11 July 1996 - What's On, Courier Mail
It's busy days for Stephen Cummings. He has just completed his seventh solo album and is working on his second book (the first's already a bestseller). Christie Eliezer reports
At first glance, Stephen Cummings and Steve Kilbey of the Church seem an odd couple. Cummings is most associated with sharp R&B pop, operates on nervous energy, laughs a lot, likes doing a number of projects simultaneously and admits to being vague about his ideas.
Kilbey is laid-back but has a very strong opinions on everything. Arty and moody, he prefers to do one thing at a time, and becomes so lost in his work he forgets time.
Yet both are perpetual daydreamers, are seen by some as eccentric, have a scornful disdain for the commercialism of the music scene, prefer to lead quiet lives, are fiercely protective of their private lives and avid record collectors.
The two worked together to make Cummings seventh solo album Escapist. It was recorded in Kilbey's home studio Karmic Hit, situated in the basement of a factory in Sydney's inner-city Balmain.
"We are pretty diferent as people," Cummings says with a laugh. "But we do share the same birth dates and star signs, we tend to read a lot of books, and we have the same musical reference points.
"I can't say we're very good friends, but I've always liked the Church. I met him four years ago through a friend (engineer Simon Polinski, who worked on Kilbey's Jack Frost project) and we hit it off immediately."
"One of the first conversations we had was him saying to me that he liked the fact that I wasn't precious about my songs. If it doesn't fit or fall together, I have no problems dumping it and going on to the next one. He's a bit like that too."
As an artist, Cummings is in an enviable position. His record company doesn't pressure him for hit singles. The music is mature and polished. His last two albums sold 10,000 copies each in Australia and also found a market in Europe.
"I'm quite comfortable with sales like that. Those are not bad in Australia today. It allows me to go on the road twice a year. I wouldn't want to tour more than that anyway. I'm not rich, by any means. But I'm in a lucky position. You won't hear me complain about my situation," Cummings says.
Escapist heralds a new direction. The first single, "Sometimes", was written by the pair with Kilbey's wife Karin Jansson and harks back to the psychedelic-pop of early Church records. Kilbey also contributes three songs, "Midnight in America", "Sleep With Me", and "Taken By Surprise". On the last song, Cummings even plays guitar for the first time on one of his own records.
"I've been mucking around on guitar for about six years," says Stephen. "I'm sure I have played it on past recordings, but they were never used! I've always played with brilliant guitar players, so there was never any need for me to. I was always too embarrassed."
Escapist exchanges melodic intimacy for a more atmospheric approach, which accentuates Cummings' vocals. The liberal use of synths by Robert Goodge (aka dance producer Filthy Lucre, he also did the last Underground Lovers record) gives his voice a greater warmth than before.
"Basically, I let Steve run the show this time. We never had any arguments. Mind you, I was a bit stunned when he said that he didn't want me to come to the sessions with anything prepared, just to do it spontaneously as the tapes ran," Cummings says.
"But that was too extreme for me! It's easy for Steve to take that sort of approach because he has his own studio and he can tinker for hours and hours. I only get into a studio once every couple of years so it's more of an event for me."
Cummings grew up in a stable middle-class hime in Melbourne. His father ran a milk bar, his mother kept the books for a theatrical company, and his sister is a nurse.
What he had was an in-built sense of cool. The Sports played some of the coolest music around, fusing 60s pop, reggae, gospel and soul into a catchy melodic package at a time when punk ruled. He collected cool records and amassed a great collection of 40s and 50s pulp detective novels.
After hits like "What Did The Detectives Say" and "Who Listens To the Radio", The Sports went to America and got signed by the legendary Clive Davis. But disliking the pressure of being turned into a rock star, Cummings returned to Australia to continue playing music for the reasons he started out.
Despite 20 years in the spotlight, he's a self-conscious performer ("it's a bit sad, to tell you the truth, because you're virtually saying 'hey, everybody, 'look at me!'") and sings with his eyes closed. Highly superstitious, he always wears the same shoes onstage for good luck.
In recent times, he's had the yearning to travel again. He travelled through Vietnam and came back so relaxed that he started writing his first book, Wonderboy, which was published this April. Six weeks ago, he did shows in Canada and is looking for an overseas deal.
Like his peer Joe Camilleri, that sense of cool extends to clothes. He protests that he's not clothes-mad and says his fashion sense is influenced by his affection for the 30s and 40s. "The best clothes were around then, baggy but with very nice lines. These were popularised by Hollywood. The best movies were made then and they had a powerful and lasting imagery," Cummings says.
In his second book, tentatively titled "Stay Away From Lightning Girl" (from a Nancy Sinatra song) he wants to capture the mood of films from that time. The plot revolves around the confusion between the sexes. Wonderboy, meantime, has reached the best-seller list.
"I wasn't trying to be some celebrated author," Cummings says. "I just thought it was a fun thing to do because I've always been a bit of a voyeur. I like listening to gossip and watching strangers.
"I quite impressed myself that I didn't stop halfway, which I usually do. It's very tiring. I'm not sure how many more I'll do. I don't see a lot of people as it is, and sitting by yourself working is not healthy. I'm sure it can turn you quite nutty."