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Tobias Cummings

" I'm one of those guys who takes a long time to name his work," notes acclaimed indie-folk singer/songwriter Tobias Cummings. "I think it's very important - the name of a record, film or piece of art - so I think of the title a long time before I finish what I'm doing and I let that influence the creation of it as well. I'm interested in plays on words... and I really liked the word 'atrophy'.
Atrophy is a medical term used by doctors to describe the wasting away of muscle. That the Melbourne singer-songwriter would be inspired to name his sophomore album by such a term led to a slightly twisted revelation. "I felt like that was sort of happening to my music and my art, because this album was taking so long to make," expresses Cummings. "I was going to use atrophy as the name of the album, but it was just a bit too bleak," he laughs. "So I thought, 'well actually, if you separate the 'a' from the 'trophy', it becomes a phrase that's really the opposite of atrophy. It's really hopeful. And I thought that finally being able to finish this record, it was almost like it was a trophy."
As a result, Cummings' sophomore album would be named A Trophy. His poignant and gracefully articulated songwriting is inspired by various musical and literary influences, including author Kurt Vonnegut and film-maker Ingmar Bergman. "These guys that deal with pretty dark subject matter...I mean with Bergman, it's very artistic and cerebral; with Vonnegut it's with more humour," says Cummings. "I love the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, Nick Cave, Brendan Welch, Grand Salvo, Pink Floyd and George Harrison."
"I don't think I could write the songs that I write without having read the things that I've read or seen the films that I've seen," Cummings contemplates. "I think that we're all telling the same story, ultimately. So I'm very much a sponge when it comes to soaking up art. I think all good artists have to be aware of what's come before them, and it's important not to try and repeat yourself. I've worked closely with the directors of my videos and that's very fulfilling."
Join The Dots - Cummings' 2006 debut album - received much acclaim and earned accolades including an Australian Music Prize nomination. Releasing its follow-up proved a very difficult and challenging journey for Cummings. "It was, you know, the classic second album scenario where the first album was a bit of a breeze to get done and then the second one was uphill the whole way," he asserts.
"I think I plunged into the record without having a really firm idea of what the album was about, but the nature of how the songs came to be was due to all the stuff that was going on in my life at that time. It really became a record about things coming apart and things falling apart, but also the hope that exists on the other side of that despair, I suppose. So I think it's a very hopeful record but it's also a little bit dark in places... hopefully, not so dark that you can't see the light. Mostly, my songs are not so much narrative as mood pieces."
Indeed, there's a haunting intimacy to many of his songs that renders them extremely moving. "I kind of use it as a form of meditation," Cummings says of his songwriting process. "I write a lot of things down in books... quotes from novels that I'm reading and stuff that I hear in conversations. And when it comes to the songwriting, I just tend to let the meditative thing happen and I just sit with my guitar or at the piano. I might write lyrics off the top of my head, but often I'll refer back to these books that I have and sort of sift through them and find some ideas that I think go well together and match the sound of the music."
A Trophy was produced by the legendary Tim Whitten (The Go-Betweens, Hoodoo Gurus, Powderfinger, Augie March, Art Of Fighting), as was Cummings' debut album. "It was maybe a little bit more difficult than the first record," he concedes of his second album's recording process, "because we recorded the first album in a studio and it was a very old fashioned way of recording. We went into the studio for three days and then we had a break of about a month, went back for three days and then another break and went back for four days. We got it all done in a linear workman-like way. But this second album wasn't like that at all - we got Tim to come down to Melbourne (Whitten resides in Sydney); we set up a studio at my family's holiday house and Tim brought down a lot of his gear.
"We lived together and recorded the album in this house - we had these sort of romantic ideas like being The Rolling Stones in the south of France or something, but it was kind of hard living together and recording, because we'd start getting on each other's nerves," Cummings chuckles. "But the actual recording and crafting of the album was pretty good and I have a good artistic rapport with Tim - he understands what I'm trying to do and I respect his opinions. I'm happy with the album and that's a happy discovery for me."
TOBIAS CUMMINGS launches A Trophy at The Workers Club this Saturday September 18. A Trophy is out now through Departed Sounds.