The Stateless Moses Sumney
The LA-Based Musician on the Importance of Not Dictating Meaning and the Complexity of Coachella
- Interview: Meredith Graves
- Photography: G L Askew II
When Moses Sumney enters a room, all available light rushes over to greet him, joining the light he seems to bring in with him from outside. Six feet and many inches tall, with the posture of an acrobat and huge, clear, energetic eyes, there’s a volume to his spirit—as in resonance and density, but also like a gown has volume, a weightless and pronounced grace.
Sitting in a chair without arms, his casual carriage is that of a Rodin statue. He speaks quietly, but you hear every word. Writing it out longhand it would look a lot like his music: eyes flickering in sixteenth notes over measured conversation, rests for emphasis, lines of thought looping back on themselves, consideration towards every gesture and what happens in between.
Sumney’s late-2017 debut album Aromanticism was an argument for the opposite of love not being hate, but indifference—and what results when that indifference is for love itself as a commodity or institution. Moses confesses he may be “trying to define something that feels undefinable” with this endeavor, but the ghost of undefinable has hovered around Sumney since 2014’s Mid-City Island kicked off a career that seems to require a word perpetually out of reach. “Baroque-pop” and “eccentric-soul” come close to describing Sumney’s layered, airy vocals and sweeping string arrangements, but he crackles on a radio station found somewhere in the air between. Sometimes it sounds private and sleepy like Jeff Buckley and Helado Negro; sometimes it sounds like Björk wrote a song for Grace Jones, with whom Sumney shares a birthday.
So, he is difficult to pin down. But the very human desire to define things is its own kind of aromantic love—and here, comfortably in the grey area between known and unknown, between albums, and between weekends performing at Coachella, we find Moses Sumney.
I’ve read past interviews where you talked about how being picked on as a child for singing in front of your classmates made you insecure about performing, even though you always knew you’d be a musician. Are you feeling more secure now?
It definitely feels better now. It feels like I’m a real person. It feels like I’m doing a thing that I was placed on this Earth to do. I find myself connecting more with my own kind of idiosyncratic nature. And that’s what I love about people like Grace Jones and Nina Simone. Or Björk, you know. People who are just weirdos. I see what they’re doing and it feels like both beyond the boundaries of what we know of human nature to be able to produce, but also honest, and natural, and innate at the same time. Which feels undefinable.
I’ve seen you refer to that in your own writing as statelessness.
Yeah, statelessness, definitely. Just kind of being in the state of constantly moving or traveling, whether that’s physical or emotional. But not having a center.
It seems like, once you realized that people were paying attention to your music and were going to pick and choose how they narrativized you, you began to practice non-engagement as a policy. Things like saying, “I don’t know how old I am”—your answers on your Tumblr are brilliant. What made you decide to be so private, to de-center yourself?
It’s really hard in this day and age to get people to focus on your music. There are so many distractions, and so many things to talk about, especially when it comes to presenting an image of yourself. Obviously with social media and the internet, I felt from early on really pushed to be a character, or just to think of my image. It’s ironic I’m telling you this at a photoshoot, which matters to me, but the most important thing to me is the music.
I want people to connect to the music, and take from it whatever meaning stands out to them. I want people to listen to the songs and say, “This is what it means to me.” I think if people have too much context on my personal life or being, it becomes all about that. It becomes about the cult of personality as opposed to the meaning of the music.
Interviews don’t really help with the whole cult of personality thing, either.
They don’t, I know. But you’re constantly kinda, like, riding the wave. You’re always walking that tightrope—and you can fall either way at any moment.
Fall off and crash.
Fall off and break your neck.
One way you’ve defined your identity in the media is by presenting your own personality via the ideas of others. You prefaced your last record with an examination of Aristophanes, and then on the record itself, you have a song called “Stoicism.” Where does your interest in Greek mythology and philosophy come from?
It’s so funny, because I think the record makes it seem like it’s been a deep interest of mine, but it only really emerged towards the end of making the record. I wanted to contextualize it in a way that reached beyond modern times.
We’re in such a place where people are [self-]identifying more than ever before, and that feels so modern to people, especially to the old guard. I wanted to contextualize identification as something that has always happened. We’ve always been looking for ways to define and describe ourselves, or ways to give cultural significance to our personal feelings. And so I needed to reach beyond when any of us were born to say, like, these concepts I’m thinking about have been around forever.
In terms of self-identification, Aristophanes himself was a comedic playwright. As serious as your music can sound, do you think there’s anything about Aromanticism—the concept or the record itself—that’s funny?
I do, I think it’s hilaaaarious. The first song on the album is called “Don’t Bother Calling,” and it’s basically being really over-dramatic, and just saying, “Oh, don’t call me, I’ll call you,” and, “I’d love to be in love with you but I’m too busy thinking of the sun, the moon, and the stars, and the alignment of our galaxy.” It’s just so over the top and over-dramatic that in a lot of ways, I feel like I was playing a character while I was writing it, and trying to be as dramatic as possible—which is inherently funny.
And inherently Grecian. It’s the origins of drama. Drama for the ancient Greeks broke down to tragedy and comedy. And without both—
They have to coexist. Exactly. Anything that is inherently tragic is inherent comedic. That’s one thing I really like about this generation: we’ve got dark humor on lock.
Let’s talk about Coachella. As an LA native, what does it mean to you to be playing a festival that is so important but that also comes under fire every year? On the one hand, you’re looking to see how many lines down you have to go to see a female headlining, but then there’s the fact of the dude who runs it… [Ed.: Coachella owner Philip Anschutz donated nearly $200,000 to various anti-LGBT, pro-gun politicians in 2017.]
That sucks, whatever he donates to. And it also feels bigger than him. For me to be there as an artist of color, looking at all the artists of color on the line-up, looking at the female and non-binary artists that end up playing, that’s also money going into their pockets, you know what I mean? And I feel like the biggest marker of oppression is money, right? So, the biggest way to combat that is to put money in the pockets of minorities. To me, still playing it was really important. I needed to stake my claim, and be like, “Yo, I’m here. You can do this, too, if you look like me, if you’re a left-of-center, weird black kid.”
But also, I think that that conversation in liberal circles is really unfortunate, because when an artist is playing a festival that is in proximity to something oppressive, the first people we question are the minorities. Like, I got the question, “Why are you playing this?”
“That’s one thing I really like about this generation: we’ve got dark humor on lock.”
It’s, like, how can anyone play this?
Exactly. It’s like, honestly: this is not my fault. And I’m gonna try to help solve it in any way I can, because a lot of my resources—emotional, physical, and financial—go to trying to fix those problems. But I think the first people that we need to turn to are the white dudebros on the line-up. Which is not to say don’t ask me—it’s to say that accountability needs to go to the people with privilege. Accountability needs to also extend to the people who are enjoying the fruits of oppression. Not to the people who are getting a little cut and trying to shine a light on the others. I’m always like, “That’s cool, but, why don’t y’all ask Eminem?” He seems to be woke now.
I tend to get really concerned whenever anyone asks the artist themselves about anything. It’s like, you want us to get rid of the paycheque we would receive from playing this festival, but then you wanna stream all of our music for free.
Exactly. I have to work, you know what I mean? And, also, I’m not making any money from playing Coachella, to be honest. It costs so much money to put a show together on that level. Let’s not assume that we are lining our pockets. Cardi B didn’t make any money from Coachella, which I’m sure you’ve heard.
And I’m guessing Beyoncé gave her whole paycheque to her second line. Like, marching band, huge production!
Huge production. Putting money in those people’s pockets. Let’s talk about that, you know? It’s complicated.
Meredith Graves is a musician and journalist in addition to being the newly-appointed Director of Music for Kickstarter.
- Interview: Meredith Graves
- Photography: G L Askew II
- Styling: Michael Cioffoletti
- Grooming: Dreece Copeland
- Photography Assistant: Wray Sinclair
- Digitech: Patrick Gonzales
- Production Assistant: Alexis Hunley