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This Writing Life

by Virginia Trioli

from Australian Rolling Stone magazine, issue #502, November 1994

It's 10am on Saturday morning at Kill City in Melbourne and Stephen Cummings is talking books. The singer is bent over a roll-your-own, perched among the crime novels at this letter box-sized shop.

He is talking crime fiction, door-stoppers (Cummings is halfway through Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy and says his wrist wishes he'd waited for the paperback), his girlfriend's writing and the novel he has just finished and is about to start hawking around the publishers. If it wasn't for the nervy, jangly edge that any discussion with this salt-and-peppered-haired singer always has, we could have been at a morning coffee session of the Melbourne Writers Festival.

A good halfway through his lustrous musical career, Stephen Cummings, musician, has a life. A real life. One that sits safely atop the solid edifice he has built from his songwriting career. Up there is his son, his relationship, his fiction writing, travel writing (and his new-found passion for travel), his collaborations - and then a musical life that now fits him as comfortably as that cigarette, slid between the first and second fingers.

The new album, Falling Swinger, has garnered the kind of affectionate, respectful criticism that Cummings can now expect. No, it won't sell thousands more than his albums ever do, but that is a false measure for Cummings. Instead, he offers an easy description of another life. "I have just got into the habit of doing this over the last 16 years," he says, "and it just keeps going - I just go from one thing to another...I'll get up and turn on the computer, have a cup of coffee, clean up the house, get something to eat, pay some bills, sit at the computer for a while, play guitar for half an hour, vaccuum a bit more, have a shower..."

Life seems like something that happens to Stephen Cummings, and it may just be a sweet kiss of fate that it turned out this way. Has he had to work to get it here? Well, of course, but Cummings moves through this writing life with such grace and a kind of new acceptance that he seems to treat it as a blessing.

Performances are something to be relished when they matter and simpy endured when they don't; recording an album will take place at whatever speed it has to. Just in case all this is sounding a little too laid back for the jumpy stylist of neurotic swing, Cummings adds, with knitted brow, that the only downside of this life is that "you have too much time to mull over things."

It has been ten solo years for Stephen Cummings. The tag "ex-Sports" has finally slid away, and memorable solo albums such as Lovetown, Good Humour and A New Kind Of Blue remain to add muscle and bone to a formidable repertoire. He speaks of a music "system" that he still clearly finds uncomfortable to deal with. But he has managed to clear a rather private pathway through it that includes promotion at a level he can take (reasonably) seriously. "In a group, touring is a mixture of doing things that are good and things that have to be done to make the good things possible," he says.

"We haven't toured that much (for the new album). I only go to the capital cities now; when I was in the Sports, I went to the other places and now I don't want to go." The flip side is that Cummings is prepared to play slightly more wacky gigs ("We did the lunchtime Union show at Newcastle University full of young ferals and old hippies," he grins) and even the odd private gig.

"We got asked to do a private show at the Great Northern hotel at Byron Bay for all these alternative-type business people - people like Paul Hogan's manager, you know? - and they basically wanted to get us off quickly and get the cover band on...

"Such is touring. It doesn't pay to take it too seriously. It doesn't matter if you're in INXS or Magic Dirt," Cummings says, "Out of the shows, two will be good, one will be shithouse and one will be just nothing - that's always how it works."

This work takes him to the edge of a scene that Cummings admits he wants little to do with. He says he is not part of a music society and does not want to be. "They are all so competitive, talking about their work all the time. I know as much about this business as I want to know."

At home, life revolves around his eight-year old son, Curtis, and his scatter-gun approach to domestic life that results in most most things getting done, eventually. Cummings says he leaves the computer on at home and may add a bit of his writing as he passes by. He has submitted a piece of travel writing on Vietnam to STA's travel magazine, and is angling for a trip to India, hopefully subsidised by the country's high commission as a "cultural tour": He'll even play there, if they want. The letter and CDs were sent off to officials last week. "I may as well use my dwindling years in show business as I can," he says.

He says he and his sometimes collaborator, Robert Goodge, have no plans at the moment for a reprise of their successful venture into advertising (they wrote and performed Medibank Private's "I Feel Better Now" jingle) but Cummings' willingness to share the creative load endures. Falling Swinger resulted in another fruitful collaboration - an important part of his creative life - this time with the Church's Steve Kilbey, who produced and sang with Cummings on the single, "September 13". The session included the keyboard player, Chris Abrahams, who in turn may become Cummings' new partner on his next, more exotic-sounding venture.

"I want to do a more ambient Frank Sinatra kind of record," says Cummings, "to find a way of doing a record somewhere between Jacques Brel and Frank Sinatra but in a more modern way."

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