Donald Cumming’s Blank Slate

By
Photography Hans Neumann

Published June 9, 2015

DONALD CUMMING IN NEW YORK, JUNE 2015. PHOTOS BY HANS NEUMANN. GROOMING: JOHN RUIDANT AT SEE MANAGEMENT USING ORIBE HAIRCARE.

Whether he likes it or not, Donald Cumming has been thrust into a new chapter of life. After the amicable dissolution of his brainchild band The Virgins, the end of a marriage, and the horrific collapse of his apartment building on 2nd Avenue in Manhattan’s East Village, the singer, songwriter, and guitarist had little choice but to summon his internal phoenix and rise from the bleak ashes. Cumming’s ability to recycle tragedy into artistic profundity allowed him to digest the disheartening events in his life and translate them into his forthcoming debut solo album, Out Calls Only, which is scheduled for release on June 16th.

Premiering today on Interview is Cumming’s latest release, “Sometimes Sweet Susan.” Kicking off with robust, ragtime piano runs that are soon followed by equally rhythmic guitar riffs, the track’s treasure lies within Cumming’s voice, a sonic gem that has the unpretentious and untrained cadence of Bob Dylan in the early ’60s. His ability to blend a laissez-faire attitude with perfectly arranged orchestration further proves his mastery of the craft.

Last week, we met Cumming in his new, utterly vacant apartment to discuss the end of The Virgins, his new album, and the curious lack of authenticity in today’s music.

MATHIAS ROSENZWEIG: Why did you choose to go solo after The Virgins broke up?

DONALD CUMMING: The last Virgins record, and the band that played on that record, we were all really close. We made this album, we toured it, we traveled around, we played shows, we played Europe, we did two tours of the States supporting the Killers at arena size venues, and we couldn’t really see how much further we could take it—that was beyond our expectations. When we made the record, there wasn’t even a deal in place, so signing to Cult Records and then putting out the record, touring it and getting to do these different things, it was so much more than we had expected that we felt like we accomplished it.

We had another tour in Europe booked already. We were going to go to Mexico, and we had just done Argentina. That record was also the first time I went to South America. We did three shows around Brazil. We did Chile, Argentina, Columbia…it felt really good and we figured just to cut it off on a high note. We were thinking about it like, “Okay, so now what do we do? Do we do this tour where we’re probably just going to play the same set again, or do we stop and write another record?” It felt like a really special thing that we all were really proud of, and that I was really proud of, so it felt like a good time to end it. To make another record felt very much like a career-oriented move, and to split up and try something new felt like an artistic and creative move.

ROSENZWEIG: Is there a reason you did your own project rather than trying to start a new collaborative band?

CUMMING: I really did value being able to play with my friends, and that allows the songs and the music to be this collaborative thing that we were all working on together. I don’t have that many musician friends, so to do that again just seemed crazy. The band split up and I didn’t have any plans. The chance to make this [album] came up and it seemed like the right time. It was like, “Well, the band just broke up. Here’s a chance to make a solo record. If I make a record on my own, I can play with whomever I want and not have to worry about whether they can join my band or if they can tour.” It’s more like, “Are you available on Saturday? Do you want to play on the record?” It’s a lot easier and more fun because I’d never done it that way before. I would basically take recordings into the studio and then, depending on who was going to show up that day, that would be the song that they ended up playing. Now, if I have a song and it turns out that it would make more sense for me to play alone, I could actually do that for the first time without cutting people out. I’m not being selfish; the songs can just be more what they’resupposed to be.

ROSENZWEIG: What creative areas are you more liberated to explore now that you’re on your own?

CUMMING: Making a solo record wasn’t really something I planned, but things were kind of upside down in my life at the time, my wife—I was married—we split up. It was a bad split up. I moved out of my place, back into my studio, and ended up making songs that were really personal, songs that were very much about what was happening in my life. With a band, I don’t know if I would have been as comfortable doing that. Allowing the songs to have vulnerable parts and be maybe quieter—all these things get into your head when you’re playing with a band, these guys want to play a show, they want to fucking play loud. [That] is great and something I really enjoy, but knowing that this was a solo record, I had the freedom to be like, “You know, this is a quiet song and I think it just has to be that way.”

ROSENZWEIG: Is it more nerve-wracking to get on stage by yourself? Everyone can now assume the music is all directly about your life.

CUMMING: I feel like that was always kind of the deal with The Virgins, at least as far as the lyrics went. Even when you get on stage with a band, it’s such a collaborative effort. The way that I work is that everybody plays their own parts. For instance when I’m playing with a band now, they learn the songs but the structure’s loose; I would prefer them to bring their own thing to it. So I always feel good when we play because I know there’s going to be something that changes about the song. It will be relevant and make sense for us as a band, in that moment while we’re playing, and it doesn’t feel like something we’ve done a thousand times—especially playing with new groups of people.

So yeah, I guess I was a little nervous to play [alone]. It was more of a challenge to play the first acoustic shows, because then it’s just me alone for 30-40 minutes. That was a bit more intense. Maybe there are more nerves around getting up on stage [alone], but then it’s actually so much easier, because all you have to listen to is yourself and you can really get lost in what you’re doing. That can happen with a really good band, but with a band you’re listening for monitors and you’re listening to try to stay with the drums. There’s a million things happening in your head that you’re not really conscious of—they happen automatically—but it’s interesting to see how quiet it can be on stage when you’re by yourself.

ROSENZWEIG: Do you feel like it’s appropriate for people to still associate you with The Virgins?

CUMMING: It absolutely is. It makes total sense. That’s the music that I made and it’s natural for me to grow and change, but it’s also part of my story. If there were someone who was a fan of The Virgins—or who listened to the records as they changed overtime—if they liked that stuff, then they might be interested to hear what I’m doing now, so I want them to be aware of it. I think it would be crazy to try to disassociate myself from The Virgins. We did some cool stuff, and I’m definitely happy with it. Still when I play live, I play Virgins songs.

ROSENZWEIG: While you were with the band, you opened up for The Killers. Now that you’ve gone solo, you’re opening up for their lead singer Brandon Flowers, who has also gone solo. What the relationship there?

CUMMING: [The Killers] are from that wave of bands that came out before The Virgins, and I think from all the people in that generation of musicians, for me, he stands out as a really strong songwriter. He’s probably the best songwriter of that whole group. He just writes songs—he can do it—and that’s something I gravitate towards. It was a blast to play with them because I love those songs. His solo record again was full of great songs. He has the ability to cut through the sonic stuff. Obviously they’re a band and they have aesthetics and they have this presentation, but there’s always a solid song at the core of it. I feel like that, more than anything, has been totally lost in contemporary music. It seems like it always starts with a sonic thing or an aesthetic vision, and then the content is maybe an afterthought.

ROSENZWEIG: Listening to the record now, are you noticing any common thoughts or themes you were toying with throughout its creation?

CUMMING: For this record in particular, I kept finding myself gravitating toward the personal songs that were really autobiographical, and then being less excited about the songs that were more narrative. I like writing songs where I’m telling the story more than when the song is not about me. Obviously I’m always in there somewhere, but for this it just seemed like the songs that were really resonating with me were the ones that had a lot of emotional content and were actually about me.

For me, looking at [the album] objectively now, it’s about going through a transition, a time in my life when I was changing very much. Things that I’d expected to care about no longer interested me. Things that I thought wouldn’t interest me were all of a sudden of paramount importance. It’s all relative. When your life is changing or things are happening to you, at least for me, you try, when you’re making things, to let that be reflected, because the chances of somebody else relating to it are increased. That’s what I like to listen to. I always want to make music that I would listen to, that would help me in my life. I make music constantly. I want to make songs that I’d want to hear.

ROSENZWEIG: You mentioned in an interview recently that authenticity is critical for you. How do you approach this?

CUMMING: That keeps coming up. It’s obviously about popular music that’s on the radio, and then indie music, and then indie pop music, et cetera, et cetera. I don’t know where that disconnection happens, where it starts to become more of a product. For me, when we made a record that went through the big studio machine, it showed me what I don’t want to do: I don’t want to make videos with the most hotshot director and spend the most money and get somebody else’s version of what the music video should look like. I want to make it myself for a couple hundred bucks and have something that’s maybe flawed, but specific to me. That is what I look for in other people and in their music, so that’s what I want to make myself. I like the records to be recorded as naturally as possible, like the kinds of things you read about growing up, when they all put up a couple microphones and everybody played in the room at the same time. That’s what I hope for. I want to capture a moment in time that’s real, that actually happened, so that it can be preserved, and not just make everything perfect so that it could potentially make the most…I don’t even know what the goals are with that kind of stuff. I guess it’s just money, right?

ROSENZWEIG: I’d bet that money is definitely the driving force.

CUMMING: It’s very strange because you’re wondering what they were aspiring to do. Like, do you wake up and say, “I want to be a pop star. I’m going to hire this guy to teach me how to dance, and I’m going to hire these 10 people to write my songs. I’m going to hire this guy to do my video and then this lady’s gonna pick out my clothes”? It’s like, what are you going to do? What motivates people to do that? I have no idea.

ROSENZWEIG: Can you talk a little about the title of this album and where Out Calls Only comes from?

CUMMING: Obviously when you make a title, or at least when I make a title for a record, I like it to be a bit ambiguous so that people can bring their own interpretations to it. So I’m reluctant to pin it down and say, “This is what it means.” But for me, the connotation that I thought was interesting was the idea of a distress call, or a private line that you can only use to make a call going out; it’s not taking things in. It’s at that point when you actually need the emergency line to SOS to the universe, or whatever it’s going to be—for better or for worse. Some thinsg about that are beautiful, while some things are closed off.

 OUT CALLS ONLY WILL BE RELEASED JUNE 16. FOR MORE ON CUMMING, VISIT HIS FACEBOOK.