True to its title, Grace Cummings’s sophomore album Storm Queen is a body of work with its own unruly climate, governed only by the singular force of her devastating vocals. Over the course of 11 feverishly composed folk songs, the Melbourne-based singer/songwriter explores a vast and volatile emotional landscape, approaching each track with both exquisite control and unfettered abandon.
As with her acclaimed full-length debut Refuge Cove—a 2019 release praised by the likes of Pitchfork, who noted that “its nine songs feel like variations on one stark, psychedelic vision”—Storm Queen finds Cummings taking the helm as producer. While her arrangements tend toward a potent minimalism, she enlisted a number of Melbourne musicians to adorn the album with unexpected ornamentation: lush fiddle melodies, spectral theremin tones, the frenetic wail of baritone saxophone. In the recording process, Cummings captured the bulk of Storm Queen’s songs in the first few takes, effectively amplifying the visceral quality of her spellbinding vocal presence (an element she’s brought to the stage in opening for such artists as Weyes Blood, Evan Dando, and J Mascis).
Also an accomplished stage actor, Cummings inhabits every song on Storm Queen with a ferocity she regards as intuitive. “I always have things very close to the surface—it’s actually harder for me to just exist in the normal world,” she says. “I generally feel quite comfortable when I’m recording, because I’m allowed to be absolutely myself instead of trying to hide anything.” Opening on the majestic “Heaven,” Storm Queen instantly reveals the untamed intensity of Cummings’s voice, as well as her penchant for crafting lyrics both poetic and brutally forthright (e.g., “Diamonds in the water/Floating down the stream/There is no God/There is no Queen”). “The chorus to ‘Heaven’ has the words ‘Ave Maria’ in it, but not because I’m religious in any way,” Cummings points out. “To me talking about God or Mother Mary is a way of labeling something beautiful that I don’t understand, something that’s not quite a part of the world we live in.”
As Storm Queen unfolds, Cummings next drifts into the dreamy languor of “Always New Days Always,” a track whose ethereal textures echo the charmed intimacy of its origins. “I wrote this song very quietly in my room, not wanting anybody to hear me, not even myself in some silly way,” she says. “I was feeling very strange that day and tried to write something as if I were singing it in an old film.” Penned the same day the Notre-Dame de Paris fire broke out, “Up in Flames” telegraphs a pained desolation in its growling vocals and unsparingly confessional narrative (“It’s winter now and/I feel like Robert Frost/If only there was a birch tree to hang upon”). “The song isn’t about Notre-Dame, but I like being able to pinpoint what I was feeling to that exact day,” Cummings notes. With its lilting banjo and effervescent harmonies, “Raglan” brightens the mood in its homage to the hometown of two close friends (“It’s just over the hill from where I live, and I make sure ‘Highway 61’ rings out loud in the small hours of the morning when I’m there,” she says). And on “This Day in May,” Cummings presents one of Storm Queen’s most delicate moments, a slow-building piano piece touched with an ineffably tender vocal performance. “A friend of mine spoke to me on the day somebody close to her was dying,” Cummings recalls. “She asked that I say a prayer, or whatever my equivalent was, to think of her as she left the world. I thought of her and sung for her, on a rare sunny day in May.”
Though all of Storm Queen embodies a wild unpredictability, the album reaches a supreme fever pitch on its penultimate track, the gorgeously untethered “Storm Queen.” “More than any other song on the album, I wanted that one to create a feeling of ugliness and uncomfortability, because that’s what was in my head when I wrote it,” says Cummings. “I think that feeling awful and ugly can actually be quite beautiful sometimes, if you’re able to recognize how real the feeling is.” After recording the initial track in one take, Cummings built up “Storm Queen” to its glorious final form, capping the song off with a brilliantly unhinged performance on baritone sax (courtesy of jazz musician Harry Cooper). “I just wanted to make the song more and more filthy and dramatic, so we smashed the fuck out of a piano and a timpani, then put Harry on and just let him go,” says Cummings. “By the end it sounds like someone screaming or like a herd of elephants—everything that happened in the recording was extremely cathartic for me.”
After the divine cacophony of “Storm Queen,” Storm Queen closes out on “Fly a Kite,” a heavy-hearted benediction Cummings wrote after visiting a friend’s farm in a region of Victoria ravaged by the 2019/2020 wildfires. “The first two lines of that song (‘Go fly a kite/Tie your troubles to the tail’) came from a poem that my friend’s grandfather had written—he was a lieutenant and spent the later years of his life on that farm, writing stories and poems about his time in the war,” she says. “The last time I was at the farm we were flying kites in these paddocks that had just started to grow back after the fires: the purest, freshest, youngest green growth was coming up from complete blackness, and it all felt so beautiful and innocent.”
A near-lifelong musician, Cummings got her start as a drummer in a series of high school bands whose repertoire largely consisted of AC/DC and Jimi Hendrix covers. As she began writing songs of her own, she mined inspiration from artists like seminal Australian singer/songwriter Paul Kelly, Bob Dylan, and Spiritualized frontman J Spaceman, as well as from the traditional Irish folk music her father often played at home. “Irish melodies are some of favorite; they go to such dark and dramatic places,” she says. Soon after striking out as a solo artist in the late 2010s, Cummings landed a deal with Flightless Records (a Melbourne-based record label founded by former King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard drummer Eric Moore). Having attended drama school, she’s also spent much of the past decade performing in the Australian theater, and recently played the lead role in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s Berlin. Noting her eternal fondness for Shakespeare—“If anyone wants me to play Hamlet, I’ll do it”—Cummings has found her lyrical sensibilities indelibly informed by certain literary influences. “To me poems and stories are sometimes more of an inspiration than music, because they don’t give you a melody: you have to just imagine your own,” she says.
Over the years, Cummings has matched her idiosyncratic musicality with a deliberately spontaneous approach to songwriting. “I don’t really do that thing where I lock myself away and sit down at a table like, ‘Right, let’s write a song now,’” she says. “If I feel like I have something I want to write, I just get it all out in the moment.” And in the studio, Cummings remained wholly committed to following her deepest and most immediate instinct. “I’m not precious at all about recording; it just doesn’t make sense to me,” she says. “I am who I am and I sound how I sound, and I’m not really interested in going in like some kind of magician to try to make it sound any different.” In the making of Storm Queen, Cummings reinforced the self-possessed naturalism at the heart of her artistry, ultimately distilling her vision down to its most elemental essence. “In the past there were times when I’ve let other people’s opinions affect me too much,” she says. “But with this record I learned that I’m allowed to influence myself instead of taking in anyone else’s ideas. I learned to completely trust what I see and hear in my head, and I stuck with that and just focused on creating what I love the most: something real and raw and ugly and beautiful.”