Moses Sumney

by E. Ryan Ellis

The warm buzz of a bloody mary has just started to weigh down my brain—per usual a little alcohol provides a lot of relief—but subsequent drinks will always be aimed at enhancing that initial jolt, and will fail.

I’m in an Echo Park brunch joint I chose to meet Moses Sumney at because I know that no one comes here on Saturday morning. The bartender is asking me about the upcoming football season as I slam the rest of my first bloody; all the while faceless, vanilla, indie music from the mid-aughts plays through the speakers. Eastside Los Angeles is leaking nostalgia. I have to think that L.A. crooner Sumney will surpass these latter day saints of Garden State aftereffect and ‘06-ish college sorority devotion.

It’s a hell of a time to be listening to music.

Sumney cuts a handsome figure; he’s tall and wears dark, draped clothes–adding to a mystique that is endearingly cultivated by the young artist. Case in point: as we find our table he lays his sunglasses down carefully, remarking that he regularly keeps them on during interviews.

Sumney grew up in the Inland Empire of Southern California until he was 12, when his parents decided to move the family back to their native Ghana. Young Sumney continued to obsess over American culture while living there, much to the chagrin of his peers.

“You’ve stated that when you lived in Ghana you continued to immerse yourself in American culture, do you find yourself being more nostalgic about Ghanaian culture now that you’re in America?”

“Totally. Now that I’m older I find myself nostalgic for the things I experienced when I was a child, whether they’re positive or not [laughs]. Now I appreciate it more, like, from afar.”

The bartender approaches, Sumney orders a cider mimosa. His voice is rippleless this morning, even when ordering a brunch drink it sounds pristine, as if Sumney hadn’t spoken in his 25 years on Earth. In a live setting, however, he loops, distorts, and breathily imparts his music over the course of a show. He very much considers himself a performance-based artist.

“Yeah, I mean, most of my songs are actually live first before they’re recorded because my career’s been so performance-based.”

“I feel as if some musicians find performing and touring as a necessary evil.” I venture.

“I don’t think everyone should have to perform, you know, it’s unfortunate that these days you have to perform in order to still make money and keep afloat because not everyone is built that way, you know? I mean, Harry Nilsson hated performing but he was a wonderful recording artist and writer. I personally love it, I don’t think I could live without it.”

“What do you like about it?” I ask.

“I just love singing. I just love sharing music with other people, whether it’s receiving, or giving. I love live music.”

Yet to release a full-length album, Sumney dropped the single “Seeds,” in May of this year, as well as an unexpectedly well-received cover of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” in July. Unexpected, because Sumney says he improvised the piece, and put it out on a whim, not fully realizing the fanfare or backlash that would come with covering Lou Reed’s widow.

“I was pretty dead set on making something that was instrumental and building an instrumental track with just vocals. And then I realized I could do Laurie Anderson and I was just like, oh wait, I have to do that. I have to cover that song. And I actually honestly didn’t realize it was such a popular song, I didn’t know what I was getting into, I think that’s the thing.” I ask if anyone has reacted badly, Moses confirms some people claimed refusal to even listen based on the original artist’s deification.

The irony though, is that “O Superman,” is not completely original itself, but partially based on a hundred-year-old opera aria “Ô Souverain, ô Juge, ô Père,” by Jules Massenet.

Hell of a time to be making music.

Photographer: Caitlin G. Dennis at Caitlingdennis.com.

Stylist: Sissy Sainte-Marie at sissysaintemarie.com.