Menubar Home

Return of the Wonderboy

by Andrew Stafford

26 June 1996 - Time Off magazine, issue 777

After more than twenty years starring both in the limelight and on the fringes of Australian music, Stephen Cummings is ready for a break. "I don't know if I want to make another record for a long time," he says. "I kind of feel like I've had enough now, for at least a few years."

One of our more enigmatic songwriters, Cummings has never sold many records, but commands near-universal respect. He has just released a new album, Escapist, which like its predecessor Falling Swinger is produced by Steve Kilbey, and earlier this year his first novel, Wonderboy was published by Minerva.

Falling Swinger was the kind of album that had the potential to finally gain Cummings a major audience at the same time as it took a marked left turn; but while it helped raise his profile critically once more, it failed to find a place on radio. Escapist is more indulgent, dreamy and hypnotic, stamped heavily with Kilbey's trademarked atmospherics.

"He can be a bit annoying, but when he's good he's really good," Cummings says of his collaborator. "He's got really strong opinions and views on everything, and I'm more kind of like, well, I don't really have a fixed view on anything. [But] I really liked the sound of the last record and I thought I wanted to take it one step further, and I linked up with Robert Goodge who had produced the Underground Lovers, and I brought him up to Sydney as well because I thought it would be really interesting to have him with Steve. I thought between the lot of us we'd be able to do something interesting... I've totally lost the question..."

Cummings wouldn't mind admitting that he often loses the question. A perpetual daydreamer, his answers are often elliptical, punctuated by some long, long pauses. The album is called Escapist because, Cummings explains, "I thought it was kind of about escaping to another world," but he also admits he had four other titles which no-one else liked.

He even admits that he doesn't especially care for the album's cover (which inexplicably features a single, front-on photograph of a sheep) but let it pass because "I was just too tired to say no." Yet he wasn't concerned that the headstrong Kilbey would come to dominate the sound of the record. "I kind of feel comfortable with myself, and I've got a pretty strong personality, so I wasn't really worried about that," he asserts.

"I like what [Kilbey] does anyway, and I just try to enjoy myself when I record now. I actually tried a few other things which I didn't put on the record which were more me, but I ended up leaving them off because those twelve songs worked best as a whole thing. And that's kind of how I write, whole albums. It's an old-fashioned idea, to have an album where you can make sense of the whole thing."

"But if I do any recording in the future anyway, I think I'll do it by myself. If I make another record, it'll just be me. I mean, Steve still really loves music, which is really good, because I really like music, and a lot of people who have been doing it for a long time..." Cummings pauses, "they're not fans anymore. But Steve and I are still fans. I still buy a lot of records and we do a lot of different things. I'm always interested in hearing something new."

He's already at work on a second book, tentatively titled Stay Away from Lightning Girl. "I thought I'd like to have two books, not just one," he reasons, but he admits he prefers the company of musicians even as he wants to take a break. "You never see anyone, I don't see anyone anyway, I see people even less now because I just do this," he says. "It's not as much fun as the collaborative thing of music, which I really like.

"When you're young and you start off in music you want to write everything yourself and blah blah blah, but as you go on the collaborative thing is far more enjoyable. I know I can write songs, but if I only write half a song per record I couldn't care less. As long as I'm singing good songs..."

So why stop? "It's kind of a mixture of having done enough of this and having done too much of this, mixed up with going round and round in circles," he says. "The records all sell the same amount of copies... it's just such a small place, Australia, that unless you really get motivated to go overseas - and on the last two records I've gone to Europe but it just takes a long time. So I don't know, I guess I just feel a bit tired out by it all."

Is it a compulsion for Cummings to write then, against his better judgement? "Well, only because I know no better. It's kind of what I do now, but I don't write as many songs. I should know better, but it's easier to keep going than to stop. Music's great, a really great thing, but it's time to give it a rest.

"The thing is you get so sick of scamming all the time, it just tires you out. Making records. It's kind of like being a plumber, really, like a self-employed plumber, hustling for work all the time, hustling it up."

You feel more like an artisan than an artist?

"Yeah," he says, sounding sure of himself now. "Definitely."

the Stephen Cummings site - email: feedback AT