Tajette O'Halloran

Lady Of The Canyon – Q&A with Grace Cummings: “It’s best to just arrive the way that you are”

It’s often well-meaning advice: “Just be yourself.” But alas, things are usually more complicated to gain a positive outcome. To navigate the world at large, all of us have to play some kind of role. It’s an intriguing what if however, to live through every day as your fullest, most feral self. You’ll most likely end up the night in jail or worse.

That’s exactly the dumbfounding paradox of Grace Cummings‘s grand and arresting new album Ramona, which is came out earlier this month via ATO Records/PIAS. The Australian artist isn’t confined to a facade, but actually liberated by it, allowing her to summon the full range of her impressive vocal talents.

The sonorous strings arrangements on “Precious Thing” beg for luminous affirmation, but instead, leave the listener with no substantial truisms. Cummings doesn’t know why painters decide they paint, or why birds fly for that matter, and she doesn’t bother to care either. ‘And oh, what a precious thing,’ she weeps in a hushed, threadbare vibrato, about this thing we call love that’s always so imposed on us. Then she turns the corner with a fierce bellow: ‘But it’s nothing I care about’. Unlike the Badfinger-staple of the same title, Cummings isn’t so easily torn up by lovelorn heartbreak on “Without You”, musing “The trees they keep on growing/The rivers don’t stop flowing”. She’s actively resisting it, turning her gaze on natural phenomena. Little by little, however, her denial and defensive mechanisms erode, until finally, the dam breaks. ‘But when it rains it pours/And my lonely heart is yours’.

On Ramona, Cummings bares her teeth and allows all her emotional fervor to enter the arena: she cries, she beckons, she spits venom, she belts, often in the same composition, manoeuvring freely and formidably. These songs aren’t as much navel gazing character studies as they blockbuster passion plays, a welcome departure from the trend of vocalists having to perform in a twee, pristine delivery, which has frankly become a bit endemic.

Speaking of extremes: we connect with Cummings via Zoom on what is a cold winter day in Europe. Except over in Australia, it’s summer, and the songwriter/composer is tapping a lot of energy from the tangible and earthly things blooming around her. “All the inspiration is kind of just like being outside going to swims and stuff like that. Yeah, getting out into the garden and picking my tomatoes, eating my tomatoes, and playing piano…”

Is there anything bubbling up right now that stirs your soul?

I don’t know. Things from [Ramona] are starting to come out, which is making me excited. But also, I’ve been sitting on this album for a really long time. And I’ve kind of been writing and I haven’t been playing those songs for Ramona for a really long time. So I’m playing those songs again after leaving them for so long. It’s weird when you are releasing a third album but while you’ve been writing your fourth and fifth one at the same time.

That’s a common problem today right? The album is gridlocked, and in the meantime, you’ve been working on newer material. And now you have to revisit Ramona-material again. Have you found a balance in that now? As in, doing quote unquote older songs but also perform music that’s more representative of present day-Grace?

I think it’s important to do what you want to do. Obviously, want to play the record, and it’s, you know, I’m excited for it to come out and, and for people to hear it, I’m really, really proud of it. But I also, you know, revisiting songs like that sometimes is interesting because you revisit the time in which you wrote them. But sometimes when I write something, and I’ve got a show coming up, I’ll just play it. I’ll just play whatever. I think it’s best to just arrive the way that you are.

Are the songs from Ramona telling you new things as you’re rehearsing them again?

Yeah, I think so. I think it was a very it was a pretty dramatic time in my life, and things are a lot less dramatic now, I suppose. And going back over that stuff is kind of interesting, just to see how far I’ve kind of come and grown from back then.

Can you elaborate on that? It sounds like you had to push yourself through some trial-and-error phases to get this album out there.

These songs are very dramatic for me, but pretty. Just life stuff that a lot of people have to go through, unfortunately, you know, friends and family and relationships and just shit things that happen in life. Change, you know? But things change all the time.

The album is actually named after a character in the Bob Dylan song “For Ramona”. What informed your choice to filter your experiences through a character and then sort of embody that from a theatrical standpont? You have experience in stage plays, so it feels like something that comes rather naturally to you.

I was told once I was the character Ramona, or whoever Dylan’s writing about, and it was… well, it certainly wasn’t a compliment. It was something that made me a bit sad, but I tried to reclaim it a little bit. And Ramona was just, I don’t know, it just became not necessarily anything to do with that song. But it just became a name that I always held onto. It would always just pop into my head, the name Ramona, and it represents a lot of things that I am not. And also, I just didn’t want to really be myself that much, you know? The record is quite vulnerable, quite raw… there’s a lot of truth in it. And I thought the rest of it doesn’t have to be me: the songs are me, and the rest of it can be someone else. And I just decided that it could be Ramona… that I could be Ramona.

I feel you’re letting your voice roam even freer on Ramona than on Storm Queen, which is saying something. There is room for a lot of conflicting emotions. The arrangements are obviously bigger this time. But did that also trigger you to go new places as a singer and songwriter?

I think that I just realised that I wanted to be myself: I wasn’t afraid to be myself in this record. I might have been for other records, trying to like reign myself in or be a certain type of artist or musician. And I just decided to do whatever came out of me, without constraining it or trying to fit it into some kind of genre. And to not judge your own music.

Not to pry too much, but I am curious what exactly bothered you about the comment that sparked the album’s title. What made it so impactful that it got stuck into your head like that?

I was really depressed at the time. And “Ramona” is a song about a woman that can’t stop crying. And someone said it reminded them of me. It made me realise a lot of things about myself and how people saw me; that I was kind of weak and fragile or something like that.

“Common Man” taps into more masculine energies; you imagine yourself as an outlaw gunslinger in that one. Is that a conscious reaction against that kind of reductive thinking?

Honestly, don’t even think about it. In those kinds of situations, I really don’t. I just kind of put myself in any kind of character. And I don’t think there’s any reason why I can’t do that. I don’t do it on purpose. I really don’t. It’s just like the first one that comes to my head. If it’s a man, it’s a man like, whatever. I’m not following a debate in my head that says ‘pick the right one’, you know?

But this analogy is must be deliberate right? You once compared a cowboy to a unicorn: a creature of myth that either doesn’t exist, or is extinct.

Yeah, I think so, I was told by someone I was feeling like a pigeon, when I was more like a colorful bird, and that I needed to be like a colorful bird. A colorful bird to me is like the picture of freedom and having no worries. Being who you want to be… that’s the cowboy for me.

For Storm Queen you said you really wanted choirs and orchestras to amplify your voice. On Ramona, you have finally attained them.

I’ve always wanted to do that. And I’ve been constrained by, just from living during COVID, not being able to make the record that you want to make. I listened to Angel Olsen’s new newest record Big Time, and I was in love with the production. That’s how found out about Jonathan Wilson, and I just asked him if he would do my record. And he said that he’d love to, which was amazing. I love working with Jonathan, because he was someone that agreed with me and said, ‘Yeah, we should put this and this and this on, and just keep layering more and more and more: strings and tubular bells and horns. And it was really amazing to do that, and to watch that all happen. Because it all happens inside your head for so long. And you kind of imagine what if it’s going to be like this, or you know, imagine how big this could sound or how wrong it could go. But just never did go wrong. It was, yeah, really amazing.

On “Work Today (and Tomorrow)” it sounds as if you are singing about the toils of creation itself. You are breaking apart but you’re also shaking the pillars of heaven with your voice, really exploring the extremes for where it can travel emotionally.

Yeah, I think that song is kind of like a bit of a theatrical pep talk to myself really. To say like, hang in there. Something’s got to give, you know? And maybe it’ll happen, I don’t know, it just keep going.

Was it written at a rock bottom moment?

Yeah, it was it was one of those things I managed to back find myself at the piano. And I was playing some Bach that I learned with great difficulty. And it kind of inspired the piano for it. And then I kind of gave myself a little pep talk while playing.

Speaking of pep talk, on Ramona‘s closing track “Help Is On The Way” you directly call back Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Neil Young and David Byrne lyrically.

I think that yeah, when everything is no good… I mean, this is so cliché and just boring. But it’s really not. It’s just true. You know, when things are no good, and you don’t know what you’re doing. For me, they’re always things like opening your mouth and feeling what it’s like to sing a song. Or to hear a song that’s made you feel like you’re less alone in the world. You know, I get that a lot from Bob Dylan and Neil Young. And David Byrne, George Harrison. That’s what I thought of at the time. I think that they’re your friends, they are your family and the help when you’re in need. They are the help that you have that you can give to yourself as well, if that makes any sense.

It’s those aha-moments, right? Which reminds me: a lot of Ramona brings me back to some of my favorite classic records, too. People might chalk it up to nostalgia, I kind of feel there’s this musical wellspring where everybody can tap into. The ending of “I’m Getting Married to the War”, I love how it veers into Hot Buttered Soul-territory, and “Everybody’s Somebody” tries for a little tenderness as well. It almost feels like these records are your Hamlet and MacBeth on Ramona. Now for an actual question for you, it makes me wonder what your mentality as a performer is nowadays, veering between the personal and the theatrical side of things. Do you believe that those two worlds can overlap, that there are certain things that are you can apply to both both those situations? Or do you like to keep them as separate as possible?

I don’t know. I haven’t I actually haven’t done acting for a long time now since I’ve been doing music. But I think that there’s a similarity in both of them for me, which is that I’m doing them both, you can’t be totally yourself. When you’re performing to someone, you can’t do it. You can’t be totally yourself. It’s impossible. And if you can, it’s still just one version of you. I think that’s the similar thing with with both of those practices, and don’t think there’s anything wrong with making a musical performance theatrical either. I think that’s really cool. And a lot of people do it. And you just, it’s just not in a style that you think.

Follow Grace Cummings on BandcampInstagramFacebook, and YouTube. Order your copy of Ramona here.