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Happiness is a bunch of new songs

by Bernard Zuel - Sydney Morning Herald, 21 February 2003

Stephen Cummings was no fun to live with. Then he got hold of a firecracker, writes Bernard Zuel.

It was early last year and Stephen Cummings was in a deep funk. It wasn't the first time in his 25-plus years as a singer and songwriter (more than a dozen albums, solo and with the Sports), nor the first in his six-year stint as a novelist (two novels, nice reviews) that he'd found himself thinking "why bother?".

As Cummings, who is among our finest songwriters even if his records sell to a boutique audience, puts it: "I can often become disillusioned with myself professionally. I think, what am I doing? Music is a total loser's game."

Depression, the blues, existential crisis, whatever you call it, Cummings was not a fun boy to be around. Ask his partner Kathleen, who went into his garage-cum-workshop one day and declared: "You're not going to make one of those f---ing maudlin records, are you?"

"To snap myself out of it I started pulling out a lot of '50s CDs and at the same time I was writing another book and every chapter of the book I named after a single on [R&B and early rock'n'roll record label] Chess Records," Cummings explains.

"And I also made the main character a fancy pastry cook and he's the kind of person who's in his 40s and everything is getting too much for him so he decides he's going to limit everything he does ... he decides that this period of Chess Records has everything he needs so he'll just listen to [them] so he doesn't have to make any more choices.

"Chess released a lot of rockabilly records, too, and I started thinking about how that stuff worked so well because it was really spacious, [had] heaps of percussion and just grooves along. It was a combination of all that sort of stuff to get myself out of that funk. I got a friend to come over, a drummer, and I made some '50s drum loops at home and then over four or five weeks I wrote 30 songs."

At first it was a release. You suspect that Cummings probably didn't have it in mind to record an album of rockabilly songs.

It was enough that songs were coming out and the book was moving along. And anyway, who would record an album influenced by Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley and a lot of anonymous greasers when the radio is still clogged with teen pop and the press is full of "new rock" bands reviving '60s garage punk?

But once again Kathleen nailed it. "I knew I was onto a good thing [when writing the songs]," laughs Cummings. "Because when I was making the demos she kept coming out saying 'that's really good, you should make a whole record like that: happy'."

That album, Firecracker, is happy. And danceable. And, most of all, fun. You can hear it in the lightness in Cummings's voice, the pleasure in the playing and the vibrancy of songs.

It is proudly retro (when he hiccups his way through a line you picture him in outrageous sidelevers and pink drape trousers) but doesn't sound like a museum piece, thanks to fine playing from the likes of Ross Hannaford and Chris Cheney from the Living End.

And unlike recent tours, where Cummings was usually seated and singing softly into a microphone, tonight's performance could well feature a shaking leg or two, and maybe a sharp-dressed man with just a hint of California Poppy.

Meanwhile, the book that was gestating at the same time that Firecracker was spawned could be finished by midyear. We know it has a pastry chef and a lot of Chess Records' name checking, but what's it about?

"It's about the blues: how you can't make sense of your life until you understand that you're going to die," says Cummings.

"Where I live I had three neighbours, husbands, all die unexpectedly, in their early 40s in about a five-week period. The strange kind of thing was the reactions of each of the women. One was next week paying off the house, going on with the renovations; the other was a total mess; and the other was in between. And that prompted me to start the book, really.

"It's a comedy," Cummings adds, then pauses, possibly realising the absurdity, and laughs.

A comedy about death? Well, at least it should please Kathleen.

Stephen Cummings plays the Metro Roma Room tonight. Firecracker is out on W.Minc Records.

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