Grace Cummings Finds New Life on Ramona

The Australian singer-songwriter’s Jonathan Wilson-produced latest is a testament to her talents as a performer, as her voice arrives with force and star-power.

Music Reviews Grace Cummings
Grace Cummings Finds New Life on Ramona

We all know what it means for a songwriter to evoke “Laurel Canyon,” even if—like myself—you’ve never set foot a hundred miles from the storied Los Angeles locale. The canyon is counterculture, the canyon is flowery dresses, long mustaches, natural beauty and lots and lots of grass that contains multitudes. The canyon is boomer idealism, commodified serenity and whitewashed history. “Love and the Canyon,” from Grace Cummings’ newest record Ramona, was recorded in Laurel Canyon and is not free of the signifiers that its name suggests. Ornate, relaxed and graceful, it’s a song that takes Cummings from her birthplace of Melbourne, Australia to the sunny hills of California—even if it does come with a bit of biting sarcasm shading its edges. “Maybe I’ll meet some Hollywood man, who drives a million dollars in to town,” sings Cummings in her operatic howl.

This shift is, in large part, the effect of her collaboration with producer Jonathan Wilson, whose West Coast studio serves as the setting for Ramona’s creation. A skilled, retro-tinged songwriter in his own right, Wilson has added his nostalgic hue to albums by everyone from Margo Price to Conor Oberst—and he dutifully does so for Cummings who, to this point, has served as her own producer. Where her previous arrangements were often achingly bare, Ramona luxuriates in lush orchestration, creating the set dressing for the performance that is the character of “Ramona.”

“I didn’t want to be myself so I decided to be Ramona instead, full of intensity and melodrama,” says Cummings of the record’s larger framework, which has her blending her other primary artistic pursuit as a stage actor with her musical identity. In truth, it’s not all that surprising to learn of Cummings’ life as an actor. Her songs have always been dramatic, even at their most austere—each project’s heart always worn on her sleeve, scarred as they may be. What Wilson does best is to, in a way, undercut the exposure inherent in Cummings’ songwriting. Where her previous record, Storm Queen, tried to match her work as a vocalist with a similarly stark backdrop, Ramona places the languid, wistful beauty of Wilson’s timeless production in direct confrontation with a singer whose work consistently subverts coffee-shop serenity one might expect.

Of course, that amount of chutzpah will never go completely unpunished. There’s one name I didn’t mention on Wilson’s list of collaborators, a name I was reminded of again and again throughout this record. From the swagger, to the flair, to the show-stopping vocals—there is simply a lot of the mercurial and wonderfully bratty energy of Father John Misty flourishing across Ramona. To be clear, this is fully complimentary—from me at least. I can’t recall where I first heard it, but the term “cilantro songwriter” is one I can’t help but think of when discussing both Cummings and Father John Misty. Big, brash and singular, there are a lot of people who simply won’t lock in with what these two artists are doing, who will experience only a soapy aftertaste.

“Everybody’s Somebody” is the kind of massive barburner that will either win you over or turn you off completely, its bluesy storm clouds giving way to a deluge of mariachi horns in pure bravado form. For my taste, this kind of grandeur works best when Cummings fully embraces the brash tenacity of her newfound Ramona persona. “I am a Cowboy, I ride and I ride. My idea of heaven and a pistol by my side,” she sings on “Common Man,” a song whose many crescendos work in tandem with the song’s cinematic scope. The record consistently reaches for the biggest emotion possible, with every song the last one before intermission. The fact that it works as often as it does is a testament to Cummings’ sheer power as a performer, her voice a force arriving with force and star power. Ramona can be overwhelming when taken in as a whole, and that’s something that might ultimately keep many at arm’s length from the album. But, if you let Grace Cummings in, Ramona might just surprise you yet.

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