Moses Sumney is taking his ‘space hammock’ music to the Coachella stage
Moses Sumney always imagined his story would mirror those of other indie artists. He would start playing in coffee shops, and maybe even some basements. A coveted opening gig would come only after toiling away for a year or more.
But the 27-year-old’s ascent has been much more rapid.
Fresh off an Australian tour, Sumney was working this month to translate his hypnopompic sound to major outdoor festivals. This month he’s on tap to make his debut performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, on both Fridays. He’s also booked for major fests in Chicago (Pitchfork) and Manchester, Tenn. (Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival).
Signed to the Midwest label Jagjaguwar, he’s found his success as an independent artist.
“I’m not rich,” he said. “I’m driving my Honda Civic everywhere but millions of people have heard my music at the same time.”
Things got rolling after a 2013 jam session with local R&B trio King, after which the airy, atmospheric soul-inspired folk singer-songwriter was asked to be the opening act for a residency at the Bootleg Theater that summer. It was the first major gig in L.A. for the former UCLA student.
“The first week I performed people were like, ‘Whoa, who is this guy?’” he said while chatting at a Glassell Park cafe. “By the end of the residency… a lot of people were coming to see me.”
Over the next six months, he was approached by record labels and publishers, and was consumed by meetings with agents and lawyers.
But there was one problem: “It distracted me from the art, which was the only thing I really cared about,” he said. “I felt like a lot of people were trying to push me into making something, or saying, ‘Let’s get him while he’s young so we can craft him into a pop star.’”
Instead, he ignored them all and spent the next four years self-releasing EPs such as 2014’s “Mid-City Island,” which he recorded on a four-track cassette recorder in his bedroom, and working on what would become his critically acclaimed debut album, 2017’s “Aromanticism.”
He began writing the album in isolation in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, N.C. “I chose to write about love and lovelessness,” he said. “Exploring our social conceptions of love but through a hyper-personal viewpoint.”
The album feels like a meditation on being alone. On “Doomed,” which is built more on emotion — and the singer's dynamic falsetto — than on standard pop structures, he sings: If lovelessness is godlessness / will you cast me to the wayside,” and elsewhere on “Indulge Me,” “I don't trouble nobody / Nobody troubles my body.”
The sound evokes the sensation of being in a float chamber — ethereal and dreamy, with stirring vocals. Sumney describes the sensation of listening to his music as lying on a “space hammock,” one that’s drifting in orbit.
“It’s the space between dreaming and waking up,” he said. “That crevice where you’re not sure.”
Born in San Bernardino, Sumney spent his first 10 years in the U.S. before moving to Accra, the capital of Ghana. It was there that he began quietly teaching himself to sing and write songs. “I would take three buses to school and three buses home,” he said. “I spent that time writing songs with no music because I didn’t know how to play any instruments.”
When his father, a pastor and taxi driver, would make trips to the U.S., Sumney always asked him to bring back CDs. Early 2000s pop stars like Destiny’s Child, Usher and Nelly Furtado became his teachers. “I would just listen to every run and then rewind… hear it again and rewind and learn everything.”
After six years in Ghana, he moved back to California and got his first brush with public performance and traditional musical study in a high school choir. “That was amazing,” he said. “I learned what harmony is, what notes are.”
Sumney also used YouTube to teach himself guitar and dive into the icons like Ella Fitzgerald.
When he relocated to L.A. to attend UCLA, the shy adolescent, who never told anyone his aspirations, could assume a new identity: “a guy that’s going to be a singer.”
Sumney says he threw himself into collegial life as a transfer student — singing in a cappella groups, copy editing the school newspaper, founding the sign-language club — he needed options in case music didn’t work out. But it’s UCLA where he found his voice.
He met the members of King when he interviewed them for his student radio show, and stayed in touch. Although Sumney recalls intense doubt about his abilities the first time he played with King, the trio remembers it differently.
“I always thought he was talented,” said King member Amber Strother. “He’s going to the moon.”
Currently, Sumney is working to complete and release a new album as well as additional EPs.
“I have to fulfill it, because what else am I gonna do?”
FOR THE RECORD
12:55 p.m. April 13: This story originally misspelled the name of the record label to which Sumney is signed. It is Jagjaguwar.
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