This past February, Andrew Combs was sitting on a couch in a recording studio in Brooklyn, beer in hand, listening intently to the playback of his new song “Firestarter” in the control room.
“I just feel like there’s something missing in the turnaround, maybe even the chorus,” he said. “I’m not in love with the Leslie BGV’s.”
Over the past year, Combs has been making trips to New York to work on his latest album, Ideal Man, with the producer Sam Cohen. It’s the first time he’s made a record outside of Nashville, this time with a skeleton crew rounded out by the musicians Dom Billett and Jerry Bernhardt.
The process found Combs experimenting with his recording technique more than ever, something he never felt quite as free to do when making records in his hometown of Nashville. “Just being in the studio and being creative and flipping something on its head, that’s just as fun to me as writing a song,” he says a few months later.
But at the moment, Combs isn’t satisfied. The foursome is trying to run their background vocals through a Leslie speaker, and it’s not quite working.
Combs listens back to the song’s darkly hypnotic bridge, in which he repeats the lines, “Red is the color of your busted lip/Your busted kiss/Your busted shit.”
“I want that part to be bigger and it doesn’t feel…it’s not quite there,” he says.
Bernhardt and Billett enter the vocal booth to retry the bridge’s harmony vocals. “Can you put Andrew’s vocal in there, because we’re getting a bit Gregorian,” says Bernhardt, after singing an a cappella harmony vocal. The duo run through several more takes, discussing the subtle differences of each attempt with Cohen and Combs. “What a rock & roll cliche,” Bernhardt jokes, “a bunch of dudes blowing out their voices on shitty backup vocals.”
It’s taken Andrew Combs nearly a decade to get to a point where he could start acting out his very own rock cliches.
The 32-year-old moved to Nashville in 2006, drawn in by his romantic image of the city as the birthplace of the scene of so many of his favorite Seventies songwriters, like Guy Clark and Mickey Newbury. But at that time, Combs had only fairly recently starting listening to country and folk music, having spent much of middle and high school as a Radiohead-obsessed teenager making weird, electronic music in his bedroom.
Combs’ sees his new album, Ideal Man, his fourth, as a full-circle moment, his first release to bridge the lonesome Nashville storytelling he’s perfected over the past decade with the type of rock & roll impressionism that caused him to fall in love with music-making in the first place. “It’s funny, now I’m just like, ‘Everything is game,’” says the songwriter.
The lead single of Ideal Man, “Stars of Longing,” with its opening fuzzed-out guitar riff, announces the album’s gentle shift away from a traditional roots template. “Hide and Seek” has a hip-hop-inspired drum beat; songs like “Shipwreck Man” and “The Stone” boast swirling, English-pop melodies that owe more to Liverpool than Austin. “My previous two records were very thought-out,” says Combs. “I wanted a change. Before it’d be, ‘We need a baritone guitar or a tenor guitar on this track, let’s call that guy.’ It’s more of a Nashville way of making records, and I wanted to get out of that a bit.”
Combs’ gradual shift away from straightforward country/folk (“pretty, acoustic guitar kind of thing,” he calls it) has been happening ever since he released his debut album Worried Man in 2012. On his follow-up record, 2015’s All These Dreams, he toyed with fleshed-out orchestral arrangements, while 2017’s Canyons of My Mind found Combs transitioning from country tearjerker ballads to more straight-ahead indie singer-songwriting. Combs’ new record is the most self-styled piece of work he’s ever put out, bearing the marks and textures of an artist who has figured out how to translate the varied sounds he hears in his head into his records.
That said, Ideal Man isn’t an entirely unrecognizable collection of music, structurally or sonically. “I got into writing three-and-a-half minute songs through Nashville or country, folk, whatever you want to call it, that sort of style, and there’s a part of that that I don’t think will ever really leave,” he says.
Like its predecessor Canyons of My Mind, Combs’ latest is a mix of vulnerable personal musings and larger societal commentary. “I mean, I find life as a human to be pretty absurd and overwhelming,” he says when discussing the song “Save Somebody Else.” Combs wrote part of the song by himself before enlisting the help of Sheryl Crow’s longtime writing partner Jeff Trott, who added some much-needed positivity when he came up with the central conceit of the song’s chorus.
Some songs on Ideal Man are about people Combs has long observed from afar. The problematic “Firestarter” is about a distant friend, the same one who also inspired his signature “Too Stoned to Cry” nearly a decade ago. Others, like “The Stone,” is about Combs’ own struggle with anxiety and depression, the latter a problem that had plagued him earlier in his life. “I would have these feelings that there was just something blocking a pathway from my heart to my brain, just not letting me feel normal,” he says. “That song’s about moving that stone.”
“Wanna see what we could do from the top?” Combs asks his studio mates. The group is still tweaking “Firestarter,” but by now they’ve moved on from the background vocals to the electric piano part, which Bernhardt is presently trying to re-record.
“I kinda want to get him off the roll-y thing he does,” Combs tells Cohen in the control room. “I want it to be more block-y…The turnaround should be all right hand.”
Bernhardt tries playing the piano melody again.
“Is that running through the Silvertone? That’s cool, man,” says Combs, who, despite liking this take more, is still not quite satisfied. “I just want you to play dumb. Pick your moments to be special.”
Bernhadt plays the melody once more, this time more sparse and reactive.
“That’s cool,” says Combs, enthusiastically. “It’s like [Cass McCombs’] ‘County Line.’”
The piano part finally seems settled, so the foursome regroup in the control room. The song is all but done — until Combs has one more suggestion.
“I love everything,” says Combs. “I just might want to change the reverb on the backing vocals.”
Cohen makes a tiny adjustment.
“That feels better to me.”