Q&A: Moses Sumney Delves Into Solitude His Own Way On Aromanticism
Nothing about Moses Sumney is ordinary. When you set out to solve for x in the equation of two strict Ghanaian parents who also happen to both be pastors, the solution is usually not one acclaimed singer-songwriter operating at an intersection of genres. Especially one that has a B.A. in Creative Writing, a circle of superfriends, collaborations with a veritable music industry who’s who on his resume, and a short, but exquisite catalog that is yet to include his debut album. Throw in a beautifully textured rasp and a controlled vocal range as wide as all outside with no formal solo training and it starts to just be unfair. But perhaps what’s most different about Sumney, in a musical kingdom where immediacy rules supreme, is that he took his time.
Not that what’s happened for the 27-year-old hasn’t happened quickly. He went from touring as Karen O’s guitar player in 2014, the same year he put out his first five-song EP, Mid City Island, to releasing his debut on the reputable indie stalwart Jagjaguwar this week. However, it all happened at his pace, his say-so.
Sumney could have leapt at the A&Rs and label reps showing up at his shows in 2014, but he honed his sound to execute his singular vision. He soaked up as much experience as he could from tour mates like the aforementioned Karen O, Sufjan Stevens, and James Blake, and gained friends and colleagues like TV On The Radio’s David Sitek, Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, Paris Strother of R&B gems KING, bass-lacer extraordinaire Thundercat, and the seated one herself, Solange Knowles. Many an artist with the buzz and connections Sumney has seemingly enjoyed since he set foot on the scene would have rushed a debut that capitalized all that. Instead, Sumney made a creation all his own — before signing to any label — about being alone.
Aromanticism is not an outright rejection of romantic love; it is more a record that explores the complexities of solitude. And because Sumney approached it earnestly, uninterested in creating anthems of independence, attempting to encompass what it means to be alone for oneself and in a larger societal context, he succeeded in making a wonderfully rich and complicated album.
The strength of “Don’t Bother Calling” — with its slowly unfurling soundscape, graceful guitar plucks, and classical flourishes — counteracts the vulnerable “Doomed,” in which Sumney wonders, “Will I die for living numb?” over slow, lush cinematic sweeps. He rebuffs the societal norms surrounding love and sex on the wonderfully controlled folk-rock cacophony of “Lonely World” and the R&B-leaning “Make Out In My Car,” but wonders if that rejection is the right move as he reflects on the fact that “all my old lovers have found others” on “Indulge Me.” The theme of self-dissonance is also reflected in often incongruous soundscapes that lace melancholy lyrics with gorgeous, delicate sonics. And things get even more far-flung from there.
In an interview last month, Sumney talked about an album that is truly unique in its conception and creation, and what it took to make it come to fruition.
STEREOGUM: Your parents are Ghanaian and they were both pastors. That’s not a formula that usually yields a singer-songwriter like yourself. When did you first discover you wanted to sing, and how did you get the courage to pursue it?
SUMNEY: I knew I wanted to do it when I was like seven, so it was when I was really young. In terms of courage, I don’t know. I don’t feel like I have courage. I just do it. For me it was fear. I had more fear than courage. I had a fear that I wasn’t going to be able to do it. So when I went to university, I started performing, and I went from there basically. Up until university, I hadn’t really performed, at least not as a frontman or a solo artist. I started playing with the jazz kids, or actually I made a bee line for the jazz kids and my first shows were six and seven-piece bands with keys and guitar and bass and a two-part horn section. I had only learned music theory, so I was trying to surround myself with people I would learn from, so that was helpful in trying to understand weird chords and shit like that. I was also in a rock band at the same time, exploring guitar-based music and weird meters and stuff like that. I got a writing degree, and I studied poetry. I kind of learned in an institutional way about writing, and it definitely helped me hone my songwriting. So generally I made the most of it and put myself out there for the first time. I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do because I didn’t grow up as a performer.
STEREOGUM: Then how did you tap into the full range of your voice? Your voice is so textured and you move from falsetto into other registers so gracefully, it seems like you had a vocal coach forever or something.
SUMNEY: I don’t know. I just practiced a lot. When I hit puberty I got really scared that I wouldn’t be able to sing anymore. So I would incessantly sing in falsetto because I thought if my voice dropped I wasn’t going to be able to sing high anymore. So I would obsessively practice singing falsetto when I was a teenager, and then it just became a place of comfort. I was singing so softly because I was really only ever singing to myself and writing songs on the bus. It was just much easier to sing falsetto and then I just got kind of stuck there. I never thought of myself as someone trying to exercise the full range of their voice. It was just my comfort zone. I sang in choir as well in high school, but I was a bass. So I also did a lot of choral singing. Every time I was singing in a group I was a bass, but on my own I would always singing in falsetto.
STEREOGUM: OK, so that’s where the layering in your music comes from? I know that was something Solange asked you to do on A Seat At The Table as well.
SUMNEY: Definitely. It’s inspired by singing in the choral atmosphere.
STEREOGUM: Stemming from that, you’ve performed with a few different setups. I’ve seen you when it’s just you and a guitar, or you plus a guitar and a looping machine, or you with a full band. What’s your favorite performance setup?
SUMNEY: I think I prefer just guitar, just sitting on the floor. It’s the easiest, and it feels the most organic. The current setup of the band is probably my favorite. It’s me and another person who plays saxophone, guitar, bass, and keys, and then another person who just plays guitar, but it’s a weird effects guitar. I like that setup because it’s really full, and it’s nice to sing and not have to play something at the same time, and just be free and loose. With the current band I also do the loop stuff, but I also sometimes play bass. So that’s cool, but I probably just prefer singing with a guitar in really chill setups.
STEREOGUM: Does how you record influence your performance?
SUMNEY: I’m not sure that the way I record influences my performance at all. If anything it’s the other way around because I was performing so long before I started recording. Before I was making this album, I was performing so much. I’d say I became more familiar with performance before recording.
STEREOGUM: How often do you create? Are you more of a volume creator, or do you create sparingly and hone in on it until it’s perfect?
SUMNEY: I make a lot of stuff that no one will ever hear I guess. I wrote a shit-ton of music for this album that didn’t make it. I just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. I’m not the type of person that writes a song every day or even writes lyrics every day, but I’m always singing and thinking of melodies. These days I feel like I’ve been more interested in taking a multidisciplinary approach to creating art. I’ve been writing music video treatments, taking and editing pictures, and just jotting down words and general ideas. So I feel like I’m always engaging the creative part of my brain even when it’s not just music.
STEREOGUM: You’ve self-released projects, and you’ve worked with few different labels on smaller single releases. What made you want to sign a record deal versus going independent? Or was that even ever a thought for you?
SUMNEY: Did you see that music video I put out with the water?
SUMNEY: That’s why I signed, so I could do stuff like that. Because I never would have been able to if I hadn’t. I mean, I would have eventually. I loved being an independent artist so much because I could do whatever I wanted, but I didn’t have any money to do anything, ever. That was really hard. I mean, I made my entire album before I signed, and I planned to do it that way so I could execute my vision as I saw it. I didn’t know if I would sign. I kind of went back and forth. Like I put out a single on Terrible Records, but that was just a single. But I think at the end of the album-making process that I created a record that was challenging and atypical in a lot of ways and I didn’t expect people to find it. I didn’t expect a ton of people to find it. I still don’t, necessarily, but I think I wanted to give it more of a chance, more of an opportunity to be placed in front of people. It wasn’t going to be the most obvious music, if that makes sense.
STEREOGUM: Totally. The theme of Aromanticism is not something you would hear if you didn’t actively seek it out yourself. But I think it’s needed because there are a lot people that try to force themselves to be with someone just because they feel like they should be in a relationship. It’s like they feel they need something else that they can’t get from themselves.
SUMNEY: Yeah, definitely. I really wanted to challenge — I mean, I want to challenge everything, everything we’ve been told, everything we think is a societal norm. Societal norms around romance to me felt really constricting and very narrow, especially for a time that feels like it’s so obsessed with dismantling societal practices that are considered the right way to do anything. But I feel like the conversation around romance was still stiff. I wanted to observe that, obviously through my personal life, but I was thinking about it in a social way. And to just kind of write about something that no one else is really writing about. Obviously people have written about dark shit or sad feelings or whatever forever, but I wanted to contextualize it in a way that felt new.
STEREOGUM: That comes across on the album. It feels more honest. As opposed to someone stunting on Instagram like “I can do it all by myself #singleandfabolous” knowing damn well they got the angles perfect to try to catch somebody.
SUMNEY: I wasn’t interested in writing anthemic or super, like, “Yo, I’m a badass”-type music. I wanted to write music that acknowledged the complexity of desiring something that maybe you didn’t have or something you didn’t fully relate to, or just for recognizing you’re on the periphery of something but not in a way that implies you’re too cool for it or too good for it. I wanted to be really honest.
STEREOGUM: It seems like you’re comfortable in solitude, but you don’t have to stunt about it. It seems more honest because you did it in a more subdued way.
SUMNEY: It’s also a discomfort, though — like, to always feel completely comfortable. I do feel comfortable, and I feel great. But I think the best way to contextualize this album is that I went into isolation for a month. Not complete isolation, but I just like lived in the mountains outside of Asheville in 2014 and it was amazing. I lived in a house with no internet, no phone service, and I didn’t really talk to anybody. I didn’t make any friends. I’d go into town occasionally, but I was just around, writing and thinking, and it was amazing. The first day or two was uncomfortable, and then the next three weeks were amazing. I had some fun by myself. It felt really fulfilling and beautiful, and I got so much done. I felt happy. Then the last week I completely lost my mind. I was like, this is actually so hard all of a sudden. I was like, there’s no one to talk to, and I was just thinking about all these horrible things that happened in my life. I was like, remember when I was 13 and I saw that dead body? There’s a complexity there. It’s not as simple as “being alone is awesome.” Being alone is really complicated, and if you do it long enough you see different sides to it.
STEREOGUM: Did the way that black men are viewed sexually inside and outside of music, often as sex symbols, come into your mind as you were making a record about solitude?
SUMNEY: Yeah, definitely. I’m aware of the history of black men in music, like the suave sex symbol kind of thing, like Jodeci. Like I just think Marvin Gaye, Jodeci, Usher, and the way that we talk about love and how it’s inherently attached to sex. I don’t think my work is a response to that, but I am aware of the fact that I don’t fit into that trajectory, and I’m aware that when people start to see me perform they may want me to fit into that more. I’ve had some people along the way that encouraged me to do it so I would be more famous, but I’m just chilling. I’m not really interested in fulfilling that or interested in responding to it musically either. The main thing for me is just being honest in music and portraying an identity that is complex. I think it’s good to fuck ‘em up.
STEREOGUM: OK. I’m going to have to warn you then. When you pull out “Make Out In My Car” there are going to be problems [laughs].
SUMNEY: [Laughs] I know. I’m like, “I’m not interested in making sexual music, now here’s a song called ‘Make Out In My Car.'” But it’s complicated.
STEREOGUM: So I heard –
SUMNEY: It’s all lies.
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] I heard “Plastic” on Insecure. I was wondering, was that Solange’s doing because she was consulting on the music for the show?
SUMNEY: I can’t say I fully know because I’m not in the boardroom when the decision is being made, but I think it was more Melina Matsoukas, who was the director and one of the executive producers of the show. I know her through Solange, but I’ve known her for a few years. She just texted me, and she was like, “Hey, can I put this song in the show?” And I was like, “Sure.” So I sent it over to her and then she put it in the show.
STEREOGUM: Speaking of Solange, you’ve worked and toured with pretty much no one but big names. Who would you say you’ve learned from the most?
SUMNEY: When are we going to talk about the small names in my circle? When are we going to talk about the little people in my life? The guy at the local deli, I’ve learned so much from him about sandwich meats. I just feel like that’s never acknowledged. I don’t know. It’s kind of hard to answer that because it’s so broad. I think I’ve probably learned the most from people I’ve toured with, just from observing them. Touring with Sufjan Stevens was really interesting. Just seeing another side of the tour and seeing how he interacts with his band, I was probably taking notes. Touring with Karen O, which is one of the first things I did, was very informative. I think I probably learned a lot from Karen O also, just seeing the way she interacted with us. I was a part of her band, her guitar player. That probably wasn’t the answer you wanted, but I don’t know.
STEREOGUM: You and Vince Staples did a show together supporting James Blake. Did you guys get to interact at all? Our readers seem to like both you and Vince a lot, so I feel I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you.
SUMNEY: I like the people that read Stereogum. The comments are always very intelligent, and it seems like they know music, as opposed to some other sites where it’s a bunch of dummies. It’s like hot takes and gifs and very superficial analysis, but I appreciate Stereogum readers.
STEREOGUM: That’s cool, very much appreciated.
SUMNEY: I think that tour date got a little misunderstood by the public because Vince and I actually only played one show together. I did the whole US tour with James and then Vince only did New York and LA. Then I had to go to play my headline show, so I didn’t do LA. So we were actually on one show together and we only met super briefly, which is really unfortunate because I think he’s really cool. I think we talked for two minutes maybe. I hate to disillusion the readers, but yeah. I would love to meet and talk with him. I loved his record that he put out this year. I thought it was fantastic and very weird. James played me a bunch of stuff that he produced for Vince and I loved what was going on.
STEREOGUM: You’ve talked about A&Rs and label reps showing up at your shows in LA really early while you just getting some buzz, but you had no clue what your sound was or who you were musically. Now you have even more eyes on you. Are you ready for what this album might bring you fame-wise and status-wise?
STEREOGUM: [Laughs] Really? Because at first you yourself weren’t really out there. Your artwork was very mysterious with a lot of drawings and you weren’t featured on it at all really. But now you’re ready to step into everything?
SUMNEY: Yeah. I definitely needed the time to figure it out, and I didn’t want — there were so many things that I didn’t want to do at first. I refused to be in music videos. I refused to make music videos. I didn’t want to be in the artwork. The mixes had to be lo-fi. The vocals had to be turned down. And I feel now that I’m ready. I feel good because I’ve only ever done things that I wanted to do. There are a few things where I’ve looked back and been like, “Hmmm, should I have done that?” But I’ll never know. Now I feel pretty good about the things that I’ve decided to take on, and I feel equipped. Luckily I’ve worked with so many people, and gotten to observe some people who are far beyond me in their careers. I think that’s really helped me feel ready for the next step, and now the music is where I want it. Earlier when I was getting a lot of attention the music wasn’t where I wanted it to be, but I was just having to put stuff out. I really feel like I took my time with this record and this is the record that I wanted to make.
STEREOGUM: So what’s your favorite song on the album?
SUMNEY: “Indulge Me.” By far. I just like that kind of music — barebones, very folksy guitar and singing — but I like all the songs. “Doomed” is probably my second favorite. I like all the songs for different reasons, but yeah. Can I ask what your favorite was?
STEREOGUM: I like the newer version of “Plastic.” I like the embellishments and small instrumental touches you put on it.
SUMNEY: You liked it the most?
STEREOGUM: No, not the most. I’d say may favorite is “Don’t Bother Calling.”
SUMNEY: See, I knew you were a real one. I don’t think anybody likes that song. And that is one of my favorites, but that is probably the least favorite song, which is why I put it at the front of the album. It was like a preemptive “fuck you.” Why that one?
STEREOGUM: Because it reminds me of Mid-City Island, but it feels more fleshed out, more realized. It feels like a song you couldn’t have made back then, but it’s in the same vein. I think it shows your growth.
SUMNEY: Yeah. I wrote that song before I realized “Plastic” would be on this record. That was for me the “Plastic” of this record. I wanted to do a more evolved version, more complicated, longer, a melody that was harder to trace, lyrics that were more poetic, and also just bigger and spacier. So yeah, I think there’s a definite connection to Mid-City Island, for sure. It’s kind of like a bridge between old Moses and new Moses I guess.
STEREOGUM: This album is ambitious on many different levels. What do you hope it will accomplish?
SUMNEY: I just want people to know it’s OK to be alone. I’m not saying it’s easy or it’s too difficult, because it can be both. I’m saying it’s an option. It’s not a choice that has to last forever either. I just want people explore being alone if they feel it suits them. There is more to life than who you’re with.