From first look to first listen, we as humans are conditioned to put people in boxes. Whether we’re sizing up a potential friend or analysing a stranger’s sense of style, it’s hard to ignore the psychological impulse that calls out to us, inviting us to make meaning out of what we see. We do it to others, but we also do it to ourselves, setting parameters that may or may not be useful.
Moses Sumney has never been an artist interested in such boundaries. Having broken through with his 2017 debut ‘Aromanticism’, the 29-year-old has spent a lifetime reinventing himself, finding a skin that truly fits. On latest record ‘græ’, an expansive two-parter of twelve and eight songs apiece, he comes pretty close - drawing on a soaring falsetto that ties together R&B, pop, soul, indie and plenty more besides.
Finding that elegant voice, however, took some time. “I probably only found out I could sing, like two years ago,” he laughs, dialling in from his home in North Carolina. “I guess I had an interesting upbringing. I grew up writing songs, because I could do that in the safety of my bedroom, but the singing was a little tricky. I’ve been practicing since I was 12 or 13; I would get my dad to buy me CDs and I’d try to imitate them in my bedroom… Destiny’s Child, Usher, Justin Timberlake, Brandy, Nelly Furtado, all the golden age stuff. We moved from San Bernadino to Ghana when I was 10, so I had no knowledge of a counter-cultural scene or of playing in bands. I’m of the American Idol generation, but I figured out pretty quickly that that wouldn’t pass with me - I wanted something a bit more creatively fulfilling.”
The search for creative fulfilment required some adjustment. Moving back to California with his family at 16, Moses joined his high school choir, where he made friends and began to realise the emotional impact his voice was having on people. Going on to attend UCLA as a creative writing major, he began performing publicly aged 20, releasing two EPs that would pave the way for ‘Aromanticism’.
“Making ‘Aromanticism’, I was so conscious of setting up limitations for myself,” he admits. “Obviously I had the first limitation of having no money, which controlled a lot of the scope and the sound, but I was also deeply invested in minimalism, and the fear of losing people by combining too many strokes from different genres.” The record performed well, but critics became stuck on its sentiment of lovelessness, painting him as a pretentious loner fixated on isolation.
“I think the funny thing about ‘Aromanticism’ is that the record, the actual album, never said love is bad, or unobtainable - there are some personal statements on there for sure, but it’s art y’know?” he reflects. “It became very one sided. It’s definitely contributed to me wanting to make an album about greyness, about gradients, because nothing is ever that simple. I was most invested in freedom when I was working on this record, and I pursued it fiercely; I stopped caring what the genre markers were and just did whatever I wanted to do.”
"Sometimes the only way you can explain the way you're feeling is through a scream."
This shift in mindset brought Moses much closer to the idea of multiplicity. Themes of isolation are still in fine evidence on ‘græ’, but they’re reflected through a prism of many facets: the idea of self-incubation as a means of regeneration, preparing for the next phase of ever-changing, fluid identity. A vocal Twitter user, he regularly expresses frustration over the way his music is routinely coded as R&B, seeking a more nuanced state of representation.
“It’s far more complicated than just racism,” he says. “It was really funny when I went on one of my Twitter tirades and was like, ‘OK, here’s a bunch of black artists who are not as well known as I would like them to be’, and then somebody was like, ‘Thanks, can you put the genre for each artist next to their name?’ Noooo! But it’s just human nature: if we can’t name something and put it in its place, it is very difficult for us to understand what it is and what it’s trying to communicate. It’s a huge cultural flaw that a lot of society suffers from. The thing we’ve missed is that it’s just completely unnecessary, especially for our generation. We’ve grown up during the age of LimeWire and illegally downloading all types of songs, and now streaming - we all have our own playlists that have a bunch of different shit on them.”
Moses’ own playlists have led him in the direction of some pretty impressive collaborators. Having worked on projects with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, James Blake and Solange (“She has like, an encyclopaedic knowledge of musicians”), ‘græ’ features the work of Thundercat, Oneohtrix Point Never and London group Adult Jazz.
“Collaboration is a pretty straightforward process - you just have to give me a pint of your blood first,” Moses jokes. “I guess I’m quite picky - when I played the demo for ‘Me In 20 Years’ to Oneohtrix Point Never, I was like ‘Well, if you don’t like this then this isn’t going to work’. But he was like, ‘Oh my god, this sounds like an old lady screaming in the middle of Whole Foods to herself’, and I was just like yes! You get me! He really presented this idea to me that the vocals on a lot of my music go so hard, that the instrumental also needs to kinda punch you in the face for me to justify going off like that.
“I do want to make music that people can connect with, but I also want to challenge them,” he explains. “I go back to songs sometimes, and think ‘OK, this is a little too plainly stated for my tastes, how can I fuck it up a little bit?’ So the end part of ‘Cut Me’ or ‘Bless Me’ have these weird ambient noises and high-pitched sounds; sometimes the only way you can explain the way you’re feeling is through a scream.”
Occasionally, challenge comes in quieter forms. One of ‘græ’’s standout moments ‘Polly’ is devastating in its simplicity, teamed with a single-shot music video that focuses on Moses’ face as he stares into the camera, tears rolling down his cheeks. “I think the thing that makes ‘Polly’ fucked up is the confrontationally bare and honest quality of the lyrics,” he says. “To say as a man, very quietly, ‘I don’t want to live here / Sometimes don’t want to live at all’… I don’t need to give you crazy production right there for that lyric to hit, you know? I just try to be honest, and I think that’s the great thing about pop music - sometimes to just sing the melody or to plainly state something is the most honest thing you can do.”
At once defiant and humorous, ambitious yet intimate, Moses Sumney is set to become somebody who means many different things to many different people. His one hope is that listeners might follow his lead.
“Almost as soon as I put ‘Aromanticism’ out, I moved on beyond the idea of ‘-isms’,” he says. “I think, on a personal level, ‘græ’ captures the way I’m feeling right now, but who knows how I might evolve beyond this point? I don’t think there is any one social group that suits me, or even really welcomes me. I’m feeling incredibly and fiercely individual, but also connected to other people through that individuality. Culturally, I think a lot of people are waking up to the idea that you can be many things - if not all at once, then definitely over the course of your life. I hope that people identify with it, if only by realising their own multiplicity.”
'græ' is out now via Jagjaguwar.
As featured in the May 2020 issue of DIY, out now.