified as Bradley Manning, was facing a court-martial for “aiding and abetting the enemy” by releasing documents to WikiLeaks.

Weeks later, California-born singer-songwriter Cass McCombs released a protest single called “Bradley Manning,” which was inspired by a Guardian article he found on a train in London. While the song’s title makes it abundantly clear who it’s about, the lyrics are much more subtle, focusing on Manning’s troubled life up until the incident that would result in her seven-year imprisonment. Appropriately enough, McCombs premiered the song live on Democracy Now.
Today, the plight of whistleblowers appears to be as dire as ever. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is being held in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day, fellow activist Edward Snowden is in permanent exile, and Manning herself is back in prison for refusing to testify against Assange.
Even more disconcerting is the right-wing response to our latest whistleblower, who went through proper channels to disclose Donald Trump’s blocking military aid to Ukraine while pressuring the country’s president to dig up dirt on rival candidate Joe Biden. Anticipating the subsequent impeachment investigation, Trump responded by insisting the whistleblower is a treasonous spy and publicly fantasized about him or her being executed.

McCombs is, not surprisingly, dismayed by the situation. “This is a harrowing moment we’re having,” he says. “People who risk their life for what they believe in are being prosecuted and persecuted. I don’t know, I mean, it’s frightening, obviously. I guess that’s really the only way to describe it. I don’t really know what the solvent is for that. For myself, personally, it’s to put it into song.”

McCombs has been doing that a lot these past 15 years. Along the way, he’s supplemented his income working at record stores, construction sites, and at one point even painting rooms inside Trump Tower. Meanwhile, he’s recorded critically lauded albums for forward-looking labels like 4AD, Domino and Anti- Records.
Tip of the Sphere, his latest release, came out this past February. The album ranks among McCombs’ best, from its evocations of hometown desolation in the ominous synthesizer-enhanced rock ballad “Sidewalk Bop After Suicide” to the plaintive “Absentee,” which could be the perfect segue from a Robert Wyatt song on some parallel-universe radio station that would actually play either. The album-closing “Rounder” is a sprawling 10-minute track featuring intentionally inscrutable lyrics like “Were a radia gunslung / Were a murdream boysroom / On a slight of jadeself / Are you tied of drying, rounder?”

So has McCombs been re-reading his James Joyce novels again? “Thank you for picking up on that,” he responds, “although I wouldn’t say it’s even remotely on that level. To me, Joyce is like the Bible. I’m always Joycing.“

While he’s still best known for the albums he’s released under his own name, McCombs has also been involved in numerous collaborative efforts, ranging from instrumental band The Skiffle Players to a new musical project with Wynonna Judd called The Frothy Pit.

The latter band made its debut at last month’s Americanafest. Set highlights included a song the two musicians wrote together called “The Child.” Based on surreal lines like “I had a dream of goblins swimming round the queen,” it’s a safe bet that McCombs wrote the lion’s share of the lyrics.

“It’s basically just a one-off thing,” he says. “We wrote the song, we wanted to perform it, and so we did it at the Americana Festival in Nashville, Tennessee. I sang a Judds song, she sang one of my tunes, we did some covers and a few more originals. It was just a very casual fun way to experiment with collaborative music.”

As for how many side projects he’s done through the years, McCombs really has no idea. “I don’t even categorize them as side-projects,” he says. “I mean, I think the solo band is the side-project, you know? That’s how I feel. It’s like no one should be in a solo band. It’s a completely lonely endeavor.”

So what advice would McCombs give to aspiring singer-songwriters that could save them from years of pain and suffering?

“I have a very horrible and cynical response,” he warns, before being encouraged to proceed. “Okay, good,” he responds with a laugh. “Never say anything that’s truthful. Never try to do anything that’s original. Never believe in what you’re doing. Never expose anything that has any kind of profound or intellectual thought, or is the sum of your experiences or skills. And then you will be free of pain and suffering.”


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