Mac DeMarco is hanging out at home in Los Angeles, playing video games on the couch, when he picks up the phone. “I don’t really know what’s going on, but let’s rock and roll!” he says.
This might be the most Mac DeMarco way possible to begin a conversation. His unflappably chill folk-rock tunes, laced with a surreal sense of humor, have made the Canadian singer-songwriter an unlikely star. Since breaking through with 2014’s Salad Days, he’s gone from a cult hero to a bankable live draw with hundreds of millions of Spotify streams — all despite making virtually no effort to keep up with contemporary music. (He’d rather listen to “Japanese music from the ’60s and ’70s, and The Beatles.”)
On his fourth album, Here Comes the Cowboy, DeMarco keeps it weirder and more mellow than ever. Take the title track, which started as a twangy guitar part that tumbled out when he was messing around in his garage last year. Next came a phrase that he repeated like a mantra: “Here comes the cowboy …”
“I think I was in a confused, exhausted state,” recalls DeMarco, 29. “But it’s got some strange magnetism.”
He was on a short break from the road at the time, stealing a few days between the lengthy full-band tour for his 2017 LP This Old Dog and a more intimate solo jaunt. The rest of the album came together in January, with DeMarco working late into the night almost entirely on his own, a habit that dates back to the beginning of his career. “Being on tour for so much of the year, you don’t get that much time to yourself,” he says. “My girlfriend’s always saying my adrenals get screwed up. I don’t know what that means. But it’s hard.”
When he’s writing songs, he adds, “It’s my quiet time. Which is kind of funny, because then my quiet time turns into everybody time when I show somebody the songs. Whatever.”
Here Comes the Cowboy has some lonesome, melancholy songs, like lead singles “Nobody” and “All of Our Yesterdays,” and some goofy ones, like “Choo Choo,” featuring nonsense lyrics about trains over a slick funk groove inspired by Sly and the Family Stone. “I wanted to make something greasy,” DeMarco says. “But I think anybody that actually had some funk to them would be like, ‘What the fuck is this, Mac?'”
Wild-west imagery comes up in several songs, expanding on the title track to a whole dream world of cowboys, cowgirls, pretty cattle and little doggies. “Kind of cartoonish,” he admits. “It’s somebody’s interpretation of the [cowboy] character that doesn’t have any first-hand experience or understanding of it.”
DeMarco isn’t much of a country music fan, aside from the odd Willie Nelson or Dolly Parton record, and he grew up despising the cowboy-hat jocks in his hometown of Edmonton. “It was all the guys that wanted to kick my ass in high school,” he says. “In Canada, where I grew up, that’s what cowboys were — people put the hats on and go to bars and get wasted. Made me a little bit ashamed to be from where I was from when I was young, to be honest.”
He explains the new album’s Western motif as a fantasy of escape from the modern world. “People are going crazy these days,” he says. “Everybody’s all nuts and stuff. It’s funny to think of this character that just goes to the saloon and rides his horse. The simple life, out on the farm. I find that comforting.”
DeMarco is quick to add that Here Comes the Cowboy isn’t just a joke — in fact, he sees it as even more honest than This Old Dog, where he wrote about his distant relationship with his father. “The last one was very literally like, ‘Hey, everybody, I have daddy issues,'” he says. “This one feels even more emotional to me. Like I’m pumping my lungs out.”
He points to “Finally Alone,” an easygoing soft-rock gem with lyrics about alienation under bright lights: “Sick of the city/Lumped in with all the pretty people/You need a vacation,” he croons to a confidant.
“It’s a cute little Postman Pat–sounding song,” he says, referencing the British children’s TV show. “The lyrics are cute, as well — some girl that wants to imagine the grass always being greener, and she tries, and it isn’t, so she has to keep going. That’s kind of what I’ve done in my life for the last 10 years or so. Can’t seem to settle down anywhere for more than three years.”
He and his longtime girlfriend have lived in L.A. for about that long. “We’re settled in here, for at least the time being,” he says. “But I already had a little moment earlier last year where I was like, ‘I’m gonna buy a house in Tokyo.'”
Instead, he’s poured time and money into making their house a place he loves and rarely has to leave when he’s not on tour. The two-car garage that used to be “dusty and filled with spiders” is now a bare-bones but fully functional home studio. “It’s kind of soundproof,” he says. “Not super-soundproof. It’s not like I had a control booth or anything.”
Still, it’s a big step up from the shoebox-sized Brooklyn bedroom where he made Salad Days. He describes the garage as “stacked full to the brim with crap” — mostly vintage microphones and mixing boards. “Before it was like, ‘I got this tape machine at a garage sale, let’s make a record.’ Now it’s like, ‘Damn, how did Steve Miller get that drum sound on “Fly Like an Eagle”?'”
DeMarco has worked hard to keep his distance from the record industry. He rarely lets anyone hear his records before they’re finished (“I don’t show it to my manager, my band or my girlfriend”), and he recently started an imprint of his own, Mac’s Record Label, to give himself even more creative control over his music after a successful run on Brooklyn indie Captured Tracks.
“It’s not like I have a vision of what I’m doing, but [outside input] taints my creativity in a way,” he says. “Especially with people that are trying to sell something.” He cites the practice of crafting singles within a standard range of tempos to boost their chances of radio play: “I’d rather not play ball like that. We’ll make something that makes me happy, and if it works out, it does. If it doesn’t, then oh well.”
He mentions seeing Tame Impala headline Coachella last month, a few hours after his own decidedly more low-rent performance in the desert. “They had 12 billion fucking lasers on the stage!” he says. “I’ve known these guys for years — those are my homies up there, killing it. But it doesn’t interest me for what I do.”
What does interest him right now, then? Finding “what makes me feel peaceful,” he adds. “There is peace out there. I just got to figure out how to get to it.”