Moses Sumney: ‘I have an obsession with loneliness, singledom, isolation’ – The Guardian

Of the many striking aspects of Moses Sumney – his skyscraping height, his hallucinatory, Nina Simone-like dreamscapes, his Rolodex of starry musician friends – most intriguing of all is his voice. A feathery falsetto, often layered to celestial effect, it flutters daintily over lambent guitar and sweeping strings. It’s surely the reason that Sufjan Stevens and James Blake asked him to join them on tour. Or why Beck chose Sumney to appear on his covers compilation, Song Reader; ditto Solange Knowles, for last year’s epic A Seat at the Table. As he explains one evening in a restaurant in Echo Park, Los Angeles, sometimes singing to him “feels like dancing”.

There is plenty of vocal pirouetting on his debut, Aromanticism, an album that shades in the grey between folk, soul and something else – something otherworldly – entirely. So it’s surprising to hear that his soft style stems from being so shy in his school days that he would “sing under my breath a lot”. At 10, his pastor parents moved from California, where he was born, to Accra in Ghana, where his fellow students would mock his American accent. It kickstarted what he calls “an almost obnoxious obsession with loneliness, singledom, isolation…”, which has permeated his music ever since.

It wasn’t until he moved to university in LA for a creative writing degree, aged 20, that Sumney decided to focus on music, starting a college radio show and performing solo with a guitar and loop pedal, although his motivation came from an unlikely source. “I was working at an after-school programme while at junior college and all the kids were obsessed with teen stars like Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber,” he says. “And everyone else I knew who sings had been doing it for years. I had a moment where I was like, ‘Damn. I’m 20 years old and I haven’t made anything.’” He pauses. “Oh great. I’ve just given you the headline, haven’t I? ‘Miley Cyrus is the reason I have a career.’”

It’s unlikely, however, that Bieber would make a concept album about the nuances of being aromantic – the inability to feel romantic attraction. Sumney might sound swoonsome, but he’s singing about one-night stands, the narcissism of emotional detachment and the nuances of lovelessness. He is particularly tired of the age-old notion that humans need to find a soulmate in order to feel happy and complete. “I don’t reject romantic love,” says Sumney. “I believe that it exists for some people, but some people will never have it and that can negatively manifest within you.” Sumney wrote the album from a place of familiarity. As he asks on the track, Doomed: “Am I vital if my heart is idle?”

While all that might sound like some grave aftereffect of years spent swiping dating apps, Sumney finds optimism in ambiguity. The latter applies both to his genreless music (some Prince-like and sensual; one, Quarrel, like a warped James Bond song) and his identity. At one point, when I ask for his age, he replies: “I’m in my 20s but nobody ever gets it right and it’s perfect for me.” He is self-aware and sardonic, but he also recognises that at any given moment, people can change. On whether he is romantically inclined himself or not, he says, cryptically: “I think the idea that I am, and I am not, is what’s interesting.”

Likewise, he neither sees himself as a folk artist nor a soul artist – nor any kind of artist. “I’ve realised that genre doesn’t really matter to me and my work extends past a binary, basically,” he says with a shrug. More than anything, he says he’s referred to as “an R&B artist and that really annoys me. It’s the only [genre label] that feels like a visual identifier as opposed to an aural identifier.”

In a previous interview, Sumney talked about how he saw it as his job as a young black musician to try and disrupt the status quo. But today he says that he has to fight the compulsion to actively try and stand apart. “I find reflexively the need to be different in some way as a black artist, to try to shift the narrative of what a black man can be stereotypically and present an alternative,” he says. “And it’s a very negative urge to have.

Listen to Indulge Me by Moses Sumney.

“One of the many manifestations of social oppression is the idea that you have to prove that you’re one of the good ones, in order for humanity to be extended to you and people that look like you. Whereas I don’t have to prove anything and it should be OK to be anything. It should be OK to fit into the stereotype and it should be OK to not fit into the stereotype.”

Whatever he wants to be, Sumney hopes his anti-love songs will get more people considering that coupling up could well be a load of codswallop. Perhaps you can be equally as content on your own. “When you tell people, ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever fall in love with anyone’, one of the first things they say is, ‘Oh you’ll find someone’, which is so patronising,” he hoots. “Why can’t I know that? And why can’t I challenge it critically? I needed to release a work in order to have it be a conversation.”

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