How Grace Cummings Became Ramona

The Melbourne singer-songwriter discusses working with Jonathan Wilson, building a musical language without words and finding inspiration in Mother Nature on her third and latest LP.

Music Features Grace Cummings
How Grace Cummings Became Ramona

Grace Cummings’ voice sounds like it has lived a thousand lifetimes’ worth of stories waiting to be told—and, on her latest album, Ramona, she finally gets to tell those stories on her own terms. While musicians either self-produce to save money or as a means of holding complete creative control over their art, Cummings’ first two records were solo endeavors that came more as a consequence than a choice. On her second album, Storm Queen, in particular, the pandemic separated her from her peers and she was forced to make that record alone. While Cummings’ voice was as captivating as ever back two years ago, it arrives on Ramona like the center-stitch in a tapestry of dense, dramatic and ornate instrumentation and experimentation—thanks to a flashy combination of Cummings wearing new creative clothes and teaming up with producer Jonathan Wilson.

“I’ve always wanted to do something really theatrical and melodramatic with every instrument I could possibly think of,” Cummings declares. For someone who has held her cards close to her chest on her first two albums, embracing collaboration was a daunting but necessary metamorphosis for her dramatic vision. Enter Wilson, the multi-hyphenate West Coaster who has produced for Angel Olsen, Margo Price and Father John Misty and is the master of crafting intricate landscapes with soaring instrumentation. “Working with Jonathan was just about my favorite thing that I’ve ever done,” Cummings continues. “I was fortunate that we were on the same page about so many things—music, humor and how we see the world. So, the collaborative process with him was easy. It was like hanging out with a mate.”

After spending two albums writing, producing and ideating alone, Cummings was astounded when the total fantasy came together in the orchestration of “Work Today (and Tomorrow).” The track has the grandeur of a Bond theme, but with an unbreakable heart of stone in tow, too—it’s a drama without exaggeration, desperation without solace and pain without justification. Every note is stunning, and Cummings’ voice shrouds you in doubt, begging you to “just wait” while the vast orchestra charges forward with a climatic intensity. “There was a moment during the recording of ‘Work Today (and Tomorrow)’ where I went over to the sheet music that was on one of the violin player’s music stands, and I saw the sheet music said ‘Work Today (and Tomorrow), G. Cummings,’” Cummings explains, clearly awestruck. “I couldn’t believe that all of these people had come in to play this music that was written out in sheet music—which I don’t know how to do—and they were playing so beautifully something that I had written on my own, in the middle of fucking nowhere Australia. And suddenly, it was here, on this page, and in these people’s fingers.”

While this musical teamwork with Wilson allowed her to fulfill lofty ideas, Cummings still prefers to work alone. “I’m a loner in life, to an extent.” she says. “I like to be by myself a lot. I’m in my own little world most of the time—it’s a world I’ve created in my own head. It’s hard to get people in there or explain what I mean. I was a bit of a loner as a kid and used to play with imaginary people. I think I’m still the same way.” This love of make-believe is rooted in a childhood spent much on her own, finding placeholders for the corporeal in those quiet moments when she was bursting with things to say. “My mom told me that I used to go and collect leaves and rocks,” Cummings continues. “I’d hide them under my bed, and then she would wake up in the middle of the night because I’d be talking to all these leaves and rocks. I think I still do that in a somewhat more adult way. But it’s still talking to leaves and rocks—nature is my friend.”

The imaginary Cummings has created for this new chapter of her creativity is the titular Ramona, a persona inspired by Bob Dylan’s 1964 song “To Ramona”—which she created to filter her most considerable feelings. “I’ve named the parts of myself that are difficult for me to deal with,” she explains. “Very true parts of myself, but that might be sad or ugly or too much or shameful—just name it something else so I can express it.” The title-track is a kick in the teeth with a syrupy finish, the horns and piano distorted just enough to bring a surrealistic energy to the world of this fictional woman. “She’s sweet / She’s little / She’s nothing at all to me,” Cummings growls to herself, releasing from this idealistic character she tries to force herself to be. “Ramona—when it’s not me—is the angelic image of a woman that doesn’t exist like a Madonna figure. It’s how people think that women should be, want a woman to be, or want me to be,” she notes.

Her childhood was also filled with Irish folk music that her father would play for her. “Irish culture has this form of singing called keening—grief singing when someone has died,” Cummings expounds. “The closest I can think of someone who sounds like this is Sinéad O’Connor or Dolores O’Riordan. That kind of guttural sound that comes out is something Irish music has that other music doesn’t, and I’m obsessed with that. A fiddle player also does it with their fiddle when they’re playing Irish music. It’s very emotional.” Cummings brings some of that raspy bemoaning on the album’s closing track, “Help Is On Its Way,” where she writes an elegy to her past-self and examines how things seem heavier now that she has grown older. “Your guitar, it weeps a naive melody / And if you see her, say hello / Pick up your heart of gold,” she wails to the ghost of her youth, making nods to George Harrison, Dylan and Neil Young in the process. It is grand and histrionic, like the tales she heard in Irish folk songs years ago.

Clearly, there is no Grace Cummings without a heavy dose of theatricality, but there is more to the Melbourne musician than just a flair for melodrama. Mother Nature is the catalyst behind so much of Ramona’s beauty and transcendence, as we roam through the boundless landscape of her home in Australia—and each track details the heart of her country with a personal measure of showy elegance. “I’m fortunate to live in Australia, where so many beautiful things surround me,” Cummings says. “It’s also a little bit dramatic in Australia, as well. Things are dramatic, especially with the weather, including fire, bushfires and destruction. But there are beautiful things in nature here, too. These colorful birds fly around everywhere that should be somewhere tropical. It’s kind of like a crazy place. And I think it’s got a lot of drama in it.”

Even with this vast pool of influences, Cummings doesn’t drown—she floats, gracefully as ever. With an unmistakable richness, she is resolute on “Common Man,” depicting a life outside the mundane through the perspective of a mysterious cowboy. “To me, the cowboy isn’t like the Australian cattle farmer or the American rancher but more of a unicorn—a representation of freedom or a mythological being,” she muses. The narrative she concocts has a precise setting with fitting acoustics and organs to back it up.

After gushing about Donald Barthelme’s—a fellow lover of nature and surrealistic depictions—short stories, Cummings discusses her frustrations with articulating her thoughts. “I was thinking about it the other day—I was having trouble writing something—and I arrived at the idea that language isn’t my mother tongue,” she admits. “It doesn’t feel like language is my first way to communicate. It’s more like a sensory thing, like sound and sight.” It’s an astounding statement made by an artist who has long crafted resplendent narratives rooted in visceral landscapes. But it makes sense, as the sparsity in Cummings’ lyricism allows room for each word to land harder and heavier, with her captivating cry enveloping you in a sweet serenade every time. Cummings’ love of language seeps through her poetics, accompanying the vibrant sonics and velvety vocals and sparking a reminder within us all that we may be uncertain of our own talents.

Cummings’ talents are on full display in “A Precious Thing,” a more subdued arrangement featuring just a rich piano arrangement—as the track opens builds slowly to an orchestral climax, and Cummings opens her vocals up to a confession: “Love is just a thing / That I’m trying to live without / What a precious thing / But it’s nothing I care about.” She stuns again in “Everybody’s Somebody,” lilting the candid lines “Smoke in your room till the sun rises / And tell yourself that you’re number one / And maybe write a letter to your son, / If you miss him so much” over a bluesy brass section evoking the spirit of Janis Joplin’s vehement cries. Like the late rock star, Cummings’ lyrical pain flourishes more in her delivery than her message.

You can feel Cummings’ love for language in the simplicity of her describing elation in “On and On,” or in how she references John Henry’s fantastical hammer in “Something Going ‘Round.” I can understand why sounds and visuals are her preferred medium, if only based on how she’s crafted Ramona. In “I’m Married To The War,” Cummings’ voice slithers along and peaks with a stuttering rattlesnake finish, singing “shoot and run.” Rather than illuminating us through a detailed narrative, she brings a daring Western adventure to life through the rhythmic clicking of castanets and the melding of glorious, vibraphonic swells on the track.

All of this detailed production is a signifier of Wilson’s moody, operatic imprint. His Canyon studio aches in the architecture of Ramona, but this album is all Cummings. Here, she is a cowboy in her own right—riding her way through the vast Australian outback and letting us peer into her subconscious one beautifully crafted song at a time. In many ways, this album feels like her proper debut, as heartfelt confessions and monumental production guided us along through her dreamy creations. Yet, despite making her grand imagination accessible, she still feels most at home when she’s alone. It’s just her barrelling towards the horizon, in search of Mother Earth and a muse worthy of capturing the vulnerability that radiates in the spells of her time-worn voice.

Olivia Abercrombie is Paste‘s Associate Music Editor, reporting from Austin, Texas. To hear her chat more about her favorite music, gush about old horror films, or rant about Survivor, you can follow her on Twitter @o_abercrombie.

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