words by maria sledmere
In an essay titled ‘Refuse/Refuge: Be Longing’, Eleni Sikelianos writes, ‘[a]s a child I belonged, absolutely, to everything’. Her belonging is one of the senses, of pleasure and its lessons of relation. In growing older, she realises her body also belongs to others; she looks for a way of holding this difference, this splitting apart of self. Poetry, she suggests, ‘exists simultaneously at the edges of chaos and in the ordering forces of language’, it ‘troubles the dominant structures, lapping silently at, ever hoping to erode or unmask, their shores’. Well poetry is music set to words, and so I would say the same of song. Refuge Cove, the debut album of Australian folk artist Grace Cummings, is both a refuge and a refusal, a haunted space and a home of cautious warmth. It is a walk along the winter beach at night, a tease into the kind of sleep where you wake up someone former, someone new.
Tinged with analogue tones and minimalist instrumentation, Refuge Cove summons the dusty, roving plains of the early-‘60s folk revival while brushing such history clear with a fever. With her low, throaty vocals, her vagabond blues, Cummings takes you to a wilderness where the water laps in and splashes cold. A place of lust and slumber, shimmer and pleasure. On the black-and-white cover, her eyes are closed, fingers entwined around a cigarette raised to the ceiling. ‘A cigarette / To waste my time’, she croons on opening track, ‘The Look You Gave’, summoning a range of sensations and objects she would take to excoriate the torture of a lover’s scorn. I think of Björk in ‘Hyperballad’, hurling cutlery from the top of the mountain ‘to start the day’, ‘To be safe up here with you’. With her billowing voice, resonant harmonica, her oaky tones, her dramatic romance, Cummings would take the wind from the mountain and make it song. She would take a violence and make it love, and even the trees would listen.
I confess to listening to this song six or seven times in one morning, nursing myself through the autumn. On the other side of the world, people are falling or failing to sleep. Cummings’ voice is a velvet ribbon fraying over strums of guitar, streaming out through the day or anyone’s night. I weave it through the lonesome hours; I think of a mobius strip, turning endlessly between sides, ambivalent in its pleasure and suffering. In this album, we somehow travel; we move back and forth between places and times and people we miss. It is an eye-rolling move to say of a singer, she sounds like the love child of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, but surely if anyone deserves this mantle it’s Grace Cummings: with lines like ‘The fall of a raindrop returns blue to the daylight / Your mind must return to behind your eyes’ (‘Other Side’). Besides, it was a stunning cover of ‘It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue’ that first caught Flightless Records’ attention.
What do we look for in folk today? Cummings doesn’t offer us uncomplicated pastoral scenes or domestic comforts: her images are starkly beautiful but there is an edge; a volatile, sometimes elegiac quality to her poetic landscapes, smoothly carved from all-acoustic space. ‘It means nothing’, she insists on ‘There Flies a Seagull’, challenging our tendency to symbolise everything. These songs give, they are intimate and musing, bristling thoughts of something on a mind: a kind of reclaiming of what it means to relate to the world. Songs tinged with desire and salt, surging beyond the lachrymose. Obsessed with the wind, they feel like a refusal of time, holding lyric moments of attention and encounter, passing between with generous strokes of melody and thickening chords. We’re slowed into the gyre of an uneasy present.
On ‘Paisley’, we’re in ‘Scottish sunlight’ and swimming in glasses of wine; Cummings speaks back to us through a ‘Paisley breeze’, ‘Would you sing to me / If I played you a song?’ These little gestures of inclusion remind us that we share the same air, we breathe different dreams but a line or a ballad might weave them together. Imagine you could reach back into childhood and reclaim the belonging you had, like merging entirely with a river. Like making quicksilver of your soul, cold as the restorative water we crave in pain. Refuge Cove is a lesson on how to swim not drown, to seek those depths. Listening to Cummings, her darkly uncompromising yet liquorice-sweet voice, I’m summoning other musical heroines — Cat Power, Alela Diane, Mazzy Star, Karen Dalton — but where their twang is a country lilt, Cummings is that of a mineral timbre and wandering spirit, Julie Byrne with her heart set on the darkening sun.
This is a record that lifts you and quietly carries off the day. It looks for sleep in its restless thought, its double lullabies, shadowy refrains; it confects a soothing air that falls back through the century while bearing a very contemporary ache: ‘Stop your pissing in the wind / It’s dark outside again’. Refuge Cove laps quietly at the shores of whatever consumes us — ‘Stop my phone from making noise / And hold me close when it gets dark’ — rewarding re-listening with layers of a quietly gorgeous imaginary. It’s clear Grace Cummings bears an intrepid soul, a longing that moves beyond what we see of the ordinary. These are songs for the living, songs for the broken and gone and strange.
‘Refuge Cove’ is out now, via Flightless Records
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