“Maybe one day I’ll buy a suit and go to office like Nick Cave” – The Grace Cummings story
Grace Cummings is a folk musician from Australia. Her second record is titled “Storm Queen” and with this album she has travelled widely in the meantime. Most recently, she also visited the madhouse Europe. Our power author Marc Wilde met her there at this year’s Haldern Pop Festival. Here’s what they talked about.
Grace, to get in the right mood for our interview I listened a lot to your music on my way to today’s festival in Haldern. There is one song that grabbed me in particular: “Raglan”. The title refers to a place in Australia, right?
Grace Cummings: Well, for me it is first a street. Raglan Street or Raglan Road which is Irish. It’s a street in Melbourne.
“Irish” brings us to Folk music. You have mentioned in earlier interviews that it was an important influence for you. How came Irish Folk into your life?
My father is from an Irish family. My mother is Sicilian. I grew up with both mum and dad listening to traditional Irish folk music just all the time. So, I had it all around me. It’s just a big influence. Whether it’s meant to be that way or not – it’s just there.
It’s probably most visible in your music when the fiddle comes into play. Is there any band that comes to your mind first when you are thinking of Irish folk music?
As we’re talking about the fiddle, one of my favourite Irish fiddle players would have to be Martin Hayes who I listen to all the time. He is not only the most beautiful fiddle player, he has actually a great band, too – called the Gloaming. I listen to them a lot, they are fantastic.
When you are talking about influences you often mention Bob Dylan as well as Townes Van Zandt. Both male. What about female voices?
Absolutely, there are many. I should probably think about that more. One of the biggest ones when I was growing up was Lucinda Williams. She is so fucking awesome. Grace Slick and Janis Joplin as well, and so many more.
Let’s talk about the present. Today, we are meeting at the Haldern Festival. Did you know about the festival before?
Yes, I heard about it. We were in Europe already doing a round tour with King Gizzard, ending up in the UK with a bunch of shows in Germany. And when the schedule was booked, I looked at Haldern and it was the only name that I recognised. It’s one of the festivals that I am really excited to play because there are so many great acts. Unfortunately, after our show we are directly heading to Switzerland. Sometimes it’s really hard with festivals because you don’t have a lot of time, you just straight go. But that’s what touring is like.
Apart from King Gizzard & The Lizard you were also touring with Viagra Boys this year. Both bands where you might think that their music is quite different compared to yours. How did the cooperation come about?
Well, King Gizzard are our friends and have been for a while. Viagra Boys kind of the same. But I also think that people probably might figure out once they’ve seen our show that it doesn’t sound like the record. And that it does fit in more than one would think in the beginning.
Indeed, after having listened to your album, one would not expect you to play the electric Flying V guitar when entering the stage. What leads you to this “heavier” interpretation of your songs when you perform live?
Actually, I like a lot of different things. And if I get bored, then I think I’ll probably make the audience bored as well. I also play different kind of shows. Sometimes it’s just me and my brother Cahill on the guitar. Sometimes it’s just me on the piano or just me on the guitar. And I love that I can do that, to try it out and play any show I like. It’s good if you’re not set in something. And I also made that album in a certain way because I wanted to. But also because I kind of had to.
You are referring to Covid and the lockdown which affected the whole process, right?
Yes, we were living in Melbourne at the time which had the longest lockdown in the world. I couldn’t meet up with my friends to play music and I couldn’t rehearse anything. It was just me. And then you only have a tiny little window to make an album. But at the same time, I think that limitations like that are good because otherwise you could go on forever and ever and never be happy with what you do.
Would you say that the lockdown somehow made you more creative as you had more time or was it rather the other way around and more difficult because of limited influences you had?
Well both, I think mostly the latter. Nothing was happening. We had a curfew of 8 pm. We were only allowed out for two hours a day and that was on your own. My mind was not gonna start thinking about anything beautiful because this was just not happening. Most of the times I really struggled because it was less than nothing going on. But I think there were few periods of time that when you did feel like it was more intense, more concentrated. And you were able to get all that shit out. I think there will be a lot of books written about that time in our lives and what it’s done to our mental health and to our thinking.
Talking about “Storm queen”, your latest album: were the songs composed with the intention of being released as a whole album? And if so, is there an overarching theme apart from the fact that they were written in isolation during the lockdown?
Not really. I mean I just write a lot. I had the album ready and then I got rid of about five songs because I ended up writing “Heaven”, Storm Queen” and three other songs just the week before we went recording. I then decided that I want those ones to be on. I think it’s okay to get rid of songs and put new ones in. Actually, the theme is just me singing a bunch of songs. I think about a song once it’s done and how it’s curated into an album but if I were to think about it too much beforehand, I’d probably never get it done.
For the current album you also took over the role as producer. Comparing “Storm Queen” with your first album, what are main differences?
Well, with the first album I kind of did the same thing. There wasn’t much to do anyway, it was just me and the guitar. I think that “Storm Queen” mainly came out of necessity as well. There was nobody around, so it says that I am the producer. But it doesn’t go without saying that the two engineers that recorded the album were absolutely magnificent with their contributions. And all the players were fantastic players but the producer role just kind of had to be, because of the times that we were doing it.
And at the first album there were no guest musicians?
There were. Kat Mear who plays the fiddle on “Storm Queen” was on it as well. Jesse Williams who recorded half of “Storm Queen” and recorded the first album is on it. People who were very close to me, friends, my partner at the time was on it, all things that were very close.
There are couple of songs which could also fit very well with the new one. But in my view the sound is different. ”Storm Queen” is somehow cleaner whereas as the first one sounds as if you would stand in a room while you are playing. How would you describe it?
I think the recording is very different, obviously. The first album I didn’t actually intend for it to be an album really. It was rather a collection of songs that I I just wanted to record. This is before I was on any label or anything like that. And then the label approached me and said: “Do you have an album?”, and I didn’t. But I went: “Yeah. I do.” And so I got “Refuge Cove” together. And the second it was much more intentional. I thought a lot more about what I wanted from an album as a whole and not just from a song that I liked. But I think that both are similar because again of the circumstances that we were in. So, in the end they are both very minimal.
What is your general approach to song writing? Are you doing it like Nick Cave, you go to the office, write for six hours and then back home?
No, definitely not. I mean, one day I’d love to be able to say what Nick Cave says but I am afraid that I am far too impatient for that kind of work attitude. I would rather wait around and if I feel that the right thing is happening I just go and go on. But I think that as soon as something is not happening you cannot force it. As I said, I am far too impatient. But maybe one day I’ll buy a suit and go to the office like Nick Cave.
Generally speaking, what comes first into your mind, a tune or a phrase for the lyrics?
There is no rule. It can happen either way. I remember, for instance, me sitting on my front porch when I was asking myself what I would like to put on my next album. I was having a drink at the end of the day when two people walked and passed my house and I captured one little bit of their conversation, one thing that somebody said. And I was writing it down and got a whole thing around it. Little things like that get the whole process started. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be words or music. Just one element that is important enough so that it can inform other things and somehow it ends up being a song.
Okay, jetzt können wir ja noch Deutsch sprechen….
Sorry, I switched to German as I wanted to ask you about your role as an actress. And I know that you were playing a German character, weren’t you?
Yes, I was. You are right.
So how did you prepare for that?
I worked on my accent a lot – which I will not do here now. I don’t know, it was a very weird kind of time. I just researched as much as I could because I was defending a German point of view for the whole show but I’m not German, I really had to understand as best as I could what that was all about. So, I did a lot of research …
What are the two or three main characteristics being a German? Anything that was eye-opening to you during your research?
I focused first on the sound, the voice and then on the character. And what I loved about character is that his woman is not meek and mild but strong, that she’s absolute about the things she says. I myself decided that it was German. So, it’s also just me and maybe it’s a selfish thing to do. It was basically strength on which I focused on in that character, especially for women.
As we are talking about powerful women. We already touched upon female singers with strong voices such as Janis Joplin which are often mentioned as important influences. In one of the reviews of your album someone wrote about your voice that it would sound like Joni Mitchell but without her fragility. And that you would definitely beat her in arm wrestling. I think that’s a good metaphor, isn’t it?
Yeah, that’s great. I don’t think that I would though.
Who knows? Our interview is coming to an end, Grace. Thanks so much for taking your time. I wish you all the best for the upcoming summer festivals in Europe. And let me say good-bye with a strong handshake. Ah, wasn’t there something about a strong handshake….?
You mean: “Never marry a man with a weak handshake!” Absolutely, it’s the only love advice that I ever got from my mother, ever. She is right.
Interview: Marc Wilde