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Poet and a King

by Matthew Connors

from Time Off, October 1997

Imagine for a second. If some mythical, higher power had commanded Stephen Cummings to choose some lyrics from a song - any song - for his 'Best Of' compilation, he could not have done a better job.

Released this week, Stephen Cummings' 'Best Of' carries the rather appropriate epitaph Puppet Pauper Pirate Poet Pawn & King - taken from Frank Sinatra's staple number 'That's Life'. In short, it is almost an encapsulation of Cummings' career.

"I thought it was an accurate and amusing title for a 'Best Of'," Cummings comments wryly.

T'is true that the title is both accurate and, in some ways, amusing. Few other artists in the Australian music scene have experienced all the facets of life in the recording industry in the same manner as Stephen Cummings. He truly has been all those things. But throughout it all, one thing has remained constant - the music. Whether it's this new 'Best Of' compilation, the Rollercoaster collection of 1993 (another appropriate cognomen) or indeed the Sports' 'Best Of' released earlier this year, the music remains the same - deeply textured, rich in feeling and presence. Hell, even if you were to put on one of his many studio albums there'd be enough proof. The man is a musical genius and nowhere near enough people in this country know it!

Surly it would be enough to drive even the most sane person into a sea of desperation and bitterness?

"At different times it frustrated me a lot," Cummings says. "Bitter? I'm sort of not know. I'm just happy doing what I do."

If there was any one culprit in this scenario, it has to be radio. Cummings has a large and loyal fanbase, but it's been the failure of radio to play his solo material over the last 15 years or so that has kept him from gaining the recognition he so deserves. Everyone knows who he is, just not enough people know his music.

If anything, Puppet Pauper Pirate Poet Pawn & King may go part the way to raising his profile.

"I guess the idea is that it's for people who don't know what I do," he continues. "Like quite often I play shows and there will be younger kids there who don't really know what I do at all. So for people who don't know what I do it's kind of a good introduction. And for people who do know what I do I guess there's three new tracks on it.

"No-one gets terribly excited about having a compilation album out. It's good - I don't know - I think it's kind of good. I kind of picked the songs 'cause I happened to like those ones. Or they just fitted as a good mix of what I do."

The new 'Best Of', as Stephen mentions, contains three new songs that were written earlier in the year for the express purpose of the new compilation.

"I wrote them and recorded them really quickly," he says. "I like all of those. I'm always kind of making little tapes continually. The idea (now) is that I'll make a new record early next year. I'm probably going to do most of it at home now because I've bought a couple of ADATs and a lot of old pieces of equipment so I'm going to basically be recording from home from now on. It kind of gives me a bit more independence and allows me to do different sorts of things. The last two albums Steve Kilbey produced, which I enjoyed doing but I think I'd kind of like to take a more active role in it again myself. I'll still get people in to do stuff. But yeah...just maybe try not to record an album all at once but over the next three or four months - or longer even - just assemble an album as I go."

Although Cummings says he wants to take a more active role in the production of his next album, there will still be plenty of industry luminaries brought in to work on the album, as with Cummings' past releases. But that doesn't mean Cummings has exhausted his list of possible collaborators...

"I always wanted to do a whole album with Chris Abrahams. At some stage or other I'd like to do a whole album with him. I actually wouldn't mind doing some more recording with the Underground Lovers, because I quite like them. I recorded a vocal with them once and I'd kind of like to do something with them. Actually, I've always wanted to do something with Ed Kuepper. I don't really know him, but something might happen sometime."

Even though Cummings will be busy recording over the next few months, he's managed to find enough time in his busy schedule to slot in a national tour in November, with Brisbane early in the month.

"I've been doing a bit of playing in Melbourne and Sydney and Adelaide, with a three-piece band and myself. I have the drummer from Deadstar - Peter Jones - and the bass player Bill McDonald plays with Frente and the guitarist is Dan Luscombe who plays with The Blackeyed Susans. We do everything from really quiet songs to the full on ones like 'Keep The Ball Rolling'. It's been quite a while since I've played in Brisbane, so it should be good."

Stephen Cummings' compilation album, Puppet Pauper Pirate Poet Pawn & King, is out now on Polydor.

© Time Off Magazine - reprinted with permission

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