Interviews

Grace Cummings on the making ‘Storm Queen’: her raw and powerful new album

Grace Cummings
All photos: Gil Gilmour

Crafted under lockdown, Storm Queen doesn’t surrender to its circumstances. We chatted with Grace Cummings about the making of her sophomore LP.

There are only a few characters that appear on Grace Cummings’ newly released album, Storm Queen. Her voice (a virtuosic instrument in its own right) is central. There’s a very small supporting cast of collaborators. And importantly, the spaces where the recordings actually took place contribute their own sense of personality.

But these minimal materials add up to an experience that’s far more powerful, dynamic, and atmospheric than you would expect. And in speaking to Cummings’ about the making of Storm Queen, its success lies in a combination of deliberate design, considered curation, and the harnessing of spontaneity. Read on for our conversation.

Grace Cummings

HAPPY: Across Storm Queen, there’s an array of different vocal characters. Just in the first two tracks alone – Heaven and Always New Days Always – there’s a massive shift in the atmosphere. So I’m wondering how you approached the recording of your voice? Does your singing style emerge from the stories that you’re telling, or is it something more spontaneous?

GRACE: It’s both I think. When you start making something, at least for me, it’s spontaneous. But at the same time, once you have found what you’re going to do, the story that you’re writing about makes your voice go there too. And if you’re telling a story with your voice as I’m doing, it is important that it matches. I want to sound like what I’m talking about. If you just heard the sound, I would want you to think about what you would hear if you read the words on a page, you know what I mean?

HAPPY: Yeah, I totally understand. The whole album is evocatively produced, but not over-produced. You hear all those details like strings squeaking, the breaths between phrases, and even the actual sound of the room’s echoes. Can you shed a bit of light on your production philosophy and your approach to the sound of Storm Queen?

GRACE: I was forced to make an album that was stripped back and minimal because we were in the longest lockdown in the world and I couldn’t see anybody. You’re left with yourself to do everything. Using your word, the “philosophy” of the recording was to make it sound just like that: real. And when people listen to it, I want them to know that there’s someone singing to them.

Some of my favourite sounds are the really old piano creaking, the fiddle on Freak, and the tambourine in Heaven. That tambourine was recorded in this massive warehouse that had a concrete stairwell, with absolutely no reverb added to it in the mix. 

HAPPY: You manage to do a lot with a very small amount of instruments. If you could, would you have been tempted to get more people in the room and add more layers?

GRACE: Fucking absolutely! I wanted everything, but I couldn’t have everything. So I tried to get sounds that were larger than life, like a baritone saxophone and a theremin, because I couldn’t have a gospel choir.

HAPPY: But the choices that you did make were really astute. They add up to something more than the sum of its parts. It’s magical when that happens.

GRACE: Yeah I think it is as well. It’s amazing having those players in the room with me, doing things that I absolutely could not do myself. They took my songs to another level and because of that, they mean so much more to me.

HAPPY: And about those collaborators, their performances are inspired and emotionally charged — especially in the title track, with its guttural saxophone and wailing guitar. Can you tell me a bit about how that session, in particular, went down?

GRACE: I wrote that song on a really, really shit acoustic guitar that was buzzy as fuck. I think I was trying to be Layne Staley [of Alice in Chains fame] or something. I really wanted to do something that was jarring and almost grungy to me. It just sounded fucking weird and kind of wrong. I played it to a few people, and they were like “eurgh, no”.  And I was like “listen to me. I’ve got it. I’ve got this thing in my head: a saxophone comes in and it just like, tears your head off.”

But in that session Cahill [Kelly — piano] and I played it and I think we got it in the first take. And we laughed about that at the end, which you can hear in the track. Then Harry Cooper on the saxophone came in and we just were blown away. He was so hungover on that day. He didn’t want to come and I said, “you’ve got to”. He just went for it and I love it.

HAPPY: I guess the hangover is a powerful energy if you can harness it.

GRACE: Yeah, you’ve got no energy to worry. You’ve only got the energy to do what you’re doing.

HAPPY: You bypass the thinking and just deliver the pain.

GRACE: Not that I’m an advocate for that technique (laughs)!

HAPPY: The videos for Heaven, Raglan, and Storm Queen mirror that “less is more” approach, with powerful hypnotic performances. Do the music and video performances go hand-in-hand for you?

GRACE: For this album? Yes. Gil Gilmour — who is a beautiful friend of mine and an amazing artist — did all of the videos. We actually live together, so when we would come up with ideas we got to talk about it quite a lot. I think that simplicity might be just a little bit underrated. I think if you do something simple and strong, it can be so much more powerful than something that’s too complicated. Things might get lost in it, you know? I want to do simple and classic well and then I’ll get my choir in my future videos.

HAPPY: One of the things a appreciate most about Storm Queen is the sequencing of the songs. I don’t how intentional it is, but there seems to be a pattern where you have an expansive, dramatic song, like Dreams, for example, then followed by a more delicate melodic piece like Up In Flames. You see it pop up again with Raglan and Two Little Birds. Is there an intent behind the way you’ve laid the tracks out?

GRACE: Yeah, absolutely. I spent a lot of time curating the album and the order of the tracks. I think there are a lot of things that go into those decisions. Your first song has to be a good one, so people want to keep listening. The last song has to be good because that makes them want to put it on again. And in between, there’s a wave. You need dramatic moments, but you don’t want people to get weighed down by them. They still need to come up for air. 

HAPPY: You really get so much from listening to Storm Queen as a whole. Is that your preferred listening experience? 

GRACE: I think that people make albums for a reason. But in saying that, I’m not an idiot, I know people stream their favourite songs. I do it as well. So I tried to curate it in a way so people can appreciate the whole thing, but I don’t mind if you take pieces out of it. 

HAPPY: In any case, let’s encourage people to buy it on vinyl if they can. It’s hard to make too many plans in advance these days, but how are you feeling about getting on stage and touring the album?

GRACE: I’m feeling good about getting on stage if I can do it. There are casualties because of the thing, but things keep going. We’ll still keep trying and when things get knocked down, we’ll look for where and when it can be built back up. So I’m so itching to play and I hope it’s going to happen.

HAPPY: I’ve spoken to a lot of musicians lately and that’s the general consensus: everyone’s positively looking forward to a day when they can get back out there.

GRACE: You’ve got to be positive about that. Otherwise, you might think you don’t want to do it anymore. And that’s not for me.

Storm Queen is out now. Pick up your copy here.

Interview by Dan Shaw.