Interview by Taylor Lough
Images by Jan-Willem Dikkers
Video by Rafiki Tree Productions
“My ultimate goal is to have an emotional
connection with people – to have people think
of things in a way they haven’t before,
either musically or just thinking to feel.”
— Moses Sumney
Born in San Bernadino, Moses Sumney moved to Ghana at the age of ten. While studying creative writing at UCLA, he taught himself how to play guitar and began performing at age 20. At 24, Sumney currently lives in Los Angeles and, since 2013, has been gaining attention for his soulful folk music, though he has not yet signed with a record label.
The Local Natives are Los Angeles-based indie rock band. Their debut album, Gorilla Manor, was regarded as one of the best new music albums of 2010, hitting #3 on Billboard 200 chart. The band has since opened for Arcade Fire and released a second album, Hummingbird (2013).
Beck’s “Song Reader”
Beck Hansen began the “Song Reader” project in 2004 and released the Song Reader album in 2012, not as a recording but as a book of original sheet music and drawings. The 2014 follow-up to this first “Song Reader“ is a recorded version of its material, with each track adapted by a different musician—including Jack White, Jeff Tweedy and Beck himself.
Moses Sumney has a homemade brand of soul—on the surface often gentle, meditative, bare, but as his voice pitches and lulls it’s clear something’s burning white-hot inside. Many of his songs aptly speak of darkness and light while he lends the words a certain incandescence. Self-taught and for many years too shy to share his music, Moses has already played alongside Solange Knowles, the Local Natives, and recorded the opening track for Beck’s “Song Reader.” All before releasing his first album.
He sat down with us and played “Man On the Moon” amid the bursting treetops of the Hollywood Hills. Like his music, Moses is authentic, calm, so in his element that it didn’t feel like a performance —if we weren’t there, it seemed he would be playing only to participate in the lush backyard. Or, rather, to enhance it.
Taylor Lough: How is your day going?
Moses Sumney: It’s going well! I just sang a song for you guys.
TL: Do you ever do anything to prepare for a performance?
MS: I don’t have a ritual or anything. I used to pray. I perform alone so I don’t have anyone to huddle with unfortunately… or cuddle with. I just do vocal warm-ups at this point, we will see if that changes though.
TL: Where are you from?
MS: I was born here. I grew up in San Bernardino and moved to Ghana (at age 10).
TL: What was that like?
MS: It was hard—my friends were here, I had to get acclimated to a whole new culture. I was already Americanized and there was no Pokemon.
“I would slip my songbook
into my mattress
because I was really shy.”
— Moses Sumney
TL: Did you take away anything?
MS: No. I was depressed (laughs). Looking back on it, on a subconscious level, I think I took away some musical inspiration, but not in the way most people would assume. I wasn’t like, “Oh, I am going to play Afro music.”
TL: How would you describe your personality?
MS: I would slip my songbook into my mattress because I was really shy. I feel shy, but people don’t perceive me as shy. I don’t get nervous before shows. I get nervous in social situations.
TL: What made you decide to air them out?
MS: (laughs) Desperation, I think, and fear that I would get old and regret that I didn’t try to do something with it. I knew I was meant to do it at some point, just never when. For me, I just felt like I was getting older. I started performing when I was 20.
A live event hosted by MFG and Chris Douridas from LA’s independent radio station KCRW. It takes place every Monday night at Bardot in Hollywood and showcases a variety of Los Angeles’ up-and-coming musicians.
Celebrated singer-songwriter, best known for her #1 hit single “Lovin You” (1975). Riperton’s work often featured collaborations with Etta James and Stevie Wonder. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1976 at the age of 28. Before her death in 1979, President Carter presented her with The American Cancer Society Award for Courage.
The Dirty Projectors
The Dirty Projectors originated in Brooklyn and are often associated with the New York indie music scene in the late 2000’s. The band has released seven full length albums. Multi-instrumentalist David Longstreth, the band’s core member, rarely uses the same group of musicians for more than a few albums in a row.
Full name Kimbra Lee Johnson Zottola, Kimbra is a singer/guitairist from New Zealand who has recently re-located to Los Angeles to record a new album. Her voice is featured on Gotye’s “Somebody I Used to Know,” earning both several Grammys in 2012, including Song of the Year.
A Danish electronic-soul duo consisting of singer Coco O and musician/producer Robin Hannibal. Their debut album, Quadron in Denmark (2009) quickly become an indie fan favorite. Since the release, the duo have moved to Los Angeles and have signed to label Plug Research.
Indie band formed in Gainesville, Florida. They have toured with Alt-J and The XX and have released two full length albums, Hundred Waters (2012) and Moon Rang Like a Bell (2014).
Legendary American singer-songwriter. Hits include “These Days,” which was recorded by Nico and Greg Allman in 1967, as well as “Take it Easy,” recorded by The Eagles as the opening track to their debut album. Browne has also sold over 18 million of his own records and, in 2004, was inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
TL: How old are you now?
MS: I am 24. My first LA show was a year ago. Since then so much has happened. School Night! was a really crazy night. You rarely get a chance to quantify the results of what you are doing—seeing how many people were there. It’s kind of creepy. It moved very slowly for 23 years and all of a sudden it’s boom.
“It’s kind of creepy. It moved
very slowly for 23 years
and all of a sudden it’s boom.”
— Moses Sumney
TL: Yeah, you just recorded and produced a track for Beck’s “Song Reader” album. How does that feel?
MS: Whenever I get asked to do something I am pretty chill about it because in my mind it will never happen. When they asked if I wanted to do a song for the album, I was like “… Sure… yeah… I’ll do a song for the album.” I never thought it would come out or ever be heard. I thought, “Ok whatever, it’s fine I can handle that,” and it ended up being the opening track on the album. It’s crazy, I’m so grateful.
TL: Do you ever think in terms of goals for a song or performance?
MS: Well, nothing is ever up to my standards. It can always be better. My ultimate goal is to have an emotional connection with people – to have people think of things in a way they haven’t before, either musically or just thinking to feel.
TL: What do you do in your downtime?
MS: I’m so into Instagram. I love Instagram because it’s a curated reality—people don’t like it for that reason. I probably should say something apart from it (laughs), but there is so much to explore. I get quite inspired by the right Instagrams. The way people see things like a landscape or a thing hanging on a wall and capturing it and sharing it. I think it’s really interesting. In some ways the only reality that matters is the perceived reality.
TL: How do you feel about the rising creative scene in LA?
MS: I don’t know yet how I feel about it. I think I did an interview recently and said it kinda sucks (laughs). You know, I don’t know. I live in Mid-City in Central LA and no one I know in the creative scene really lives there. Everyone lives on the Eastside, so I think my physical/geographical removal from the scene makes me feel like there is not really a scene.
“I love Instagram because
it’s a curated reality.”
— Moses Sumney
But recently I have been spending time with other artists. Last Saturday I did this show—it was a Minnie Riperton tribute—and they got together all these amazing artists like Angel Deradoorian and Amber Kauffman from The Dirty Projectors, and Kimbra and Coco from Quadron, and just all these people who live here but never see each other. From that, we’ve all kind of hung out everyday since. I think there are a lot of creative people here, I wish there was more of a creative community.
TL: What’s your favorite album right now?
MS: I’m super into Hundred Waters’ new album, The Moon Rang Like a Bell. They are so good. It’s dreamy-electro, like Björk meets your mom singing you to sleep (laughs). So thats my current obsession. I’m also really into the new Lana Del Rey album. Not sorry. I like how depressing it is. Her voice is beautiful.
TL: What’s next?
MS: Well, (whispers) I’m going to Berlin to record some music. I have taken a little bit of a break from performing live this summer so I can record and write. In the fall, I’ll be playing some cool shows.
TL: Yeah, you’re playing the Way Over Yonder festival at the Santa Monica Pier?
MS: I’m super excited. Jackson Browne is headlining which is crazy! Local Natives are playing. My first tour, which was this year, was with them so in my mind it’s like, “Oh were having a reunion.”