- 27 May 20
Fresh from the release of his acclaimed new album græ, Moses Sumney discusses finding connectivity within isolation; rejecting lazy industry labels in the tradition of Nina Simone; and how growing up as the son of immigrants has informed his view of America.
In the era of Covid-19, isolation has been getting a bad rap. Despite moments of mind-numbing distraction provided by Netflix and Zoom calls, billions of people across the globe have been forced to stop and take stock of their inner-selves for the first time in years. For many, it’s a living nightmare – but for Moses Sumney, a self-described introvert, isolation provides a vital key to self-expression.
On his new album, the ecstatically received græ, Sumney continues to explore the power of simply being alone – opening with the voice of Taiye Selasi, a London-born writer of Nigerian and Ghanian descent: “Isolation comes from ‘insula’, which means ‘island’.” Although the project was written long before our current reality, the timing is unquestionably eerie.
“It’s a little prescient, or psychic, I suppose,” Sumney smiles. “It’s nice to speak to the times – even when you didn’t intend to. But I’ve always talked about isolation. My first project was called Mid-City Island – so even the word ‘island’ alone recurs. There’s a lot there, and a lot that I still haven’t uncovered. A lot more people seem to get it now – the conditions that have placed us in isolation are incredibly unfortunate, but there are gems that can be found in this moment.”
Whether people “seem to get it” or not hasn’t gotten in the way of Sumney’s vision in the past. Raised in California to Ghanian parents, he has forged a career out of renouncing labels and categorisations of any kind – impressing fellow non-conformers like David Byrne, Sufjan Stevens, James Blake, Solange and Thundercat in the process.
Yet despite having cultivated his own strong aesthetic, there was a time when Sumney’s sense of identity was less assured. When he was first emerging on the LA music scene in 2013, he initially resisted the intense interest being expressed by record labels – worrying that they would mould his artistry before it had a chance to grow organically.
So how did he find himself?
“Isolation was a huge part of it,” he says. “In isolation, I’m afforded the opportunity to focus solely on myself and my ideas – without the influence of taking into consideration what people want for me, and wondering what people want from me. There’s a kind of focus that comes from that – just tuning out the noise, and getting to a place where I’m alone, and the only noise is the ambiance of the idea.”
Sumney ultimately found this isolation in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, where he has now relocated permanently.
“I’m more focused now,” he confirms. “I move around a lot less, because initially I was coming here so much to write. It’s convenient to not have to come here anymore – I’m just staying.
“I appreciate the proximity to nature,” he continues. “It’s certainly helpful and inspiring. It’s a clarifying force, when you’re trying to get out something confusing in a tangible way. I like the quiet and the trees – and they say there are crystals in the ground...”
The move to North Carolina is also a physical reflection of Sumney’s efforts to distance himself from the trappings of the music industry in LA, where he found himself being pigeonholed musically. Like FKA Twigs, he has hit out against being lazily labelled as an R&B artist – once decrying it as a “race-based classification of my music” on Twitter.
In many respects, this tendency to place his sound into an easily definable box mirrors Nina Simone’s struggles against industry labels in previous decades. “Jazz is a white term to define black people,” she famously remarked. “My music is black classical music.”
“Nina is one of the classic cases,” Sumney agrees. “She really wanted to be taken seriously as a classical artist and as a classical pianist, because that’s what she would have considered herself as. But there was no space for her, and she wasn’t allowed to claim that space for herself.”
As for his own resistance against the R&B tag, Sumney jokes that, after being so vocal on the issue, he’s “definitely scared people into being a little bit more complex.”
Although the rejection of clear-cut labels and binaries runs throughout græ, Sumney’s self-description as “a true immigrant son” on album standout ‘Cut Me’ is a defining force that continues to shape his outlook – creatively and politically.
“‘Immigrant’ typically relates to the idea of having a work ethic that is detrimental to self, while still being productive,” he laughs softly. “That’s how I relate to a work ethic – the idea of it being consistent, and never-ending.
“It certainly informs the way I view America,” he continues. “I have a deeper and more nuanced understanding of American immigration than the average American does. It’s a shame how little people know, about how difficult it is to get into this country, but also about the injustices that America commits internationally against disenfranchised nations – yet still makes them jump through impossible hoops just to get into the country.”
In the US, like the rest of the world, the strain of the Covid-19 pandemic is shining a light on dysfunctional systems blatantly unfit for purpose.
“It’s exposing just how flawed the system is,” he agrees. “People have been trying to get the government to pay attention and realise just how unequal it is. It’s unfortunate that this is what it took.”
“I’m not frightened – but it’s always been a bad time to live in America,” he laughs. “For black people, it’s like, ‘Pick a decade!’”
Sumney’s musings on multiplicity, and the ‘græ’ area between the labels we use to identify ourselves, comes at a fascinating time in American history – with the rise of identity politics, and a society more polarised than ever.
“The political system is another example of a binary, ‘either/or’ system that doesn’t really work for most people,” he says. “It’s refreshing that people are finally realising that.
“My own interactions with the machine of identity politics, and the people who are entrenched in it, was probably part of the inspiration on this record.”
While isolation remains a key theme on græ, true to form, Sumney bends the norms of what one may consider traditional isolation on the project – enlisting the likes of Jill Scott, Thundercat, James Blake, Tom Gallo and Daniel Lopatin.
“I’d be writing a song and I’d think, ‘Oh, what about this person?’ And I’d just hit them up. Before I knew it, I suddenly had a bunch of people involved. In the end there were probably around 40 different people that worked on the record. It’s a really an organic thing – I like to piece the songs together sound by sound, brick by brick.
“It’s great to make a record that constantly addresses isolation,” he continues, “But to bring other people into it, and to emphasise collaboration, there’s a larger point being made about connectivity, and how that can still exist within isolation. The way I maintain my sanity and control over the whole project is by doing a lot of the work in isolation. So a lot of the collaboration is in the production and the instrumentation, but when it comes to lyrical ideas and structures, and melodic and vocal ideas, I make sure I do those entirely by myself.
“For me, there’s only a fear of not expressing enough, and not being honest enough. I make the work first and foremost for myself, so that kind of honesty is necessary.”
græ is out now.