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After Working With Solange, Sufjan Stevens & More, Moses Sumney Paves His Own Path on Debut Album

Moses Sumney, 2017
Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for The Art of Elysium

Moses Sumney perform at Red Studios on Jan. 7, 2017 in Los Angeles.  

"I don’t want to just make another X, Y, Z song. I want to carve a unique path and a lane that nobody else is really in."

After nearly a lifetime in the making, Los Angeles' up-and-coming Moses Sumney is releasing his debut album Aromanticism on Friday via Jagjaguwar, laying his complex feelings bare for the world to see. His unsentimental and sometimes somber view of the world seeps its way through his vulnerable lyrics, giving way to a deeply personal album that could only have been produced by this 26-year-old, Ghanaian-raised, SoundCloud-bred artist.

Sumney started writing songs when he was 12, a couple years after moving back to his family’s homeland of Ghana. Coming from a non-musical family, Sumney found inspiration in the diverse music he listened to growing up, from the R&B beats of Brandy and Usher to the improvised jazz melodies of Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone.

His music is an amalgamation of this wide array of influences, incorporating elements from R&B-pop to jazz and indie-rock to its most distinct lo-fi folk sound. Together, they create the highly-synthesized and edgy melodies that many have described as “ghostly folk.” But Sumney rejects the idea of categorizing his music as one genre. When asked how he would best characterize it, he says “experimental, soul, folk.” 

“I want people to grapple with that,” he tells Billboard. “I want people to actually grasp that not everything can be clearly defined, not everything can be categorized. And I think that’s a really big goal of my music. It’s just to tell people, ‘No, you can’t actually always put things in a box and that’s fine.’”

Despite lacking clear categorization, Aromanticism is his most fully-realized work yet. The record is the finalized product of Sumney’s trials and errors. While his debut EP Mid-City Island in 2014 established Sumney’s promising potential and his more polished EP Lamentations, released in 2016, served as a first peek into the singer's private world, Aromanticism portrays the artist that Sumney wants the world to see. Having built friendships with the likes of Solange, Sufjan Stevens and Beck earlier in his career, he technically had the resources to make a full-fledged album in 2014. But Sumney, who rarely follows the paved path, chose to perfect his abilities before releasing his official debut.

“I feel like I’ve made something,” he says. “I don’t want to ever make art that isn’t meaningful. I don’t want to just make another X, Y, Z song. I want to carve a unique path and a lane that nobody else is really in and I feel like I’ve done that with this record.”

Along with his music, Sumney’s way of thinking also goes against the grain. The artist’s brave independence can be seen best through the album’s title, which literally means the absence of romantic attraction. He argues that we need to change society’s narrative of traditional romantic love for those who don’t fit into conventional cookie-cutter boxes. In a Tumblr post this week, Sumney wrote a prose-poem explaining what aromanticism means to him: "Aromanticism is a concept album about lovelessness as a sonic dreamscape," he writes. "It seeks to interrogate the concept that romance is necessary and normative. I'm just trying to get [the term] out from over the squiggly red line."

When asked what inspires the somber and gloomy tone of his music, which has characterized his songs since the first SoundCloud song he released four years ago, he responds with a facetious one-word answer: “life.”

And that’s exactly what Aromanticism is: life. At times starkly sad, as heard in the quiet acoustic melody of “Indulge Me,” and at other times playful as in the synth-heavy beat of songs like “Doomed,” Sumney’s unique way of seeing the world is as clear as ever in his new music.

In an interview with Billboard, Sumney talks about the importance of solitude, his musical influences and how he only wants to get weirder from here on out.

For a very long time, you’ve admitted that you didn’t feel ready to release a full album, opting to release your EP Mid-City in 2014 and 2015’s “Seeds”/”Pleas,” and then finally your most polished EP before this one Lamentations. So going into Aromanticism, what makes you ready now and what do you think ultimately came through in this new music that was missing from your old music?

Production. My earliest stuff, particularly Mid-City wasn’t really production or what I would identify as production. I was just recording onto a cassette player and just like putting it out, putting out what I thought were demos. And when I thought of how my music should be approached in terms of how the instrumentation should be worked, the way the process should be, I didn’t know for the longest time. And with this album, this is a fully-realized vision I’ve found that is atypical but still so organic to me that I felt like this is the record, this is the music that should be defined as an album. Working on it for the past two years, it was just about finishing it. It was just about to getting to a place where I felt like I made something that was cohesive and coherent.

What was your musical process in writing these songs?

It’s quite different for every song but I mostly wrote in the mountains. I started writing the album in Asheville, North Carolina, just outside of the main city. And basically every time it came to write the lyrics, I would escape and go into isolation. Musically, it’s quite different. I worked for a lot of different producers and produced a lot of it myself, as well, in Los Angeles and Montreal.

Do you incorporate any other influences or genres in this new album? What new elements did you bring to this album that’s new or different from the music on your past EPs?

I think the use of synth was kind of a new thing. In the past, I wanted to be as acoustic as possible and this time around, just kind of like flirting a little bit more with electronic production. Like “Doomed” is a song based entirely off of synth, which is new for me. And there’s a song on my record called “Make Out in My Car” which has beats. I mean, it’s really rare for the album, there’s literally only three songs with percussion but with “Make Out In My Car,” I allowed there to be a computer-made beat which is something I never really wanted to do and I explored it on this record and ended up loving it. Gosh, what else? Oh, strings. There’s two different songs with string arrangements, with orchestral string arrangements: “Don’t Bother Calling” and “Plastic.” I had to flesh it out and use different instrumentation like a guitar and a bunch of vocal airs.

So to talk about the title itself “Aromanticism,” what does that word mean for you, what message does it communicate?

Well the literal meaning is an absence of romantic love or romantic attraction or the presence of it through a diminished degree. And essentially what I was interested in exploring was the way that we talk about love as a society, the way we talk about it, the way we conventionalize it, and the way we understand it. And just kind of expanding the narrative to include people who don’t feel like they fall into the path  of everyone who fall in love in a very clear-cut way, basically. Or really just to talk about alienation and isolation.

You also explored isolation head-on by alienating yourself while you were writing. How did that affect what you wrote?

Yeah, I also think isolation is a necessary or vital thing to do in order to get the best stuff out of writing. I think it’s really important to learn how to write on your own and not be distracted. And also, because I was interested in exploring the depth of isolation. I had to like take a break from myself.

You’ve also talked about not conforming to mainstream music and being hesitant to become a part of the competitive music industry. How do you feel now that you are officially a part of it, having finally signed onto a label with an album? Basically, why did this label seem like the right choice for you and why now?

I think the whole thing for me has been control. I didn’t want to join any music industry narrative until I was sure I would be allowed to do whatever the hell I wanted. And with this record, and with this label which I really appreciate, they allowed me to do that. I made the album, I eventually finished it, and I came to them and I said ‘Here’ and they said, "Cool, we’re gonna put it up.” And it was just that simple. No one ever told me what to do, what to change and I appreciate that. But I needed to make sure that I had gotten to a point where, creatively, I could do whatever I wanted to do. But I’m not against pop music or mainstream music, I enjoy a lot of it. And I’m interested in exploring it in specific ways but in my own music, I had to make sure I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do regardless of whether that would bring me commercial success.

You’ve naturally harbored relationships with huge people in the industry, performing alongside Sufjan Stevens and Solange, Grizzly Bear’s Chris Taylor, St. VincentErykah Badu and more. How have these artists influenced your approach to music or the material on this album specifically?

I think I’ve been fortunate in that all of the artists I’ve worked with, who are bigger or more successful, all have one thing in common which is they’ve set their own path and blazed their own trail. It’s just been inspiring the past two years to get to work with people and to see that model can work or at least it did at one point, the model of making music the way you want to make it and figuring out how you want to. So I think that’s just been reinforced for me by everyone I’ve worked with who have had a career longer than I have.

You also have been featured on songs by Flume and Skrillex in “Weekend” and the “Show Me Love” remix, respectively.  Both songs differ from your own personal style. How did these collaborations come about and what was the process like mending your own style with these artists?

It was so much fun. Like the Skrillex song was fun because it’s just been nice to do these collaborations because I can show another side to me. Nobody knows, like that song has 20 million views or something and so few people know that it’s me singing just because it’s in a style that’s so different from my own music and I appreciate that I got to sing in a different way and be like, "Oh by the way, I can do this too." And that came out really organically. Hundred Waters is a friend of mine so we just put it together so that was that. And then the Flume thing was also really organic, as well. I just went over and recorded with him one day. In terms of blending, I don’t feel like I’m blending my style. It’s not that explicit or intentional because for me, I have a lot of multiplicity in my abilities and interests. So it’s nice not be deathly serious which my music tends to be.

Who have you enjoyed performing with most?

Oh, that’s kind of a messy question. I hated everyone. No, I don’t know if I can answer that ‘cause I’ve liked them all. But I guess the cool thing is that they’re all so different from each other that I get something different from all of them. If you think about Sufjan and James Blake and Solange and Karen O, each of them are in a different world.

And going back to your solo work: You’ve collaborated with so many amazing musicians, but this debut album is basically all just you -- eschewing the easier success people usually find from adding a big name onto a project or even just using people for assistance. Did you feel that this was important in truthfully presenting yourself in this album?

Yeah, it felt really rebellious to me to just be like, "I know I have all of these friends and I’ve worked with all of these people," I just wanted to put up the middle finger and be like, "I’m not gonna capitalize on that," but mostly because it was a challenge. The record was really scary to make and really difficult to make and intensely personal and intimate and I wanted to challenge myself to just make my own record and let it stand on its own and be able to say, "Hey, it’s me. There are no other voices." That was a big thing for me, not having any features, not having any other voices but mine. It was awesome to just create all these choral moments with all these vocal airs and to emphasize that it’s all me. It was just a necessary challenge for me to show that I was rising and growing as an artist. And it also would’ve been a bit forced just because it’s so intimate. It wouldn’t really make sense to have other artists singing or rapping. But also, I didn’t make the album entirely on my own. I worked with a ton of other musicians. The trick is I didn’t really work with anyone who’s gonna be like... click bait.