A Year of Sundays: A conversation with Andrew Combs

Andrew Combs interview

Andrew Combs wasn’t sure he wanted to come right out and say exactly what generated work on his new album Sundays, which came out last month.

Two things might have tilted the Dallas native’s decision to ultimately do so. One: the slightly more open environment for discussing mental health issues, resulting in at least a little more acceptance of those vulnerable. And two: the fact that Sundays, Combs’ fifth full-length release, is his strongest album yet.

All that considered, it’s still bracing to read the straightforward explanation of the origins of Sundays as offered on Combs’ bio: “Written on the heels of a mental breakdown Combs had at Christmas of 2020—amid the long, monotonous grind of an ongoing global pandemic—Sundays came together in Nashville in early 2021. In the wake of this debilitating psychological crack-up, Combs turned to the practice of Transcendental Meditation® to find balance and to, in the words of surrealist director David Lynch, ‘catch the big fish.’”

Listeners who’ve followed Combs’ decade-plus career might have sensed that some sort of evolution was already happening in his recorded work. Early albums Worried Man and All These Dreams were steeped in enough Americana that he fit seamlessly in country concert lineups with Eric Church and Chris Stapleton. By 2019’s Ideal Man, Combs found himself drifting into more ethereal, less describable music that veered further away from the definition of roots music. 

Sundays is a more drastic departure than even Combs’ most fervent fans might have expected. It stems from a process that saw Combs regularly working on songs during the week, recording them on Sundays with co-producer Jordan Lehning and instrumentalist Dominic Billet. Stripping the songs back down to their elements, the team decided to produce the final product in mono, with a particular emphasis on woodwinds like saxophones and oboes. The gambit works—Sundays is a testament to hard-won clarity, an honest but simple inventory of what’s not working and how to get around it.

Now living in Nashville, Combs spoke to me on Zoom from the front stoop of a townhouse in Philadelphia, the night before embarking on a European tour in August.


How would you typify the work that you did prior to Sundays? Was there some kind of goal that you meant to achieve with every album?

Yes and no. When I was younger, I was definitely emulating my influences. I can say this now but I was probably trying to be somebody that I wasn’t, which I think is a young man’s game and I don’t have any shame about it. But as far as evolving and trying new things, that’s just become kind of my way to keep things interesting for myself and push myself. I get really bored doing the same thing. Sundays is sort of a different thing in that it came about organically. I can’t even say I was consciously doing it, it was just happening. But yeah, the older I get the more I am open to new things and different sounds. Not only meet others influenced by different kinds of music, but other art forms and having a family—different facets of life that have influenced me.

A lot of artists probably wouldn’t be as forthcoming as you have been about the genesis of Sundays. Without being too personal, would you care to get into how that happened, or what was what was happening to you?

Sure. I was definitely apprehensive about including that in like a press release (laughs), but it just felt like it informed so much of the record that without it, it might not even make sense to some people.

Basically, I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression my whole life. Things were boiling up. I think the COVID lockdown—it was beautiful in some respects, but it also tipped me over.

I just had a breakdown and was bedridden for a couple weeks. It was just crippling. I don’t want to make light of that. I don’t think about it as a something that’s special to me; a lot of people go through these things. But it was just so important to where these songs came from that I felt like it needed to be included.

Eventually, on the heels of that, my buddy Jordan Lehning who I produced this record with—he did not know what I was going through, or at least the extent of what I was going through. But after everything happened, he called me just out of the blue and said, “Hey, I had this idea.” I’d been doing those livestream things a lot of people were doing at the time. I was doing it in my shed. It’s just where I paint and write songs, literally a shed. It was so dry and bare-boned, and Jordan liked it.

He said, “I have this idea of doing this record with you where everything is dry—there’s no reverb, there’s no delay, no effects on anything. Everything is up front, your vocal is up front, maybe it’s in mono… Would you like to come by? We’ll get our mutual buddy Dom (Billett) involved. Let’s just have coffee and piddle around in the studio.”

I told him, “Well, first of all, I’d love to do that. Second, I have two songs from the last year and I don’t know if they’re any good. And third of all, I don’t know if I’m gonna be any good—I haven’t picked up the guitar in months, I haven’t sang in months, so let’s just get together. Worse comes to worst, we get to hang out.”

We recorded “Anna Please” in the shed. The next week Jordan sent me some rough mixes. He had added woodwinds. It’s mono, which you just don’t hear anymore. So tuning into that in my ear buds, it just feels crazy. It feels different and fresh, and it was something I wanted to explore more. That was the first day we got together. It was a Sunday and so we’re like, “Well, let’s just do this every Sunday we can.”

For a month and a half, I would just write during the week. I’d bring the songs; myself, Jordan and Dom would record them, pretty much everything besides woodwinds. Then later on we added a guitar and pedal steel and so forth, but pretty much it was just us three. It just happened really organically.

Jordan was talking to me the other day and said, “You know, every time I go into record, I have an idea about what this record should sound like and inevitably it turns out to be something totally different. This is the first time I’ve ever started a record with the idea and ended with the same idea. Everything felt right and it happened the way it did.” I don’t think I could have done it without Dom and Jordan because they’re two of my best buddies. It was so cathartic—I don’t think I could have done that with strangers.

It’s a combination of things: the mono recording, the lack of reverb and delay, no real special effects outside of that one electronic burst on “Down Among the Dead.” It makes the entire thing sound more intimate. Even if you’re sitting a few feet away from a speaker, it sounds like it’s right there. That’s awfully hard to pull off with excessive special effects.

Yeah. Especially the mono thing. It started as an exercise. We originally had the idea that the whole record was gonna be in mono, then the very last song (“Shall We Go?”) was gonna explode into stereo. It’s sort of a dirge song, and when the woodwinds came in it was going to go to stereo. But I thought it doesn’t matter by then. The mono thing started as an exercise in how we arrange songs and how the songs are written—they need to be exact and they need to be perfect. I’m not saying that they are perfect, but you know what I mean. They need to be right on.

I think most people in music nowadays rely on overdubs, panning to push things left or right so you can add more things to the other side. It was just like, well, let’s not do that. Let’s set some parameters. Sometimes setting parameters creates whole other art forms, which goes back to just trying to keep things interesting and pushing myself in different directions. That was enticing to me. It was Jordan’s idea, but I was full on about it.

When you got that project going, when Jordan came up with the parameters for this project, did it alter your songwriting process in any way? Did it change your approach?

I was writing in real time. We had recorded those first two songs that kind of set the whole thing in motion. I have to say yes—I was writing with that in mind, but it all came together so organically that the fact that I was writing about meditating and simplifying yourself just clicked with the whole idea of mono. It wasn’t like I was trying to fit in these elaborate songs. It was what it was. It was effortless, you know? I thought about the sound, but at the same time it was there already.

You mentioned being influenced by art besides music. “Anna Please,” and its video, was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Cries And Whispers and “Shall We Go?” was taken after Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. What was it about Cries and Whispers and the character of Anna that inspired you?

Her empathy. I did “Anna Please” in the shed, one of the two songs that came before we started tracking. I made a “quarantine” record in my shed. I recorded a bunch of stuff and then sent it out to friends at their home studios and they would add stuff. I was on a huge Bergman kick. I would just put on Bergman movies. There’s little to no music in them, and there’s subtitles. It was just like a perfect writing space for me, ’cause I would be absorbed in what’s going on, but I could still be playing on my guitar and humming a melody or something.

It wasn’t like anything profound, honestly. I was watching that movie and that’s what came out of it. Anna definitely struck a nerve with me. What’s really interesting is that video done by Austin Leih—my wife is in it, she played Anna. She had just lost her mother, so it was a really emotional time for her. Watching her play that caretaker was really heavy. But like I said, I was just into that stuff, same with the Beckett stuff. I’m a huge Beckett fan. I went through a phase of watching it all. I don’t know who started it, but there was this project about Beckett on film. You can find them all on YouTube. I would just watch those all the time. I thought, “Man, these plays are just screaming for songs.”

Even “Truth and Love” is kind of based around some of his other work. Yeah, Waiting for Godot really struck me. I felt like it was a poignant last song to the record. I keep bringing this up, but everything just kind of happened. One time I heard Tom Waits talking about how you just have to let the muse in when it wants to be inside. If you’re driving you just have to pull over the car and let it take hold. That’s what was happening. I was just sort of a filter for it all.

Let me start with “(God)less.” The phrase “We are capable of such a mess we’re capable of bloom and bliss” – it just reminds me what somebody said about humans having great capacity for both good and evil, while being in the same person. The first time I heard it, I thought it was saying “God still exists, but he’s become something different in this world of godlessness.” But I think I got that wrong—now it sounds more to me like “God continues to exist, even though the world is turning against him.”

Yeah, that’d be more appropriate. I’m not a religious person, but it’s about finding “God” in something that the rest of the world thinks as godless.

On “Mark of the Man,” We usually like to blame outside or even extraterrestrial forces for what happens in our lives. But in actuality we’re the ones that are causing it. What was the story behind that song?

There’s a car that parks outside of my local grocery store—it must be someone that works there or a shop nearby. It has a bunch of bumper stickers, like conspiracy theory stuff. On the side of it said “First masks, then the mark of the beast.” It kind of set me off on this thing—how it was the height of the pandemic, seeing a lot of religious right-wing people aligning their face, in my opinion, in the wrong direction. It’s all very complicated and nuanced, so I don’t want to pinpoint certain sections of the population. But it just felt like the overall stance from any side—we’re all blaming somebody else. Really when it comes down to it, we’re to blame. We can make the decision to step up and help someone else out that is not ourselves, or we cannot. That’s what it’s about. It’s what you said: we have a tendency to blame, we like to blame other people.

Especially like the last 25 or 30 years. It just seems like the rancor has gotten so potent. It’s hard having to look at that for more than half of my adult life.

Yeah. And having children now, it’s like, “Good Lord, what kind of world am I raising these kids to enter into?” It’s scary.

How old are your kids?

I have a newborn; she’s five months old. And I have a 5-year-old.

Congratulations!

Thank you! Yeah, welcome to earth kids! (Laughs) It’s crazy.

I also want to talk about Transcendental Meditation®. It’s something that I’ve only looked casually into, but I’m still drawn to it for some reason. How did you come across that and what kind of role did it ultimately play in in writing the songs? It feels like there are few songs here that talk about, maybe not TM specifically, but certain points that it would address.

Yeah, you’re right. I had been thinking about it for a long time to deal with anxiety. One of our very close family friends grew up in Fairfield, Iowa. It’s the TM capital of the US. It’s a Maharishi-started town, basically. She grew up there, so she’s been meditating since she was five years old. I’m not against any other kinds of meditation. In fact, I have come to the point where I’m starting to think about exploring other avenues. But anyway, she is one of the most kind, mindful, beautifully open people that we know. Finally, I just bit the bullet and talked to her about it. She forwarded me onto her mother, who was in that world for all of their life. She hooked me up with the teacher, and I did the classes. It’s been super helpful.

It’s funny—Jordan was making fun of me the other day because I started medication and meditation the same week. He said, “Why did you do that? Now you don’t know which one’s working!” (Laughs) Well, they’re both working so I’m not gonna try one or the other. But yeah, it’s been a godsend. Especially dealing with the initial trauma, it was really helpful in eliminating past stressors. Whereas the medication is more of just keeping my serotonin level up and just being a normal human being from day-to-day.

One song I really took a shine to was “Down Among the Dead.” In a lot of ways it’s the most foreboding lyric on the album. It’s talking about death, but at the same time it’s the most upbeat song on the album. The saxophones sound like what David Bowie was doing during Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. It’s got this great element to it but it’s about the weariness you’re having with this world, the feeling that you’re surrounded by death. I was wondering if there was catharsis for you.

I was in that Samuel Beckett mode. To have a sort of goal, but have absurdist stuff to just swirl around it. Initially I was thinking of it as like an NRBQ song. A bunch of people have referenced the Bowie thing, which of course I’m all about. Honestly, it was a song that I didn’t think was gonna make the record. I thought it was just gonna be too far out there. I wrote it very fast, with a drum machine in that one lick (sings the lick). It’s become one of my my favorites.

I did want to talk about some of the arrangements, especially the woodwinds because they are so underutilized, and they play a very prominent role on this. Woodwinds all have this melancholy tone to them. Even if it’s John Coltrane playing up a fast jazz tune or somebody playing the clarinet, there’s this melancholy going on. How important were the woodwinds to the strategy of the album because they work really well on this?

They were sort of the glue. When Jordan sent me the rough mixes of those two songs with woodwinds, I knew that the recordings were cool and that we were on to something. When he put those on there it was like my mind kind of expanded a little bit more. Jordan is a great producer and writer and player, but in my opinion where he really shines is arranging strings and woodwinds and horns. I was in the room for every arrangement. I would hum something that he would add in there. But the arrangements are all him. We had thought about strings, but it just felt too lush for what we were trying to go for. So we pushed that to the side and decided to just stick with woodwinds, ’cause like you said it has that melancholy feel. It’s earthy, it’s raw in its own way.

Were you aware of any musical models that Jordan was working from, or inspirations for the arrangements?

No. Jordan really hates to have references of other things. I mean, if anything it’s classical music. I think that would probably be his main love. Maybe even left-of-center, sort of avant-garde stuff. But no, I don’t think so. What I love about him is whatever he writes serves the song. He wants me to be in the room to make sure that it’s all there, it’s not like handing it off and then it’s done.

Have you always worked collaboratively in that sense?

What’s funny… this record feels like actually the most me. It’s the first record I’ve ever co-produced. I was just more vocal about stuff. In the past it’s been more of me giving my material to someone else, saying “What do I do with this?” Not being confident enough in my own ear and capabilities. I guess that’s collaboration. I feel like this record was more collaborative, but it also is more me, whatever that means.

Did you ever get to a point where there was a subject that you kind of wanted to shy away from? Or was it just, “I’ve got to come out and say everything I’m feeling at the moment without censorship or without worry”?

I think so. I had just left my record label, I had to let go of my manager, I had lost my booking agent in the U.S.—I didn’t give a fuck. I was just like, “I just wanna make something because this is what’s happening.” It felt real. So yeah, I guess I wasn’t thinking about that at all.

It feels like even though the songs may have come in in different order, the album has a narrative of some sort. Or was it more just sequencing the songs in a way that made sense?

Yeah, it was the latter. I just tried not to think, “Oh, what do we need?” It was more “Let’s just get as much as we can.” What’s good is it was all sort of centered around that common thread, that sort of theme. I wasn’t really worried about something coming out of left field. Let’s get what we can and then figure out what makes sense next to each other.

Were you surprised at some of the things you discovered through these songs? Things you didn’t expect or something you learned that really took you by surprise?

That’s an interesting question. I’m sure if I thought about it hard enough I would say yes, but it was like the record was just another like part of the process that I was going through, trying to feel better. Maybe in a year or so I’ll feel that way. I don’t know yet.

You can’t really offer solutions for happiness. At some point you just have to start over.

I didn’t realize that you’d left your label. Was there a sense of freedom with how you decided to go with this record?

To a certain extent. I was with New West, and they were great and fine people. I had some issues with them that are beside the point. I think they would have liked the record. I don’t know if I would have been able to make it like that when it happened. Labels like to plan, they like to know where their money is going. Also I kind of worked in a new model, for me at least, with Dom and Jordan. I didn’t have any money so we’re just like splitting all the masters. Again, coming back to collaboration I don’t think I could have made this record with people I wasn’t really good friends with. For many reasons, but also just the fact that I was dealing with and writing about stuff that felt personal, but they were there close to me and I’m more than happy to share with them. Whereas with a stranger I might not have been.

Do you see this as having changed how you work going in the future? Do you have any ideas that the process that you went through—hopefully not the negative part, but the creative process—changed something about the way you’ll approach creativity beyond Sundays?

I think so. I haven’t thought about that yet. I think the older I get, the more relationships with friends and collaborations with people that are actually close to me and know what the hell is going on inside my brain, and I know what’s going on inside their brains to a certain extent, mean to me. It’s the same way with the guy who’s done the videos for me, Austin Leih. I just totally trust that guy and he totally trusts me, so we work really well together. I wanted to explore that avenue incorporating music and film, but five or ten years ago I would have been too scared to do something like that.

I was reading up about Sundays, and I can’t remember where I saw this, but I thought it was interesting: It seems like the point of the album is not so much to become at peace or happy, but to achieve a state of rest.

Yeah, that rings true. I think that’s the starting point to find happiness. You can’t really offer solutions for happiness. At some point you just have to start over. That’s what it felt like to me and I really appreciated that. I’ve just now started the interviewing process about this record, but from the interviews that I’ve done so far I’m really glad that it’s resonating with people I didn’t know. That was important to me and I’m more proud of it than anything I’ve ever done. But I didn’t know how it was gonna come across. I’m thrilled that people are realizing what it’s about, whether or not they want to listen to it or absorb it—that’s up to them—but I’m just glad that it’s resonating with some people.

I assume as a person who’s about to go out on tour you’re not really thinking too much about the next project, but do you have any ideas where you might want to go after this?

Yeah, I’m always thinking about that. I do have an idea for something. Whether it’s just an EP or a record I don’t know, but I’m working on something with Dom right now. As far as a bigger project, I have ideas, but they’re too minuscule to even try to describe right now. It’ll be different. I feel like I’m just constantly keeping myself on my toes, and maybe or maybe not alienating sections of my audience. But what are you gonna do?


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