History Repeats for Stephen Cummings
For Stephen Cummings history does repeat itself. First came The
Sports double-CD compilation album "This Is Really Something: The Complete
Anthology". Now we have Cummings' own 18 track collection "Puppet Pauper
Pirate Poet Pawn and King". Both releases show the different sides of this
acclaimed songwriter and his development over the past twenty years.
Brian Wise and Jeff Jenkins caught up with Cummings on Off The
Record and quizzed him about his music. The starting point? The new Bob Dylan
album "Time Out Of Mind", of course.
BW: Do you get any inspiration when you listen to albums like this as a
songwriter, do you sort of take any inspiration from it? Because the lyrics are
quite amazing aren't they?
I think it's kind of more daunting, in fact. Actually, one of the interesting
things that I was reading something about the record was that I think there was
a big kind of push last year for Bob Dylan to get the Nobel Literature prize.
When you think about it really - with him recently playing in front of the Pope
and things like that and just that incredible output - no other songwriter of
the Twentieth century really has come anywhere near him. He's made a lot of
records full stop, but it's a pretty amazing output. The thing is that - which
made me think of the new record - he uses a lot of blues cliches and things
like that but his voice, but the whole thing is in the performance. His voice
is like a voice of experience or something...you get all these extra layers. He
can make those kind of cliches just sound earth shattering. It's a very good
BW: Does the title [of the new compilation] sum up your life?
Well I think anyone who's been in the music business for twenty years would
have had to have played those kinds of parts at least once or twice. Some are
better than others.
BW: And interestingly enough, just recently there's also been a Sports
compilation out. So there are two collections on the market at the same
Jeff: A couple of years ago when you put out another compilation -
"Rollercoaster" which was a mix of Sports and solo stuff, you said to me, 'Look
Jeff I'm sick of writing new songs, I'm just gonna re-package all the old ones
until everybody's heard them.' I thought you were joking at the time...but no.
You're giving everybody a good chance to hear them which is quite good.
Well I actually like, quite like repackaging really good things, it's kind of
an act that's been around for a while. I don't know if it's Costello that does
it a lot, gets the groups of his songs together and a group like The Smiths
put out the same songs in about forty different packages.
Jeff: It's a bit of a compilation with a difference too because it's not
just all the singles and you have really put this together. The two bigger
solo hits - "Gymnasium" and "Hell" are not on this record.
It was just songs that I liked. I thought it would give a good overview of what
I did. Quite often I play a very different kind of audience and sometimes...
young kids will come up to me afterwards and ask me do I make records...or can
they get a record! There's just so much stuff out there now. So, I guess that's
one of the other reasons - it's a kind of good initial record for people who
don't quite know what I do.
BW: Anybody who bought both those compilations would get a pretty interesting
contrast in the way in which your music has changed over the years. Fairly
dramatically I might suggest.
Well it doesn't seem that way to me because I've been there all the way. If
you're in a group it's a whole lot of people. It's kind of changed. I don't
know, it all seems very natural to me. But one thing I noticed is that last year
when I had the "Escapist" album out I was just thinking to myself that 'oh my
God...I've written so many songs'. I wish I had found it more depressing! This
year with both those compilations out, I feel like it's good that I've been
able to do that because I've always thought that I was really slack. I'm
amazed...I feel it's amazing what you can do.
I feel different about it now. I feel like it's good. I also think it takes a
long time. I was a bit slow and to me, it took quite a long time to find my own
voice where I sound like me and get something unique. It took all through The
Sports and one or two solo albums to get something a bit unique.
BW: Do you feel that you have your own voice now? Because the people
listening to the last few albums - with the songwriting and the instrumentation
- would recognise immediately that it's Stephen Cummings, wouldn't they?
I think so really. I think it's just amazing how it takes so long to get, to do
it but I'm really happy with doing music.
BW: The other thing is that you've had so many influences coming to bear on
your music early on. I suppose you've got to work through that process don't
you? Getting all that out of your system as well.
After you've been doing it for a long while you actually go back to the very
early influences that you listened to. They become more important, you get kind
of side-tracked along the way and then you go back to what you liked in the
first place - getting into music or listening to music all the time.
I just did listen to Bob Dylan records or I did listen to more English kind of
wasky records like the Incredible String Band or more kind of British Isles
music and also different pop things. I've gone back to really liking that sort
of music and acoustic music and country or blues - just classic forms or things
that kind of got me interested in the first place.
BW: What's your favourite song of all time?
"Undecided" (The Masters Apprentices). I did actually buy that...
Jeff: There are three new songs on the new album. "Somewhere you wrote with
Bill McDonald didn't you...the bass player in your group and Four Hours Sleep.
That's his project which was a sadly overlooked record from last year but
hopefully you'll make another Four Hours Sleep album.
We're sort of starting to try and do one of those. That's another thing I've
been doing. I've been making a record with Chris Marshall who's the singer
with Harem Scarem, and that's going to come out on MDS next year. I'm doing that
with Chris and Barry Palmer, Mark Ferrie, John Watson the drummer and it's
somewhere between Tim Buckley and The Faces.
BW: You're playing rhythm guitar aren't you?
I just play rhythm guitar and sing a few backups. I wrote the slow songs and
Barry Palmer wrote the fast songs. It's a lot of fun...and the record actually
sounds pretty good. It was quite weird when we were recording it because it
wasn't much money, so we recorded in four days and it was odd because in one
studio there was Chris and Barry and Charlie Marshall one day as well, and in
the mixing room there was Chris Wilson (also ex-Harem Scarem).
BW: Chris's performances at the Continental were quite incredible. He had
this really interesting stage personality. He really threw himself into it,
didn't he? I think a lot of people were taken aback. I also think a lot of
people were also pretty surprised at the voice.
It's just full on in every way. That's really good fun and Barry is a fantastic
guitar player, I think. It's a fun thing for me to do.
Jeff: You'll have your second book out early next year as well? "Stay Away
From Lightning Girl"...semi-autobiographical is it?
Not really, a little bit. It's set around the fringes of the music business.
It's about a songwriter who's been living in Canada, and he comes back to live
in Melbourne and things happen. He gets straight back into the music business,
meets girls, stuff happens, the usual story.
BW: I heard that your record deal is it coming up for re-negotiation?
I'm just working out what I'm doing, yeah.
BW: Have you decided yet?
BW: When do you think you'll make a decision?
BW: Is there a new studio album to come out?
I've thought about it but I just thought I'd wait a bit longer.
the Stephen Cummings site - email: feedback AT lovetown.net