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Cummings plays a funkier game

by Brett Thomas

1990 - Sun Herald (Sydney)

It has taken a long time, but Stephen Cummings is finally getting serious about the music industry.

Although he is considered one of Australia's biggest talents (with a 1989 ARIA award for his last album A New Kind Of Blue to prove it), Cummings has always remained coolly detached from the industry - preferring to concentrate on the art rather than the commerce.

It's an attitude that has seen him flit from record company to record company, releasing the odd gem but never being prepared to play the game necessary for commercial success.

"Up until the last 18 months of so, I was very casual about the whole thing," he said. "I never had a manager and I was moving around, not wanting to get tied down.

"I was totally, fully involved in music to such an extent that I was perhaps over-casual about everything else."

Now, Cummings has found a comfortable new home at True Tone Records and in February will release his latest album, Good Humour - a disc that promises to be a bit of a departure from his more recent material.

The current single, Hell, is a good guide to what, as Cummings estimated, about one third of the album will deliver with an instantly accessible tight, electric dance-floor groove.

"It's like a continuation of A New Kind Of Blue but it has a bit more of a funkier element to it," Cummings explained of the album. "I haven't done anything like that for a long time, the last song of that type being Gymnasium.

"I've been working with Robert Goodge, who used to be in I'm Talking (Kate Ceberano's former band). After I'm Talking split, he stopped music and went back to uni but we go together and started writing a few songs.

Cummings said he has always been a big fan of dance music but after Gymnasium's top ten success he was reluctant to dabble again.

"I could never find a way to interpret that kind of material without it sounding like a B-grade dance track with Stephen Cummings singing on it," he admitted.

"It's why I've always put off doing more stuff like that. But I've always liked that music myself, to play around the house, and I'm quite happy now to include that element in my music."

Cummings used his usual base of musicians in Shane O'Mara and Rebecca Barnard in the studio and described the experience as "very enjoyable".

"I like recording but at the same time I hate spending hours and hours going over the same thing. I get really bored as well," he said.

Goodge also provided some assistance in the recording, as did Sydney avant garde jazz enesemble The Necks.

"I like them because they have pretty wide tastes as well as being a modern jazz band," he said. "They keep testing themselves and I like working with challenging musicians."

The album, which also includes Cummings' more recognisable acoustic work and guitar pop - has actually been ready for five months but a legal dispute over the record's distribution has held it back.

"It has been a frustrating time," said Cummings, the master of understatement. "The fact that it had nothing to do with me has probably made it even more frustrating."

During the long wait for release, Cummings has been kept busy, getting a driver's licence, seeing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie three times (with his five year old son) and, through financial necessity as much as anything else, writing the I Feel Better Now jingle for Medibank.

Of course, Cummings has also found time for some songwriting, a skill that has been so honed over the past 12 years that it has now become incorporated into his life.

"I'm just continually working on little things all the time," he said.

"I've got eight track and 24-track studios set up around the house and I usually work for a few hours a day at different times."

The subject matter of Cummings' material has remained pretty constant over the years - much to the horror of the other members of the Melbourne creche where his son attends.

"I always deal with the traumas of everyday life," he said. "It's just about relationships - it's the area I've always worked in.

"I had someone at my creche come up and say 'why aren't you writing more songs about creches and child welfare like Midnight Oil?'

"But it just depends on how you take it. I could say my songs are political but in a different way. In some ways, they are just as political as songs about the environment - they are just more obvious."

In the 70s, Cummings was a member of acclaimed Australian pop band The Sports and that past has just recently resurfaced through a mini-album by Melbourne band Wedding Parties Anything.

The EP, which includes six songs by The Sports and one by Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons, seems to have amused Cummings.

"I thought it was quite good," he said. "I sort of liked about 70 per cent and didn't like 30 pc but I was glad they did it. I guess it's a compliment - I did have a bit of a chuckle when I saw it.

"They didn't ask my permission before they recorded it but they did ring me up and ask me for some of the words. Unfortunately, I couldn't remember them."

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