by Lynden Barber
17 Nov 1988 - Sydney Morning Herald
Then at the end of last year along came an LP called Love Town. Released on the small Melbourne independent label Rampant, it not only had the critics tossing hats in the air, but achieved a modest amount of commercial radio airplay and respectable sales.
Recorded cheaply, Love Town was a record of smouldering intimacy that took the lyricism of country and lent it the sophistication and poise of the late-night jazz club; its arrangements, dominated by a rich acoustic bass, had the timeless, ruminative air of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks.
His forthcoming LP, A New Kind Of Blue ("I forgot about that Miles Davis record A Kind Of Blue," he claims), to be released in February, is a more richly layered record that locates him somewhere between the sly sophistication of UK acts like Prefab Sprout and Aztec Camera (high sheen production, a few jazz chords), and the reflectiveness of Van the Man. With touches of pedal steel guitar again lending a country edge, it nevertheless eludes easy categorisation, and will probably appeal across audience boundaries.
Unlike Joe Camilleri (an early colleague of his in the Melbourne band the Pelaco Brothers), Cummings's affinity with Morrison is never allowed to become a stylistic stranglehold; rather he shares with the Irishman the recognition of being long past the rush of youth (Morrison, too, had his first success in a rock band, Them). For all their considerable differences, their musics reflect the search for a calmer space, a more spiritual experience than they found amidst the pell-mell of pop.
After his fall from commercial grace, Cummings had spent a few years in the wasteland, casting around disconsolately, flirting with this, that and the other. He made a few dance records which were more than respectable, but he was too disillusioned with the star-making machinery to throw himself into self-promotion with the requisite abandon. No go-getter instinct, entrepreneurs like Michael Gudinski would say. A bad investment.
"Record companies weren't ringing me up or anything," recalls Cummings, as suntanned and impossibly handsome in the flesh as the photo, but with the merest hint of a feminine manner.
"I didn't feel like I wanted to be judged by them if I wanted to make a record. I've never gone around and seen anyone and had them say 'This is good', or 'that is good', or 'If you did this ...' It just sort of seems so pointless."
He had almost given up on music as a career option when he started a part-time course in Literature and Film Studies at La Trobe University. "If you hadn't done anything like that for 10 years, which I hadn't, it was a bit of a shock. It was funny being there, though, with all these 18-year-olds. That was the worst." Not that they seemed to know or care about who he was. They were all, he says, into the raven-black mode of Gothic.
"At that stage I didn't really think I had much future in music; I was just trying to find other things I could do," he reflects. "I thought, I've got to do a course or learn something quickly.
"Music didn't seem like a place where I could fit in. Someone like Vince Jones, by perseverance and keeping it together, has built up a really good niche for himself, so I was comparing myself with someone like him ... I always wanted to build up my own little thing like that."
He also did a stint in advertising, writing copy for a Kit-Kat ad and a number of jingles before realising this wasn't really for him.
The irony, however, was worth savouring. Here he was, respected songwriter and performer, yet "nobody would send me into a recording studio except these few advertisers".
The flash of insight that would reactivate Cummings's musical career came when he read an interview where Leonard Cohen was deriding his position in the scheme of things, owning up to being just a guy who lived in Los Angeles and wrote songs for a living.
"He always thought before that that he was interesting and was writing these songs with Biblical references, but realised suddenly why nobody was buying them. He realised finally they were no good. This was before he made that new record, which was the first one of his I've really liked."
Cummings decided to just get on with making music without fretting needlessly about his career options. The resultant lack of self-consciousness underlies his new music: it feels like it was made for enjoyment rather than to meet a marketing strategy.
While acts like Aztec Camera and Lloyd Cole spend millions on studio and production fees only to rinse out all the spontaneity from their songs, Cummings (who is now writing a film script with a friend) thinks of himself as the musical equivalent of a low-budget film-maker.
"You can get the cost back, and you can do surprisingly well. Even if you don't, you haven't lost a lot, and you've got good quality product which never hurts the label, really. Things can sell for a long time."
He has switched to the Truetone label, home of the Rockmelons, which has the advantage of distribution through EMI. Stephen Cummings is looking rosy. Anyway, why be a pop star again, when "all you do is work all the time"?