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Rock And Role Model

by Sean Sennett - Courier Mail (Brisbane, QLD), 8 December 2006

STEPHEN Cummings is contemplating the swimming pool on Brisbane's Gregory Tce.

As often as he can, the singer-songwriter likes to swim laps, presumably to help him meditate.

A national treasure, in my book at least, Cummings has rewarded listeners for three decades with some of Australia's finest adult pop songs.

As a boy, he fell under the spell of The Kinks, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

At Swinburne film school, he played in bands and occasionally helped Skyhooks with their lights.

As frontman with The Sports, he cracked the US charts with Who Listens To The Radio.

The band was signed to deals at home, as well as Europe and the US, where they released a steady stream of rock-tinged pop records that continue to hold their worth.

With influences ranging from Raymond Chandler to Van Morrison, Cummings has released a steady list of solo albums since his debut platter Senso in 1983.

Rarely one to look over his shoulder, he has re-visited two of his better solo records Lovetown (1988) and A New Kind Of Blue (1989). They have been re-mastered and repackaged as a twin-CD set with some added bonus tracks.

"For me, Lovetown was my first solo record that I was really happy with," says Cummings.

"It was the first one I basically produced myself. I had the idea that, from then on, I'd take more control of my music and take it in directions where I wanted it to go. I wanted to do things totally my way."

Whereas Senso earned him the Top 40 hit Gymnasium, Cummings was more concerned with crafting adult songs that reflected the concerns and habits of a man moving from his 20s into his 30s, a man whose ambitions for pop stardom were on the wane.

"With Senso, I'd had enough of the mainstream," he explains. "Originally, I'd said to my label (Regular) that I just wanted to release singles.

"Younger bands, like Spiderbait, told me they loved Gymnasium because it was the first Australian clip they'd seen with hip-hop dancing."

A non-driver at the time, Cummings started sessions for Lovetown with a morning bike ride across Melbourne to the studio.

"It was a dreamy thing to do," he says of the experience. Lovetown was recorded at John Ree's house, who was the bass player with Men At Work.

"Because Men At Work had had such success in America, he was like an instant millionaire and had a huge house in Hawthorn with a flat out the back that had an eight-track studio and beautiful German microphones.

"Andrew Pendlebury (also of The Sports) made his first solo record there. I thought that sounded great.

"I was going for a record where the guitars were there, but they weren't driving everything. I wanted double bass.

"I was going for something like the John Martyn record Solid Air, which was powerful and had a lot of soul, even for a white guy. Van Morrison's Astral Weeks is driven a lot by a driving double bass. I wanted that kind of feel."

Lovetown was voted Rolling Stone's Best Album for 1989, eclipsing both The Go Betweens' 16 Lovers Lane and Crowded House's Temple Of Low Men.

A New Kind Of Blue earned similar accolades. Cummings collected an ARIA award for his efforts on that album.

"I wanted to make good music and have hit records," he says, "but I wanted to do it at my pace. I was starting to get my own sound separate from The Sports.

"I realised that if I wanted to do it my way, I'd have to make some compromise. I just figured that the way through it was to get smaller budgets and have greater control.

"And I found if I did that, I was selling enough records to keep doing it. Basically, I wrote songs to fit that brief. Often artists have to let external things shape their artistic vision." Cummings' songwriting at the time appeared vaguely confessional.

Though the charts were hardly set alight, he converted a small army of listeners.

They were taken with the finely crafted Some Prayers Are Answered, She Set Fire to The House, A Life Is A Life, When Love Comes Back To Haunt You and Your House Is Falling.

Lovetown was the beginning of a trilogy of songs devoted to the waitress "Jane" who bears a passing resemblance to Genevieve Bujold.

"People usually ask me if there's a real Jane," says Cummings, "and there isn't. Both of those records were very personal. I'm a bit more distant in my songwriting now.

"I'm probably happier now and more relaxed. Each record, to me, is a document to what I was thinking and what my obsessions were in that period.

"I don't want to get totally locked into the past. I want to keep moving forward but, as an artist, you keep making records because you want to match up the product with the 'idea' you have in your head.

"That's the thing that keeps you doing it. I like to have these things still in currency, because I think they deserve it."

Along the way, he's also written two novels, Wonder Boy and Stay Away From Lightning Girl. A third is set to be released and a new album should be available next year.

Lovetown/A New Kind Of Blue out now through Liberation. Senso/This Wonderful Life will be re-released early next year.

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