Sudan Archives: a generational talent fully blooms

The LA-based musician’s second album ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’ is a dynamic combination of her skills as a violinist and pop songwriter. As her tour rolls into Europe, NME revisits one of the year’s most magical records

Over the summer, Sudan Archives’ python, Goldie, went missing. The artist – real name Britteny Parks – was, surprisingly, supremely chill: “We weren’t sure if we were going to find Goldie, but she was hiding in the studio. We even put a dead rat out trying to get her to smell it and come out, and that didn’t work! Eventually, she popped up, and I guess she got hungry enough eventually, but I don’t know why it took her so long.”

When she speaks to NME, Parks is somewhere in Europe and thinking of her home back in Los Angeles, the place where she created her latest album, ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’, released earlier this year. She’s spent the last several weeks on a whirlwind tour that has taken her across the European continent from Copenhagen to Amsterdam to Barcelona alongside a sold-out headline show at famed venue KOKO in London this evening (Nov 23). Python remains Stateside.

“The tour has been a long, long road trip,” she says with a laugh. “The shows have been a party. The energy has been really good with everyone dancing a lot. I think this is the first album where the music’s more danceable. People were always engaged in the past, and you can tell they’re really listening, but I feel like now, with this album, people are listening, sure, but they’re also having a good time.”

‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’ is a genre pastiche of sound. Across 18 tracks, Sudan Archives skips playfully across genres, creating a piece of work that is gratifyingly hard to categorise; often, she melds multiple genres into a single track. Floating across rap, rock, R&B, soul and electronica whilst also being pop-leaning and infectious, Sudan Archives has undoubtedly created one of the best albums of the year.

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The album revolves around the theme of home, specifically cathartic for an individual who was kicked out of hers at a young age. “Got kicked out ’cause she laid on her back / Well, that’s how it seemed to her mommy and daddy /Cryin’ on her boyfriend, “They will never understand me”,” she sings on highlight ‘NBPQ (Topless)’. “Growing up, I was a rebel,” she explains. “I stayed out late, and that’s how I got kicked out of the house because I wanted to go explore the indie music scene.”

Brittney Parks grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, twin to her sister, Cat. Her parents separated when she was young and she picked up the violin at age nine, curious about it after watching Celtic musicians perform. It was African violinists, however, that she discovered on YouTube who influenced her to play in the unconventional, or, rather, non-Westernised, ways that have been so crucial to her success. Her step-father, who worked at LaFame Records, encouraged Brittney and Cat to form a pop duo and aim for commercial success, but those dreams dissipated as Brittney naturally gravitated towards Cincinnati’s indie music scene.

On ‘NBPQ (Topless)’ she sets the scene handily: “Mama knocked on the door, it go rat-a-tat-tat / She said, “My boyfriend think you can be a star” / So, we set her up in a pop duo / With her twin sister, Catherine Parks / And it really didn’t even work out like that.

Parks, however, was more attracted to the indie music scene in her hometown, curious about the left-leaning bands that make up the Cincinnati scene rather than the commercial success her stepfather wanted her to pursue. “I don’t think people give Cincinnati credit for having a music scene,” she explains of the scene that forged The Afghan Whigs, and members of The National. “A lot of people come out of Cincinnati, and I grew up experimenting there. I would create different beats on Garageband and learn how to loop my violin.”

Throughout ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’, Park’s family and Cincinnati are both a theme and a feature. “It’s been nice to be able to include my family,” she says, “because I wanted this album to pay homage to my hometown, but also more personal.”

Her sister, Cat, contributes lyrics to ‘Yellow Brick Road’, while ‘Ciara’ is about her cousin in Chicago while her mother provides a spoken interlude on ‘Do Your Thing (Refreshing Springs)’. Highlight ‘513’ is an ode to her postcode growing up: “I don’t really wanna follow/ Tricky, trendy little things /Hollywood will make you hollow /I’m too rooted in my ways.” 

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After leaving Ohio aged 18, Parks moved to Los Angeles, immersing herself within the pivotal beat scene that the city had, including Low End Theory, the now-defunct hip-hop and electronic music club night. It was here that seminal artists like Flying Lotus, Kutmah and others congregated at the venue where Parks found herself often, absorbing everything around her before she met Matthewdavid, founder of the influential left-field label, Leaving Records.

“Matthewdavid was actually the first person to hear my music,” the 28-year-old says. “He kept telling me to send my music to him but I was working three jobs and was kind of sleeping on myself. I had my little rough Garageband songs, and didn’t think anything of them, but then he kept asking and asking, so I finally sent it to him.”

Matthewdavid was encouraged by what he heard and sent it through to Stones Throw, who, upon hearing Brittney’s music, signed her to the famed label, best known for being the launchpad for Mablib’s success. “I don’t know what made Matthew want to hear my music, but I just met someone who wanted to hear my music and he sent it to the right person. I guess I was in the right place at the right time,” Parks says.

Sudan Archives’ first self-titled EP was released in 2017. With a violin that floated delicately over top of heady electronic-based production, Sudan Archives catapulted herself into attention within the global underground. Another EP titled, ‘Sink’, followed where Sudan continued to polish her experimentation before 2019’s debut album, ‘Athena’, dropped, capturing further audiences across both the mainstream and underground.

“I have to give credit to my team because it’s so much greater and easier when you have a team behind you to support you,” she says. “I have all these crazy ideas and it can be overwhelming, but it’s really nice to have people to bring my vision to life in a way that’s exactly what I envisioned. [‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’] is also less limited as well because of that.”

After the 2019 release of ‘Athena’, Sudan Archives was due to tour and see her star’s ascendancy rise to stratospheric levels, but then the Covid-19 pandemic hit and everything came to a halt. Yet, there was a silver lining amongst it all.

“I feel like the whole of 2020 is a blur, but I used that time to make one of the very songs on the album,” she says. “The whole pandemic was literally my diary for putting everything out there that I was feeling.”

She set up a home studio in the house she shares with her partner, All City Jimmy aka James McCall. It felt like a long overdue objective she finally got to accomplish which, in turn, allowed her to focus primarily on her music. “I spent more time in the studio than at home,” she says. Situated in the basement of her house, it has a separate entrance, allowing Parks to build out a studio full of plants.

“I always knew I wanted a studio in my house, but it worked out perfectly where I live now,” she explains. “It’s a cute little small space where I have all seven different instruments hanging up on the walls. It’s like my little cave.”

Sudan Archives
Credit: Ally Green

Bunkering down in her studio allowed Sudan Archives to create an album that, for her, was a reflection of her abilities. “As I began the creative process, I knew I didn’t want to work with people I didn’t know, like strangers,” she says. “I would rather work with people I have relationships with, But at the same time, if someone were to come along, who has a great idea, and they want to put it on the album, I’m not going to say no. At the end of the day, I want the songs to be the best they can be.”

With an original title of ‘Homesick’, the album ended up being a mirror of Parks’ upbringing with her use of the violin throughout a natural incorporation of how she demystifies the traditional way of using the instrument.

“[Cat] was saying how on this album I’ve learned how to incorporate my violin in different ways,” Parks explains. “I didn’t even realise that when I started making the album, as I’m not even aware of what I’m doing. I’m just going with the feeling or what I’m feeling. I started off with looping and layering instruments, vocals and melodies until there was a song created.”

The violin plays an influential part in what is an indisputably effortless pop record. It’s confident and steadfast in its authenticity. With lines like, “Sometimes I think that if I was light-skinned / Then I would get into all the parties / Win all the Grammys, make the boys happy / Fuck lookin’ sassy, they think I’m sexy,” she peppers the album with uncompromising lyrics all seamlessly underpinned by infectious melodies.

“Melodies have always come really naturally to me,” she says. “Even growing up, when I listened to the radio, I would always be humming along, but to a higher octave. I think I’ve had to learn how to hone in more on my production skills and growing to incorporate the violin.”

With the release of ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’, Sudan Archives has certified itself in contemporary culture. Her talent isn’t just for the underground to celebrate, but for everyone to witness what is a generational talent coming into full bloom. The release of the album sees all the coiled energy of her entire life exalted onto a project that is the perfect marriage between vulnerability and honesty whilst being overwhelmingly infectious.

Though she may miss Goldie the python, her home studio, and the comforts of being in Los Angeles, Brittney Parks now gets to play the record to crowds across Europe who have been awaiting her presence for years, and it feels natural. “This feels a lot different than when I was just doing a couple of songs. I’m not used to playing for over an hour on stage, but I’m so grateful I get to do that.”

Sudan Archives’ ‘Natural Brown Prom Queen’ is out now on Stones Throw Records

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