“It is certainly my dream, to be able to show people that there is a way you don’t have to follow the PaTh—that there is space for alternative narratives and ways of creating and being.”
Moses Sumney has centered his career, his life, on following his own lead and no one else’s. Guided by intuition, or maybe by a belief that the power of faith is greater than oneself, the path that Moses walks is filled with profundities. Moses makes beautiful things that inspire thought and provoke wonder: His music is melodically fluid—the lyrics he pens are unfeigned. His latest work is in the form of an audiovisual experience, on exhibit through September 26th at Pioneer Works’ Red Hook Labs in Brooklyn. For four blissful, emotional, freeing minutes you can move your body and mind through a box of sound and light, all by yourself. And it is in that space that the rawness, awareness, connectedness that Moses Sumney exudes shines bright, And a realization that we have only begun to experience the genius of this human starts to sink in…
Gown, WIEDERHOEFT. Boots, SYRO.
Your exhibit technoechophenomena centers around basically what every human has been experiencing this past year and a half: polarities of feeling deprived from human connection by physical and emotional isolation, and finding ecstatic joy and exhilaration in the comforts that can only emerge from being alone. Tell me everything…
It’s interesting because we started designing this experience before the lockdown—the show was supposed to be at MoMA ps1 in May of 2020. It was already going to be an experience in which one person walks into a box and has an isolated sonic and audio-visual experience. And after everything locked down, I got to develop it further. So it was really optimized for an isolated experience, but in public, and I think that’s what was really interesting to me—the idea of going into a public space, and still being able to have a very private experience, one that may be mirrored or amplified by the kinds of experiences we’ve all had while being alone at home in in isolated modes. One could argue that I’ve always made work for the isolation era. Not that I premeditated the entire world shutting down, ha, but it was a mode that I was already operating in. And so this experience was always going to be something where a person walks into a room alone. But I appreciate that it can be consumed within the modern context that we all now share. It’s definitely about our relationship with technology, and how much we affect technology and how much it affects us—or really how much we control technology versus how much we have control over it. And that’s an interesting relationship, because technology can only do the things that we teach it to do—or does it, you know? So it’s kind of like, where’s the line? Yeah, I don’t know where the line is…
What’s the most alone you’ve ever felt?
I would say that I have felt predominantly alone my entire life—I’ve felt alone-ness really profoundly. I can go back to being five or six years old, and remember feeling absolutely alone in the world. There are a few moments where loneliness or alone-ness, which notably are not the same thing, have felt novel to me. There was a period of time as I was concepting my first album, Aromanticism, in 2014. I went to North Carolina for the first time, initially on tour, in Asheville. I had never heard of it but I fell in love instantly—with the mountains, with the landscape, and knew that I had to start my first album there. So I went back. And while my friend was away on tour, I lived in his cabin in the mountains, with no internet service, and no phone service, and I lived there for a month, and it was like a dream of mine. Because I always felt so isolated, I always dreamt of being physically isolated but had never had that experience. And so that whole month, I just lived alone. And every day I would wake up and write or read, and exercise and drive around the mountains and just not talk to anybody for days on end. And it was probably the most profound time of my life. Being alone, it was incredibly difficult, incredibly confronting, and at times lonely. And also at times absolutely blissful and joyful. Probably the most meaningful time I’ve had in my life.
Let’s talk poetry. Who tops your list of most impactful poets? How has it helped shape you as a songwriter?
Obsessed with this question. So I studied poetry, but specifically poetry writing and creative writing. I didn’t have any skills. I’ve had no formal music training, I don’t have any theoretical knowledge. I would have loved to study music in college, but I didn’t know shit. So I thought, let’s get a writing degree and I’ll apply it to my lyricism. It definitely has helped me to be able to consider the lyrics in every song, it’s so important. Being a lyricist is something I’m very proud of, you know, to quote Nicki Minaj. I pushed the pen. But I was also a fake kind of poetry major because I was not into poetry. Like, I was like, oh, I got into the program—cool. And we would read poetry and I was like, this is kind of boring. I like writers. I like reading. But I don’t actually read poetry that much. That said, I really do like the Romantic era poets, especially the relationship with nature. The William Blakes, the Shelleys—I’m really into how everything is so flowery and beautiful and appreciating nature and really romantic.
Leather fringe gloves + dress, ALABAMA BLONDE. Bottoms, ELEEN HALVORSEN. Boots, SYRO.
What keeps you up at night?
LOL my phone. I definitely am creative at night. I don’t know. I just do not like going asleep sometimes. I was up till 5:30am last night because I was working on a music video. So sometimes I’m making stuff but sometimes I’m just watching Gossip Girl, the original.
Your come up is so interesting: you knew you weren’t ready for the business of music, yet you were confident that you would have opportunities when you were ready. Has your career just been led by your intuition?
I have a lot of faith in myself. And I have a lot of faith in my ability to bend the universe in my favor. I guess maybe it’s about if I’m either overconfident or I can listen to the promise that the universe has laid before me, or if I’m faithful enough to listen to my intuition and be honest with myself. And I think because of how I grew up, it was just always so far-fetched that I would even have a career in music. I come from a family of non-artists. Music is not something that was predominant in the household. I wasn’t encouraged to make music. I grew up largely in West Africa. Like all of the cards were stacked against me. And I persisted through that because I knew from a young age that this is what I was meant to do. I never questioned that. Being courted by labels I realized, okay, if I can just continue to believe and not get distracted by the shiny object, I can have what I really want, which is creative freedom and an opportunity to make something that matters, not just something that will be profitable.
You’ve made such a point in your career and with your music to honor your uniqueness. What is it about genres anyway? Why does the industry hold on so tightly to labels?
I think it’s a product of capitalism, and maybe a derivative of culture. I think it’s human nature to want to classify things. Because we know that in order to understand something, we have to be able to identify it, we have to be able to say, that’s a man, that’s a woman, that’s a human, that’s an animal. Everything has a name, a label. And I think that when it comes to capitalism, in order to sell something, you have to be able to describe it. And in order to sell it to more people, you have to be able to describe it in simpler terms, right? The simpler the term, the broader the appeal. And so I think that the music industry has just been deeply affected by capitalism.
Would grae have been a different album had you not moved to Asheville?
Great question. Absolutely it would have been because, you know, the sophomore slump is a real thing. I think it’s really hard to make a second album, especially for me, my first album was so critically acclaimed. It made me really hyper aware of eyes on me. And I also was living in LA, and I knew I didn’t want to be in LA anymore. And the two cities I loved the most were Asheville and London, so I actually moved to London in the beginning stages of making grae. I was so happy, hanging out with people all the time, staying up till the sun came up. And then I was just like, I can’t live like this. Like, I’m actually too happy to make another album. I knew that in order to make the most honest thing that I had to be in isolation, I had to go back to that place I had been when I started writing Aromanticism. And that’s when I realized I needed to put myself in the conditions where I’m alone as often as possible and I’m having to confront myself. What living in North Carolina afforded me was an opportunity to cut out all of the noise and not even have the chance to wonder how people would respond to what I was doing.
Looking back on your path, is there anything you would’ve done differently?
There’s so many. Predominantly I never would have bought an iPhone. I probably would have just stuck to my little Nokia. That would have been great. I didn’t get my phone until after I graduated from college, and I was so proud of myself, like when I made it to college with no smartphone, and then I got one, and I was like, ooooh I see what the fuss is about. My brain broke into a million little pieces. I probably would have been better to other people, especially some of my earlier collaborators.
What’s something you haven’t done yet that you want to do?
I want to write a movie. You know what I really want to do? OMG, I want to go camping. I’ve never gone camping before. This is actually crazy because I’m obsessed with nature and I’ve never been camping!
Full look, DION LEE. Headpiece, WIEDERHOEFT. Shoes, SYRO.
Very random… where do you shop?
I try not to shop but when I do I’m still a big Goodwill fan. I absolutely love it, especially if I’m shooting a video and I need to outfit it for cheap. When things get a little bit more high end… I am a slut for ssence.com. I want someone to block it on my browser. But I really don’t shop that much, way less than one might assume.
What’s something you wish I would ask you but haven’t yet?
Moses, pretending to be me: Looking at your relationship with labels and the music industry, how do you intend to approach releasing music going forward?
Me: Oh, what a great question!
Moses: Thank you. (Pause) Okay, now I’ll answer. (We laugh) The answer is I started my own record label and I’m going to be self-releasing my own music from now on.
It’s called TunTum and it’s just my music. It’s just me putting my songs out on my own terms.
CONNECT WITH MOSES SUMNEY:
story/ Eve Simonsen
photos / Shervin Lainez
CD + styling / Phil Gomez
makeup / Ricardo Delgado
hair / Francis Rodriguez