When Blair Combest sings on his latest record, “My stomach hurts, and there’s a pain in my back,” he is not using creative license. The singer has had 30 surgeries due to kidney stone problems. At age 25, pain is something he is no stranger to. You can hear it in the sadness in his gravel-tinged voice on his latest self-titled record, due for release from Makeshift Music Saturday, April 8th. However, chatting with him in person is something different altogether. Combest exudes charisma and while his lyrics are smart and literary, in person his sense of humor shines through.
Combest was born in Jackson, TN, but moved to Memphis when he was 5. He did not come from a particularly musical family; his father is a doctor specializing in pediatrics, and his mother is an interior decorator. None the less, he picked up a guitar at 10 and learned to play by writing his first song, an ode to chocolate and cigarettes. While the Dylan influence is easily heard in Combest’s music today, growing up, he was not the earnest artist some might expect.
“He was wild and crazy and not like anyone else you’ve ever met, he would do anything to make you laugh,” says longtime friend Kyle Baker, who attended Houston High School with Combest. “He was kind of ADD, but the one thing that was constant with him was music.”
It was a chance meeting at age 18 with Brad Postlethwaite, of Snowglobe and Makeshift Music fame, in a CK’s Coffee Shop in Germantown that has been one of his most influential musical experiences. The two musicians immediately formed a bond and began writing songs in the parking lot. They released two home-recorded records within two weeks.
“It was like They Might Be Giants meets Tom Waits, ” says Combest. “We want to re-release it all on Makeshift; Brad still has it somewhere.”
The duo spent the next few years collaborating during college until Postlethwaite moved to Athens. Upon his return to Memphis a new alliance was formed, a side project during the time Postlethwaite worked on the first Snowglobe album called The Fatty Go Easys.
“We wrote songs about kindergarten love and suicide, it was just like two guys and two guitars singing horrible harmonies,” laughs Combest. “Brad could always sing better harmonies so that I would sing lead.”
Next came Blair Combest and The Cosmic Cowboys, which was still essentially just Combest and Postlethwaite. It was during this era that Combest wrote the songs “Diamond” and “Every Once in a While” which would eventually end up on his debut album released in 2003. It seemed only fitting that when he decided to get serious and make a record, he would ask Postlethwaite to have a hand in the recording. The end product was Prettier Than Ugly, an essentially country album that consisted of Combest’s Dylan-esque vocals backed by indie-rock outfit Snowglobe. The name of the album came from the idea that the music was written to beautifully envelop Combest’s ragged voice.
“It was pretty music backed by ugly me,” says Combest.
On his latest record, Combest decided to step into the spotlight. He has still surrounded himself with notable musicians, like Kevin Cubbins and Postlethwaite, who get credit for producing. However, the more stripped down production puts Combest front and center. The record more closely resembles Combest’s singer-songwriter style live show.
“I wanted this album to be different that’s why I self-titled it,” says Combest. “I wanted it to be more about me.”
While Combest prefers to write in the first person, he’s found the more he tries to get away from it, the less he writes. Things have been going so well lately, to be inspired, he might have to start seeking outside inspiration. His goal is to simply be a story teller, and like so many before him, he finds that sad songs say so much.
“I like sad stuff because there’s beauty in it.”
Blair Combest plays a CD release party April 8th at The Hitone.