“Don’t blink your eyes / You don’t want to cry… C’mon, freak, and sing.”
That’s preternaturally talented singer-songwriter Grace Cummings, growling on ‘Freak’ from her second album, ‘Storm Queen’, which was written during Melbourne’s interminable, record-breaking lockdowns.
‘Freak’’s lyrics make it seem Cummings had a staring competition with the pandemic and the abyss, but judging by ‘Storm Queen’’s 11-song suite, though coronavirus led early, Cummings got the chocolates in the end.
NME finds her slouched on her bed in Thornbury, framed by a Zoom window as COVID once again winds its way through her home state of Victoria. The intenser-than-thou artist thumbs a rollie cigarette, marvels at the magpie song out her window and measures her level of eye contact like a trained actor.
That’s probably because she is one: Cummings recently played the don’t-fuck-with-me, German-accented lead role in Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Berlin. There’s a rumour she’s keen to play Hamlet, too. “It’s true,” she says. “I think there’s a little bit of shapeshifting going on in my life most of the time.”
But no amount of brave-face acting could get her through the last two years unscathed. Most of Cummings’ gigs (both musical and theatrical) were cancelled. During the first long lockdown of 2020, she “bought a new sewing machine, started quilting and pretended I was someone else,” she says.
Songs for ‘Storm Queen’ were forming but Cummings was having a rough time remaining confident in her raison d’etre. “At the time I was not wanting anyone in my share house to hear my songs; I don’t even think I wanted to hear myself,” she says, tilting her head. “I had pressure from family and friends about what I was doing with my life and what I hadn’t achieved.”
For a restless, imaginative soul like Cummings, the cycle of “writing, recording, performing, repeat” makes things bearable.
“I grew up a little out of Melbourne where the Yarra [River] is nice and clean,” she says. “I had a lot of little secret hiding spots and caves in the garden where I’d talk to my imaginary friends. [We had] big gumtrees in my backyard and my friend the kookaburra lived in one of them.”
“Bon Scott taught me so much about singing, about writing lyrics, about stagecraft, about knowing when to spit”
She became consumed by music at an early age, doing her time as a drummer in a series of high school bands knocking out Jimi Hendrix and AC/DC covers.
“Bon Scott taught me so much about singing, about writing lyrics, about stagecraft, about knowing when to spit,” Cummings says. A nanny by day, she recently introduced one of the kids she looks after to Acca-Dacca. “He recognised Bon Scott on a poster while we were going for a walk,” she says proudly, dusting off her hands: “My work here is done.”
In her teens she started writing songs of her own, listening to Spiritualized frontman J Spaceman, Paul Kelly, Bob Dylan and Celtic music her father would play at home (“Irish melodies go to such dark and dramatic places”).
Soon after, she made a thrifty purchase of a Neil Young record. “I bought ‘Journey Through The Past’ at a market for two dollars and lay under my desk with a blanket over it and put it on,” she emails later. “When ‘The Cost of Freedom’ played it was like I had discovered some kind of cure for all that’s shit in the world.”
Cummings began carving a name for herself as a solo artist in 2010 and after years of toiling found herself on the radar of King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard’s erstwhile drummer Eric Moore, who had gone gaga over a Facebook video where she covers Bob Dylan’s ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’. Moore had recently started Flightless Records and kept asking Cummings for more demos and songs until, wa-hey, she had a whole album.
That ended up becoming her 2019 debut ‘Refuge Cove’, a release that gained glowing reviews for her raw, psychedelic vision, nimble finger-picking and throaty, megaphone voice. On ‘Lullaby For Refuge Cove’ she makes heroes of a magpie, a cockatoo and then finishes with a devastating apology: “I’m sorry friends, I seem to have / Fallen right through the Earth / It seems to have happened when I was wishing I was a bird / That flies.”
Cummings toured ‘Refuge Cove’, supported international acts Weyes Blood, Evan Dando and J Mascis then had to simultaneously hunker down and make a record when COVID hit.
Fans will notice there’s no drums on ‘Storm Queen’. “The decision was kind of made for me really, because, y’know, we were in the middle of this pandemic,” she says. “So we just weren’t able to have the full band simply because we couldn’t get together. I kind of came to peace with it as it happened.
“That ended up being quite exciting and really enjoyable,” she adds, becoming sanguine. Her voice goes husky. “I think limitations probably work for me sometimes instead of me putting all this shit on it.”
“I talk about God quite a bit and it is not necessarily because I believe in him, I don’t”
And ‘Storm Queen’ is indeed richer for the restraint. The listener is deprived of the cathartic air-drums pay-off, the record all tension and little release… apart from the sleazy sax near the end of the album (courtesy of Harry Cooper, whom Cummings tasked with playing “something absolutely filthy”).
All the better for an album that sounds like Nick Cave knife-fighting Patti Smith for PJ Harvey’s hand in marriage. Cummings moves through themes of heroism, religion, alienation and drug use; when she opens her mouth the truth that pours out is guttural, dangerous and unnerving.
On ‘Heaven’ she sings: “See the apple hanging from the tree / It fades away as you reach for it / There is no God, there is no king.” She hisses “Mar-ee-ahhh”, like adders are coming out of her mouth – Cummings’ own analogy.
NME puts forward that she is perplexed and intoxicated by the idea of a God.
“I think that’s totally right. I talk about God quite a bit and it is not necessarily because I believe in him, I don’t,” Cummings says firmly. “I think it’s something unexplainable; God is the biggest word I know.”
Having survived a tumultuous period, the caged bird broke free: in October, Cummings opened the Play On Victoria show at Sidney Myer Music Bowl in front of a few thousand fully vaccinated punters.
“It was great to finally be able to play a show after the fuckin’ year that we had,” Cummings declares. “I was just absolutely fucking thrilled to be out of lockdown and back on stage. It even overcame my nerves.”
Since then she’s supported King Gizzard and The Lizard Wizard around the country, even jumping back on stage to duet with Ambrose Smith on their song ‘Billabong Valley’ – and will headline her own tour of Australia starting this Friday.
Cummings “proved herself a star in the making” at Play On Victoria, NME wrote afterwards. Each performance is a low-key exorcism where she appears to become the true form of herself, flying her freak flag high and proud.
“A very true form of myself,” she emphasises with a wicked smile. “When I’m doing that I feel kind of perfectly, perfectly that. I think it’s one aspect of a very, very strange and ugly tapestry.
“Sometimes I wish I could look forward to the cup of tea at the end of a day like a normal person, but that’s not the case,” Cummings says. “It’s an important job being a freak.”
‘Storm Queen’ is out now via Sugar Mountain Records/Virgin Music Australia. Tickets to Grace Cummings’ 2022 Australia tour are now available