Moses Sumney is off to a late start. He accidentally slept through most of the afternoon, so the rigorous routine that he has established is slightly disoriented. This routine includes fasting overnight for 16 hours, reading or writing for 30 minutes, drinking water with lemon and pink Himalayan salt, exercising and stretching, and a strict skincare regimen. So many people have been spiraling from spending all their pandemic time indoors, but Sumney has been comfortable in solitude. Considering how much of his work is about isolation, he’s not only survived but, dare we say, thrived in quarantine. (In case it wasn’t already obvious, yes, he’s a Taurus.)
“Being alone is in many ways an ideal mental and emotional state for me,” he says. “As much as being quarantined has been terrifying from time to time, it's been really good for me to reset, slow down, take stock of my life, and figure some shit out. So I've actually kind of liked it... Some might even say I loved it.” There’s a sense of warmth that can be heard in his deep speaking voice, a gentleness that is evoked when he makes playful comments like this. If you listen carefully to his music, you can find the jokes buried within the fibers of tracks like “Two Dogs.” (The opening verse is: “I had two dogs / In the summer of 2004 / One was boot black / The other whiter than a health food store.”)
Sumney is a homebody, and he makes his humble abode in Asheville, North Carolina, where he moved two years ago in exchange for a quieter life. The Blue Ridge Mountains-town has a rich history of fostering a creative community; legends like Zelda Fitzgerald and today's Angel Olsen have call called it home. When asked about his favorite place in his house, Sumney gushes about his precious reading nook and the loft space that’s a makeshift meditation room. Listening to his internal desires when he was clearly “being called to nature” and leaving Los Angeles has brought him so much peace; he has honestly “never been happier” now that he is “out of the city, out of the noise, out of the shoulder rubbing.” Sumney adds: “There's so much in this life that we don't get to choose. If you can set the terms of your interior life as you want them, then you should, because that's one of the few things that you can control.”
By now, most people know the story of Moses Sumney. There are enough write-ups that dissect his backstory as the child of pastors raised in Southern California, with a brief relocation to Ghana, going on to chronicle how he pivoted from the woes of post-grad struggles with a creative writing degree to the experience of having the pick of the litter when major labels came calling. From there, he collaborated with icons like Solange, Bon Iver, and Flume, and opened on tours for Sufjan Stevens, James Blake, and Local Natives. But when the hype slowly died down after his early breakout success with the 2017 album Aromanticism, Sumney was left alone to figure out how to have a sustainable career without sacrificing his integrity along the way. Specifically, could he flourish by re-planting himself in an environment far away from the ivory towers of the music industry?
It wasn’t long ago that he accompanied Stevens alongside St. Vincent and Chris Thile for a special performance of “Mystery of Love” (from the film Call Me By Your Name) at the Oscars in 2018. It’s a rare opportunity that would be a dream come true for most artists, but Sumney isn’t bragging about it. “The story of my career has been, ‘I saw so much so soon,’ that it's really hard for me to be impressed or blown away,” he says. “I didn't walk into the theater pinching myself.” It’s not that he’s coming from a place of being ungrateful, Sumney is just disillusioned by the spectacle of it all (except for seeing Viola Davis, which he was very excited about). Sumney acknowledges that “it was crazy to be allowed in that space,” and if anything, he feels more prepared should he be given the chance to do it again as a main act.
Looking back on the sequence of events, the only career advice that Sumney regrets not taking is when Stevens, “a model for kindness,” warned him about considering a name change in 2015. “He was like, ‘You're gonna wish that you aren’t using your real name,’ and I knew he was right, because I already was feeling that way, but for whatever reason I never took his advice,” Sumney laughs. “That was one of the more valuable things that he told me directly.”
Even in the throes of chaos, Sumney maintains a strong sense of setting boundaries, protecting his energy, and loosening his grip on situations that he simply can’t control. When the influx of information overloads, he just turns off his phone and closes the computer screen. Of course, the musician hasn’t exactly enjoyed watching the world collapse since the protests and uprising began. The first part of his sophomore album, græ, (pronounced like the color, “gray”) was released prior to the pandemic; the second half arrived right before all the calls for solidarity flooded social media in the form of black boxes, roundups, hashtags, and bodies.
Given that Sumney’s visual elements are equally as important as the music itself, the cover of græ offers a powerful image that redefines depictions of the Black male body in popular culture. His full vision for the artwork wasn’t clear until he eventually saw the image that photographer Eric Gyamfi had captured while they were shooting in Ghana. In that moment, all he knew was that he “needed to be nude,” because the album is “so naked and honest and exposing.” Sumney felt an urgency to “fully put my body on the line,” so he draped all six feet and two inches of himself over a massive rock in front of a waterfall. “It felt really daring to present the Black body in that way,” he says. “The most radical thing I could do [was] to present a soft and vulnerable image of a nude Black male body. I'm really proud of that image.”
Sumney spent the past two years working on the project at his own leisurely pace, but græ took less time to make than its predecessor, while using twice the amount of resources — between the amount of people involved in the process and the material itself. “Part of why I moved to Asheville was because I wanted to live somewhere where I could be undistracted and make my thing in a focused manner,” he explains. “An album is a snapshot of a moment in time. Once you're able to consider any piece of art as that, I think it gives you some closure and finalities, so you can really just let it go and realize that there'll be more time to do other things, or you can return to a subject or a topic in a few years and reassess how you feel about it.”
While it wasn’t his intention to provide the soundtrack for the next level of the simulation, græ happens to be a portal that perfectly encapsulates the experience of surviving a global crisis without a manual for the journey ahead. The result is something of a time capsule of his divine symphonies that coincides with our present circumstances without explicitly commenting on it. Sumney’s guide to deep introspection is fully at our disposal, if we are willing to surrender to the cleanse from his sacred sound bath.
Learn more about the wiring of such a multidimensional mind and meditate on some of Sumney’s insights in the condensed interview below:
Leading up to the release of Aromanticism, I remember you publishing a “prose-poem” on Tumblr and what stuck out the most to me was when you wrote, “This isn’t protest music, however, as much as it is process music.” When I listened to græ it felt like a healing soundtrack for the revolution while we’re still in the thick of this global pandemic, so I was wondering what the narrative is behind this new project in your mind?
In making album two, I think I was really conscious of narrative and the stifling nature of a narrative, especially when you have to reiterate it over and over. In discussing Aromanticism, I was often talked into a corner, or I would have to talk myself into a corner of saying, “This is who I am and what I like.” I don't really believe that, that identity can be this static definable tangible thing for me. I realized that whenever I described something about myself to someone, there are aspects of that description that are untrue or temporary, or contain contradictions within themselves. So I found having to talk about love or the absence of love in this context really stifling in the end, because my feelings about love were much more complex than that record was understood to portray. If you do a close reading of the lyrics, there is a complicated image of love being created, but regardless, it became clear to me that in order for people to understand you, you have to be able to define yourself. And the simpler you can make those terms of definition, the more understood you will be… and I hated that. I wanted to both rebel against that concept, but also expand the way I talked about love, because my experience and my understanding of love has expanded.
How do you feel about being in a position where you have a platform? What’s your approach for engaging in discourse?
I don’t know; I have to be careful. I always have to recalibrate, because sometimes I don’t think I'm engaging in this sport. Sometimes I'm just firing off a tweet as I have a random thought, and I'm like, “Oh, I'm gonna tweet that.” I get really annoyed when I then find out that random thought was turned into an article, or someone writes a profile about me, and it's just this random thought I had at 2 a.m. that I don't ever remember. But it becomes part of how to express what I think about the world. That part is weird. So I try to self-censor, specifically on Twitter. Of course, sometimes I'm like, “No, fuck it!”
But I definitely do have thoughts on race and politics that make it on there. In the same way that an album is a snapshot of a moment in time, you move on from that moment, just like any snapshot. Once you are in an article, that cements and immortalizes a version of you that you might move on from. I think social media does the same thing. I might have a stupid opinion today and then read something and have a different opinion tomorrow, but if I make the mistake of expressing the stupid opinion, that becomes my identity. So that's a little tricky to navigate.
I remember your tweet back in March about how overqualified so many Black indie artists are and the thread that followed. How did you feel a few months later during the uprising when all of these brands, companies, corporations, and individuals suddenly started churning out roundups of Black people to support? Personally speaking, I felt very conflicted about it because the recognition is long overdue in most cases, but it’s like “Where have y’all been this whole time?”
One of the things that I find interesting is that there are a million indie bands that are just a guy or girl with a guitar singing songs about their life, and there are not many Black artists that get to be just that. In order to be a remarkable Black artist, you have to be genre-bending and futuristic and forward-looking, and you have to look interesting. You can't just show up in flannel, you've got to be polished and put together, but sonically and artistically you have to be doing something that's groundbreaking in order to have a bare minimum career as an indie artist. You would really struggle to name and list many who are average at what they do. Don’t get me wrong, there are tons of average Black people, and that will normalize that as well, but unfortunately you're not even gonna get an indie record deal operating on that level. It's kind of funny that the bar is so much higher for us.
Genre categories continue to be confining for Black artists specifically. What have you actively done to resist being categorized?
The biggest thing I did was make [græ], a record that flows seamlessly from rock to experimental jazz to R&B to stripped down folk... The best thing I could do for myself was make the record that I wanted to make. With Aromanticism, I was very afraid that if I ventured out too far, I would lose people. Once I realized that I can do whatever the fuck I want to do, I decided, “I'm gonna do all the sounds that speak to me and then I can move to explore.”
But these days, I'm trying to resist the impulse to resist categorization, because ultimately, whether you play into it or against it, you are responding to this larger oppressive structure. These days, I'm like, “Look, if people want to call me a specific genre they can, I don't care.” I'm gonna make what I want to make and I know what it is, but ultimately you can't control the general public's perception of you. Toni Morrison says the function of racism is to distract you from your work, but I think that is a huge distraction to be focused on… You give up power in a lot of ways by letting it control you, which is a line from the record in one of the interludes, “the people define you control you.”
In what ways have you evolved on both a personal and professional level since your debut album came out in 2017?
The biggest thing for me has been knowing my worth and discovering my worth, or that I possessed worth before my first record. I knew I had ambition and imagination, but I would not have deemed myself worthy of a career or of taking up space. The biggest difference between me now and me then is I know my worth, whether or not I'm receiving it. I do mean in the sense of money, but also time, attention, love, and care… just knowing that what I do is very special and a lot of work goes into it. It takes a special kind of listener to really give it the time and space to get into it. I used to look at other artists and be like, “Oh, well I'm not as good as them,” or “I'm not as hard working as them,” or “What I do is too niche or weird.” And now I'm just like, “No, I'm sick.” Those of us who are trying to contribute something meaningful and inquisitive to the world should stand behind it and support it and not be ashamed of it.
I recently read this article in The Atlantic that explores how “success addicts” sacrifice happiness in the pursuit of achievement. I’m curious, how would you define success now?
That's a difficult question to answer. I think my answer to that changes from day to day. The truest answer is success is equal to one’s own happiness, and if you're happy with what you did, you're successful. I also think success is regional; I'm more successful in North Carolina than I am in California, not because more people know me here — more people know me in California — but I could have more peace here. If we're talking economically, I can afford to have a yard and a garden and an upstairs loft that I sleep in here. In material terms, success varies so much depending on where you are in the world. But more than anything, I would say, success is one's own happiness with what they made. If you go to sleep at night or if you look back on a piece of work and you feel at peace with it, that's the truest success.