Interview: Andrew Combs on new album, politics and how fatherhood is shaping his future

Tennessean Andrew Combs, an artist who has managed to make big strides  both in the indie and Americana worlds over four beautifully crafted albums, is an increasingly regular visitor to these shores over the last few years. His excellent live shows are perfectly accompanied by albums that resonate soulfully, emotionally and politically. With ‘Ideal Man’  just released on New West, Coombs again pushes the envelope that little bit further in terms of approach and sound. Americana-UK’s Gordon Sharpe caught up with Andrew pre-show on a recent UK tour to discuss everything from babies to Woody Guthrie! 

Your new album seems quite different from your past work?
Yes, yes I am constantly trying to change to keep things interesting to me, that’s the main goal of exploring new territory, I get kind of bored stuck in one spot and it felt like all my favourite artists, they are constantly in motion and I don’t want to hear a band write the same record 2 or 3 times. I want to hear them evolve.

Who are your favourite artists then? 
Well I look at music or artists from different angles, the purely songwriting angle and then as a whole, quote-unquote, artist, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Nick Lowe, Nick Cave, Joni Mitchell; those are people I believe to be not only songwriters but all-encompassing artists, masters of melody as well as lyrics, good entertainers – the whole package.

I was first drawn to start playing songs and music through electronic music, believe it or not, just making stuff in my bedroom that slowly but surely gravitated toward more song-based, structurally song-based, songs. Toward the end of High School I got into folk and then country music; so the people I listed are my top artists but I also looked to Kris Kristofferson, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Micky Newberry as inspirations for the structure of the song. Interestingly, at this point in my career, I am not as drawn to that – I still love the idea of the song but I want to blow it up – deconstruct it, try new things, see how that form fits in with other sonic qualities around it – not just verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus.

It comes across in the recent album, the influence of electronic music.
Yes a little bit – it was still things played physically, synths or guitars but there is a common thread with what I did last with my other records; I’m still very much song-centric, still like the idea of a lyrical phrase or tag to pull you in, I still love that. I think everyone does – everyone does whether they know it or not.

A lot of music I have been listening to recently has a political element. Is that you?
An artist is inherently political, you have to be. With this record, there are touches of world views, not so political. My daughter was born 2 years ago, I kind of wrote the record around that time and it’s more about me trying to become ‘more of a man’ – you know, grow up.

And that’s about being a father?
Yeah and confronting personal insecurities and personal demons and also to leave something there for my daughter, to get where I was coming from at this point in my life.

To know who her Dad was at the time?
Yeah, and there are 2 songs specifically for her / about her, ‘Born Without a Clue’, and, ‘Golden’, which is a love song to my kid. ‘Born Without a Clue’ is more of a mission statement.

Tell me more. 
I started writing it the day after Tom Petty passed; I was analysing his catalogue, thinking about the way he wrote such simple songs and yet they just hit straight to the heart melodically and lyrically and I was thinking about my daughter, just born, it was through that whole mindset of no bullshit. The song isn’t about Tom Petty at all but it triggered my thought process. If you can put your blinders on in this world where there are so many different distractions, if you have a passion and you want to do something, you can actually do it. That’s a cliche layman’s way of saying what I am trying to say in that song but it is the point I am trying to get through to my daughter and myself. Stick to your path and ignore, it’s all about what’s inside of you instead of the outside influences.

Being true to yourself then?
Yeah that is a much easier way of saying it.

Does the phrase Americana mean anything in America?
It meant more when it first started, now it’s just anything that’s not commercially viable on the radio but that isn’t obviously Pop, Rap or Electronic music. It’s a hard question, people over here ask me if I consider myself Americana, I don’t know if I would, it depends on what your definition of Americana is? Do you believe it should only come from America?

I confess I was a snob about American music being superior to English music.
Certain decades maybe – it came from here if you were to trace it back – Bluegrass and Country came from the UK – I love old British Folk Music but I know what you mean.

There is such a range of artists at this venue it’s much more than a Folk Club now.
I love playing in churches, you just don’t get the chance to do it in the States. I’ve been to England many times before, touring. I started 5 years ago playing in Caitlin Rose’s band, I opened up the shows. I have a label over here, ‘Loose’, then came over by myself then as a trio now I like to do one band and one solo or duo tour a year. It is very expensive to bring people over.

We were discussing the finances outside before you arrived.
Yes, when I bring a band (as tonight) I break even or make a little bit of money – that’s why I come back so little. I like both formats, its fun.

I understand you have become a painter?
It did influence the record and my writing; there is a musical angle to it. When my wife became pregnant I was at home for 9 months apart from a couple of little tours – I was getting frustrated with writing music – not a writer’s block but a transitional period of trying to find something new and interesting – that’s when I started painting, pastels and watercolours, and became obsessed with it. I did 16 paintings about the songs on my new record and my release show was an art show / listening party. Yeah, so I got into the painting thing as a creative outlet, but it really influenced me to take a different direction toward my writing because I was so structure oriented. I used to get up every day trying to write something – and things shifted in life – looking at a song as a canvas rather than a formula that I should abide by that I’ve done before – throw stuff at the canvas scraping it away to see what forms comes out of that; I was applying those rules and methods to my writing after I started painting. It’s nice, different.

You seem very interested in the structure of how you do things, like your songwriting.
Yeah I am a person who thrives on structure.

But at the same time what I am picking up from you is that you like to dispense with it a little bit?
Yeah, at the same time its important to change things up – maybe it’s because my life became structured in so many other ways.

It does with children …
Yeah, which is funny I never thought about that but it might have been a big part.

That nine months at home was it a conscious thing?
Yes and I’m glad I did it and I have some very fond memories of that time in our relationship – we’ve always been close but that was the ultimate bond.

Bringing you and your partner together?
Yeah – and then going through the birth with her and I was there when they pulled our daughter out – it was amazing!

You might think, what’s this got to do with music?
No, I’d rather not. When I get home I will have been gone for 2.5 months, it’s the longest I’ve ever been away. We face time but next year I want to tour smarter so I can be at home more.

Do you like to play live; is it something you particularly like?
I would say I enjoy it; if you were to look at this line of work as being the writing, the recording and the playing live, then it’s my least favourite part. I really enjoy the creative process writing, recording and then playing. Playing is a blast, I am with my best friends but it’s gruelling and at this stage, we’re not on a bus, we drive ourselves, we figure everything out.

It’s kind of what young men do isn’t it?
Yeah, but we’re getting older – I’ll be 33 soon! A month of staying up late every night and driving all day, eating shitty food, most nights drinking, it’s fun but I don’t know if it’s super sustainable in terms of physical health and mental health but there are nights if we have a great crowd in the club that’s one of the best feelings.

When things catch fire.
Yes, but that does not always happen.

No, but I guess that is what makes it good when it does – I guess you could parallel that with playing sport?
Especially having 5 people feeding off each other.

When I looked at your lyrics they seem to focus on love, ecology and politics?
Yeah, like most of us I am trying to figure out how I can do a better job;  it’s such a daunting thing and, I don’t know, a true environmentalist would not tour – because of all the carbon emissions (we both referenced Coldplay’s recent decision). Luckily they can say that, I do applaud them to a certain degree. It’s tough living in the States, it’s bad everywhere but the cleanest most eco-friendly countries seem to be in Scandinavia. It’s our livelihood and like so many people we are dependent on petrol unless there is an alternative; I don’t know..

Is it something that is just ordained now?
I think so, I was talking to my wife who is really eco-conscious, she gets really bent out of shape and depressed about it.

I guess it ties in with your daughter’s future as well? 
My theory is we’re fucked on the eco front but we are smart enough to create a way to live in a world that is destroyed, though it’s nothing to be proud of. Everyone’s – ‘oh it’s your kid’s future’ – it is, I don’t think we are all going to die or anything – unless we all kill each other – life will be drastically different – the earth will get rid of us when she is done.

It’s a gloomy subject.
It’s real! It’s gonna take generations before any change.

Would I be right then in thinking those three subjects are fundamental to your writing? 
Love, yeah.

Yes – it’s always there somewhere isn’t it?
It should be, for any songwriter.

Yeah, politics is funny; it’s there whether you like it or not. You’re political, you’re on one side or the other.
It’s fascinating to watch your politics from this side and try to fathom it out, easy to forget there are people in your country with a more nuanced view. There is a thread of politics running through the music I hear. Maybe that is part of the creative process? One thing I said when Trump was elected was that we would have a cultural revolution at least, we would get some good art from it. I don’t know whether that’s really worth it.

That’s an interesting thought isn’t it? 
It’s like the Thatcher years and the punk world; I don’t think it’s happened yet, we’ve had a lot of uprising, but not necessarily cultural, maybe in the theatre but not music. Can you name those people?

Steve Earle?
He can be polarising; I like his viewpoint and his music but its so hard to talk about politics, it’s so nuanced. He is totally dismissive of Republicans.

You don’t change people’s minds by completely dismissing them. 
Maybe we are past that; it’s a weird time we are living in.

We have our own weird times at the moment.
We are all watching impeachment with bated breath. Impeachment is not necessarily the end of it – Trump’s not going to leave because someone tells him to.

These divisions can be quite violent.
In Sweden, there’s the nationalist party, Germany and Italy are the same. When are these dinosaurs gonna die off so we can keep on moving? Everything seems backwards and dividing us further and further. I hope it does not come to civil unrest or violence.

Of the albums you have made,  do you have a favourite?
There are aspects of each album I hold dear but the last one is always my favourite. It’s still fresh, not like some that take a long time to get out.

How long has your career been; you seem to have been playing for about 15 years?
My professional career has been 6 to 7 years. I did a business degree at college. Belmont in Nashville.

I would not have guessed that one! 
My mom really wanted me to go! College for my generation – I’m from a middle-class family and I was pushed to go to college.

Same in this country.
I went to college in Nashville and I live there now. I wanted to be around that music scene – it was either LA, New York, both very expensive, or Nashville. Originally I’m from Dallas – I went to college briefly in New Orleans; then Hurricane Katrina hit, maybe it was an omen, there was too much fun to be had there! I might have died, there was just too much fun! I then went to Nashville and have been there for 13 years. I started playing music as I got out of college. 2012 my first record came out and I did my first out of town tours. First records, with this music and this world, take a while to get some momentum. I was at home and working – I still do other jobs – then I was a man with a job who played some music but now it’s the other way round – but sometimes I did nothing.

It’s moving on then? You’re a musician with a part-time job?
Yeah. I wrote music for a publishing company and that was my daytime job. I did that for 6 years. It was great but I was writing for other people and it was not that fulfilling. That’s a whole other story. Now I deliver packages, work in a warehouse and have a kid.

Well, it has been about music, hasn’t it? But about some other stuff as well.
I’m glad you enjoyed that and did not ask the same old questions but at the end of the day I think I can speak for most musicians that they don’t want to talk about music all the time; they want to talk about other stuff.

When I look at America I wonder what happened – what happened to the radicalism of the early 20th century? – that gave birth to Woody Guthrie and his songs.
Bound for Glory’ – it’s really good he is a great writer, that book had a big impact on me and others in my world. Others were into Jack Kerouac but for me, it was Woody Guthrie and Dylan.

Ideal Man‘ is out now on New West

About Gordon Sharpe 117 Articles
Retired music fan longing to get back to the Lakes and hoping to visit Scotland before much longer - somehow South Cheshire just doesn't cut it. Still seeking the grail in terms of a convincing description of what Americana really is but really enjoying the search. And still wondering when Kenny Rogers will get his just deserts
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Barry Cooke

Great interview, interesting artist