Moses Sumney exists somewhere between otherworldly and utterly relatable. His electro-tinted folk is incomparable and sounds quite unlike anything else you’ve heard before. That isn’t to say there isn’t a place for his music, having received support from Solange, James Blake, and Sufjan Stevens in the early years of his career. He sings about pain, loneliness, and depression and when accompanied by his dulcet tones, every word hits exactly where it’s meant to land. Even though his songs are sombre, Moses himself is not.
He’s an anomaly – as all the best people are – and you won’t be hard-pressed to find an article that touts him as charming and self-deprecating. More often than not, comparisons are drawn between Moses and the late Jeff Buckley but he thinks this parallel is “a bit too generous”. At each show, he stands alone on stage and creates the sonic experience of an entire band with a loop pedal, two guitars, and three microphones. In the midst of his Australian tour, Moses Sumney had some time to talk about the power of the word ‘lol’, how busking changed his entire perspective on performance, and shed some light on being a ‘musician for celebrities’.
I’ve been hearing a lot of things about your Sydney shows – firstly, that you’re playing new music. Is it from the upcoming album?
Yes, definitely. They seem to like it. I mean, I typically just think people are lying when they say those kinds of things [laughs], but based on reports, they seem to like it.
Tell me about Sydney. What’s the tour been like so far?
It’s been really nice, I got to Sydney a few days early so I got to chill and see the city a little bit. I was staying very close to the harbour so that was easy and the shows were really nice. The first show was in a church which was beautiful and the second was in a spiegeltent which was like a circus tent and that was definitely entertaining for me [laughs]. So I had a great time.
What’s it like going from performing in a church one night to a circus tent the next?
They seem like they’d be dramatically different but if you think about it, church is one big circus anyway so it felt pretty connected.
‘Rank and File’ seems to be a crowd favourite, the people like seeing you doing wild things with the mic, like tapping, rubbing and looping it all together. I’ve watched videos of you performing it and it’s amazing.
The live thing is better than videos, always. It’s cool, it’s a song in a lot of ways that was the most risky. It’s not the first time I’ve done looping stuff but it is the first time I’ve written a sort of aggressive politically themed song. It’s kind of about militarism so I kind of expected people to dislike that song the most. It’s kind of funny, maybe because of where I’ve been playing it’s been popular but the people are into it.
I was lurking your Twitter and I saw you retweeted a very positive review of your show with just the word ‘lol’. I have to know – why?
[Laughs] What do you think? What does that come off as?
Personally, I thought you were just being self deprecating and being like ‘Hey here’s a positive review of me but I don’t know how to caption it, so lol’
I think ‘lol’ is a very, very powerful word. You can say a lot without saying too much and basically leave a lot up to the imagination and leave a lot up to the function. I think I like the ambiguity those three letters provide. I hide behind them and people can assume whatever they want.
‘Lol’ is a great word to stress people out with.
There is a very specific reason why I did the ‘lol’ and I don’t remember. But it was a very short part of the review and I want to see if I can find it… Oh! I remember: “Sumney has a little bit of a name for himself as a musician for celebrities.” [Laughs] I’m laughing at it just thinking about it.
It’s kind of a burn?
It is kind of a burn, right? A little bit of a slap in the face but it’s also meant to be a compliment. What does it mean to be a musician for celebrities? I kind of imagine someone who’s a prisoner that’s kept in a cage. Then at night at the Illuminati meetings all the celebrities come out and make the prisoner dance and play songs – that’s what I imagine a musician for celebrities is [laughs].
It was just really funny to me, so that’s where ‘lol’ comes from. But it’s also a really nice review. It’s so complimentary and I always feel so weird retweeting compliments. I’m not really retweeting compliments unless they’re funny or insulting or self-deprecating. And I think the guilt of having retweeted something so complimentary meant that I had to say ‘lol’.
You actually got compared to Jeff Buckley in that review.
I get compared to Jeff Buckley in a lot of reviews, which is crazy.
Do you like it?
I don’t [laughs]. Were you about to make a Jeff Buckley comparison?
[Laughs] No, I was just genuinely curious if you were into it.
I don’t like it because I think Jeff Buckley is one of the greatest artists to walk the earth ever, and it’s really nice but I think it’s a bit generous because I don’t think I could ever be him. I think being compared to people is weird. I only like it when I’m compared to artists I’m not similar to. Jeff Buckley is an artist that I love and so there is a part of me that doesn’t want people to think I’m trying to be him. There are a few artists when you discover and you’re like “oh my god I want to do that, I want to incorporate that into what I do”. And for me there were artists that I discovered and was like “Oh my gosh, this is a thing I’m already trying to do and this person is doing it so well” and I felt like that a lot when I discovered Jeff Buckley. I had to take a step away from it though because I didn’t want to seem like I was trying to emulate him and so when I get those comparisons I think ‘ah I don’t want it to seem like I’m copying him’ (laughs) or trying to be him. But also he’s so good I don’t know if I should be compared to him. That’s the only reason why I’m not crazy about being compared to him specifically.
But you also got compared to a busker because of your one-man setup, and loop pedals, but that’s not too far from where you began performing when you ran out of money in Paris, right?
Yeah, I had to busk to eat everyday. On that trip, I was on a school trip studying Shakespeare in London when I was in university. We all decided to travel into Europe and I decided to go to Paris. Everyone went to multiple countries but I was really poor so I could only afford to go to Paris and while I was there I literally ran out of money. My bank account over drafted. So I had no money and all I had was a plane ticket home. I had kind of planned the trip so I could afford to live there really cheaply the whole time and I made a mistake and slept in the wrong place and literally had negative dollars. So it was maybe a week or so where I had no money and I needed to busk. But there was no looping, that was before I had started looping – it was just the guitar and singing.
I’m probably reaching here, but was there a moment while you were performing where something clicked and you thought ‘this is something I want to do’?
Definitely – I was less than a year into being a performer at that point. I had done some shows in coffee shops around campus and that was it. You just never really know if it’s going to work out. But I felt like that was a crash course in performance and a crash course in being on stage even though it was an unconventional stage, well it wasn’t a stage at all. And I did think, ‘maybe I can do this’ and people listened and gave me money and a lot of people walked past me and didn’t care, that was also a lesson. You learn to de-centre yourself because as a performer you’re always having to centre yourself and you’re put in positions that make you think that you’re the most important person in the world. I think busking and street performing is good because it teaches you that you’re not important [laughs] and I think that’s something every artist needs to learn very early on or be able to grapple with that possibility.
Do you feel ‘important’ though when people come up to you, like a couple in Sydney did and tell you they got married to your song?
I think ‘Plastic’ was the song that they first danced to, I don’t know how weddings work.
I don’t feel important because I don’t think the music is about me. I think it comes from personal experiences and I think making music and making art is such a communal thing; something comes to me, comes through me and I share that with the world. And those people, even though it’s my song, they’re prescribing their own meaning to the music and so I don’t feel important because it isn’t about me, it’s about the song and it’s about how they feel.
How does it feel when people tell you that though?
It’s definitely weird [laughs]. At first it’s weird and then it’s whatever. But in the beginning when I first heard it, it was weird because you write these songs on your bedroom floor in your tiny studio and someone across the other side of the world is like “Oh yeah, this will be in my wedding” and you’re like “Oh, that’s unexpected”. But it’s part of it.
So tell me, why did you sing ‘Incantation’ in Hebrew?
‘Incantatio’n is not a song I wrote – it’s a combination of two Hebrew hymns that are quite old. I was in Montreal working on the album last year and I was looking for a harp player to work on a song and I walked past this apartment and a woman was playing a harp in her window. So I wrote her a letter and asked if she would play harp on the album. That letter was an email, so she replied with an email and when I got her name I looked her up and found a video of her playing a version of the hymn and this video has 30 views or something like that. I thought, “I want to do my own version of this song” – I just thought it was such a beautiful song even though it was in a language I couldn’t understand. I had her record the harp part and then I wrote my own version of it.
That makes a lot of sense, because when I was Googling this before, I came across an article that said something along the lines of: “Moses Sumney sings ‘Incantation ‘in his native language, Hebrew,” and I had a feeling it was very wrong.
They said “native Hebrew”? That’s soo funny. People just make up things. I’m all for the mythology.
There is so much anticipation over your upcoming debut album
Is there? [Laughs]
I think so; does the anticipation scare you or excite you?
To truly answer that question we’d need two hours. There are so many answers to that question but at the end of the day I’m grateful people are looking forward to hearing it and I hope that they’re even more excited when they’re hearing it.
You’re friends with incredible artists like Solange but then also have opened for legends like Erykah Badu, Sufjan Stevens, and played guitar for Karen O and Beck. What do you think you’ve learned and taken away from being around seasoned performers like them?
It’s hard to say because a lot of these peoples are geniuses and I’m not a genius, I’m just really fortunate [laughs]. So I’m always just like, “Oh I need to go practice”. Like with Sufjan, I was like “Oh you’re the real deal, wow” and with Solange she’s so brilliant and so multi-faceted with her talents that I’m like “Oh, I need to get some art” [laughs]. I think the biggest thing that I take away is that people are just people –they’re just human beings and I realised that quite early on, so I think that’s become easy for me to interface with artists that I respect.
The thing I have noticed about you is that you take these huge meetings, collaborations, and triumphs in your stride. You’re not overwhelmed but you’re also not completely indifferent either.
Honestly, sometimes I am a little indifferent [laughs]. I don’t know why I’m like that and I don’t know why I don’t freak out. I think at the end of the day I’m pushed by this desire to do more and be better as an artist and these things are kind of just decorative. Meeting people and travelling to other places, they’re nice but they don’t help me achieve my objective, which is to make really great, meaningful art. So as long as I can be better at that, the other stuff can’t get to my head.
I know you like your performances to be experienced in a quiet room, with everyone’s attention on you, but how do you think you’re going to deal with that at a festival like Sugar Mountain on Saturday?
I’m just going to kill everyone.
And what are you doing with your down time between the end of your Australian tour and your European tour?
I’m finishing the album, mastering it, and figuring out how to get it to the world.
Moses Sumney will be performing at Sugar Mountain Festival in Melbourne, Saturday January 21.
- Photography: Elliott Lauren