First Person: Moses Sumney
Pairing deft guitar with his lithe falsetto, Moses Sumney performs his soulful folk on Artbound Presents Studio A. He recently broke into the Los Angeles music scene with his solo performances, which feature a vibrant choir of his looped vocals.
Discover more about Moses Sumney in his own words.
On Settling in California
I ended up in San Bernardino by being born. My parents moved there, they're originally from Ghana, but most recently they had moved from Canada after living in Europe for a few years. And, they lived in quite a few countries, and finally settled in California, in San Bernardino, the most glamorous city in California if people didn't know. They moved from Ghana to Germany to France to Canada to California. [My parents] they're pastors and apostles. They start churches.
On The Influence Of Religious Music
It is hard to say how my parents being pastors informed my music. I'm not sure that it did, or if it did, it didn't in a direct or explicit way. I don't make Christian music, although, maybe you could say there is some sense of spirituality in my music, but I guess there was a lot of gospel growing up in my house. It was all gospel and reggae. Maybe hearing the kind of melismatic, spiritual way of singing, like the rifs and the runs, and (singing) from gospel music. That's probably gone into my music, or infected the way I ended up singing in the end.
On the Influence Of Choir On His Music
Growing up I never listened to that much African music, and definitely not any African choirs. I was in choir for a year in high school. Interestingly enough, I think that was influential to my music because I started thinking of harmony. Sort of learning how to harmonize there and sort of beginning to appreciate the stacked vocal, or chorus. There is a composer that we used to do named Moses Hogan, who usually composed negro spirituals that I really enjoyed.
On His Early Start Making Music
I was always drawn to music from an early age, but because I was so shy and it wasn't a talent that was encouraged in me as a child, I never performed or anything. I kind of think that when you are meant to do something, or you are drawn to things naturally, you'll find your way to them, and so as long as I can remember I've been singing and making up songs, but I've always done them in privacy, and it wasn't until I was twenty years old that I was like "man, I'm in my twenties. I haven't performed solo ever. I've always said I wanted to do this. I'm probably gonna die soon. I should just get it moving." So I think music just came to me naturally my whole life, but it was a sense of desperation that got me to eventually get over the sense of shyness and pursue it.
On Learning How To Play Guitar
I taught myself how to play the guitar. Just listening to things and trying to play them back and looking on YouTube and Googling stuff. I always say I still don't feel like a good guitarist because I've only been playing for four years, which still feels so new and I taught myself how to sing too.
I'm self-taught in the way that anyone can be. There were resources that I accessed, there were other singers that I was inspired by, but I never had formal training.
On His Signature Looping Sound
The looping is fairly new. I've only been doing it for two years. I had always wanted to try it, and one day I just ordered a loop pedal off of Ebay and started messing around with it. I initially started doing it because I would always hear all these sounds in my head, but because I do not have formal training, I could not play it out. I did not know how to use software, or computer music programs. So, I could not record the things I was hearing, and I figured getting a loop pedal would just be the easiest way to start writing songs, and getting out the sounds, and hearing them back. Prior to that, I had been writing, I had just started writing songs on guitar, but I'd mostly written my songs a capella, just writing down the lyrics and memorizing the melodies, and hearing the music in my head, and so looping was a way to get it out, and I did not intend to do it live initially, but, I needed more songs when I finally got a gig, so I was like okay, I will just bring my loop pedal and figure it out. And I've been doing it ever since.
On Studying Creative Writing At UCLA
I studied creative writing in school because it was kind of part of the English major, and there's no way my parents would let me get a music degree, or something, so the closest I could get was like English. I did not have any educational background in music, so I could not study music, and so I figured if I studied creative writing, I can still apply that to my music. I was also really interested in being a novelist when I was younger, so I ended up going to school mostly for poetry, and I did that definitely with the intention of using it to aid my song writing. That was a lot of fun. It was really interesting. It was a little weird because I was not very well versed in poetry, and the canonical masters of poetry. I did not know who Allen Ginsberg was, and people would be like, "What are you doing here?" And I would be like, "I just wanna write songs." But it was fun. I learned a lot about form and economy, and it was really nice to share my work with other people, and get feedback, and I think I just kind of took what I learned from there, and applied it to songwriting.
I think something that was really important for me to learn was economy, which is being particular about the way you select words, or how much you are saying. I think prior to studying poetry I would overwrite. I would say "I am feeling really sad and down right now, and I want you to know this about me." I think when you learn about economy, you learn to just be like, "The sky is dark blue." It's a much shorter way of saying that. You know much more creative ways of saying those things and stuff. Yes, I learned a lot about being concise, and not overdoing it. Sometimes you just need a few lines to express a book's worth.
On His Song Plastic
When I wrote "Plastic" I was listening a lot to Amy Winehouse, who's one of many inspirations of mine, and I think she had died not too long before I wrote that song. I just loved the way she writes songs. She has a lot of rough demos, where it is just her and guitar, and she is so raw in her emotion and so dramatically honest, and I was like, "wow, if I could be so brave and so bold to write lines that were so honest with nothing but the guitar and voice." That song in a way was also dedicated to her. I was just thinking, she was such a strong woman, she had a strong exterior, but she was really emotionally kind of corrupt. Thinking of "Plastic Wings" I think she was someone who definitely flew, but she flew with a certain artificiality. Icarus, the story of Icarus. He would make wings and then flies into the sun. Wax Wings.He flies into the sun, and then they melt and he falls down.
On His First EP
My first EP was definitely a bold move, and something I needed to make. I needed to put out in the way that I did because when I did it I was kind of in this very, very strange space of becoming sort of known in L.A. for the first time, and meeting with a lot of producers and being constantly told "Hey you need to get into the studio and make something proper, maybe get a band, put a budget behind this, and whatever" but I was listening so much to Amy Winehouse demos and early Sufjan Stevens and starting to get into Elliot Smith and Nick Drake, and I didn't want to make something that was super produced, and at the time I met Dave Sitek, who's a producer and he plays in TV on the Radio, he was like, "You know, what you should probably do, you've never recorded yourself before, you don't really know what your studio sound is gonna be. You should maybe just start recording yourself." And then I was like, "Oh, I would love to actually record on a four track recorder. It's a cassette that's my dream." And he goes, "Oh, okay." And he walks into the other room, and he brings me this four track recorder from the 1980s -- that was what he recorded the first 'TV on the Radio' stuff with -- and he was like, "Take this home. Go make something cool, and bring it back to me." In a month I think he said? And I was like, "Okay." So, I made my EP in my bedroom on the four track recorder that he gave me, and it was an amazing experience just learning about myself, and learning about what sounds I like, and just being really raw. I was really afraid to put it out, but now I'm really glad that I did.
On Living In Midcity Los Angeles
Two of the songs from the set are from that EP, "Man on the Moon" and "Plastic." And the EP is called "Midcity Island" because I live in Midcity, and no one else does. No one else does. Plenty of people live in Midcity, but no one else that I associate with lives in Midcity.
On His Song-writing Process
Usually these days usually the melody comes first. The sound comes first, or I'll be messing around on the guitar, and just making sounds, and then I'll listen back to the sounds that kind of came naturally and say, "what is this trying to say? What does this want to be?" And then, craft lyrics out of it. So mostly, I let the sound dictate what the lyrics will be, which is interesting because I come from a writing background, and I think I wanted to let go of the idea that lyrics were the most important thing in the world, and figure out how to convey meaning with music, so that usually happens. With my song "Everlasting Sigh" though, the lead lyric came first. That's maybe the one song that I play that "it was a sighing on the embers of a fire that must be allowed to die." I had that lyric in my head, and then I somehow made a song from it.
On What The Future Holds For Moses
How am I receiving the attention? I do not know actually. I go back and forth on receiving attention. I think that in a lot of ways it can be a distraction. I think that I am so early in my career and I have so much work to do that when I get the attention of people I look up to, or, I do not know, publications or I do not know, anyone, it does not usually feel like 'Oh my gosh! I've made it!". It's more like I need to figure out what I'm doing" 'Because I feel like there is so much more to do, and I can not get stuck on that. I am really grateful for everything, but I am the type of person that, I am always ... I need to work, so next up is actually getting into the studio, and putting out something that is produced. 'Midcity Island' I love it, but I released it very quietly. I just put it online. I was like 'Is anyone looking? Here it is.' And then went and hid in my room. I think I needed to do that so that I was taking a step as opposed to jumping in, into the whole thing, and I think I am ready now to do something that is produced, and put that out, and promote it properly as they say.
On When His New Album Will Be Released
Soon I hope. I cannot say fully, there is a lot behind the scenes that needs to be figured out.
On His Appreciation For XX
They are cool. I actually do not know. They are cool. I actually don't listen to them that much. I just went to their show, and I had a good time, and so I put the sticker on the back of my guitar.