Moses Sumney on resisting definition and new album ‘græ’: “My identity is a kind of patchwork”

The artist's extraordinary second album, which veers from experimental jazz to art-pop, sees him embrace and, ultimately, celebrate his multiplicity

Moses Sumney was broke and hungry when he took to the stage for the second solo performance of his professional career back in 2014. A room full of representatives from major record labels packed into the performance, hoping to sign the prodigious young talent they’d already heard so much about. Yet Sumney turned down each and every one of them – but not before they’d bought him dinner.

“I was broke. I mean, really, really broke,” Sumney laughs over the phone from his US apartment where he’s currently on lockdown. “I let them buy me dinner because I had no food. I would go to meetings knowing that I would never – not in a million years – sign with their label. But, you know, my fridge and my stomach were empty. I’d go to dinner, order two meals, eat one and take the other home for the next day.”

An early breakthrough in 2014 – with his self-recorded EP ‘Mid-City Island’ –  led to a frenzy of label interest. A series of collaborations with artists including Beck, Solange and Sufjan Stevens added even more buzz. Yet it was another three years before he signed with acclaimed experimental label Jagjaguwar, home to the likes of Angel Olsen and Bon Iver. Why did he wait so long? “I had been studying the music industry all my life,” Sumney says. “I felt pretty sure that if I signed a record deal before I had an idea of the creative direction I wanted to go in, I would lose myself. I would be controlled.” Worried he’d be moulded into “another hypothetical pop star” he held off until 2017.

“I wasn’t interested in negotiating how to change my art,” he explains. He says joining the roster at Jagjaguwar was a life-changing decision. “I signed to a label that would let me do whatever I wanted to do and be whoever I wanted to be,” he beams, knowing it’s taken a lifetime to find people who understand.

“I was broke. I mean, really, really broke”

Sumney’s latest album, ‘græ’ is an expansive, 20-song album released in two parts – the first installment came out in March and the second arrives today (May 15). By design, it’s often impossible to define, courting jazz, art-pop, spoken word, electronica and avant-garde. Then again, multiplicity is nothing new to Moses Sumney.

Born just outside of L.A. to Ghanaian parents – both of them pastors – Sumney spent his childhood grappling with his identity: Should he consider himself African or American? Often, he found himself expected to choose just one answer. Aged 10, he returned to Ghana with his parents for six years, and once there, Sumney felt “too American”. “I had never been there, and with not speaking the language,” he says, “it was just kind of weird. In the middle of school, I had to adjust my home and learn a whole new cultural system. It took a toll.”

Moses Sumney
Sumney onstage. Credit: Getty

When he returned to the US, he began to realise that his diasporic identity didn’t fit any simple definition, despite numerous attempts to pigeonhole him. “My identity is this kind of patchwork,” he explains. “It’s not something that can be – or that I wanted to be – defined.” And this extended to gender too. At school, Sumney found himself further isolated when his shy personality clashed with the boisterous constructions of masculinities around him.

Thematically, the new album sees him take aim at such restrictive and performative identity constructions, rallying instead for the grey areas that are so often forgotten. As he puts it on one of the album’s stand out-spoken word sections: “I insist upon my right to be multiple.”

It’s perhaps no wonder that the message on ‘græ’ feels more overt than Sumney’s previous work. After the release of his acclaimed debut – 2017’s ‘Aromanticm’ blew apart genre conventions, combining jazz, soul, chamber-pop, futurism, avant-garde and more – Sumney was widely and reductively described as an R&B artist.

“So many people have tried to kind of diminish or control my narrative,” he says. “It’s a little frustrating, but it doesn’t frustrate me nearly as much as it used to. People will always try to define you – or look to define you in order to understand you – but you don’t have to let that derail you.”

What does he hope that this new record will achieve? “I hope that some people will be exposed,” he explains, “to a type of music that they’re not used to. Maybe, if I’m fortunate, some people will learn to think outside of the box.”

“So many people have tried to kind of diminish or control my narrative.”

The record’s first half takes us from the confusion Sumney felt about his identity as a child to his growing acceptance as an adult. On soaring orchestral ballad ‘Cut Me’, he quietly rages at his outsider status as a “true immigrant son”, the words delivered in a fierce falsetto. Later, on the record’s more peaceful second half, the acoustic, stipped-back ‘Neither/Nor’ sees him assert: “I’d become one with what I was scared of / I fell in love with the in-between / Colouring in the margins.”

Sumney explains that the album is much more personal than his debut. “Making this record was dramatically different to the last,” he says. “I really wanted to exhaust everything, and explore all the different sides of my identities that are within me. I wanted it to be more naked. I think that my [multiplicity] had definitely bled into my interest in music, and the way that I construct music.”

Moses Sumney's new album 'grae' is out now
Credit: Press

The album intentionally bursts with conflicting ideas – all those clashing sounds, the admissions of vulnerability crashing up against defiant statements on identity – which is why Sumney staggered its release. “It’s a very meticulous, dense and challenging album,” he says. “It’s the type of album that rewards multiple listens. I would argue that it’s impossible to get it all at first listen, so I decided to release it in two parts. It’s experimental, and the release model needs to be experimental in some way.”

He admits, though, that he felt flutters of nervousness – a new experience for Sumney – about the project’s audaciousness. “I think the biggest challenge was probably remaining confident about the ideas. Some of them are kind of absurd.”

Sumney had to learn to be confident because he had no support in pursuing a musical career. He studied creative writing at the University of California, with the blessing of his hard-working, religious parents, who knew nothing about the fact that he was secretly pursuing music between lectures. They didn’t think that music was a viable career.

That self-belief led him to make an album as challenging, definition-defying and exploratory as ‘græ’.

“I grew up not being supported, and told that I would never make it,” he says. “It definitely created tension between me and my parents when I was a teenager. I don’t really regret it, but I think it made me more independent. I learned early on that people would not support my dream. Learning from an early age that it would be me against the world made me incredibly resilient. I was so used to struggling, going against the grain and believing in myself to an absurd degree.”

That belief has paid off but for now, Sumney is taking some much needed rest: the price of creating something ground-breaking over the course of three years is that he is exhausted. The lockdown, he says, is the first time he’s been home for longer than a month in for years. “It’s a crazy adjustment,” he laughs, “but it’s been nice to have a forced break. I’ve had a real break from trying to make new stuff. ‘græ’  was such a huge undertaking that now, there’s just not a lot of music jumping to the surface.” For now, Sumney is just happy to exist in whatever grey area he may find himself in, without definition or restriction.

Moses Sumney’s new album ‘græ’ is out now

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