The Chelsea Hotel long ago ceased accepting reservations. What was once home to some of New York’s more prominent rock ‘n’ roll inhabitants and visitors is now reduced to a scaffold-laced facelift. But on a recent Saturday night, a crowd assembles for a redux production of a Sam Shepard and Patti Smith play bookended by music sets. This atmosphere of a tampered and represented New York is what accompanies Donald Cumming as he performs delicate, acoustic renditions of songs featured on his debut solo album, Out Calls Only, to be released June 16 on Washington Square Music.
A decade ago Cumming was in his early twenties, and these loose and rowdy crowds might have been common clienteles at a show for the Virgins, the garage-rock band he fronted until their disbandment in the fall of 2013. But today, Cumming is comfortably out of place in this scene, choosing to don a collared/tucked-in ensemble in lieu of tattered shirts and leather.
His music has changed too. No longer does he sing with his microphone cleverly placed inside a brown paper bag so as to resemble an illicit beer can. The songs and mood of Out Calls Only recall the lyrical intimacy of Leonard Cohen with a dash of a glam-less Bryan Ferry. A fully realized version of this New York City–bred musician is presented in its purest form when Cumming is alone onstage strumming his Gibson B-15.
“I want to make music for myself, and I want the music I make to appeal to people I know,” explains Cumming a few days prior to his Chelsea performance. “At a certain point you gotta walk away. I’m not going to put on a leather jacket and ripped jeans and go do rock ‘n’ roll. As I grow as a person, I want my music to grow and change.”
Adaptation has become a recurrent theme for Cumming. Within the past two years, he’s separated from his wife, his band, and — due to last March’s East Village fire — his home. His new apartment is located only a handful of blocks south of where he used to live, write, and record, but remaining in this area wasn’t his initial plan post-fire.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to stay in New York — definitely not the East Village. It has so much history. Every place reminds me of a person or thing, something that happened, or someone who isn’t around anymore. I feel a little bit like a ghost, you know? I’m not fully here in the present, and I can’t go into the past, so I’m just floating around,” he says, his words bouncing off the walls of his bare new apartment.
He’s been here for a few weeks now (splitting time between this spot and his girlfriend’s nearby), and one of the only objects to be found in the flat, besides a few chairs, is a Hitachi Solid State Stereo Cassette near the window, currently playing a tape of Miles Davis’s 7 Steps to Heaven. On the counter lies a battered Yankees baseball cap, and scattered about are books including a T.S. Eliot collection and a history tome titled The American Past.
Cumming’s past began just off the intersection of Canal Street and Greenwich Avenue, where his father owned the Tunnel Liquor Mart. Born in 1981, Cumming’s teenage years almost align in age with the characters found in Harmony Korine’s Kids, which marks its twentieth anniversary next month.
“I was thirteen when that movie came out, and those were the kids. It had a big impact on growing up here,” he says in between puffs on an American Spirit. “It was very accurate to the time when it was made. That was pretty much the vibe. I hadn’t gone through puberty yet, but I was very much into drugs and hanging out all the time and not going home. I had been so anxious to get out of my house. Even as a kid when I was really young, when the sun would go down, I felt that pain of not being able to go out. I felt very much like a captive.”
Cumming’s parents divorced, and he would split time between Tribeca with his father and Astoria with his mother. After his father passed away, Cumming and his mother moved to Florida, but he soon found himself drawn back to the city. He flirted with the idea of film school, but music had always been a constant.
“My mother was always playing music, and I loved it. I remember the TV show for Fame and the theme was like, ‘I want to live forever’ — that was like the tagline. I remember it was haunting, it was so sad. It didn’t seep in until I heard that: that you don’t live forever. I don’t know…lyrics and songs [were] how I shaped my world.”
By the turn of the 21st century, Cumming was frequenting Manhattan’s clubs, including the staple Don Hill’s. It was here where he met photographer Ryan McGinley and began a friendship that would introduce Cumming to a whole new community of artists. He formed the Virgins, releasing a debut EP in 2007. The band rode out the next six years with massive tours and two LP releases, their 2008 self-titled and 2013’s Strike Gently. Strike Gently saw the beginning of the band’s dwindling, along with that of other aspects of Cumming’s life, and it was on the corner of Avenue A and 4th Street where he met what would become his best friend: Leatherface, a feral cat.
“He really was with me during such a critical time in my life,” Cumming says. “Splitting up with my wife, I had just brought him home and I was touring a lot. We kind of both hit the bricks together.”
When the news broke that an explosion had occurred in the East Village, countless media outlets rushed to the scene and reported every detail observed. One such report describes a distressed Cumming trying to break the police barricade. But he wasn’t trying to save his priceless belongings; he’d been trying to find his friend.
“My cat was my best friend and a very special, amazing little guy. I haven’t fully accepted it. I’m fortunate to be healthy and can still do my thing. All things considered, I’m very lucky,” he says, before expressing sympathy for the families of the two men who perished. When recalling Leatherface, his companion during an intense transitional period, Cumming often cracks an endearing smile. He has contacted animal services and put up flyers, but as of now there has been no response.
His apartment was shared with his manager and the band Public Access TV. It was there that Cumming wrote most of Out Calls Only, later recording in the basement of the HiFi Bar off Avenue A. The album showcases a matured Cumming, with savvy love songs and a revelation of personal growth. When told that the album recalls the smoky lounge atmospheres championed by Roxy Music’s Ferry, Cumming finds the comparison unexpected, aside from their shared passion for a good suit.
“I think that’s an amazing thing that happens when you make stuff,” he says. “I don’t like to talk about ‘What’s this song about?’ or ‘Who is that written about?’ I think that if someone did like the song and enjoys it, they’re going to bring their own life experience to it. You kind of limit the potential for that, the more specific you are talking about the inspirations and what went into it.”
To wit: The album’s title is intentionally ambiguous, to be interpreted in multiple ways: as a distress S.O.S. call, maybe, or as a reference to a phrase commonly found in a back-page escort service ad.
“Growing up in the city, the back pages had this sort of mystery to them,” he says. “I had friends growing up who had ads in the back of the Voice for that kind of thing. It’s one of those phrases that has so many connotations and it brings up so many qualities of life in the city, a little bit outside the step of this sort of sunny, glossy mall that we’ve come to accept.”
That glossy mall he mentions is the city that helped raise him but whose face he today has trouble recognizing, like a bout of reverse dementia where the child no longer remembers its parent. All things considered, does Cumming ever contemplate officially moving away?
“I’ve had a few halfhearted attempts,” he grins. “But I always end up back.”
Donald Cumming’s debut solo album, Out Calls Only, will be released on Tuesday, June 16 on Washington Square Music.