Moses Sumney, A Choir of One
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Moses Sumney was drawn to music early in life. However, he was also very shy. He has been writing and performing songs for as long as he can recall. "I kind of think that when you are meant to do something, or you are drawn to thing naturally, you'll find your way to them," Moses Sumney. For the first two decades of his life, though, this was a private passion. He didn't perform. Something changed when he turned 20. Sumney realized that time was fleeting and he had to get to work on the thing that he had long wanted to do. "I think music just came to me naturally my whole life," says Sumney, "but it was a sense of desperation that got me to eventually get over the sense of shyness."
Born and raised in San Bernardino, Sumney is the son of pastors who lived in Ghana, Germany, France and Canada before settling in California's Inland Empire. "It is hard to say how my parents being pastors informed my music," he says. "I'm not sure that it did, or, if it did, it didn't in a direct or explicit way." He did grow up in a house where gospel music and reggae played often and Sumney thinks that might have had some influence on his music. Save for a year of high school spent as a choir member, where he developed an appreciation for harmony, he learned how to make music on his own. "I'm self-taught in the way that anyone can be," says Sumney. He had some references-- Google and YouTube came in handy-- and tried to play the songs he heard.
A couple years after learning guitar, Sumney picked up a tool that came to define his sound. He found a loop pedal on eBay. Because the budding musician lacked formal training and knowledge of recording programs, he was limited in how he could make those melodies in his head a reality. "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." With the effect, Sumney was able to create sounds that were dreamy, maybe a little noisy, and overall poetic.
The poetry in his music is part of Sumney's education. At UCLA, he studied creative writing. "There's no way my parents would let me get a music degree," he says. Plus, he didn't have the background for a music major. With creative writing, though, he could study poetry and that, Sumney knew, would help his songwriting. "Something that was really important for me was to learn economy," he says. "I learned a lot about being concise."
Eventually, Sumney was meeting with music industry types who encouraged him to go into the studio. At the time, the singer was listening to Amy Winehouse demos, as well as Sufjan Stevens, Elliot Smith and Nick Drake. He wanted something a little raw and wasn't sure that studio sessions would do the trick. Then he met Dave Sitek, from TV on the Radio, who suggested that Sumney record himself. Sumney wanted to record on a four-track, so Sitek lent him one. In his bedroom, Sumney recorded the songs that would comprise his EP, Mid-City Island. "It was an amazing experience, just learning about myself and learning about what sounds I like," he says.
As striking as the collection of songs is, Sumney admits that he was "afraid" to release it. "I'm really glad that I did," he says.
Highlighting the EP is "Plastic," a song that was inspired by Amy Winehouse. Sumney had been listening to the late singer's work around the time that he wrote this song. "I just loved the way she writes songs," he says. Particularly, Sumney was listening to demos that revolved around Winehouse's voice and a guitar. "She so raw in her emotion and so dramatically honest," he says. That approach became something of an aspiration. "If I could be so brave and so bold to write lines that were so honest with nothing but the guitar and the voice," he says. But there's a flip side to the story of someone who appeared so strong, but was also quite troubled. "I think she was someone who definitely flew," says Sumney, "but she flew with a certain artificiality."
Sumney's work has already drawn a lot of acclaim. "I think that in a lot of ways, it can be a distraction," he says of the attention. "I'm really grateful for everything," he says, but stresses that he tends to think more in terms of what he has to learn or do next. Where Sumney released his EP "quietly," he now says that he's ready for a studio-produced album with promotion and the works. The timeframe for that next release, though, is still unknown. Sumney responds, "Soon, I hope."