Grace Cummings is no stranger to the stage, whether as an actress or a singer-songwriter: just last April, the Melbourne artist trod the boards as a lead in playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s Melbourne Theatre Company work Berlin. But there’s none of the safety of a script, set, and character in Cummings’ musical life, and never more so than on her sophomore album ‘Storm Queen’.
Cumming’s 2019 debut was almost accidental. She had recorded a bunch of songs without definite plan for them when Eric Moore of Flightless Records asked if she had an album he could release. ‘Refuge Cove’ was the result, and it was unabashedly influenced by Bob Dylan, from the fervent, driving acoustic folk to the wheedling mournful melodies and – of course – Cummings’ harmonica playing.
‘Storm Queen’, on the other hand, was conscientiously written and recorded, its tracklist carefully thought out. On it, Cummings explores the timeless questions: whether there is a higher power than humans and what that is; the disparity in the vulnerability and ferocity of the natural world and how beautiful things exist one moment and vanish the next.
In the furious folk number ‘Up In Flames’, she references both the 2019 bushfires and the collapse of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral in April of the same year. On this song, Cummings’ guttural, ragged growl evokes a drunken preacher or a hammy performance of Shakespeare. It exemplifies the theatricality to her delivery on some tracks that feels distracting and sometimes even alienating.
But on ‘Freak’, Cummings’ voice is beautiful, soaring with an unholy majesty, and frank in its low-octave, earthy state on the acoustic-accompanied ‘Here Is The Rose’. She is a poetic songwriter, able to channel biblical and literary references into compelling soliloquies as easily as she sings about spinning Dylan’s “‘Highway 61’ again” (‘Raglan’).
The title track ‘Storm Queen’ is a glorious climax; Cummings sounds emotionally exhausted, surrendering to the romantic, sprawling acoustic guitar paired harmoniously with wailing baritone saxophone and Cahill Kelly’s piano. It’s breathtaking. Cummings channels Patti Smith’s fevered poetic vocals here, as she does throughout the album, but most evidently and favourably on this song. As it rounds out, the sax squeals as if being driven towards a cliff’s edge, and the recording reveals a little snicker from Cummings, as if it’s all just a mad lark. It’s a lovely, telling detail.
The album closes with ‘Fly A Kite’, which is majestic in scope though pared back to acoustic guitar. The immensity of Cummings’ big, bold, romantic voice matches the lyrical theme: an eagle flying freely, untethered into open, infinite skies. She is joined by Miles Brown on theremin, one of several guest artists who are welcome, wonderful talents on the album, among them Kat Mear on fiddle and Harry Cooper on sax.
On ‘Storm Queen’, Cummings calls down the spirits of punk poets past and present: Nick Cave, Nico, Tom Waits and Patti Smith. She has a propensity to occasionally over-ham the dramatics to the detriment of the songs, but her beautiful, heartbreaking voice and music still prove exceptional.
- Release date: January 14
- Record label: Sugar Mountain Records/Virgin Music Australia