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Cumming Of Age

From The Advertiser, Thursday, November 13, 1997

Stephen Cummings has released a selection of songs from his fine solo career to date. He talks to Rod Savage about the album, his teeth and Medibank Private.

To use a really bad pun, Stephen Cummings feels better now. The man who has penned many a classic tune, including that song from the Medibank Private ad, is happy with where he's at musically and is looking at the future with a glint of excitement in his eye.

It's not always been like that, though.

"This time last year, I was thinking 'Oh God, I've written so many songs. I wish I hadn't written so many and I wish I'd done them better' and stuff like that," he says frankly. "This year, I feel the total opposite. I feel good about it, about the compilation (Puppet, Pauper, Pirate, Poet, Pawn and King). I've always felt like I was really slack but now I feel like 'Wow, look at all this stuff'. I feel really good about the music now and I'm into it in a big way still. And I just want to keep doing it."

Cummings is one of Australia's greatest singer-songwriters but, like his peers - Paul Kelly, Archie Roach et al - he hasn't had the greatest of success. All agree he writes quality songs and cuts quality albums but all don't buy them. So, does this ever play on his mind?

"All right, it does sometimes," he says. "I'd be lying to say I didn't. Sometimes I think 'Oh f..., why isn't that working? Why doesn't that sell? What am I doing wrong?' It gets frustrating sometimes but I feel I'm quite good at doing this so I'll just concentrate on doing it and try not to worry about it."

Cummings has been a part of the Australian musical landscape for the past 20 years. From Melbourne, he was in the punk band The Sports before he went solo. With eight highly acclaimed albums under his solo belt, Cummings is regarded as one of Australia's best singer-songwriters.

His transition from punk to smooth has been fascinating to watch. For Cummings, however, it's just happened.

"For me, it's been changing continually so it doesn't seem like a big thing," he says. "I'm sure if I looked at it from the outside, it would seem a big change."

Does aging automatically equate to mellowing, then?

"I think automatically your body rhythms change, so it is a natural thing," says Cummings. "I wouldn't say mellowing because it sounds kind of like jelly-ing.

"There are forms of music that I just don't have any interest in now, so I guess mellowing, as you put it, is an inevitable thing."

More mellow or not, Cummings remains a prolific songwriter. He says that while having a huge backlog of unrecorded material, he is not interested in making a brand-new album for some time. "I'm trying to finish off my new book and all that kind of stuff," he says, "I wasn't focused enough this year to make a new album. But I'm getting my own little studio together and I've been writing other songs and stuff. So one is coming. I just don't know when."

Cummings' first book, Wonder Boy, was released last year and sold well. He is working on his second, Stay Away From Lightning Girl, which is set around the fringes of the music business and is "a slightly black comedy".

"That's what it's meant to be. I don't know if it is, though," says Cummings.

He says he'll never let writing books surpass his music, though. "I find it quite hard work. It takes a long time for me," he admits.

"I just don't like sitting around in a room for hours and hours and hours. I quite like doing it but I keep thinking 'How much have I done? How much to go?' And when you get into a book, you can't think of anything else."

Looking at Cummings' photos, you would think he broods a lot. There is not one shot where Cummings shows a hint of a smile. Yet he laughs as much as the next person.

The reason is simple: "It's because my teeth are so shocking and I won't spend the money to get them fixed!"

Stephen Cummings, on selecting songs for Puppet, Pauper, Pirate, Poet, Pawn and King.

"I compiled the list from three sources - me, the record company and the fans. I picked one lot and the record company rejected some of those, then I went away and we did it all again.

"This young guy in Sydney has got this Stephen Cummings website, so I contacted that and polled the fans from there. People put in their suggestions for the album."

Cummings says this is not a typical "best of" album. He figures "best ofs" are for people who don't know the music and if people don't know his music by now, probably won't get into it at this late stage. Instead, it's an album of tracks he felt instinctively should be there.

"Maybe I'm a bit lazy," Cummings says. "I probably could have made up a whole lot of different cassettes and that but I did it really instinctively, rather like making up a song list for a live show."

His favorite of the favorites? "I can't think of an answer," he admits. "You've sprung me. I guess I like all of them." And what of that one glaring exclusion? The hit '80s song Back Stabbers? "(That's) because it's not on Polydor (his current record label)," he admits. "That was just a technical hitch."

He says the title describes him at various stages of his career. "If you've been in the music industry for a certain amount of time, everybody's had to do those things and been in those positions," he muses.

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