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Stephen Cummings

by Christie Eliezer - November 1999

Stephen Cummings' workshop in the back of his house in Melbourne is divided into two. One side has the recording gear. The other has an old computer on which he does his novel writing. Occasionally though, the two sides do drift across. An anecdote he tells at a show might end up as part of a book. It's possible some stories on his new record - miserable guy in a bar realises life ain't too bad ("Such Luck To Be Alive") or running into someone from the past and being secretly happy they're not doing well ("Poor Baby") - started for some other project.

Cummings relishes reading. Back in the Sports days, he collected hundreds of old comics and detective books (which inspired the first Sports hit "What Did The Detective Say?") but has given them away to friends.

He wakes early, about 7, because he does his best work until midday. When ideas slow down, he goes for walk in the racecourse across the road, or feeds the ducks. At night, he checks out bands or plays back what he created that day.

"It's a great lifestyle because I've got all the time in the world," he says not ungratefully. "I can switch from one to another. One of the challenges is that I don't have an agent, so I have to generate projects myself. You gotta work on five different things and hope that one or two come off. I'm disciplined in an ad hoc way. Of course at times as with the times of any freelancer, it can be tight financially - but it's just a question of changing your lifestyle a bit. Besides, those Medibank ads - the ones which go 'I feel better now' - bring in a regular kind of income."

After an absence, Cummings returns with an album called Spiritual Bum (Festival) and his second novel, Stay Away From Lightning Girl (Random House).

Spiritual Bum is a simple acoustic effort, a stark contrast to Falling Swinger (1994) and Escapist (1996) which were produced by Steve Kilbey and were heavily synthesised and processed.

This time, he's gone lo-fi, heavy on melody and warmth, with natural sounds like the Wurlitzer. Much it was made in his garage. "I'm filled with a crazy kind of hope," he sings. "I'm gonna buy me a wishing machine/Everything's worth a try." He's not sure what a spiritual bum is. His girlfriend, a lapsed Catholic, hated the term. He tossed around other titles like Wishing Machine and Recording Not Thinking. At one point, it was More Bridges To Burn but he didn't that was a good one to start his new relationship with Festival.

"There's a great second hand store up the road, so I've been buying a lot of vinyl of the stuff I dug as a kid - the Kinks, the Faces, the Band, Roxy Music, Ronnie Lane, (folk singer) John Martyn. I really liked the sound of those records, so I guess that shaped mine."

Originally the project was to be strictly acoustic, with efforts like "Shaped Like Love" and "Because It's Spring", on which Jeff Burstin plays six-string and mandolin. Members of Rebecca's Empire help out on the folksy "Sad To Go", and Bruce Haymes plays Wurlitzer on a number of tracks.

Cummings describes "Don't Talk To Me About Love" as The Beatles' White Album meets soul king Al Green.

If Spiritual Bum does have its inspiration in the Beatles album, it came more from Ashley Naylor of '90s band Even, a Fab Four connoisseur. "He's right into the Beatles, and obviously I know a lot about them too (because I grew up with them). Robert Goodge who helped me mix, read up on books about how the Beatles used to make up their own tapes, effects and reverbs at Abbey Road, so we kinda did our own on this record."

If he worked in a record company, how'd he market Stephen Cummings? He's genuinely stumped. After a long pause, he shrugs, "I honestly don't know. I'd imagine it would be hard. But my audience is very eclectic, it ranges from people in their early '20s to those in their '50s. The CD-ROM component on the album was put together by two fans in their mid-20s, whom I've never met, but who ran a website of my music. One lived outside Sydney, another was from North Queensland; coincidentally they've both decided to go and live in London for a year. So it's fantastic that the music is reaching people of that age. Having a mixed audience forces you to try new things all the time, and in different ways."

Is he consciously working with younger musicians when he hitches up to the likes of Rebecca's Empire and Even's Naylor? "No, the problem is, most of the people who started out (in music) with me aren't doing it any more!" (chortles to himself). "You work with people that interest you, and they can be any age. But having said that, it is good to work with younger players, they're passionate, they still know why they started to make music, and they're not cynical and jaded. This is such a tough business it's understandable when people get bitter and twisted."

That's a theme touched on during Stay Away From Lightning Girl. The novel began as a conversation with a friend whose sister had been struck by lightning three times and lived. It gradually became the story of a musician looking back at his career, wondering if it's all been worth it.

Cummings hastily points out that the guy is "a bit like me, but the things that happened to him didn't happen to me."

He muses, "I'm still passionate about music. I can't remember that moment when I decided to make my own. But at 12, I remember singing songs into a cheap tape recorder."

What did he learn from his parents? "My father was a chef and a taxi driver, he's not living any more. But he worked incredibly long hours, which I got from him. He also had very high standards. If people didn't measure up to them, he'd have a problem communicating that with others. He'd just pack up and go. So by observing him, I learned how to tell people I work with if there is a problem, and also not to shape people around what I expected. My mother was an accountant at JC Williamson, theatrical people who toured Marlene Dietrich and Barry Humphreys. From her I learned about having a positive outlook."

Future projects include starting another album by the year's end, focussing on expanding his overseas following, and a third novel called Three Hearts Late set in Melbourne in the early '70s about three teenagers planning to go to a club based on a legendary discotheque called Catchers.

Any other hidden talents? "No, I can only do two things in life, that's it!"

© 1999 Christie Eliezer/Ace Media International. Reproduced with permission.

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