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Moses Sumney wants to write “soft punk”

The singer and his former day-to-day manager talk Nina Simone, surrendering to songwriting, and how he keeps morphing as an artist. 

Daniel Soto

For how meteoric his rise has been, Moses Sumney’s current wave of success is a long time coming. While he started writing music as a teenager in Accra, Ghana, he didn’t start performing his songs in front of an audience until he was 20 years old. In 2010, he moved to Los Angeles to study creative writing at UCLA, where he taught himself how to play guitar in his spare time, eventually playing in indie rock bands with his peers.

For years, Moses spent nights and weekends honing his craft in private and studying the work of other artists. He doesn’t do spicy food. He has a supremely dry sense of humour, which is rivalled only by his magnanimity. And, since 2014, he's toured relentlessly, opening for the likes of Solange, Sufjan Stevens, Erykah Badu, Karen O., and James Blake

He is one of those friends with whom you can pick up right where you left off, no matter how much time has passed. On the heels of his performance at the Sydney Opera House, we chatted about the trials of finding one’s voice, knowing when a song is “finished”, and surrendering to the artistic process.

 

DANIEL SOTO: Thank you for taking the time. How are you?

MOSES SUMNEY: The irony of taking this phone call from your bed is not lost on me.

I was joking that I was going to ask you to describe where you are right now and then in the write-up I’ll be like “Moses is in a very tastefully appointed apartment,” and then—big reveal—it’s mine!
And then you just link to it on Airbnb.

“It’s about surrender—just being able to say, ‘You know, I’m just gonna let the music do whatever it wants to do.’”

Yeah, exactly. Do you remember the first time that I ever saw you perform?
I don’t remember...I would think that it was while we were in college, was it not? Was it with my old band?

No that’s right, it was during college. I think it may have been an open mic night or something like that, but I was on my way to a meeting and I stopped in and I didn’t even really know who you were at the time or that you were in another band, but I saw you play and it was just you and a guitar and I was like “Oh shit, who is that/what is this,” and I stopped and stayed as long as I could.
That’s so funny.

You’re disarmingly charming … the music you’re playing can have this inner turmoil, and you crack jokes in between, and as an audience member it takes you out of it in a good way, because you’re reminded of the artifice, you’re reminded of the craft, you’re reminded that you’re just some guy on a stage relating to the world and relating to people in the way that you do.
I think that part’s probably just luck. In terms of the performance aspect it was never so calculated that I’d be like, “Oh okay, well now I’m going to be intense and now I’m going to be funny.” It was like, “I’m just nervous, I’m gonna talk.”

When you were first writing songs and performing them in front of people, were there any specific artists that you had in mind who had inspired you?
Nina Simone—I was also listening to her a lot and her live performances. Ella Fitzgerald...Jill Scott! I was also listening to their studio stuff, but these are artists whose live shows I was pretty intent on studying.

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen you live, but no two performances are alike. You pay a lot of attention to reading the room, and as soon as you play a chord or start to sing, you’re changing the temperature of the room, and that’s always exciting to see.
That’s just jazz, listening to jazz and thinking about performance through the lens of jazz music. Even if it’s not jazz music that I’m performing, it’s the spirit of improvisation and the spirit of tuning a song to the environment that you’re in.

Moses Sumney at Pitchfork Music Festival 2016 in Chicago, IL. Photo: Nina Corcoran

“I truly don't believe any piece of art is ever done...if a song has life it keeps living.”

How did you arrive at that?
When I was at UCLA I was playing a lot with the jazz students and trying desperately to keep up with them, and they were always so good at doing different things every time. Every show is different and every energy is different, and I think you just have to listen. It’s about surrender—just being able to say, “You know, I’m just gonna let the music do whatever it wants to do.” 

That idea of surrender—you’re very meticulous in what you want to say or what you want something to sound like. In the songwriting process, how do you know when a song is done?
It’s such a typical “art answer” but I truly don’t believe any piece of art is ever done. At some point you just have to stop working, but I think I tried to listen to the songs and when I reach the point where I’m like “I don’t have any more ideas” or “I don’t feel like this needs anything else,” that’s probably when I stop; that’s also part of why every live performance is different, because every song, to me, keeps giving. By the time “Doomed” came out, I had already performed seven different versions of it—some of them quite different because I felt like if a song has life it keeps living, keeps regenerating in new ways. 

You’ve talked in interviews about the ways in which black artists get pigeonholed into the genre of R&B and how that stifles an artist’s ability to morph. Now that you’ve arrived at this sound, what’s next for you artistically?
I just want to keep morphing. That’s the frustrating thing about having arrived at a sound. If you’re smart you can just sit there for a minute and explore all of the corners of that sound, but maybe just because I have ADHD I’m not really capable of doing that. Instead of being like “Let’s master it,” I’m like “Alright, let’s make a punk rock album now,” that’s kind of what I want to do.

I want to know what a Moses Sumney punk rock album sounds like.
It’ll probably be really soft, honestly, but in my head it’s like really soft but punky...it’s soft punk, that’s it—soft punk [laughs].

Photo: Ibra Ake

Soft Punk 2018. So this is your second time playing in Australia. What was the reception like last time?
It was amazing, I was very flattered. All of the headline shows sold out and the festival shows were really beautiful. Yeah it was great—it was the best time I’ve had touring a country.

Can you talk a little bit about what the audiences at the Sydney Opera House can expect?
Ummm...class, pure class [laughs]. I’ll be playing with a full band. I’m adding a drummer to the show for the first time. We have this drummer from New Zealand named Paul Taylor who goes by Lucky Paul. But you know, it’s going to be “non-drums”, My guitar player likes to call what he does “non-guitar”, because it’s using a guitar as a jumping off point for sounds that you wouldn’t normally expect, and I kind of want every instrument to do that. I think it’s gonna be a really intimate show that is allowed to be dynamic because I’ll have three other musicians on stage for the first time.

You’re an incredibly versatile artist and I feel like you could go in so many different directions, but everything that you do seems to make sense as “you”. How do you navigate that in relation to the music industry and its machinations?
At some point you just have to accept that you can't control everything, and the way people choose to talk about you is not your business, it’s their business—it’s their problem, because it can drive you crazy [laughs]. But I think I did it by making sure to diversify what I’m doing, so in one year it was like “Yeah I’m gonna tour with Sufjan Stevens, but I’m also gonna do The Roots Picnic, but I’m also gonna open for Erykah Badu, but I’m also gonna release this 7-inch with Terrible Records that I recorded to tape with an acoustic guitar,” and just finding ways to signal to people that you’re a diverse thing. 

Daniel Soto is a music programmer and event producer. He is the Manager of Programming and Community Engagement at The Music Centre in Los Angeles. Twitter @danesoto

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