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What I've Learnt

interview by Chris Beck - from The Age (Melbourne), 22 February 2003

Stephen Cummings, Musician, 49, Melbourne

Love is the most powerful thing in everyone's lives. Wanting to be loved, unrequited love, too much love, it goes on and on. As a kid I adored the screwball comedies of the '30s. I would watch these spirited films about the confusion between the sexes and then look at my own inhibited family. It was like two different worlds. I've been trying to unscrew the inscrutable ever since.

My songs are stuck in the love area, but they are not just about that. A critic once described my songs as being about the failings of mature life. I liked that. I also write songs about waitresses, TV, wet-eyed social comment and drinking. I'm an intense person but not depressing. I've had two long relationships over the past 25 years, which is not bad going. Stability is a real important part of my creativity.

Everyone has become so overfamiliar with rock'n'roll. In the early '70s there was hardly any music on the radio. We live in a time when every jeans shop, petrol station or video store blasts out some version of rock and pop music. Overfamiliarly has bred apathy. Rock'n'roll has been institutionalised. To me, nothing earth-breaking has happened in popular music after about 1980. That's why on Firecracker (my new record) I have gone back to the ethos of the '50s sound. I listened to lots of Ricky Nelson and Elvis's late '60s Memphis recordings. I'm not trying to re-create it, but rather play with the mood of that time. All art forms are more interesting in the beginning when people don't quite know what they are doing. As well, my girlfriend said: "You're not going to make another of those depressingly maudlin albums are you?"

When I started out in music I was really shy. I used to turn my back on the audience or throw myself around the stage to avoid acknowledging the audience. It was pretty silly. It's a contradictory thing: I'm quite shy but I also want to be noticed. I wasn't very comfortable as a person in the Sports. Over the years I've become happier and now look the audience in the eye, tell stories and prattle on about whatever. The audience want to go away feeling they've made some connection with you. I never understood that when I was younger.

My mother has seen me perform only once. She was difficult when I was growing up but we're good friends now. She can always make me laugh. I wrote a song about her a few years ago after she'd had a stroke. She rang up and I asked her how she was and she said, "Some days, I just wish the show was over." My parents both read a lot. My mother only read romance novels and my father only westerns. This combination of trash literature has had a profound influence on my songs and writing.

I'm extremely superstitious. People who don't have any religion are often superstitious. I used to have little rituals like if I had a good gig I would wear the same shoes that I wore that particular night for the next dozen gigs.

Life runs smoother when you can say what you want. When I was younger I knew what I wanted but I couldn't say what I wanted so I'd have to go around in a circuitous way to get where I wanted to be. I was very manipulative. When I was in the Sports we wanted to sack the drummer, but we couldn't actually sack him because it would be too confronting. So we decided to just say that we were breaking up the group and two weeks later we would reform but without the drummer. I saw a psychoanalyst for 10 years. Once you accept that life is very messy and not very coherent, things become easier.

I always had a thing in my head not to get too fond of anything. I guess because I always thought it could be taken away from me. I was extremely close to my father until I was 12. From then on he disowned me. He famously said to my mother, "He's your son now." They were still together, but he didn't have anything to do with me. I don't know why. That's the most powerful relationship you can have, if that can be taken away from you, anything can.

When you start doing music you are so enraptured by it. If you get some success, the attention and money can sway you. The music can become an adjunct to the lifestyle. For a while I forgot that I really love music. Writing songs is the most fun I have: if you write a good one, you think you're a genius for about 10 minutes, until the reality sinks back in.

I would hate my two sons to go into music because it's such a difficult way to make a living. I know my 17-year-old son sings in perfect tune because I hear him walking around the house singing. But he has other interests. Music is great and life-changing, but in some ways it's probably better to have music as your release and not your job.

I have never had a job other than playing music, except when I was an usher at Hoyts when I was young. I have often said, "This is my last record." I've gone back to university several times but I get sucked back into it. I enjoyed the solitude of songwriting but as I get older I grow weary of spending a lot of time by myself.

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