MOSES SUMNEY: OUT OF NOWHERE
photography by theo jemison
Moses Sumney just strolled into our lives with his loop pedal and his jazzy soul-drenched voice and, without an album or a cassette tape or even a white-labeled CD-R, he’s the name on everybody’s lips. His smile is like a rainbow and his one-man performance is so damn appealing that even my grandma and her bingo friends are anxious to buy his record, whenever he decides he’s ready to drop something in the near or distant future. Sumney is in a good position. He’s played with Beck, Solange, Jose Gonzalez, and gotten his own local residency, all based on a video or two and word of mouth. Now people are talking and waiting, and he can do whatever he wants. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
You got a bit spoiled for a first tour, riding around on a big tour bus with Junip back in October.
I know. Driving would not only have been hard and expensive and my car is really shoddy. I don’t think it would have made it. So they let me on the bus, which was cool. And I got to open for Jose Gonzalez, who is one of my favorite artists ever. It was a great experience. My next tour, I’m going to be driving.
So far you’ve played R&B shows, indie rock shows, played with soul bands and singer-songwriters … kind of a variety of genres. Are you exploring to see where you fit best?
It’s funny. I am playing a lot of different types of shows. It’s important for me to select the things I do that show I’m not necessarily a genre artist. I think generationally we’re moving past the point of putting artists in a box. I think in the time where we have such intense digital access to music, listeners are really switching over between different styles, so it makes sense for me to play the field.
Could all genres end up just blending into one big slop one day?
I definitely do not think all genres will blend. That would be super boring or too eclectic. But I think we’ll see different trends in show goers. Fifteen years ago when you would go to a punk rock show, you’d see the punk rock kids. Or when you’d go to an R&B show, you’d see R&B kids. But I think that the demographics that make up an audience will change and it all won’t be so well defined. I want to have an eclectic audience for sure. So I’m really happy that I’m getting to play different shows. There was the show with Solange, and I did a show with Beck, then I did a show with Hiatus Kaiyote, which is a future soul band, then I’ve done stuff with King, which is a really good R&B band, and now I’m doing shows with Dr. Dog and Local Natives, which are indie rock bands, and I’ve opened for PAPA, which is a rock band. So it’s all over the board. It still makes sense. There are points in my music that relate to all of those artists and it’s important to convey that.
Since you have stripped it down to the bare essentials, it makes sense. At the bottom of everything there’s the voice, and there’s repetition.
At the end of the day, it’s not about genre, it’s about song. And it’s about feeling. I think it’s interesting because people haven’t heard a full project from me—they don’t actually know what it’s going to sound like. One can assume … but if there’s production and it’s not all stripped down, it could end up kind of eclectic.
Are you working on that now?
I’m working on it but I’m working on it slowly. I’m not trying to put out a full length right away. I want to work really hard in the studio and define the sound before I present it to people. But playing all these shows I really want to learn. I really wasn’t expecting this many people to know or to care or to be looking. I really just wanted to play live shows and get experience and learn about music and myself and what I like. I’m still doing that. I’m trying to stay on that track while also being in the studio.
Do you feel pressure as to whether you should record the minimal experience or to use actual instruments?
That’s what is unique in my experience. People who know me know me from my live show, as opposed to hearing a recording first. What I’m recording will sound different from the live show, and I think it should. I love it when I hear an artist record and then see them live and it’s not the same thing. There is some pressure to maintain the uniformity of what people expect. But luckily not enough people know me yet so I can go in and do whatever I want. I just have to remember that. I CAN DO WHATEVER I WANT.
You skipped a few rites of passage. Have you played a smelly gross basement bar? Or did you go straight to the Disney Music Hall?
What a brat, right?! I haven’t done as much of the smelly bar with three drunk people. I actually do wish that I had. There’s experience there that’s golden that I wish I had. The first thing I did on my own was at a Riverside coffee shop. It was an open mic. It wasn’t the worst thing ever but I wasn’t very good and nobody really cared. That was three years ago. I don’t think people should like it right away. Most of the first things I did were on the UCLA campus. They were real shows but they weren’t REAL shows. They were on campus, it was safe and contained. But when I played my first show in the music scene, there was this response like … what? This kid came out of nowhere.
I had never heard of you until this past summer, I think it was, when Andres Renteria [who plays with Jose Gonzalez] suggested you to open for Junip in the Fall. As a matter of fact, you owe Andres a lobster.
I owe Andres a kidney if he ever needs one. He had seen me play at the Bootleg with King. The King residency was the biggest game changer. Prior to that I hadn’t really played shows by myself. That was the first time most people heard of me.
You studied creative writing at UCLA?
I did, with an emphasis on poetry.
Do you see yourself as a writer or as a musician?
I don’t really see myself as a musician. I’ve never studied music and I’m not trained. I grew up very much wanting to learn one thing properly but I was never afforded the opportunity to do that. I’ve only been playing guitar for three years and I’m entirely self-taught on guitar and vocally. I’m just trying to do this thing and hopefully it works out. I’ve always considered myself a writer. I’ve been writing songs since I was twelve. That was before I could play an instrument. So I was doing it a capella, going along to what was in my head. I’ve always considered myself a writer first and foremost and then maybe a singer, and then whatever else I’m trying to be. But songwriting is the most important thing for me.
Do you approach writing a song different from a poem?
Writing a song I almost always start with a melody and then I fill out the words of what should go along with that. And writing poetry I start out with words or at least a thought.
You grew up in California and partly in Ghana?
Yeah—I went to Ghana for six years with my family.
Did you get into African music?
I don’t know, honestly. When I lived in Ghana I was listening to Justin Timberlake and Beyonce. We lived in the city in a house with all the amenities. I had a CD player that was bumping Nelly Furtado and Usher. I think listening to African-influenced artists like Vampire Weekend and Dirty Projectors later on moved me more towards the music of West Africa.
So who were the singers you learned to sing from?
Beyonce was a huge one. I learned the whole first album. I would sing it and repeat all the riffs and everything she would do. I listened to Usher a lot. But he was too good. I couldn’t master anything he would do. Later in my teens, Ella Fitzgerald. She’s the first person I ever heard scat. Her scatting is unrivaled and so inspirational. Ella is the reason that I scat in my music.
The loop pedal is an underestimated challenge.
It is really hard to play and keep everything in time. Since I do it acapella I have to make sure everything is in the right key and the vowel shapes match up. It’s a lot of fun too.
Do you write about personal experience or whatever fits the melody?
They’re mostly personal experience. The ones that aren’t my personal experience are my personal perspective from what I’ve seen other people experience. I do consider them all to be very personal. They’re not all autobiographical.
So what’s your outlook on love? Is it bleak? Is it hopeful? Is it lasting?
What song made you want to ask me that?
‘Replaceable.’ You’re replaceable. I’m replaceable. We’re all replaceable.
For me as a writer it’s impossible to convey what my opinion on love is, or what my opinion on any number of things is. I can only take snapshots of moments of feelings and emotions and share them. And so I don’t have a broad opinion on love that you can find in my songs. I can only tell you how I feel in a certain moment. So in a certain moment when someone has pissed you off, you feel like they’re replaceable … but if you didn’t love them in the first place would they be able to move you to write a song about them? I’m too young to have a broad opinion on love. My opinion on art is it’s to capture feelings and to capture where you are in a specific time.
It’s interesting. This is said about poets: Do you ascribe what they’re saying to the person or to the general puddle of world that surrounds us all?
Yeah—I think one of the things that gets lost in translation a lot in songwriting is if the song is written in the first person. It doesn’t always mean that is actually me. I write some things to be ironic. When I write poetry I write in the voice of a different person. Someone who is a villain or a murderer or someone who is in love, or someone who isn’t in love. I’m not always trying to say, ‘HEY! This is how I feel and this is my thesis statement on the world.’ For me, sometimes I’m playing a role. Because in life we often play roles. We pretend to be people who are super strong and we’re not, or we pretend to be in love and we’re not. Or we pretend to be in love and we are. For me writing is about capturing all those different characters that we play in any given moment, rather than giving my solid definite outlook on the world.