Interview: Grace Cummings – “I’m just a dramatic person”

Grace CummingsStorm Queen was born in fire – and it sounds like it. Heatwaves in southern Australia in the last few years have resulted in savage forest fires that release clouds of smoke thicker than anything you could even imagine. Cummings watched, smelled and practically choked on them when they swept across her home in Melbourne towards the end of 2019, around the time she started writing Storm Queen.

Their devastating impact was still stuck in her mind as she developed the songs during Melbourne’s unceasing lockdown – which in itself was a mental furnace. Cummings fought back in the only way she knows how – through self-expression, particularly through song writing. Her words, as heard on Storm Queen, are shaking – and made even more so by her unfeasibly rich, rugged and rounded voice.

Since Storm Queen‘s release last month through ATO Records, her music has been making its way around the world. Folk music was traditionally spread by word of mouth, and this has been the case with Storm Queen; each person flummoxed by it has recommended it to several more, who then spread the gospel further.

I caught up with Cummings via video chat, myself in my home in London and she in hers in Melbourne, to find out how she’s been enjoying the plaudits and how excited she is to take the songs on the road. We also discussed some interesting points behind the album’s recording, the threat of the Climate Crisis, and The Sopranos, among other things.

If you, like me, are in the UK then don’t miss the opportunity to see her at St. Matthias Church on March 9 or at End Of The Road in September. Her full tour dates are, including US tour, at the bottom of the page.

How are you doing?

I’m good, thank you. The heatwave in Melbourne has broken for a little, maybe just a day. So I’m feeling a lot better than I did yesterday. It’s fucking hot. It’s been like 40 degrees celsius, or almost 40 degrees, for over seven days in a row.

What do you do in that situation?

Lie down. You lie down. Yeah.

Since we’re speaking a couple of weeks after the release of Storm Queen, how does it feel for it to be out?

Really good, really good. It’s been a long time coming. It came together in ways that I didn’t expect, because of the pandemic and all of that. And the release is, you know, also a little different than you’d expect it to be because of restrictions and all that kind of thing, but it just feels good to get it out and not to be a holding on to something like that anymore. I just feel a little bit freer. And I also am really happy with the way it’s going. So yeah, just kind of excited and relieved at the same time, I suppose.

Are you the kind of person who reads your reviews? Or your press? Or do you try and avoid it?

I don’t actively avoid it. I don’t think it bothers me. I’m definitely not one of those people that can’t do it, it’s not gonna bother me. At the same time I don’t read everything, but especially as someone that hasn’t been around for very long, I’m still in that stage where press can be very exciting for me. So, I do read some things and listen to some things and all that kind of thing, because it’s still kind of like Christmas for me.

Have there been any comparisons to other performers that you’ve been surprised by?

Yeah, I spoke to someone yesterday and they told me that I was the child of Nico and John Cale – which was a fucking compliment, like I thought that was great, but it’s not true. I think a lot of people from overseas make connections with Nick Cave. We’re from the same place in the world, but I also don’t think that that’s particularly true.

After doing a bunch of interviews and stuff like that, I’ve learned that it’s a way that people like to understand music is to connect it to something that they that they already know. So, people do like to tell you who you remind them of. They’re all great, but I think that might just be a way that people like to listen to things or to understand things – to connect to someone new, I suppose.

Yeah, yeah, I think that’s true. It’s interesting that humans think that way. I’m guessing you’ve never tried to do that – when you’re writing you don’t think ‘I want to try and write a song like this person’, you just write.

I did it once. For a song that’s on this album, actually, I wanted to sound like Dean Martin or something for the song “Fly A Kite”; I wanted it to sound like an old Hollywood song or like it could be lifted out of a musical. That’s the only time that I’ve done that. Otherwise, I think that I’d have a really terrible time, cuz I don’t sound like anybody else, I sound like myself. I’ll just get frustrated if I try and sound like other people.

You’ve got to embrace your individuality.

Well, that’s right. And if you don’t, there’ll be a time where you run out of ideas, and someone will find you out. And you’ll just have a terrible time trying to explain yourself.

It must be pretty surreal that you wrote all these songs during lockdown and now they’re all over the world. How does that feel?

I guess ‘surreal’ is a great word to use. It feels bizarre, you know, I wrote all of these songs just sitting alone in my bedroom, really quietly. To hear people on the other side of the world have been listening to them – and better yet liked it – is bizarre to me. But obviously, it’s absolutely amazing and makes me so, so happy. But yeah, the connection with the world that I had whilst making it was next to zero. And now that it’s out, it can go anywhere. And that’s just something really huge to wrap your mind around.

And you’ll be going overseas this year to play as well. How does that feel?

It feels pretty insane. Especially because it’s a lot easier to get overseas than it is to a lot of states in Australia at the moment. London is far easier than it is to go to Sydney right now, which is fucking bizarre. But that’s just the way it is. I can’t wait. I almost want to get stuck over there. I mean, I don’t – but almost.

Have you played any live shows since the album?

I’m in Melbourne, which is a pretty tricky place at the moment and has gone through the longest lockdown in the world, I think. And we’re not in it anymore, but people are kind of taking it upon themselves to not go anywhere and not do anything. And gigs are still not happening. I mean, some are but you know, things are still getting canceled left, right and center. So whilst there’s some stuff on the horizon, it’s not extremely hopeful. I think overseas, or a little bit of overseas, might actually happen before I play to parts of Australia, which hopefully will happen in a couple of months.

Cool. Are you excited for those?

Fuck yeah. So excited, I want to do it so much. I got to play just before shit really hit the fan with Omicron. I flew up to Brisbane with King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard and played a bunch of shows with them. Our last run was canceled and we had to get on a plane to come back as quick as we could, because of COVID, but at least we got to sneak in a couple of shows and that made me really, really know that I am so fucking excited to play because it was just the best thing in the world to play after not doing it for so long.

How are the new songs sounding live?

Yeah, good, I reckon. The album was recorded in a certain way that had a lot to do with COVID and the way that I could rehearse with people and record and how much time we got to spend on things. So, whilst things kind of sound like they do on the album when I’m playing live, they kind of really don’t as well. They’re the same songs but it’s fun doing it with the band and getting kind of different arrangements every night and different players. It keeps things really fun and interesting for me.

When you come over here in March will you have a band or will you be solo?

I’m coming solo to start off with. It’ll just be me, which again is different to the album. I think everything that I’m doing this year with touring is going to be a bit different.

Did the COVID factor into your decision to self-produce the album?

Yeah, absolutely it did. If you’re made to stay at home and not do anything, not see people and all that kind of stuff, then you’re given a window in which to record, you’re kind of forced to do everything yourself. So we’d get in there on the day and I’d just kind of try and describe what I wanted to everybody. If you call that producing, then I guess that’s producing, but that’s just what I had to do out of necessity, really. I also may be a little bit of a… not a control freak, but like things the way I like them. But when things are minimal, I’ve got certain ideas and I stick to them. They’re easy to describe, people pick them up really well.

It sounds more like directing than producing.

I think it is as well. Yeah, I think that’s kind of my approach. That’s kind of like all I really know how to do. If I needed to I would sing to them, or I would kind of just talk about a feeling that they should have while they’re playing. Like, ‘this needs to be in your head while you’re doing it’. There’s a lot of gesticulation that comes with it.

What kind of feelings were you describing?

A lot of different sounds, a lot of imagery, like ‘I want you to think about a wave getting bigger and getting bigger, and then starting to foam at the top, and then crashing and then ebbing into this calm and then going up again’. Kind of things like that. Or, you know, things that are a little bit more personal. I don’t know that I’ll go into it because I don’t know how to explain something personal without sounding really crass. But, you know, just blunt and brutal words. I would want everybody to feel that and understand that. Then what they play should be exactly what I want. And it was.

Awesome. And you do act, but have you have you directed anything for stage or screen?

I have, but not in a way that deserves any kind of attention.

What about writing for somebody for stage?

Yeah, I have done. And I would like to do more. And I think if the pandemic keeps going the way it’s going and keeps disappointing me, then I might be forced into it as well.

Nice. Does your acting influence the way you perform in the studio or on stage?

I don’t think so. I mean, I do both of those things, but I think what informs both of them is just me being the way that I am. Probably some things are useful to take over into the other discipline, but it’s not necessarily something that I actively think about. I just think that I’m possibly okay at both of those things because I’m just a dramatic person.

So you don’t write a line and think, ‘Okay, I’m gonna perform it in this particular way’?

No. I think that you should perform it with the same intention that you had when you wrote it, whatever that means to you.

What kind of state were the songs in when you went to the studio? Were they pretty much as they are on the album or did you develop some while in there?

They pretty much were as they are. And, as I said, that’s not necessarily the way I work, it’s just the way that it was. The pandemic fucked us all and gave us no time and gave us no company. I just had to kind of think about what I wanted to do and execute it as quickly as I could before we went back into our hidey holes. A few things happened where we’d have an idea and add something; make something more dramatic, that kind of thing.

You probably don’t want to reveal too much, but would you say they’re mostly autobiographical? Are they mostly from your perspective?

Yeah. If you do anything that’s not from your perspective, or if you said that anything was not from your perspective, I think you’d be a fucking liar. Like, even if you write about somebody else, you can talk about somebody else but only relate to them with feelings of your own. So to say that something isn’t autobiographical, I think it would just be kind of a bit silly.

So you are the Storm Queen then?

Well, I’m not saying that. [Laughs]

What about the front cover? Did you have much to do with that styling?

Yeah, I did. I worked with a good friend of mine, Gil Gilmour, who does a lot of my artwork and has done my videos and everything like that; he’s a very close friend of mine. And I did talk to him about the way that I that I wanted the album cover to look, but I certainly wouldn’t have been able to do it and make it look so incredibly beautiful if it wasn’t for him.

What were your inspirations for that?

One of them was a Gary Numan record cover. I forget what the album is, but there’s a Gary Numan album cover where he’s standing there and it’s just all stark white behind him.

Also, ancient Greek statues or grand kind of things like that. Especially with the bird, this beautiful Crimson Rosella. It’s an Australian bird, but I don’t know, there’s something kind of classic and very, romantic, but also quite stark, and blunt about it.

Why did you want a Crimson Rosella?

That that bird comes from an area in Australia that means a lot to me. Well, they’re there in lots of places in Australia, but they’re in East Gippsland, which is a huge area of land in Victoria.

Is that close to you?

Australia is a big place, so to you would probably be on the other side of the country, but to me it’s close. It’s in my state, but it would be maybe a five-hour drive away.

So there’s quite a lot of natural imagery on Storm Queen and one of the main themes is the Climate Crisis. Do you see that firsthand in Australia especially?

Absolutely. And a lot of what I’ve written came just after the really catastrophic bushfires, just before the pandemic started – end of 2019, early 2020. I just saw a lot of places, in particular this place in East Gippsland that I have loved for so many years, just absolutely go up in flames. And it was a lot. A lot of the country burned. We have awful fires every year, but these ones that have been happening in the last couple of years, they’re really nasty and they’re uncontrollable, they’re sinister. You can’t help but see a link between those disasters and us. Literally being fuel for the fire.

Yeah, yeah. It’s scary. Did you consciously think ‘I’m going to write about this’? Or did you find that was just on the front of your mind when you started writing?

No, no, it was just on the front of my mind. Anyone that was living where I was at the time, it would have been on the forefront of their mind as well. You know, there were lots of days where you couldn’t walk outside because the smoke was so thick, you couldn’t breathe. We were all wearing masks before the pandemic even started, but it was just because there was so much smoke in the air. It’s something that, especially as an Australian, you just can’t avoid seeing.

Does it scare you?

Fuck yeah.

Can you do anything? Do you feel pretty powerless? Do you feel pretty angry? How do you feel about the whole thing?

I feel very powerless, I feel very angry. But I kind of think the only thing that I can do is change my own behavior. But also, I have a platform. If you’re a musician or an actor or somebody in the public eye, you have a platform, and if maybe if you talk about something someone else might listen to you. I suppose that’s quite a naïve thing to say, but maybe it’s something that I try and do. I don’t know if I actually try but it’s something that you can do, I suppose.

Changing tack a little bit, but speaking about artists and platforms, I know you’re a Neil Young fan. I wonder if you had any thoughts about the Neil Young and Spotify situation?

I’m absolutely with him. Good on him. And Joni Mitchell as well. I’m huge fans of both of them, obviously. They both had polio when they were little kids and we don’t have a problem with polio anymore, because people were fucking vaccinated. I think that might be something that’s very close to them, and I think that they are using their power in an absolutely unbelievable way. They’re very fortunate to have come to almost the end of both of their careers, but that’s okay. They have the power to do something. I commend both of them, and I think they’re both fucking legends.

Cool. I was wondering, do you take inspiration from any other art forms in your music? Do you read? Do you watch TV?

Yeah, yeah, totally. TV, nobody said that before. Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, you read poetry and literature and stuff’, but fucking so much stuff comes from The Sopranos, man, I love it.

In the pandemic, I was absorbing a lot more than I would if I was busy. So, you know, reading a lot more different things. I was reading a lot of Donald Barthelme, who was a 20th century American writer who wrote a lot of short stories. And I kind of think a song as almost like a short story, really. Well, if you want it to be… I don’t know, just picking up feelings and, and little one liners or little nudges at the truth from all different kinds of places… whether that’s a Donald Barthelme story or, you know, Tony Soprano talking to Melfi on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s all the same thing to me, I think.

So if you were to recommend one lockdown read, what would you pick?

A collection of short stories by Donald Barthelme, I think. Go for it and read it. That’s definitely what’s been on my bedside table for the last two years.

And The Sopranos would be your top watch.

Oh, yeah. A million times over. It’s the greatest thing that’s ever been made. I can’t even… every episode is like a Scorsese film. The script is absolutely beautiful. I’m just obsessed with it.

One final thing, I was wondering about the title track. When I first got the record it had a different name, “No Time For Dying”. Did you change that because of the James Bond film?

[Laughs] Yes, I did. I actually did. So there you go. You’re the first person to ask me that. Because it was in all the press releases that went out and before, you know, so everyone got the same thing but you’re the first person to ask me that. Yes, I did. That is exactly why I changed it.

And the video for it is so Bondy. So I just thought ‘Grace, you’re not going to get away with that’. That is fucking ridiculous. And the timing, like, I had no idea. But anyway, that’s kind of funny to me.

Grace Cummings’ new album Storm Queen is out now on ATO Records (read our review). You can find her on Bandcamp, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.

Tour dates:

Mar 09 – St Matthias Church – London, UK

Apr 08 – Theatre Royal – Castlemaine, VIC

May 11 – The Great Escape – Brighton, UK
May 19 – Teragram Ballroom – Los Angeles (LA), CA
May 21 – August Hall – San Francisco, CA
May 23 – The Crocodile – Seattle, WA
May 24 – Hollywood Theatre – Vancouver – Vancouver, BC
May 25 – Wonder Ballroom – Portland, OR
May 26 – Visual Arts Collective – Garden City, ID
May 28 – Gothic Theatre – Englewood, CO
May 30 – Gas Lamp – Des Moines, IA
May 31 – Fine Line – Minneapolis, MN
Jun 01 – Thalia Hall – Chicago, IL

Sep 01 – End Of The Road, Larmer Tree Gardens, UK