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Battle of the "Medicare* man"

by Brett Thomas

9 August 1992 - Sun Herald (Sydney)

It has often been noted that singer/songwriter Stephen Cummings isn't too particular about the business part of the music business. His lack of manager, almost non-existent touring schedule and low-key persona are testimony to that.

But when it comes to his songs, Cummings' passion runs deep.

Through his years with 70s band The Sports and his now decade long solo career, Cummings, now grey and nudging 40, has developed into one of Australia's finest songwriters, with a swag of critically-acclaimed albums to his name.

But as is often the case, critical favour has not transformed into mega sales and Cummings, on the eve of the release of his latest album, Unguided Tour, is openly questioning his recording future.

"If I'm to keep making records, I'll have to get into other areas, pick up pockets of interest throughout the world," he said. "It's the only future if I want to keep going because it gets tiring, this endless cycle of being ignored, then rediscovered."

Asked if he would seriously consider giving up music, Cummings paused and answered: "I might have to. I'm fairly openminded about it.

All my albums sell 15,000 to 20,000, which is good considering the music I do. But I get frustrated and I feel more frustrated now than ever.

To sell up to 15,000 is difficult then after that the numbers come quickly but breaking that barrier has been very difficult."

Cummings was perplexed at why his albums didn't do better. He mentioned the fact he has been around for a long time, his dearth of live work, shortage of overseas release and lack of management but still had no real answers.

"I look at things like the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack which is selling like mad (more tha 100,000 copies already) and I have no idea why.

"I'm sure not that many people remember the show, it's more like they want to have that experience - be a part of it."

Cummings said he couldn't explain the show's star factor, with names like John Farnham, Kate Ceberano and Jon Stevens (ex-Noiseworks) on stage.

"Kate Ceberano's last record was a real stiff, Noiseworks was a stiff," he said. "On those sort of consumer-like terms, who can work it out?"

Luckily, it is Cummings' aforementioned musical passion that will probably keep him going.

His album sales have given him a comfortable existence in home town Melbourne with his girlfriend and 7-year-old son and there's always advertising work - including the readily identifiable Medicare* "I feel better now" jingle. Ironically, that ad has probably gained more airplay than of his solo work combined.

Cummings, whose bread-and-butter song is the beautifully crafted acoustic ballad, tried to move into a more pop-oriented field with his last album, Good Humour, which included a couple of modern dance floor workouts.

However, despite the success of the first single, Hell, the album did no better than any other Cummings release - further adding to his confusion and frustration.

"I thought I'd make a pop record with bits of stuff I do well but also with some pop songs on it," he said. "But it was frustrating, so with this one I decided I'd make a more traditional type of singer/songwriter record within those limits and with a smaller budget."

The album was recorded in only seven days after the band had completed only two rehearsals. As usual, it's classic Cummings, full of great music and the singer's pithy relationship-based lyrics although he predicted his songs will evolve from this point.

"Now I'll probably try to write more about other people," he said. "Not that all of my songs are about me, they have a germ in me and then I exaggerate it and take it somewhere."

After some local shows this month, Cummings will head to Europe in late October to try to further his overseas ambitions.

"I'll try to get the help of Doug Hunter, who manages the Black Sorrows, because he's based in London," he said.

"Hopefully, I'm going to slant it in a much more singer/songwriter acoustic kind of way and get a compilation released over there first and then this one as a follow-up."

Fingers definitely crossed.

* The "I Feel Better" jingle is for Medibank Private - not Medicare.

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