On her sophomore album Storm Queen, Melbourne’s Grace Cummings has refined her musical arrangements into theatrically-inclined, intricate stories in which horns, strings, guitar and bass each have a voice – a role to play, even. As an actor who has performed in, and co-headlined, major state theatre productions, Cummings can indicate a mood with the raise of an eyebrow or the timing of a small gesture on stage, a less-is-more approach she mirrors when it comes to her music. She channels her energy into the potency and alchemy of each of the eleven tracks on Storm Queen, and the effect is magic.
“Because all the songs came from me at a particular time in my life and in my thinking, they naturally do have a thematic through-line, if you will, instead of having a bunch of songs over a few years,” she explains from her home in the inner north of Melbourne, where she lives with her bassist Lain Pocock and Gil Gilmour, who shoots many of her videos.
She is reluctant to delve into the personal events or experiences that fed her lyrics, hoping that there is just enough slip room that listeners will read between the lines and make sense of them as they need to. But the chaos of disasters that occurred between the end of 2019 and continued throughout the pandemic focused her mind on questions of nature and the concept of a higher power – a sense of God, though not in the strictly religious paradigm.
“Some things that do pop up is nature for one, a kind of existence or lack of some kind of God that I don’t really believe in, but mention a lot. I suppose [that’s] to try and label something that I don’t understand that’s quite great, dramatic and bigger than anything that we know about,” she reasons. “That connects a lot to the beauty you see in nature. Especially in Australia in the last couple of years, the landscape is beautiful but also terrorised by things like fire. I was also surprised at how much I referenced childhood things as well.”
Life, death, God, nature, chaos and birth. It makes sense that in considering the value of life and what governs this whole shebang, you’d be inclined to reflect on your own existence.
“Heaven” reveals her throaty, bass-rich voice in all its majesty, heaving with the gravitas and hurt of a lifetime. Tambourine jangles, she calls out “Ave Maria” with blood curdling desperation, and you well might wonder, is that Patti Smith? I mean this with the greatest flattery, of course. For anyone who has heard “Because The Night” or “Birdland,” you’d have to wonder if Cummings was playing the Australian Patti Smith to some degree.
“I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this,” begins Cummings. “I never really got into Patti Smith. I like a lot of her songs, but I read her more than I listened to her growing up so I actually haven’t listened to a lot of Patti Smith. I think she’s fantastic, just not an artist that I listened to growing up.”
Nonetheless, the sometimes guttural roar and ragged edges of her furious delivery do elicit Smith’s impassioned, poetic songs. “Lord oh Lord, I don’t want anything to change! The shepherds have led their sheep and it’s all going up in flames!” she wails in a voice that hovers between growl, shriek and cry on “Up In Flames.” It’s all hellfire and brimstone, bloody damnation. Is it genuine, or is it theatre? Audiences will decide, but perhaps it doesn’t matter; certainly, there was critical and audience acclaim for her debut album.
Refuge Cove was released in 2019 through Melbourne-based label Flightless Records, run by Eric Moore, drummer for King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. “I wasn’t intending on really making an album when I made Refuge Cove,” Cummings admits. “I went and recorded a bunch of songs and when Eric Moore from Flightless said, ‘Do you have an album that we can put out?’ I said ‘Yep!’ and gave him that, and it became the album.”
Storm Queen, out January 14th via Sugar Mountain Records/Virgin Music Australia, is a much more conscientious body of work. “All of these songs were very much intended to go on an album that I was curating to be an entire piece of work,” she says. “’Storm Queen’ is one that I really love to sing and is often my favourite on the album that I’ve been listening to over the million times you do when you put something out. I also love to sing ‘Fly a Kite.’ Miles Brown plays the theremin on ‘Fly a Kite’ and that’s one of the reasons it’s my favourite songs on the album, because he’s playing on it.”
In April last year Cummings played Charlotte in Joanna Murray-Smith’s Berlin at the Melbourne Theatre Company. Her belief is that creating, whatever the platform, fuels the artistic muse within, though she demurs on finding direct commonalities between her two professions.
“It’s really funny. I see the two things – while they’re so similar – so differently,” she says. “I suppose that one of the reasons is that in one of them I’m absolutely myself and everything comes from me: I’m the person that’s onstage, with my name and my songs, my words, and I can move the way that I want. In a role that you play, it’s the opposite: you’re in someone else’s body with someone else’s voice or accent, someone else’s words in someone else’s house. I find it to be a little bit of a sport. Theatre is like you’re an athlete and being a musician, you’re just your scummy self.”
Cummings is the least scummy creature imaginable, but she’s looking forward to the (potentially scummy) stages and scuzzy beer-stained carpets that are the natural stomping ground of Melbourne’s musos. She’s touring in February as support for Springtime, the supergroup lead by Tropical Fuck Storm’s Gareth Liddiard.
“Performing live is always my favourite thing in the world,” she says. “I don’t think you can replicate the feeling that you have being on stage and in front of people… and singing to them. I’m not sure anything can really beat it.”
She’s reassembled her band after a lengthy hiatus from touring, and it’s a stellar collection of musicians: Cahill Kelly on guitar; Lain Pocock on bass; Tyler Daglish on drums; and Alex Hamilton on guitar. Cummings’ voice brightens as she rattles off each name. “Cahill and I swap around playing keys, which has been really fun on the last couple of shows that we’ve done,” she swoons. “We have guests: Kat Mear, on fiddle – she’s a good friend of mine, I’ve known her for many years, she’s just the fucking best; Harry Cooper plays the saxophone and I hope that he will get on as many shows as he can with the tour as well.”
While simultaneously touring, Cummings is anxious to get started the next album, and she’s intending on a big sound, a full band sound with nothing minimal about it. “I have written stuff for another album,” she confesses. “Knowing me, I’ll probably write the songs I want to be on it the day before I start recording, but I do have a bunch of songs. Sonically, they’re very different – Storm Queen is very pared back, whereas I don’t want this one to be minimal at all. But let’s see, who knows?”