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Moses Sumney Puts The Industry Behind Him And Explores The In-Between On 'Grae'

Moses Sumney moved from LA to Asheville, N.C. ahead of writing his latest album, <em>grae</em>. "Lyrically and thematically, I was able to channel something bigger than me in a much clearer way," he says.
Francis Kokoroko
Courtesy of the artist
Moses Sumney moved from LA to Asheville, N.C. ahead of writing his latest album, grae. "Lyrically and thematically, I was able to channel something bigger than me in a much clearer way," he says.

Moses Sumney spent years searching for the sound on his new, double album grae. It began in 2013, when he first tried to break into the Los Angeles music scene — and got interest from record labels almost immediately.

"I expected to spend many years totally grinding in obscurity," Sumney says of his early experience in the music industry. "So, in a lot of ways, it was living the dream, 'making it,' making a name for myself in the music industry — but also discovering that it's not all it's cracked up to be."

The experience didn't sit right with him. Sumney felt typecast by the labels, pushed into a certain image while he was still searching for his own unique sound. So he turned the labels down, eventually moving to Asheville, N.C. and away from the hub of the music industry. That resistance to labels is reflected in Sumney's music: Across two discs, grae is all about defying expectation, genre and categorization.

NPR's Ailsa Chang spoke to Moses Sumney about his early experiences as a musician, the effect of moving to Asheville on his artistic process and the new record he describes as "a concept album about grayness." Listen to the radio version at the audio link above and read on for a transcript of the interview.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity

Ailsa Chang: I first want to go back in time a little bit, back to 2012, 2013 when you were just starting to break into the music world in Los Angeles. Can you bring me back to that time? What were those early years like in LA for you?

Moses Sumney: The early years in LA were a whirlwind. In a lot of ways, it was living the dream of moving to Los Angeles at young age and then quote-unquote "making it," making a name for myself in the music industry — but also discovering that it's not all it's cracked up to be.

I expected to spend many years totally grinding in obscurity and I had a little bit of the opposite experience, where as soon as I graduated from university and started playing, people, at least locally, really began to know who I was very quickly. That was really intense.

You started getting massive interest really early from record labels in LA. But what's interesting is you turned them down. You seemed to resist that kind of intense attention. Why was that?

I think if you partner with companies and you don't yet know what your identity is, they will ascribe one to you.

I just wasn't ready yet. I didn't come up in the music industry, I also didn't come up really playing music. I came up having a very insular experience and relationship with music. But I was not ready yet because I had not incubated my artistry enough to feel like I was at a point where I could commercialize it in any way. So in a lot of ways, I felt like I was starting an internship and then I got offered a position before I would've been able to take the position.

But now, years later, I feel much more equipped, whereas then I didn't know sonically what I wanted, visually what I wanted. And I think if you partner with companies and you don't yet know what your identity is, they will ascribe one to you. They'll give you an identity. I didn't want to leave space for that, so I walked away from that all.

I read that in your early years the industry wanted to peg you as an R&B artist because you're black. How did you try to describe your music to them back then, to the extent that you could put that into words?

I definitely struggled, too. I didn't often get to describe my music, because they would describe it for me, to me. But probably I would say that I wanted to be a folk artist and a soul artist and an experimental indie rock artist. The more adjectives you add, the more diluted it becomes to people, the more they're like "What? What is this?" So it was tricky.

Did those early experiences, feeling the industry trying to put you into a category, make you want to tighten your control over your image and your music?

Fully and totally. The benefit of sitting back and not jumping too quickly into a record deal was I got to see a lot of artists, a lot of contemporaries, who kind of fell for the tricks of the music industry and were lost. By not doing so myself, I learned a lot about what I actually wanted sonically and visually. And I got to go really insular and really try to self-actualize artistically as much as possible. But also simultaneously, I accepted early on that my journey was going to be public, that my growth was going to be public. When you're getting dressed, you don't want people to see behind the curtain, you want to emerge all done up. "Here I am." But I realized that my journey was not going to be that, because I kind of lost that opportunity. I kind of accepted that my arc, my story, would be one of growth.

I was just about to ask if you think it's possible for an artist to emerge without some sort of narrative that people can track. Can it just be about the music, or does a musician have to come with a story?

I think it's definitely possible. I think it's rare. There are a few cases in the music industry now that we can point to of people who kind of leaned on mystery. I think you have to have a story if people know enough about who you are and what you're selling is your own identity, but if your "thing," your whole angle, is mystery, you can get away with people not knowing anything. And I definitely have had moments of wishing that my whole thing was mystery, but it wasn't. It's not.

Perspective is interesting, because to some people, I'm incredibly mysterious and elusive anyway. So in my mind I'm like "Oh, people know too much about me," but a lot of people don't feel that way. So it's at some point also in your head.

The thing is that you do also have a really interesting background, with your parents moving to the U.S. from Ghana. I read that at first your parents weren't all that supportive of you going into music. They wanted you to go into something more practical, right?

I mean, it's a really common immigrant story, right? You've got to be a lawyer or a doctor, kind of thing. My parents definitely had that, and that was difficult for me because of my personality. I was just always strange and unique and was going to do my own thing. I'm a middle child, very quiet, was very to myself and was always planning and plotting and scheming. I think my upbringing in a way helped because the music industry is incredibly difficult and now whenever people ask me "What advice do you give new artists?" I say "Quit." Because for me, people told me to quit, and if enough people tell you to quit and you keep going, then maybe you are cut out for it after all.

So you got your start in music in LA and then you decided to leave. You moved to a city that is totally different from LA in so many ways — Asheville, N.C. What made you want to move?

I was so wrapped up in the cult of personality or in this idea of building a public image, whether I wanted to or not, that it was distracting from the art.

I found LA distracting as an artist. Especially in this day of age, the cult of personality is such a huge part of being an artist or living any kind of public life. So I found that often, I was so wrapped up in the cult of personality or in this idea of building a public image, whether I wanted to or not, that it was distracting from the art. Whenever I needed to write music or work on my album, I would leave L.A. I would go to the mountains, go to Big Bear or go to Topanga, or come to North Carolina. And at some point I felt like "Well, why not just live in a place that gives me constant inspiration instead of retreating and running away to go find it every time?" I also felt kind of mentally drained by being in Los Angeles. There were some good parts about it, but I found that I felt so negatively about it that I was unable to see the good parts of it anymore.

I know that eventually you decided to leave in LA because you were searching for a certain kind of sound. Now that you're living in Asheville, does it feel like you've found that sound?

When I moved to Asheville, I was probably more looking for a clarity of mind than a specific sound. Sonically, the music probably would have still taken the same shape and come to the same conclusion, it just would have taken longer. I find that here, especially lyrically and thematically, I was able to channel something bigger than me in a much clearer way. I was able to formulate my thoughts without having to cut through all of the noise.

Musically, I really do try to do something that feels new, something that feels different and surprising. And that can be difficult when you're surrounded by not only loads of other musicians that are vying for the same space, but also by a major industry. So I think the effect of creating in a major city is often creating with the industry in mind. You're creating with a certain commercialism in the air. That's just the ambiance in the air. And not having that was definitely a help to free myself and have my own inner dialogue be the only guide for what the music would be.

Well you made this new album grae while you've been in Asheville. I want to talk about what this album is about. Is there one vision holding it all together?

Yes, there is one vision holding it all together, it's a vision of multiplicity. The elevator pitch, I suppose, is that it's a concept record about grayness. I wanted to take a concept and a word that is rather bland in a lot of ways and inject it with as much color and as much life as possible in order to explore the idea of living life between the margins, not existing on either side of a polarity or an extreme, in order to emphasize the idea of celebrating ambiguity and obscurity. Or if not celebrating, at least exploring it and pronouncing it with confidence.

Do you feel like you are living in a kind of in-between place right now yourself?

Not so much physically but certainly metaphysically. My identity has always been a patchwork, as someone who grew up bi-culturally, bi-nationally, even. My foundational perspective on the world is one of many. So I found that I never really fit in in just one place or could see life through one lens. I think that most people occupy a space of multitudes when it comes to their identities. We're all into lots of different things. And everyone thinks their music taste is unique, and everyone thinks they're special. But kind of in order to be understood by other people you have to simplify yourself and shave down all the edges.

I wanted to explore that concept and say "What does it mean if I'm not going to shave down the edges?" What does it mean if I say "No. I am complicated and confusing and that's a thing you can't simplify to get it." I think a lot of people occupy that space but they don't have the language to verbalize it. And I wanted to verbalize it for myself, also in hopes that other people could see that in themselves or at least be able to also produce and recognize that critique of society.

You also decided to release that album in two parts. I'm curious why you wanted separate releases for this one album? What did two releases allow you to say that one wouldn't?

In a way it was just too good to pass up. If you're into numerology: A double album released in two separate parts in the year 2020, an album addressing duality.

But beyond that, it's a dense album. It's long, it's 20 tracks, but it's also dense and each part feels like a full album, and I wanted to give the listener a chance to sit with a portion of it. I think the risk in this modern day and age of putting so much music is that the longer the project, the less likely people are to get to the end of it. That's the reality, for me as well, as a listener. I really wanted to just encourage people to sit with it for a while before getting the second part. The release model, though, is a suggestion. This is how I'd suggest people listen to it, but at the end of the day, once it comes out, it's all going to be available as one product, so I think people can pick their own adventures now.

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.