Los Angeles newcomer on music, politics, and working with Solange...
Moses Sumney (Credit: Anthony Batista)

Clash probed Los Angeles-based artist Moses Sumney for his views on the US presidential race as it drew to a conclusion, his response – a derisive “Pass.” Now, weeks later, as the world basks in the aftermath, the gulf between the privileged and the disenfranchised grows wider and wider. The muted riposte from Sumney isn’t surprising. He isn’t passive, he’s merely jaded. As if he’s been asked too often for his stance as a minority artist, on the social injustices many black Americans are facing today. Minorities subjugated by a country very much regressing in its tenet as a ‘land of the liberated’.

Recognising the importance of artists as “symbols for black people,” he bemoans the pressure put on artists as stand-ins for minority representation, believing the majority should be called to answer the difficult questions. “I think that the media should pitch questions about race to white artists (especially those that draw on inspiration from black music in their songs) so that the burden of race does not entirely fall on the shoulders of black people”. It’s a combative but necessary appraisal of the ways in which black art and black culture is commodified and broken down for mass consumption, Sumney begging the question - why should minorities be asked to fix problems they didn’t create?

Sumney has an air of reverence about him, his involvement with Solange’s ‘A Seat At The Table’ a crowning moment in a year that has become something of a perennial hype train. “It was a joy and an honour to work with her. That record is cathartic. And aside from the obvious, I was very impressed with her ability to layer and arrange vocals without going into a booth, just with a cheap stage mic in hand!” Indeed Sumney’s honeyed tones are effortlessly woven into despondent track ‘Mad’, a delicious slice of vintage-soul that cuts with a prickly honesty. His contribution on the LP is of course intentional, not only a placeholder for generational creativity but also an endorsement of his own talents by one half of the most talented sibling pair you’ll find in music today. Depicting racial identity in all its myriad complexity, he laconically labels her release as “Black Blackity Black!”

2016 has seen the release of some exposition-heavy records, does Sumney feel a conscious responsibility to imbue his art with similar rhetoric? “I do feel like it's my job to counter the stereotypical popular narrative of blackness and what black art can be. To present an alternative image.” Indeed Moses Sumney’s brand of miasmic folk is a vital component of his marque, a genre in music lacking in black representation. Sonically, Sumney falls somewhere between the confessional musings of Sufjan and the more synthetic soundboards of James Blake and Beck. His music foregoes the modern production flourishes that define R&B and pop today.

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Heavily guitar-laden, devoid of sheen, Sumney finds home in simplicity. Less is more with him. So you wouldn’t blame Sumney for rubbing his chin at the erasure of his core stylings. “They use archaic visual cues instead of aural cues to categorise my music – that is to say, I must be R&B because I'm black and sing soulfully.” You can liken this categorisation to that of Eska (whom Sumney cites as his latest musical obsession), a Zimbabwean-born, London-bred artist whose blend of celestial vocals and poetic lyricism flourish under a folk, soul and electronic foundation. In an interview with the Telegraph last year, Eska corroborates Sumney’s stance on cues, “too many people listen with their eyes in this industry. I mean, look at me: I’m a round, black woman. I must be only be a soul singer, right?”

Pitchfork recently described Sumney’s sound as “soul-inflected electro-folk”, and that’s a tag Sumney can live with, “it’s totally better than what I usually get”. Suspicious of the trigger-happy desire to file artists away, Sumney is vocal about the ways it hurts black artists who don't conform to genre conventions. Still, like Eska, Sumney is focused on his music first and foremost, confounding social expectations is an important but secondary concern. He’s by no means complacent, appreciating the necessity for healthy column inches as his star ascends further, “at the end of the day it’s nice to be written about”.

Sumney is uncompromising in his ethos as an artist, self-writing and co-producing all of his work thus far. It all culminated with the release of his ‘Lamentations’ in October, the second EP after 2014’s ‘Mid-City Island’. The title alone connotes painstaking sincerity and unchartered emotional territory. Sumney wouldn’t have it any other way. “Honesty just feels right, there is no two ways about it. It’s also necessary to push art forward.” On the lullaby-like ode ‘Lonely World’, Sumney sings of an all-encompassing void, "I'm talking about depression and the desire to be alone because it's the only thing you relate to. I wrote that while alone in the mountains so it was apt." It’s no surprise when asked where he feels more comfortable residing - the light or the dark - his answer is unequivocal and absolute, “I completely don't relate to being “in the light” and I feel alienated by people who do.”

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I'm talking about depression and the desire to be alone because it's the only thing you relate to...

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He’s right. ‘Lamentations’ is borne out of the deepest introspections, revealing innermost feelings about a young man making sense of the world around him. Those moments are dark, but their lies comfort in the unknowing. Retaining some of the lo-fi feel of his debut EP, ‘Lamentations’ exudes a similar intimate, funereal vibe. Nevertheless, Sumney is all about evolution, thriving now in the intersection between live arrangements and electronics. “I've always had an obsession with live instrumentation and with things sounding like humans played them. Earlier me really shunned electronics and computers. Lately I've been getting a lot more into atypical electronic production, and I want to explore that more and work with more electronic producers – manipulators.” This is no more evident than on his fast-becoming signature song ‘Worth It’, invoking Imogen Heap-esque vocal manipulation, an artificial Sumney as self-deprecating as ever, questioning his credentials as a lover and a counterpart. It’s probably the most R&B-sounding song you’ll hear from him.

Sumney’s voice is the centrepiece of his creations, deserving of all praises. Possessing a dulcet falsetto that glides with ease, he can reach peaks that Prince and Michael would commend. His harmonies are dense and rich - attributing this to his exposure of heyday 90s R&B stars when he was younger. “I'm definitely inspired by a lot of R&B vocal production and harmonies – I've spent tons of time listening to Brandy, Destiny's Child and early Beyoncé a cappellas.” Yet, it was his choir boy days that instilled in him a deeper appreciation of vocal arrangements, explaining: “it had a huge effect on me – composers like Moses Hogan and Eric Whitacre ended up being a huge influence in the way I write and record vocal.”

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His DIY approach to song craft seeps authentically into his live performances, utilising analogue equipment and pedals - it’s all about the power of improvisation. Looping harmonies using three microphones, he’s able to replicate the vocal strength of a small choir and the effect is haunting, completely in tune with the soundscapes he weaves on record. Sumney has cardinal rules for live gigs however, “for my show there are no computers on stage and every show must be different than the others.”

Performing is prayer for Sumney, but in between songs Sumney will read you indelibly, even before you realise you were momentarily clocked. His set at St Pancras Church in London is peppered with intermittent drags, calling on the audience to partake in a sing-along but shading their inability to hold a note. He has the audience at his mercy, possessing a genuine knack for conversational lark and his gravitas as a live performer burns brighter as a result. When Sumney’s in performance mode – a one-man band essentially – you see in full technicolour, an artist in command and completely devoted to the congregation he incites.

Opening with the Hebrew-sung ‘Incantation’, Sumney’s voice becomes an instrument unto itself, soaring through the venue, echoing off the stained-glass windows. It’s an audacious opener, Sumney seeking protection in the form of prayers from “the music industry.” “I primarily want the audience to feel too afraid to talk while I'm performing. Music is inherently spiritual to me, so I want the venue to open up the channels for that to flow through.” His choice of Churches for special gigs in LA and London illustrate the want for the audience to walk away feeling anointed by the whole experience. “I’m not religious but I am spiritual. I find sanctity in music. It's important for me to connect those dots – the idea that music itself transcends this earth and pulls from another realm. To me, it is innate. Finding God in music is innate.”

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Music is inherently spiritual to me...

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Sumney is all about the mastery of live performance, so it’s no surprise that James Blake has endorsed him, selecting him as a support act earlier this year for his autumn tour. Full of gratis for Blake, Sumney praises his own showcase of a genre-bending palette of songs, “I’ve seen first-hand how he can traverse multiple genres in one sitting – his show goes from pumping beats to piano ballads and back again, and it never stops being engaging.” Sumney incorporates an eclectic mix of slow burners and more defiant up-tempos in his own set, flitting from melodic, folk-inflected hymns to tracks borne out of more recent recording sessions. One such track sounds like a rhythmic rebellion - a war cry, featuring a frantic, looped percussion built from a mere tap of the mic.

It’s a snapshot of where Sumney is heading, ‘Lamentations’ a bridge between his earlier material and his future LP - a creation he credits as developmental but not elemental. “My sound is expanding and I have no interest in genre boundaries. I've written enough songs for 3 albums over this period, and every time I think I'm done, I realise I can push it a bit further.” Look no further than the melancholic epic ‘We Believe’ with The Cinematic Orchestra, a tapestry of lush arrangements augmented by Sumney’s dramatic falsetto. He isn’t resting on his laurels, it’s about growth and not repeating what’s come before. “I'm constantly changing and stretching. The new music will be even better-produced, more honest, and more diverse sounding.”

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Catch Moses Sumney At the Union Chapel, London on April 3rd.

Words: Shahzaib Hussain

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