Andrew Combs, Refreshing His Canvas Once Again, Offers The Contemplative ‘Ideal Man’
Among its many blessings and changes, fatherhood can bring spells of quiet, unstructured time at home. And in that blissful, sleep-deprived void, Nashville’s Andrew Combs started painting. First it was watercolors, he says. Then he moved on to oil on canvas. During a stretch early this year, while listening a lot to the tracks-in-progress for his album Ideal Man, he let the music move the brush. A set of paintings emerged as polychromatic and trippy as the eleven tracks themselves.
“It was always in me,” Combs says, explaining that his parents were both designers, his father in graphics and his mother in interiors. “But it honestly is strange how it came out of me like a volcano. It was really fun and frustrating. It changed the way I wrote - very much painterly. Like scraping away until something gave shape, whether melodically or lyrically.”
LISTEN TO THE 11.17 EPISODE OF THE STRING FEATURING ANDREW COMBS.
Anyone listening through Combs’ four albums front to back would come to understand that change and blank canvas thinking are part of his deceptively quiet character. In 2012, the forlorn looking artist gazing out from a stand of cherry blossoms on Worried Man brought crafty but straightforward country music. There was twang, steel and a familiar Texan-comes-to-Nashville tenor to lines like “Begging you please, please, please/Don't go falling out of love with me.” Each recording thereafter widened the lens, letting in more timbral light and sophistication. Now (still looking forlorn it must be said), he’s candidly wrestling with existential questions. Combs auditions archetypes in the title track - a hunter, a coyote, a poet - as he ponders the meaning of manhood, singing “I envy the drunken poet, In a fit full of rage, Mind pried wide open, His heart on the page.”
Meanwhile, the sonic frame, produced by Brooklyn indie artist Sam Cohen, elegantly sets off one of the more textured and seductive male voices in roots music. The disc opens with “Stars of Longing,” a nectar-sweet pop tune with a fuzzed-out guitar motif and a spaced-out vocal experiencing an epiphany: “Then it hit me, Somehow it lifts me, We made our God and we made His son.” For a guy who attended Jesuit high school, this took some working out, something he did with the song’s co-writer, an older fellow named Joe Henry from Colorado (not the famed producer) who’s philosophy and theology is inspiring to Combs. “It’s not denouncing religion,” he says. “It’s sort of saying that instead of God is love, love is God. It’s more of a questioning song.”
On “Hide And Seek,” co-written with similarly spectral and Southern Dylan LeBlanc, Cohen’s spare, low-toned guitar makes an utterly original setting for a rumination on guileless and playful romance. “Save Somebody Else” is a wise balm for our dominant culture’s empathy crisis. And he closes the project with “Golden,” a prayer for his two-year-old daughter. It’s a familiar and almost obligatory gesture, but it’s as lovely as anything on this lovely record.
Combs grew up in Dallas, where his hobbyist dad and a pro musician cousin stirred a general curiosity for playing with sound. “I started making electronic music in my bedroom,” he says. “My cousin had gone to school in Liverpool and brought back pirated software. I figured that out and got a MIDI keyboard.” Then he took a deep dive into folk and Texas song masters, which led to more rootsy home recording concepts. When college plans at Loyola University in New Orleans were literally blown away by Hurricane Katrina, Combs chased a long-simmering fascination with Nashville and committed to the music business program at Belmont.
More influential than what he sees now as a rather backward-looking Belmont education was integration into the dynamic East Nashville music scene. He played as a sideman for Caitlin Rose, and lived with Steelism’s Spencer Cullum Jr. Over the years, he’s become friends and collaborators with Erin Rae, Caroline Spence and Aaron Lee Tasjan, among others. Tasjan says Combs’ voice is “timeless” with a grounded, calming quality. With Ideal Man, he says, “I feel like the dude is arriving at something, sharing, but not heavy handed.”
After widespread acclaim for his first two independent releases, New West Records added Combs to its roster for 2017’s Canyons Of My MInd, an album that for some evoked the emotional command and musical lushness of Nick Drake or Harry Nilsson. This year, before dropping Ideal Man, the label re-issued Combs’ debut Worried Man as a deluxe edition with new tracks and a first-ever vinyl option.
In a conversation for an upcoming episode of The String, Combs says his newest music and the new channels opened up by painting have evoked a shift in his feelings about performing. Soft-spoken and cerebral, he quickly and decisively says that to this point, the studio has been far more comfortable for him than the show. But “this new record is making me want to get on stage so much more. I’m not sure why. Maybe these songs feel like me more than other records. I’ve never been this excited to be on stage.”
That’s good, because Combs has recently embarked on a hard-charging, two-month tour in the US and Europe (where he says he’s found audiences much more tuned in to and appreciative of his songcraft). He plays his hometown at the High Watt this Saturday night at 8 pm with Molly Parden opening. An exhibit of the paintings inspired by Ideal Man continues through Nov. 2 at LabCanna, 1006 Gallatin Ave. in East Nashville.