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Moses Sumney Wants It All

The singer-songwriter’s new double LP gracefully blurs the lines between pop and experimental, soul and folk. So why do listeners keep trying to put him in a box?

"At the end of the day, people want to put things in categories and boxes," Moses Sumney says.

Eric Gyamfi*

When Moses Sumney finished work on his ambitious new 20-song opus, Græ, he realized that the album’s rollout plan couldn’t be conventional. “If a body of work is at all experimental, the release model should be experimental as well,” the 28-year-old singer-songwriter says. Sumney’s plan: release part one of the double album in February, give his fans a few months to sit with its 10 songs, and release the second part in May. “What I did not anticipate,” he says, “was the total shutdown of the global economy right in the middle of my release.”

Sumney’s 2017 debut, Aromanticism, established him as an unusually thoughtful and versatile talent. The first half of Græ alone — a rich mix of off-kilter folk, glitchy jazz, murky indie rock, distorted pop, and spoken-word poetry — finds him continuing to push; it’s already earned him his first U.S. late-night appearance and a flurry of rave reviews.

Such acclaim comes hard-won for Sumney, who’s spent the better part of the past decade navigating a music industry fraught with loaded assumptions about his artistry. He once turned down major-label offers predicated on the idea that, as he puts it, he was “going to be a pop star.” Sumney has since fought hard against limiting categorizations. “To some people I will always be an R&B artist, and that is the nature of my work,” he says. “It is the nature of me being a black singer who sings the way I do, regardless of what I dress it up in.” Along the way, Sumney has demonstrated his genre flexibility, in part by collaborating with everyone from Solange and Karen O to Beck and Bon Iver.

Sumney had planned on spending the better part of 2020 touring the world behind his new record. But for now, he’s put all travel on hold and is currently quarantining at his home in Asheville, North Carolina. “I was supposed to play Sydney Opera House next month,” he says. “But isolating, this is my life. It’s not terribly different from my regular life. I’m learning how to clean.”

On the eve of the release of the second half of Græ, Rolling Stone caught up with Sumney to discuss his complex relationship with pop, where genre labels fall short, and why he’s no fan of revivalist soul music.

What’s it been like to release half an album while you wait for the second half to come out?
It’s been interesting. With the first half, some people have been like, “This is so maximalist compared to your first album. It’s so different, blah, blah, blah.” I’m like, “Well, it’s not that different.” It is, and it isn’t. Other people have said, “Oh, it was really nice. I enjoyed it. Can’t wait for the second half.” And I’m like, “No, that’s too simple of a review. If you think it’s nice and you enjoyed it, you were breezing through it. You got to go back and listen more.”

On Græ as a whole, it feels like you’re playing with the ideas of minimalism and maximalism at once, especially on your part-two song “Bless Me.”
“Bless Me,” in a lot of ways, is a pop song, and it’s fun to fuck with that a little bit. It’s almost overbearingly emotional, but I like that. I’m really into being punched in the stomach in that way. 

Is that a common approach for you: starting with a pop song and then fucking it up?
On this record I wanted to bring out parts of myself as they wanted to come out. Sometimes those ideas are born in the way that could be perceived as pop, and sometimes they’re born in the way that could be perceived as experimental. I often have pop-music ideas. I listen to pop music a lot; it’s my foundation as a listener. But I found that in the beginning of my career, I was really running away from that because of the way I came up in the industry. People were placing that on me so heavily. I loved indie and more experimental music so much that it really was a blow to the ego to be told, like, “Oh, my God, you’re basically a pop star. You’re going to be a pop star.” So I often found that if I ever had an idea that was accessible, I had to murder it. But I think that’s incredibly disingenuous. On this record, it was really fun, and a relief, and incredibly freeing, to just sing the thing. Sometimes that’s a million riffs and a crazy high note, this esoteric thing, and sometimes it’s a simple lyric delivered in a heartfelt way, and that’s beautiful too.

This album, is, among many other things, very funny.
I love to laugh, and I’m always laughing. I view sadness and joy as intrinsically linked. Melancholy is such a bittersweet emotion, but the sweetness is there. I wanted to make that clearer. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not dark and brooding all the time.

Where did the song “Bystander” come from? I was struck by the line “But you’ll bleed and all/For a lukewarm embrace.”
I just wanted to say that maybe the trend as an artist to give, give, give, give everything, to pull the curtain back all the time, I think can be really quite detrimental to the soul. Sometimes it’s freeing and liberating, but you don’t need to give to people all the time. Sometimes you have to be selective about who you give to, what you give them of yourself. 

It’s hard to imagine hearing this album and still thinking of you as a straightforward R&B singer.
I’ve critiqued that [categorization] so much, but the reality is that a lot of people who say that about me are people who like me. They’re fans of the music. I get frustrated with them, but at the end of the day, people want to put things in categories and boxes. Of course, I speak out against that on this record. Even as recently as yesterday, somebody online said, “Oh, you should listen to this, it’s my favorite R&B album this year so far.” That’s such an interesting statement. What do you do with a statement like that? On one hand, they just put you in the box that you’ve been protesting for years. On the other hand, they just called you their favorite something.

Is the upside that you can expose people to alternative possibilities of what “R&B” can mean?
I guess that’s the silver lining: I’m going to throw a cog in the machine. I mean, yeah, that’s just the nature of being a minority, is you accept that. You can’t control it. But for people who are really looking for it, there is so much in this album that deconstructs that idea, and that could be very rich for the person who decides to go there. That, to me, is cool. And maybe it’s cool enough, for now. 

Your music draws from so many different strands of American music. The first time I saw you perform, you took the stage directly after John Prine at a Newport Folk Festival after-show.
Oh, my God, yeah. I did a Ray LaMontagne cover! 

Has the folk community ever tried to engage with you?
That world has never tried to claim me. They’re not in the running [laughs]. They never put it in a bid. I have so much to say about this. I mean, the foundation of my interest in music, of being a musician, is folk music and soul music. When I was conceptualizing as a teenager what kind of artist I wanted to be, I knew I wanted to be soul and folk. Of course, then I grew up, and I was like, “Ooh, now I want to do some rock, and indie, and experimental, and jazz, and blah, blah, blah.” And then I was like, “Wait, why do we have labels? Whatever!” 

But my foundation was soul and folk, and I always return to that. That’s always my comfort, my center. Some people see that, and some don’t. It was really cool on my first album cycle to be able to do a Coachella and a Bonnaroo and then do all these jazz festivals, and then do the Newport Folk Festival. That meant a lot to me, to be able to go around the world with my whole band and then show up at a folk festival with a guitar and be like, “I can do this, too.” It’s so important to me. And then, after I played Newport Folk, NPR put up the recording of my set, and called me an R&B artist. I was like, “Whoa, that’s so interesting. I just showed up at a folk festival, played a guitar set, and what you took from that was ‘R&B artist Moses Sumney plays …’ Something’s not clicking! What’s not clicking?” That was one of the moments where I realized I needed to let go of this thing, because it was like, “If this publication that I’ve done so many things with doesn’t get that I’m not just an R&B artist by now … I’m going to get gray hairs over it.’ ”

“It’s been a thorn in my side for the past 15 years, hearing stuff that sounds like it’s a carbon copy of the Motown era.”

I hear your foundation in soul and folk all over Græ.
I was thinking about the rootsy folk-music thing a lot on this album. “Cut Me,” that bass line is so old soul, old gospel-roots music. That chord turnaround is just straight-up blues. And that vocal was my tribute to Aretha Franklin, because she’s one of my favorite singers of all time. However, I am not a fan of revivalist soul music. I actually hate it. It’s been a thorn in my side for the past 15 years, hearing stuff that sounds like it’s a carbon copy of the Motown era. So on “Cut Me,” I wanted to say, like, if I were to make a soul revivalism bid, this is what it would be, and it would be fucked up. It would be talking about pain and weariness in the way that gospel does, but it would be embracing that pain and saying, “No, cut me. I’m a masochist.” It would have this weird BDSM angle. 

Are there other moments on Græ that feel particularly grounded in those more rootsy traditions?
On a song like “Neither/Nor,” I was thinking a lot about the origins of country and folk music. I live in North Carolina now, and I was thinking about Appalachian folk music and the Blue Ridge Mountains, but also about the origins of the banjo, and how it came from Africa. If you listen to a lot of early West African string music, it sounds so much like the picking patterns of early country and folk music. I wanted to nod to that. 

When I finished that song, it was around the time the whole “Old Town Road” controversy was happening. I was just like, “Ohhh, country music is black!” I wanted to make a song that sonically did all those things. It’s a folk song and a rock song, but it’s also kind of African. I brought in a Nigerian kora player; it kind of sounds like harp but also like banjo. It was fun to mix all those things together.