A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with Moses Sumney. It was early May and his part of the world – Asheville, North Carolina, was significantly affected by the pandemic. However, Moses was set to release the second part of his album grae. The first part of the album was released at the end of February, right before the global shutdown, however, he didn’t decide to postpone the full album release, unlike many other artists. So, naturally, the first questions of our interview had to spin around the difficult task of promoting your album amidst a global health crisis.
Hey Moses, how are you holding up in quarantine so far?
It’s fine so far, we’ll see how it ends up feeling and how I feel about it after a longer time. So far it’s been kind of nice to be home for once, I’ve never been home for a full month so that’s a little weird, but it’s kind of nice to shift my expectations and take some time for myself. It’s a shame that I can’t be out playing shows but that’s the way it is.
How does it feel like to promote an album during these weird times?
Oh well, It’s a funny time, everyone is dying, everyone is bankrupt and then you’re like ‘buy my album‘. It’s weird to try to consistently emphasize people why they should re-direct their attention to you. It’s already weird doing that, but especially when you’re in the middle of a global pandemic.
You also tweeted that 2020 has already been the year of actually realizing things. What were your realizations?
My realizations so far were that I like being at home (laughs) and that I’m a real true introvert. That’s the biggest one actually. I already knew that but I haven’t had the chance to be at home this long in years. I guess, it’s verified now.
On his debut album Aromanticism (2017) Moses examined the lack of need for romantic relationships. In these times, the topics of aloneness and loneliness get a whole new meaning. While some enjoy the experiencing of being alone in quarantine, most others struggle with social isolation, whether they’re actually alone or amongst others. People who aren’t in a relationship however, probably have to deal with aloneness for a longer time to come. Considering Moses is the quasi-inventor of aromanticsm, I was intrigued by his thoughts on these new social phenomenas.
Do you think the social isolation enforces aromanticsm, with so many people lacking romantic relationships and physical contact?
Well, it’s hard to say. For me, personally, my home life isn’t much different right now than it usually is. I spend most of my time alone, doing my own thing. Of course, I’m not in a relationship right now. But you know, it’s kind of interesting looking at my work. I’ve been doing music about isolation for years and this new album is still about isolation in a lot of ways. I don’t necessarily know how it relates to aromanticism though, it’s not as if everyone is suddenly aromantic now because they can’t be around people. More than anything, there’s this yearning for contact amongst most people.
Throughout grae, there is an emphasis of the term isolation. The phrase isolation means insula means island has a special significance here, being the first words on the opener ‘insula’, as well as being repeated on ‘so i come to isolation’ (a spoken word piece by writer Taiye Selasi) Somehow, it feels as if Moses is thereby trying to symbolize his own version of the metaphorical lonely island…
Isolation means ‘insula means island’ is a repeated phrase on the album. What symbolizes that island for you?
The way that isolation shapes this record is the idea of fierce individuality that comes from choosing to live a life that is non-obvious, choosing to live a life that is in between aligned. The metaphor of the island is an individual life.
Does this also refer to the common saying of being alone on an island?
It is, but you can be surrounded by people and still feel alone. A lot of people are probably experiencing this now. You can be in a house full of other people and still feel so incredibly alone, still so incredible islanded. It is more a metaphysical island, an emotional island, sometimes a spiritual island.
Do you hope for people experiencing this loneliness to connect with the new material?
I am, I do hope that they connect with it. More than anything, in terms of the general public I hope that people can see themselves in the music, that they can finally find a language for some of the feelings that they have had that they didn’t know how to categorize or to point out.
During our call, it seems rather impossible to not come back to our global health crisis. While consuming Moses work prior to the interview, I figured that the music video for Cut Me – directed by the artist himself – is shockingly current. Being released at the end of March, it was obviously realized long before the pandemic stroked the world. With him riding on top of an ambulance, dancing in hospital hallways, and wearing a gas mask, it strikes a brutal image. It’s an image of black bodies and communities being hit hard by global health and economy crisis.
The video for Cut Me seems brutally current, although it must have been realized before the pandemic.
Yeah, it was definitely filmed before the pandemic, I wrote and directed it long before we knew that we would have to be going on shutdown. It was a little crazy, I was a little nervous to put it out because I didn’t want people to think thought I was making lights of the current situation. But it’s been nice that people found that it connects to the current moment, it seems to be bringing people relief.
What feels current about it, is that so many Black and Hispanic people are being affected in the States by Covid-19.
It situates black bodies in the medical-industrial complex. I wanted to adjust an artistic critique and a satire of the American medical system. It is deeply flawed and broken and failed its people but especially failed black and brown people. It is the unfortunate case of the coronavirus that in America black people are being disproportionally affected because of their relationship with the healthcare system and their relationship with the economy. The people further down on the economy are the most hurt by any kind of economic and health crisis, and we’re definitely seeing that with this virus.
Was that what you meant by tweeting the sentence ‘America is proving his status as the worst country in the world yet again?‘
(laughs) It just sucks in general, there’s too many with too many opinions. They all suck.
Following Moses’ journey whilst promoting grae, he seems to have embraced as a full-on multimedia artist. Photoshootings, music videos, sound art – that all goes hand in hand. As I stated in my review for grae, the album celebrates the artist not only as an excellent vocalist, but also an artist who’s not only able to blend different styles but different art forms into an ever-changing musical epos. To understand Sumney, one has to understand his work ethos.
“I tried to make the record, the music and the lyrics as visual as possible before we even get a chance to make visuals so that you can have some mental image when you’re listening or can establish some kind of mental image. But typically, I sit down with the music if I’m crafting videos myself and think of metaphors or feelings that I’m trying to convey. Cut Me is about masochism, I wanted to make a visual that involved self-harm in a way. I knew it had to be health related.”
Music should be more sacred
Would you consider yourself a control freak?
(Pauses) “I would consider myself as someone with a vision. Control freak is the kind of negative way of putting it and a visionary would be the positive way. I have a vision and an incredibly visual and vivid mind and I like to be involved with ending in control of all aspects of my career, because it’s my body and my name. It’s important for me to maintain autonomy over my career. If you start in a more major world, you couldn’t do that.”
Traveling back in his career, Sumney renownedly refused offers from various major labels in 2014. He rather chose the independent label Jagjaguwar, than starting a mainstream career. However he has not only found friends in label peers Colin Caulfield (DIIV) or Kaya Wilkins, but also amongst collaborations with James Blake (Tell Them) or Solange (When I Get Home). For grae he chose different collaborators though. You won’t find musicians on the album roaster, but British writer Taiye Selasi and American actor Ezra Miller, amongst others. Those collaborations prove yet again, what a genre-bending artist he has become. From the recipients of his art, he expects for a certain degree of respect and concentration:
“The way we interact with music is really disrespectful compared how we interact with other art forms. The general public don’t held music as sacred as they should. When you think of the attention you give to a film or a novel, I think music deserves the same consideration and attention.
Speaking for myself, a lot of thought goes into my music and art, when I made this record I stopped considering myself as a musician in some way. I felt more like a multidisciplinary artist because I have messages that I want to convey with art, but music is not the only way. The conversation is part of that art form, that’s why I had these conversations with other people who aren’t musicians. I saw that they were living their lives and creating in a way that tied into the themes of this album. I wanted to approach this record more like a film director, bringing different armies of people to accomplish different parts of this job. That’s where I’m headed as an artist. I love music and it will always be my primary, but I’m also interested in exploring other disciplines and tapping in the sacred nature of other art forms and the way they’re regarded. It’s my goal of mine to make music that doesn’t sound like its ever been heard before.”
Another prominent theme on grae is the quest for being not just one-sided, but multi-faceted. On also also also and and, a spoken word piece featuring both Miller and Selasi, she explains: “So I’ve reached a point where/ I am aware of my inherent multiplicity/ And anyone wishing to meaningfully engage with me or my work/ must be too”. This quote seems to serve as the turning point of Sumney’s work. I asked him for his personal approach to multiplicity:
“(It’s) just the idea that I’m not into just one thing , I can’t be defined in one simple way. most people are multi-faceted and have different interests or influences. Not recognizing all the different aspects of someone is oppressive and demolishes them into a meme or a basic category. That’s the thing that I hate (laughs).”
Aside from creating multidisciplinary work, does Sumney find inspiration in the work of others?
“Increasingly more and more. I have been watching a lot of movies and televisions, especially now (laughs). I am taking a lot of screenshots. I do read, but I don’t read as much as I liked to. They are influential but coming up, they weren’t as influential. I was never big on consuming other people’s art. I was always more into making things, but now I’m getting more into it.”
So what have you been watching in quarantine?
All over the place. The last I watched was “Short Bust” which was pretty intense. I’m going to try to watch a Hitchcock movie tonight. It’s a mixture of classics and weird stuff that I think would inspire me.
Tiger King… y’all made it sound like it was all fun and games. You people are sick. Y’all need Jesus
— Moses Sumney (@MosesSumney) April 3, 2020
But according to Twitter you’re not a big Tiger King fan.
(laughs) I watched “Tiger King”, I enjoyed it but the way people received it was strange and off-base.
In terms of the murder debate?
Yeah, in some way people thinking that Carole killing her husband was the least interesting thing. Maybe she did 20 years ago, who cares? But it was weird how people turned her into a villain and the malleid actual Tiger King guy who was clearly evil to a hero to people. It was very strange. People are bored.
After discussing the two most important things of the year – Corona and Tiger King – I was hoping for a final blessing for the rest of this unfortunate year. Again, he didn’t let me down:
“I wish for us to come out of this with a high tend awareness of the poor, especially in America. There is not enough money and amenities being allocated to lower class people. I hope that we can topple the government. But I don’t think thats gonna happen anytime . So in the meantime I hope that people like listening to music.”
Especially they should enjoy listening to your album.
If they wanna hear more about isolation, they can listen to my record.
What a beautiful final statement, isn’t it? Talking to Moses Sumney gave me a grasp of his rather complex musical epos. He is not only an artist with an outstanding vision but also with an astonishing sense of humor. It wouldn’t surprise me if his second album ranks rather in this year’s album listicles. It remains to be seen, to how his journey as an independent artist will continue in the next years. I presume that Sumney‘s future will be a very bright one.
grae is out now via Jagjaguwar.