(Stephen Cummings, photo by Chris Beck)
STEPHEN CUMMINGS HAS BEEN FOR A WALK today, which means more than you think, and is always a pleasure. Though it was not as much fun as during Melbourne’s lockdowns when he could walk through the rather famous racecourse near his home in Caulfield.
These days they are rebuilding there. Annoyingly. But if we stretch the analogy a little bit, that’s not inappropriate for the singer/songwriter, occasional curmudgeon, alumni of one of the best pop bands – from UK, USA, Europe or Australia – of the new wave, The Sports, author, and solo artist of four decades who has had to rebuild his body, his mind and his approach to making music after a stroke three years ago.
And yes, three years ago puts it right about the time of the coming of The Plague. Like he needed more aggravation.
Those walks at the racecourse, slow and at times tortuous, became part of that recovery and rebuild, and unexpectedly the source of material for the songs that eventually emerged this month on a new album, 100 Years From Now.
“When I started making the record I would go for walks there all the time, that’s how I got through it all,” Cummings says, his speech clear enough to be understood, but in the occasional forcing of words still showing the marks of the attack that damaged his left side particularly. “And that’s why there’s a lot of references in the record to the weather and the physical circumstances.”
The songs have the feel of someone who was observing the world, maybe more closely, maybe anew.
“I was. In fact where I am now, looking out the window at the world going by, the rain falling, the noise … They are redoing the railway tracks and three houses in my street were pulled pull down, so when I was making the record there was a lot of drama and I would focus on that,” he says. “Maybe it was the only thing happening in my life.”
His ability to describe situations in writerly prose, in the manner of his favourite short story writers and crime fiction authors, has long been a Cummings trademark, evoking atmospheres and situations briefly but potently. This time that attention to small detail maybe has been more focused on what he could see rather than what he could imagine or recreate.
“Yeah, but I don’t know how much I was actually thinking that clearly though,” he says. “But this happened differently to how I’ve made records. After the stroke I couldn’t play guitar anymore, I couldn’t create the chord patterns anymore. I had to learn to walk again and stuff like that so my whole life changed around. Then it seemed like I wouldn’t be able to sing so had to go to a thread therapist and had cameras down my throat. That was all a bit unusual.”
Yeah, you could say unusual. Devastating too.
“Even though I had retired, I still liked the idea if I wanted to sing or go out and sing, I could get a little band together just for fun. But it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to even do that. I had no control over my fate, and that was depressing.”
However, the parlous situation sparked his good friend and long time, on-off collaborator/co-writer Robert Goodge – once of I’m Talking, among others – who said to Cummings “why don’t we make a record? We’ve got a lockdown and we’ve got nothing else to do”.
No one else knew about it at first. There was no need for a record company, no need for budget or interference, or a schedule. In other circumstances it might even have been ideal.
“We worked on four songs, and one old song that we had that we had [pianist from The Necks] Chris Abrahams play on. Robert had a Fender Rhodes at his place that he had him play certain notes then Robert cut it all together to work as a song.”
In a similar process, the vocals were recorded in sections, sometimes cut up and reassembled, with no pressure to nail a take, or even a full line if necessary for a singer whose capacity for force or volume was drastically reduced, as was the stamina for sustained notes or performance.
While Cummings, who had always as he puts it, “called the shots on my records”, took some time to adjust to this new reality, there were upsides, and quirks.
“I could just sing,” says Cummings of Goodge’s approach. “Robert doesn’t really get lyrics very much, doesn’t have much interest in them, so I’d hand him a lyric page while I sang and he’d keep edging it with little sounds or say ‘can you make it sound more like this’, as if my vocals were a sound rather than a singer telling a tale.
“It was all done differently but I thought, oh well, if Robert’s coming up and he has to catch a train here, make an effort to be here, I should at least try it and see how it goes. I really enjoyed it.”
This initial success led to the pair, working with engineer/producer Simon Polinski, to start bringing in additional players and vocalists from their wider circle, like Glenn Binnie and Philippa Nihill from Underground Lovers, pedal steel man Graham Lee, and drummer and percussionist Clare Moore.
“Everybody got into the spirit of it, which also gave me confidence,” Cummings says, and it becomes clear that what started as maybe something to fill in the time, give him some focus in his recovery, turned into first a challenge and then restoration of the musician he thought was gone.
The album oddly enough was a kind of glorious bonus, and then a spur to something even more unlikely, which began when Blue Mountains singer-songwriter and avowed Cummings fan, King Curly – a.k.a. Stephen Appel – asked him to play on the bill at a Melbourne King Curly show.
“I said if you’re doing a Melbourne launch I’ll be your support act, which sounds very unlike me. I can’t remember ever saying that before,” an amused Cummings says. “But it ended up being really good. I could sing quietly on the record but I didn’t know whether it would work live. I couldn’t do any ‘up’ songs because I hadn’t got that much of my voice back yet, so I did a really moody set and they really liked it. And doing it really gave me confidence.”
A Melbourne launch for 100 Years From Now last weekend, in St Kilda, saw not just positive but highly emotional commentary online in the days after. A Sydney launch this weekend is likely to go the same way.
Which does lead to a question tangentially raised by Cummings himself in the material surrounding the release of the album. He’s called his past self a “natural singer”, relating to its physical ease maybe, its connection to him in a way that existed without thought – “I didn’t have to try very hard at all,” he says now. But I wonder if all the effort to recover and then make this album isn’t proof that that line is true but in a way he or we hadn’t thought of: that this lies at the core of him no matter how hard or impossible even.
“That’s for sure, yeah. That’s what I’m taking out of it,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed the few shows I’ve played because I don’t get so stressed. After coming through all this other stuff, it feels like nothing anyway. They either like you or they don’t like you, no big deal.”
It’s only taken this always nervous-to-highly-stressed, never entirely comfortable in front of an audience despite thousands of shows, performer 50 years to realise this.
“It has unfortunately, yes,” he smiles.
Lessons and rewards though extend beyond his voice. In some fundamental ways this record feels like we’re getting to the essence of Cummings for those who have followed, or those who have dipped in and out of, his career. While not trying to put an empty positive spin on something that was so serious and so damaging, it does feel special to get Cummings now, in this way, in these songs.
“Well, that’s good. I’d like to say I knew what I was doing but I didn’t; I just did it without thinking. I guess that was good because I wasn’t worrying who was going to like it or whatever, and it turned out much better than I thought it would.”
One final point. For some artists all this might have been enough to finish their careers, their efforts of recovery saved for regular lives, demanding enough times. But then maybe Cummings isn’t new to imminent ends. Musically anyway.
Anyone who’s read a Stephen Cummings interview would tell you he has been talking about imminent retirement for 15 or 20 years, often adamant that this particular record would be the last one. If not, then the next one, for sure. The vicissitudes of the music industry seemed a drag at best, a soul-crusher more often and as he said earlier, he had effectively “retired” before the stroke.
But now? Now, has he come to the realisation that this retirement thing is not really going to happen? That if a stroke isn’t going to stop him or rob him of his desire to write, record and perform, what else could?
“I’m not to put any strict rules on it; just see what happens.” Cummings says, then pauses.
“In a bizarre way, not in a way I’d necessarily hoped, it’s going quite well so far. “
Stephen Cummings plays The Great Club, June 18 – afternoon show.
100 Years From Now is now available on the Cheersquad Records & Tapes label.