The Story Behind Every Song On Sudan Archives’ New Album Athena
Over the years, Brittney Parks has undergone her own personal apotheosis. It all started with the fiddle. She was mesmerized as a child after witnessing an Irish folk band performing in her hometown of Cincinnati. She begged her mom for a violin. Parks became mostly self-taught growing up, defining her style in church and warping the expectations of the assumed classical Western instrument.
When she was around 17, she took on the name Sudan — a fated choice, as she would discover her love for Sudanese fiddlers. She’s taken inspiration from a variety of African musicians, including Cameroonian electronic music pioneer Francis Bebey and Sudanese violinist Asim Gorashi. These trailblazers exposed the washed-over history of the stringed instrument, as well as its potential with new technologies and modern genres from G-Funk to ’90s R&B.
A family argument led to her moving to Los Angeles at 19, where she would become the unique and masterful musician that stands before us today. In LA, Sudan hustled. While working multiple jobs and making music on the side, she met Matthewdavid of Stones Throw. After being amazed by her work, Stones Throw signed her and put out her first two EPs. And today, the label has released her debut album.
Athena is Sudan’s autobiography, documenting her tribulations and her successes. It’s an epic poem of duality, named after the goddess of wisdom, war, and the arts (just to name a few). “Whenever I see pictures, I don’t see any black female goddesses,” she tells me over the phone. “People think that Athena is a Greek goddess but she’s not actually real. I thought it’d be cool to do a flip on that because she’s a magical creature.”
Athena has been understood as a hero and a villain; different interpretations have illustrated her acts as compassionate or hateful. This choice hits close to home for Parks. Before she was Sudan Archives, her stepfather Derrick Ladd, a record producer and co-founder of LaFace Records, tried to make her and her twin sister a pop duo. The project wasn’t a fit for her, resulting in the disbanding of the project and her final takeaway that she might be the “bad twin.”
Athena explores this binary understanding of morality. Its 14 tracks are a dynamic prism showcasing defiance, elegance, confidence, and whimsy. She elevates the violin as an object that is simultaneously precious and strong-willed. Similar to last year’s Sink EP, Athena is fluid and nimble. But it also stands firm. Sudan wields her strings like a clenched fist on the lead single “Confessions.” The adjacent track “Black Vivaldi Sonata” is both lush and anxious. She understands the instrument’s full potential, playfully unfolding its capabilities like a Jacob’s ladder.
It’s apparent that she puts it all out there in her work. She’s open and confident in her music, just as she is in conversation. Still, these backstories are raw and sensitive. Ahead of Athena’s release today, I spoke with Sudan Archives about each song on her new album. She provided a deeper look at her personal inspirations and periods of adversity — everything that formed the vivid and distant universe of Athena.
1. “Did You Know?”
SUDAN ARCHIVES: This is the beginning of my life. That’s just a perfect way to start the album, it’s a song I actually made when I was probably around 16 years old. I revamped it and wanted to kind of start there.
STEREOGUM: Since you wrote this one a while ago, how were its origins different?
SUDAN ARCHIVES: [I wrote it] with my twin sister, actually, because we used to be a group when we were around that age. We created that song together. I was like, “Huh, that’s like one of the first ones I ever made.” I wanted to keep it and bring that memory of those days to the beginning of the album. That’s kind of where my music life started.
I remixed it and made it how I always wanted it. I remember when we were making songs where I would never get the production the way I wanted and I was seen as very hard to work with, and even rebellious with certain stuff that we’d do. I wasn’t getting the sound that I wanted and I didn’t even know how to express that. I didn’t even know at the time that that’s why I was acting like that.
STEREOGUM: It’s striking how self-aware it is.
SUDAN ARCHIVES: It shows how weird I was or how deep I was as a little girl. Like, “Why are you talking about you being a little girl? You’re a little girl, little girl.” [Laughs] It makes sense because I was such a weird little girl. I remember being at school sometimes and not having anyone to sit with. We went to a lot of different high schools. This last high school I gave up. The last time, I really had a squad and I finally felt kind of comfortable. Then we had to move. So I felt like a ghost there. And I remember saying things like, “I don’t fuck with the politics of school and bullies.” My friend told me, “Remember when we first met? The first thing you told me was don’t use deodorant because they’re trying to kill you.” I remember being super aware about products. And that was when the natural movement was just starting.
I remember my sister cut off her hair. She realized that we were perming our hair, and it was deeper than cutting off your hair because we’re always straightening it so we can fit in. I remember my big sister was like, “I wore my afro to work and they told me it was unprofessional.” So we were just these deep little girls. I helped her shave her head and we were like, “Yeah! We’re just gonna be ourselves!” [Laughs]
There’s this one song by India.Arie, “I Am Not My Hair.” It’s one of those favorite childhood memories. That’s what I’m talking about in the album. I should feel sexy and nappy and I should feel sexy with straight hair. I should feel just as sexy and everyone should think I’m just as sexy. [Laughs]
There’s like hair textures out here, girl. It’s so weird, I swear to God. I know that all types of ethnicities have their own hair textures, but I really feel like black women deal with this one thing with hair that no one else deals with. They don’t have to permanently alter their hair, they can get their little perms and curl their hair. They can do all kinds of stuff, but it’s always accepted. But when black girls go, and they want to wake up, they have nappy hair and it looks big and has its own character. It’s really an issue — like, people have told me when I started wearing my natural hair, “I like your straight hair better.” At work, they’ll say stuff like that.
That is some mental slavery shit right there. The perm was invented for black people to straighten their hair. That’s why it was invented so we could look more like white people. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to fuck with your hair. I have a perm right now and I’m in this phase right now where I’m experimenting. But years ago, I just felt so traumatized because I was like we’re literally doing this though? The demeaning behind it. I had to go through that phase of self love so then I could actually experiment with all types of hairstyles. It’s an issue! Like dating, we be going through stuff where, “Oh, I’m afraid to show my natural hair texture because he hasn’t seen it yet.” Hair has been such a crazy thing in my life. I’ve been discriminated against and made fun of because of my hair.
SUDAN ARCHIVES: It’s about me remembering those times [before I moved to LA] and being like, “It’s whatever. It’s all falling down.” I’m just going to have to embrace everything. And look at what’s happening! Look at what’s growing! Look at all this green!
This was one of the last songs that was finished. It was literally a song I made in a day and I thought that the album was already done. I made it in a couple of hours, and that’s never happened before. So much uncertainty in it, but I literally killed that track. And I was like, “This has to be a single because I’m so sure of myself, you know, I made it.”
I’m saying, “Confessions are falling down,” and then the next song I say, “You falling down.” Then “Coming Up” is a song about going under. Sink is when you’ve shrunken. But I wanted the album to be like if you sink even further and further where all the fish are really ugly and creepy you can find this crazy ruin where black Athena lives.
3. “Black Vivaldi Sonata”
SUDAN ARCHIVES: It’s supposed to be a church hymn. I’m using Bible verses. “You falling down” is part of a Bible verse. In the book of Isaiah they talk about Lucifer. There’s a verse, “Oh how you’ve fallen down. Son of the dawn, morning star! You who once laid low on the nations.” It’s talking about the devil and how he used to be the star; he used to be an angel of music; he used to be really important for their team.
The next verse I’m saying “lion of lovers” or “lion seeks to devour.” That’s in the book of Peter. They’re saying to watch out because the devil prowls around like a lion seeking someone to devour. I think “lion of lovers” is kind of how they described God. I’m saying that there’s similarities in the devil and God. They describe them as big energies. It’s all about how people perceive you.
4. “Down On Me”
SUDAN ARCHIVES: It’s the first time I’ve actually kind of collaborated on writing with somebody — James Robert McCall. It’s the first time someone brought something out of me that I did not want to be brought out of me. Sometimes when I want to tell a story, I sugarcoat it. I used to make like Negro spiritual songs, like, “What are you really saying?” It’s like a code. Everything has a layer to it. But this song is super straightforward. It’s a really sensitive subject as well.
It’s about this past relationship. I was dating this guy. This black man wanted to be with me, but he didn’t want to be with me at first. He was saying these things like, “I really like you. I really have a connection. I just don’t date black girls. I never do.” And I was like, “Oh.” He’s like, “Don’t get offended when I say this, but it’s like I just don’t do black girls.” And I thought it was funny at first, almost thought it was flattering, but it’s so weird to think that because I should be pissed that you’re saying this. That’s fucked up to say because, bruh you’re straight-up 100% African. Ain’t no way you’d be alive if it weren’t for people like me and my chocolate ass. [Laughs]
I felt like I wanted to talk to him more. He said, “I’m going to teach you some manners.” So we dated and stuff, and I just couldn’t do it anymore. I felt fetishized. He was just saying black women are difficult and black women this and that. It made me want to be like, “No, they’re not!” It felt like this game, like I had to teach him something. It was so weird. That’s what the song is about. I knew what was going on, and I wasn’t being evil — but I was on some praying mantis shit. [Laughs]
5. “Ballet Of The Unhatched Twins I”
SUDAN ARCHIVES: The interludes [on the album] are movements that I was working on and I turned into interludes. This is so weird, but every time I started my period I would just start making this emotional music. I wanted to be like Stravinsky. I’m always making these beats and stuff, but I’ve never just sit down and play the violin. So that’s where that came from. You know when you’re eating a really expensive meal? [The interludes are] like palette cleansers.
6. “Green Eyes”
SUDAN ARCHIVES: “Green Eyes,” “Iceland Moss,” and “Coming Up” are a little more sex-centered, sensual. It’s getting a little darker too. It’s unapologetically “I don’t give a fuck.” “Iceland Moss,” I’m saying it’s over. But I’m saying it in a sweet way. It’s when my confrontation is out there on the line. I’m confronting everything. I’m basically being a little more aggressive. In “Green Eyes” I’m telling someone just feel it don’t fight it.
7. “Iceland Moss”
SUDAN ARCHIVES: I remember being in the grass making this demo on my iPhone. I had a drum idea, a rhythm, and I was bopping to it in the grass. I was probably feeling the grass. Usually I riff and make up some ideas and I just start singing and record myself. In my demo it sounds like I’m singing, “You think I’m soft like something lost.” Then I researched that Iceland moss is one of the softest mosses. I had a friend visiting Iceland who had heard about the song. I was like, “Is the moss really soft out there?” He’s like, “Yeah it’s super soft.”
8. “Coming Up”
STEREOGUM: I’m curious about the voicemail on “Coming Up.”
SUDAN ARCHIVES: It’s a voicemail from one of my good friend’s ex-boyfriends, who doesn’t know how to leave her alone. Doesn’t know how to take no for an answer. I was like, “Give me that voicemail!” It came about from an iPad demo. I remember distorting my thumb piano. I put in an overdrive effect pedal. It sounded crazy. It’s one of my most badass songs, kind of punk.
STEREOGUM: It continues the theme of not knowing where you stand in goodness or badness.
SUDAN ARCHIVES: It’s hard to know the difference sometimes when people tell you you’re bad. I just really feel like people are intimidated by me sometimes. I don’t know why. When you talk to me, If I don’t really know you then I’m definitely dangerously shy at first. Then when you get to know me, I’m silly and sweet. But people just think I’m so stank and I’m so intimidating. Like, guys have told me that.
9. “House Of Open Tuning II”
STEREOGUM: What is your thought process when you’re writing instrumental melodies?
SUDAN ARCHIVES: It’s the only time where I feel like there’s no limits. I can just do whatever I want and it just comes naturally. That’s how a song is made from an interlude like that, just a lot of violin textures and I’m just manipulating the sound. All of the interludes were just made with violin, even the drum beats. I hit the violin to get the drum sound.
STEREOGUM: “Glorious” definitely seems like it’s influenced by the Irish fiddle and jig.
SUDAN ARCHIVES: Someone said it sounded like some African shit, but this is literally some Irish jig shit. The song is also lyrically inspired by these songs from Sudan and Ghana, these old traditional songs that have string music in them as well. They only sing about, it seems, like their god or their crops growing. I wanted to make my own modern version of praying to God hoping crops will grow and the rain would come. My own version would be focusing on getting the bag. [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: Are there specific songs or artists that you drew from?
SUDAN ARCHIVES: It’s in Arabic so it’s hard to find, I don’t know what it’s really called. It’s by this artist called Aisha al-Fallatiyah. In 1943, she gave the first ever performance by a woman in Sudan. That’s pretty badass. All of her songs, oh my God, all of her songs are just so beautiful. I sent the song that I love to somebody who can understand what she’s saying. She’s talking about this rice and hoping that it can flourish. That made me want to sing about wanting to make money. Her famous song is the “Simsim Al-Gedaref.” She basically is like relating the sesame or something to her love. I mean money is so important. So that’s like my sesame.
SUDAN ARCHIVES: It’s one of my favorite parts of the album. That was a demo I gave to Los Retros — this boy genius on Stones Throw. This was a song that almost didn’t make the album. I needed some new inspiration, so I sent it to him and said, “Do whatever you want.” So he kind of like, you know, added more production and just — oh! He just made it sound so jazzy! I was like, “This is exactly what I want.” It gives me an Erykah Badu feel.
SUDAN ARCHIVES: So there are two pairs of twin songs on the album. It’s “Confessions” and “Black Vivaldi,” and then “Limitless” with these intro/outros [“Stuck” and “Honey”]. It’s talking about someone in an unhealthy relationship. There’s a sweet way of saying it and a mean way of saying it. The intro and outro are the mean way of saying it. I’m saying, “That nigga don’t love you!” And the outro, “Fuck that nigga! He don’t love you.” And then “Limitless” is like, “It’s okay.” [Starts singing happily] “Limitless” is the corniest song on there.
STEREOGUM: This song is kind of gritty compared to the rest.
SUDAN ARCHIVES: It’s a demo, and I left it like that. I re-recorded more ideas over it. But it’s supposed to have the demo vibe. It’s supposed to sound fucked up a little bit. It’s more on the interlude side. It’s supposed to be a really gritty sound because “Limitless” is so posh.
14. “Pelicans In The Summer”
SUDAN ARCHIVES: The final song is like realizing that you are a little girl and you are a strong, sexy, cute, badass, hot thang and you can own the world. The verses were old, old verses that I created when full Athena didn’t come into play. It’s like the little girl saying cute things and relating my lover to a lightning bug — really whimsical, poetic metaphors to love. Then the hook is like, “Don’t forget we lit.” It has this sense of oneness and being in control of my feelings. No side really won. The good side or the bad side didn’t win, but they came together.
Athena is out now on Stones Throw. Buy it here.