Moses Sumney became a star off his rough cuts alone. In 2014, the California-born, Ghana-raised musician had a short EP of rough sketches titled Mid-City Island that caught the attention of indie royalty: Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, Solange, Sufjan Stevens, TV On the Radio’s Dave Sitek. It's not hard to see why. There’s something strikingly personal layered within Sumney’s music, something powerful enough to gain him a following and a slot at Hollywood Bowl with no more than a few tracks to his name. To figure out how, exactly, the unassuming yet confident Sumney got to this point, it’s helpful to start at the beginning.
After growing up in San Bernadino, a suburb outside of Los Angeles, Sumney moved with his family to Ghana at the age of 10—he's now 27—where alienation and severe loneliness set in. Sumney began writing songs, or, to put it more accurately, he began singing them. Having never learned an instrument prior to these pre-teen sessions, Sumney would record songs acapella, immersing himself in the popular American music of that era. After moving back to California to attend UCLA, Sumney began fleshing out his musical ideas and taught himself how to play guitar.
After Mid-City Island found its way into the right hands, the aforementioned hype quickly surrounded the musician and springing him to a cult-like popularity. After he released a single on Chris Taylor’s Terrible Records, he signed on with Jagjaguwar to release his second EP, Lamentations, in 2016. Now, Sumney is gearing up to stoke the hubbub once again with his debut full-length, Aromanticism. The album is an exceedingly strong blend of layered, ambient folk music, blended with hints of jazz, electronica, and ‘60s soul. Sumney’s intoxicating falsetto infuses the record with a distinct personality, and its lyrical themes focus intensely on the construct of love and the way this concept perverts the sense of self. It’s a hauntingly gorgeous debut, unsurprisingly assured, considering we’ve been sold the genius of Moses Sumney since he was recording brief ideas into a borrowed four-track.
A hypnotic repeat of “Kiss Me Through The Phone” plays as we await Sumney’s appearance on the line from his manager’s office in New York, where he eventually pops on the phone, immediately exclaiming, “I’ve heard that song more times in my life than I thought possible. And I love it!” We talk with the musician about the suffocating pressure of hype, celebrity advice, and how a feeling of statelessness pervades his music.
When did you first start writing your own songs?
I started writing when I was 12. I would write. But I didn’t know how to play any instruments so I was writing acapella music for about eight years.
When did you first realize that you could make a career doing music?
I don’t know. I just always assumed it would work out. I always had a feeling that I would be able to do it. I really started making these songs after college, though. I always knew it would work out and I’d be able to make a career out of it.
Chris Taylor, Solange, and Sufjan Stevens were all early fans. You played at the Hollywood Bowl, too. All of this before releasing an LP. Now that the album is here, do you think that sort of attention or spotlight affected the way you approached this record—already having an audience?
I probably made a record similar to one I would have made if nobody knew who I was. However, having that much attention before even putting out a debut was really stressful. It didn’t have the most positive effect on me. I ended up second guessing a lot of things. I changed directions a lot of times over the course of making this record, although I eventually ended up in the right place.
I think it definitely made me more conscious of what people expected of me and what people wanted to hear or wanted to see me do. In the end I had to realize that it was about what I wanted to do. It was just a bigger challenge to follow my own instincts.
With that being said, were there things you learned from musicians like Chris Taylor and Solange that you applied to this album?
I learned a lot from Sufjan Stevens. He told me I needed to record myself more. When I was touring with him I had already been working on the album for a year. But I was still looking for someone to produce it. He told me to learn how to do that shit myself [laughs]. He told me to empower myself and figure out what I liked sonically, and be able to execute it. He said that’s the only way to gain agency. I learned that from him, and with Solange, it was important to watch her work. It really helped me realize that I need to recognize myself as the person in control. Often I would be the person in the studio deciding what sounds go where, when things should happen, but I was always reluctant to call myself a producer. I eventually recognized that I was steering the ship and that was my power, that I am producing this music.
You utilize choir-style vocals to encapsulate multiple views of the self. Is this record an attempt at self-understanding? Is that what you aim to accomplish with your music?
I suppose so. I would argue that all art is based around trying to figure out who its executors are. I’m constantly trying to understand my ideas and my capabilities—sonically and artistically. Lyrically, I’m trying to find my place in the world. It’s definitely an effort to understand myself and the capabilities I have.
The album title was created before any of the songs were written. Did that shape the thematic direction you wanted to head towards?
Definitely. It was like having a thesis for an essay and then writing the essay for the thesis. It helped me stay on track. Because the songs chart so much territory genre-wise and, with the instrumentation, I wanted to find some way for it to feel like it was all connected and all coming from me and the easiest way to do that was to have an album title and a theme that I was working towards. No matter how far out something was sonically, I could anchor it lyrically and emotionally.
Did that feel restrictive at all?
It was a restriction for sure, and it was frustrating at times. It was like, 'Damn, why do I always have to write about the same things?’ But it helped me really explore the subject matter and think about all the aspects of it—and I still feel like there were many aspects I didn’t capture in the end. But ultimately, limitations are really, really necessary for creation. That really helps me.
You had a lot of collaborators on this record. With so many of them having distinct, unique voices, was it ever difficult for you to shape their ideas to your vision?
It wasn’t difficult at all because all of the people who ended up on this album are probably only half of the people I worked with. In the beginning I was really looking for someone to shape the sound or help me find what I wanted. Because of that I worked with a lot of people who controlled my ideas and left me uninspired in terms of pushing my own limits. So I took a step back and realized that everything needed to start with me—that I needed to be the source of the ideas. Once I took that approach, I looked at what I wanted sonically and I’d pick a collaborator based on that.
Like, having Thundercat come on two songs, those were ideas that needed a strong bass part moving in a specific way—no one does that better than Thundercat. So he just came to my house and played the part. It’s so much easier working that way. With Matthew Otto from Majical Cloudz, we sat together for two weeks and I lived at his house—our creation process is so intimate. I was able to really explain what I wanted, the ideas stemmed from me.
It was all about picking collaborators who were sensitive, who listened, and who trusted me and my artistic vision. But I had to establish that vision before I could go into working with them.
Is there any pressure reflected on this record in having been predetermined to succeed? It always felt like a foregone conclusion that your career was going to be successful.
I never felt pressure that it wouldn’t work. I had the opposite problem. The pressure was more like, I felt like people didn’t take me seriously when it came to my struggle. People assumed that it was gonna be so easy for me because a lot of doors opened early on. They opened without me pushing too hard. People wouldn’t recognize the things I was pushing for. If I was trying to explain to people why it was difficult for me to make a record, no one could comprehend that.
It just made it harder for me because people had higher expectations for me. Every time I would get something or have an accomplishment, people would just be like, ‘Oh yeah. Of course. Well you’re supposed to.’ I still have this thing with people where they’re waiting for me to release my hit single or my hip-hop song [laughs]. It feels like a really unfair expectation because I’ve known my capabilities. I could just write pop music, but I’ve been really interested in learning and growing artistically—pushing myself and experimenting in ways that aren’t so obvious. It’s been tough for me to do what I want and have people accept that. I’ve almost had to retrain the public in the way they thought about me. I’m just interested in making art right now.
I never had the fear of, ‘Oh hey, this might not work.’ Because I got gassed up so much I was convinced it would work. But it’s not that easy [laughs].
You wrote this album all over the place. Asheville, Los Angeles, on a boat, Nicaragua. Do you think this sense of place—or a lack of place—affected the songwriting process?
Not particularly because I feel quite stateless as a person, typically. My mind wanders so much that I often don’t feel like I’m present in the physical space I’m in. So it was necessary for me to enter certain spaces in order to work. It was necessary to go to the mountains or in isolation to work, but in some ways, it could have been any mountain. It could have been anywhere. My ideas aren’t incredibly inspired by the places I am geographically. Writing a song in the mountains in Asheville and then another on the coast of California mirror each other. But it was good for me to get out of the city and out of LA as often as possible. Because I find it quite difficult to be creative there. I made a lot of it in Montreal, too, because one of my main collaborators lives there.
Speaking on Aromanticism and the idea that traditional love isn’t inherent but a created concept, is that something you wanted to work through while writing?
A big part of this album was realizing that the personal is the social. How we react to things in our lives emotionally is so influenced by society and what we’re used to seeing, and how emotional cues are learned. It was realizing that my own discomfort with the world at-large wasn’t just a personal, mental, emotional thing, but something very affected by my perception of the world and the expectations that the world has on me in regards to love and the deadline put on my life to get married and have kids. I was wrestling with the nurture versus nature concept. The things that bother me—how many of them come from an innate place, and how many of them stem from an inherited place. I can’t separate the two.
I talk about Aromanticism by offering up anecdotes or anecdotal evidence from my personal life, and then hoping people will make an emotional connection and say, ‘Oh, these are the social norms that are expected of us and these are how they can affect a person.’ Hopefully people will make those connections to my thoughts.
Since you’ve been on the radar for so long, what’s it like to have your full-length debut finally out in the world?
It’s cool. We’ll see how it feels when it’s out and has some time for people to hear it. I still feel entirely like a new artist. People will finally have the chance to get to know me better. Not me as a person but me as an artist and a musician—what I’m into, what I’m interested in doing. It’s cool to offer up a full project and just be like, ‘Yo. This is what it is.’ At the same time it’s a very green feeling as well, there are a lot of things I’m doing for the first time. I’m going on my first headlining tour. I’m the person now. It feels like a birth. It feels like I’ve been pregnant for three years.