Moses Sumney On Communicating Love, Life And His ‘Aromanticism’ | Oyster #114

“I’m deep in the pursuit of honesty.”

Moses Sumney’s album Aromanticism isn’t a mayday call. It’s a test call: one, two, is this thing on? An exploration of a current state of loneliness — not explicitly trying to be escaped from, but a soundtrack to the process of asking what it means to be here, like this, and if it matters.

In an essay Sumney published just days before the album’s release, he writes of the origins of love and questions if our fears of dying alone are inherited cellularly or socially. He writes metaphorically of tables set for two, nostalgically of paired markers, and politically of social systems and how the privileged love between themselves yet lack the extension to othered groups. He firmly says that this is not protest music. The message here is not to provoke thought or feeling in one direction, but in a direction. So long as it is true.

Hayley Morgan: I was going to ask you what you’d been doing since your album release… but you just played at the Oscars! How was that?

Moses Sumney: I’m basically just trying to peak as early as possible. Get everything over with. So playing the Oscars without ever being nominated or ever having a reason to be there was part of that agenda.

How did it all come about? The band had a great line up — I kind of didn’t expect that from the Oscars. Are you all friends?

Sufjan Stevens is really the great connecter in that situation. Stufjan is a good friend of mine and I met him when we toured together a few years ago. I was actually in Australia when I got the message, he just wrote me this email and was like, “Hey, would you want to sing at the Oscars?” Like, “I have to play this little DIY show called the Oscars, any interest in singing with me?” And I’m just like, “Woah, yes, definitely.” And then he said maybe St. Vincent would do it and later he told me about Chris Thile. He kind of just wanted to assemble some friends so that he felt comfortable up there.

Solange is someone else you’re quite close to. What was it like to work with her on her record? Did you spend a lot of time in the studio?

No, it was pretty fast. It was just one day. She played me stuff and then I sang on it, it was pretty simple actually.

I’m interested to see her in that kind of authority role — I mean, she’s a really strong woman, but she seems also quite tender and maybe reserved…

I think she’s pretty much in control of everything she does. In every aspect.

And did you find that you worked similarly to each other?

Yeah. Definitely. I think I similarly am pretty collaborative, but everything stems from me.

For this issue we’re talking about communication in different ways. When you collaborate with an artist, does it feel like a conversation in some way?

Playing music with someone, in particular, feels like a conversation. A musical conversation is definitely the best way to describe a collaboration. It takes a lot of communication, in the studio especially, to make something cohesive.

Does collaborating with someone end up defining your friendship — like, you end up loving or hating them?

I don’t tend to work with people that I end up hating musically, because if I get in a room with them… it takes a lot for me to get in a room with someone on a musical level. I’m kind of known for just running away and saying no. Or just not doing it. But, it’s kind of interesting, I have a lot of friends who I have an amazing relationship with musically, but I wouldn’t hang out with them. Like, having a great collaborative energy doesn’t necessarily make me want to go to the beach with them. And I really like that, sometimes the relationship is specific to the music.

And why do you think you’re often running away from these situations? Is it a trust thing, are you nervous to sort of expose yourself when making music?

No, I’m not nervous to expose myself or be open to other people. Definitely not nervous. But music is very sacred and I take it very seriously. I don’t find it worth it to collaborate with people if I’m not going to have a good time or if I’m not going to feel like it’s going to be a soulful thing. It’s just rarely worth it for me, unless I know I’m going to feel really connected. And I usually know before going in if that’ll happen or not.

Do you prefer working with people that are similar to you or completely different in their style and approach?

I’ll work with anyone if I like what they do. Sometimes you can’t really know if they’re similar to you in terms of their approach and their process. But it’s nice to work with people who are quite different. Right now I’m trying to work with some noise rock artists and incorporate that into what I do. So that’s been fun.

When I listen to your music I really feel like, and I mean this in a good way, a lot of songs are like unfinished sentences or stories… like when you watch a film and the ending is open…

It’s very intentional. I think, especially the music I put out before my album, there’s a lot of shorter songs, a lot of them were just demos because I didn’t know how to produce yet. A lot of them were just ideas. And with the album, there’s a lot of stuff like that too because it’s kind of about unfulfillment in a lot of ways. The best way to capture that was often to make shorter songs or to even make a shorter record. I think a song like ‘Indulge Me’, which is near the end of my album and is a shorter song, it’s like an idea, like ‘Make Out in My Car.’ But then I wanted to put at least two songs, which for me are ‘Lonely World’ and ‘Quarrel’, that were like pretty full on. ‘Quarrel’ gets a little maximalist towards the end, just to be like, “So you know, I can do that too.”

Historically you rely a lot on improvisation and maybe organically built tracks, you just let it flow. Why do you think you express yourself this way? Are you like that personally?

Um… no, or yes, I don’t know. I think mostly because I’m really intense about things, about recording, I can work on something forever and ever and ever and never feel it’s done. I don’t want to put anything out because I don’t like to let things go. It’s so intense, so I kind of have to learn how to just improvise and let that be the thing. If I didn’t do it that way, I would end up just honing in on every little thing and working it until the death of me. I had to find freedom in the music just by learning to let it be.

Is your recent album title, Aromanticism, a literal reflection of yourself? Are you aromantic?

You know, I don’t know. I think it’s just too simplistic to say that I am any one thing at this point. I think it was a reflection of my feelings at the time, and a reflection of my curiosities. But I called the album that because I was kind of steadying this thing in order to understand myself and understand the world. I wanted to shine light on this idea and shine light on these people, because there’s a lot of people who would define themselves as aromantic. I think that my personal romantic identity is more complicated than that, and I don’t know if people picked up on that or not. On the album there’s an inherent irony to it, because it’s a very romantic album, at least musically. If you took all the words out it would still sound pretty romantic, I think. And I think it’s about romance and desire in a lot of ways. I think it would be too one note to claim that I am this one thing, when I think that everybody is a multitude of identities.

Do you think you’re in love with music?

Music is probably the only thing I am truly in love with.

Do you think actions speak louder than words?

In terms of what?

Anything? Life?

Interesting, I see what you’re doing here. Yes, I think actions speak louder than words. Words are hard.

I wanted to talk to you about the track ‘Doomed’ — does it come from a personal place? It sounds like a personal battle…

I like to leave it open to interpretation. I think that whatever you think it is, is probably what it is. Once you put a song out, the meaning isn’t really yours any more. I really do believe that. If someone interprets something and it’s not what I meant, I think that’s what it means now. It doesn’t really matter what it means to me, it matters more what it means to them because they’re the ones listening to it. It becomes theirs. But I’d say when I wrote that song, it was more like a letter to God, or to the universe. Just being like, “Am I trash?” Basically being like, “Am I irrelevant because I’m single?” That’s kind of it, really.

How do you feel about listening to love songs? Are you more connected to the hopelessly devoted type, or the love and loss type?

I definitely like sad music more, heartbreak music a lot more. I find it more relatable. A good song is a good song, but a love song for me has to be incredible in order for me to like it. I think it’s rare that I’m head over heels about a love song.

I read a quote from you saying that romance is a political tool — what do you mean by this?

Well, I think the act of romance and the performance of romance can be politicised and employed by capitalism in order to push an agenda. I’m not talking about romantic attraction, necessarily, and I’m definitely not saying that romantic attraction is bad or evil. I’m talking about on a sociopolitical scale, I think romance is employed by the people in power to further emphasise their power. If you think about hospital visitation rights, you have to be married to someone or their family in order to see them. I think that’s really interesting and questionable. I think of the fact that there’s never been a president that wasn’t married, and America currently has a president whose marriage is very clearly loveless but it’s impossible to even be in the highest office in the world without having a romantic partner. Why? I don’t know.

I’ve never thought about that at all…

It’s really fascinating. If you think about the church, as an institution, not the Catholic Church really but more Protestant or whatever, it’s rare for a pastor to not have a wife. It’s really considered a bad thing if he doesn’t. And the other ways, if you think about the holidays, of course everyone talks about Valentine’s Day being a sham, but really it’s so convenient for you to be in love with people because it makes money. It fuels the economy for you to buy chocolates or cards or houses or cars for people, because you’re in love with them. So I think in a lot of ways, Western civilisation depends a lot on romance in order to fuel itself and to fuel the idea of an idyllic society in which everyone is happy.

I never thought about your music as political, do you think it is?

No, I don’t. And it’s not meant to be. It was fun making this album because I got to talk about all these other ideas. The stuff I just said is not that heavily in the music, but there’s one interlude on the album called ‘The Cocoon-Eyed Baby’ and the lyrics are: “We scrawl / Unwritten law of the land / On scroll that’s rolled up and rolled in / The cocoon-eyed baby’s / Swollen, clenched hand,” which is kind of just talking about the ways that we indoctrinate people, or ourselves, or each other. But we’re indoctrinated by society to uphold ideals and that’s something I’m always going to be interested in. But I wanted to very much not make a political record. I wanted to make an emotional record. You can make the argument that everything that’s personal is inherently political, especially if you’re going against the grain. I wrote an essay before the album release, it’s really short, and in that I say that Aromanticism the album is not protest music as much as it is process music. So it’s not really making any declarations, it’s more just asking questions and trying to figure it out.

Outside of music, are there any causes or issues that you care about, and that you’re standing up for?

Yeah, I want to dedicate more time to them. There’s a lot of stuff I’m passionate about but don’t really talk about because it’s frustrating. Right now I’m interested in the reforming of the American prison system. I’m particularly invested in drug laws and decriminalisation for drug offenders. I think that’s a huge problem in America, and particularly in California where marijuana just became legalised, yet there are tonnes of people who’re in prison for smoking weed or being caught carrying. I think that’s really fucked up because the government is positioned to make millions of dollars from marijuana and taxing it, but the government is also spending money and making money by having people in jail, because prisoners work for free. So it’s pretty fucked up. I’m deeply invested in feminism and women’s rights, gender equality and parity across the board. Anything where people are being fucked over, I don’t want that to happen.

Absolutely. And, if you don’t mind, I want to talk to you about your family. I read that both of your parents are pastors. That’s incredible to me, not because they’re pastors, but because they have the same job. Are they really similar people?

They’re pretty different from each other. The way it works is, my dad runs the church and my mum helps him with literally everything. So she probably started out as like the pastor’s wife, but over time she became a pastor also. My dad went to seminary and he studied the Bible through and through, he has a PhD in theology. And my mum, the following ten years, did the same. So they’re not similar, they’re actually very different people. Growing up, it was very yin and yang — your mum says no so you run to your dad and you’re like, “Hey, can I do this?”

What lessons did they pass down to you that you’re really thankful for?

They’re immigrants, so they’re really hard-working. I really appreciate seeing how hard they worked to make it in America and to provide for us. My dad was a taxi driver in the 90s, so growing up I used to ride around with him in his taxi as he would pick people up. I thought it was fun but I didn’t realise that sometimes I was riding in the car because there was no one to watch me. My mum was also working. I went to private school and they worked at the school in order to pay for it. Not as teachers! So, seeing how hard they worked made me not take for granted my life. I used to be really bratty in the early parts of my career, I didn’t want to do anything and be super indie and I was like, “Nobody talk to me.” But then I realised I should try harder because it took a lot to get me here. Apart from that, the one big thing I took away from my dad was faith, having faith in the idea of believing in the thing that’s important to you. Those two things got me here.

Which of them likes your music the most?

Oh I don’t know. I don’t think they like my music.

Really?

My music is so boring.

Stop it, I feel like if I made music like you, my mum would be so proud that I was sensitive. I think that’s what mums want, for their children to grow up and feel emotions…

That’s so funny. I don’t know, maybe my mum likes it. It’s really hard to tell. They don’t understand it and I know that for sure. It’s too weird for them. They’re very West-African so my dad is like, “When are you going to put some drums in your music?” That’s the only thing he ever said to me. He’s like, “Hey, I heard your song. It was cool but like when are you going to do something a little more upbeat with drums, so people can dance, like Fela Kuti.” They do not understand what I’m trying to do at all.

I love him!

It’s typical parent shit. Like, “Cool, you’re on a world tour and everything, but like, when are you going to have a hit?”

Well, come on, the Oscars. That means something inside of a regular household, right?

You know, it’s funny, I didn’t even tell my parents. My parents live in Ghana, we don’t live in the same country, so sometimes it’s hard for me to remember what they’re into or what will resonate with them. I couldn’t recall if they even know what the Oscars is. So I didn’t tell them at all, but then my mum sent me a photo the next day.

Finally, what message are you delivering in this life? What words do you want to follow you when you’re gone?

You know, I’m deep in the pursuit of honesty and if there’s anything I want people to take away from my being or my music, it’s truth. And the pursuit of personal truth, as well as sociopolitical truth.

words Hayley Morgan, photography Gadir Rajab and Hunter Ryan, fashion Gadir Rajab

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