On solitude, and the sound of leveraging lament.
“I often go up into the mountains, to write and disconnect from the world,” says Moses Sumney, his cadence soft and measured, as he rides the train from Montreal to Toronto.
Solitude is a precious commodity for Sumney, and its delicate fruits are everywhere to be found on Lamentations—an all-too-brief but unified group of songs culled from his latest album. The EP’s title is carefully chosen, like most of the words Sumney uses, and its contents find him reckoning with loneliness, the limits of intimacy and entrapment within the self.
Sumney gained widespread attention for his 2014 EP Mid-City Island, recorded entirely on his own with a four-track. Listeners were mesmerized by his ethereal voice and lyrics, and a swell of expectation followed him as he toured with Beck, Karen O, Sufjan Stevens and James Blake.
When asked if he feared losing control over his sound on the new album, given the arrival of collaborators like Thundercat and Trayer Tryon of Hundred Waters, Sumney remained undaunted. “The main challenge was keeping the music intimate… I wrote the melodies, all the lyrics, all the harmonies, and then found people to fill in those spaces.”
Self-reliance comes naturally to him. At the age of 10, his family moved from San Bernardino, California, to Ghana, where he alleviated his loneliness by composing hundreds of a cappella songs. He still writes songs this way, choosing to enter the studio with fully formed musical concepts that in some cases exist only in his mind. Yet he remains open to improvements in arrangement, instrumentation and other sonic nuances.
Sumney has made good use of the resources that come with wider recognition. “I wanted to show progression, and make it clear that there has been a growth, both in my tastes and interests but also in my ability to produce,” he says. That determination is obvious on “Worth It,” a song that stands out for its combination of a thick, honeyed vocoder effect and sparse beat. “When I put that out, a lot of people were really upset with me,” Sumney says, referring to a feeling among some listeners that he was squandering his voice behind digital effects. “But a huge part of my work is vocal manipulation, and I see using a processor as part of that in order to tell a story.” He’s quick to note a litany of artists who have used similar devices to subtle effect: Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, Zapp & Roger and, yes, T-Pain.
The song, for all of its sonic delights, is essentially a dirge—a cry from the soul. “You offer all of you / I recognize your hand as a budding bruise / You reject solitude /But I don’t know if I am worth it.” Sumney seized on the robotic, emotionless tone of the vocoder to enrich the song’s lyrical ambiguity. “I used it as a veil to confess these really intimate things. I liked the idea of enveloping a confession in a filter, in order to make it more bearable to say or to hear.”
Confession is just one mode of lamentation on the EP. Sumney also examines doubts about whether we can recover the richer selves we experienced in our youth, or realize the wild dreams we spun for ourselves. “I probably fear, often, that I’m not fulfilling the things that I dreamed I would… goals I created. They become a promised land that I don’t quite get to.”
Unreachable dreams aside, Sumney has come a long way from the a cappella solitude of Ghana. His shows often feature him alone on stage with a guitar, but regularly leave audiences spellbound. His voice soars and dives from a pristine falsetto reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone and Nick Drake. In particular, his style is marked by a willingness to eschew bluesy rolls, allowing single notes to modulate and die out in slow, exquisite tremolo. It’s a patient style that one doesn’t hear very often.
Classification can irk him, particularly when informed by racist cliché. “I’m called an R&B artist very often. We have such a strong desire to classify everything immediately in order to understand it, and I really do think we cheat ourselves when we do that. Do I really belong in the same category as Chris Brown and Trey Songz?”
In a pinch, though, he does have a preferred term: folk. He notes that while headed to the train station, a taxi driver asked about his music. “The driver goes, ‘Oh, you don’t look like you perform folk music.’ People try to reduce you to your race when all you’re trying to do is create.”
Perhaps nowhere on the album is the R&B cliché dispelled more perfectly than on its final track, “Incantation,” which makes use of two Hebrew texts. Sumney, who is not Jewish, successfully evokes the ancient resonance of the prayers, yet chooses to wrap them in a darkly orchestrated tapestry of synths and strange human cries.
The song emerged from serendipity. Sumney knew that he wanted to feature a harp on the EP, and heard a woman playing one while walking home from the studio in Montreal one day. He was captivated by the coincidence, contacted the musician, and a collaboration quickly blossomed. She began teaching him Hebrew songs and he began devising ways to adapt them to his own purposes. “‘Lamentations’ is a very ancient-feeling word. It’s a book in the Hebrew Bible. There are so many kinds of lamentations, and it felt appropriate to have this ending lament—this cry to the heavens, like, ‘What’s up?’”
His affinity for Hebrew has fooled several fans into assuming that he’s Jewish. “I’m getting all these messages from black Jewish people, which is really cool.” But he did not choose the texts in order to disclose religious feelings: “I just did it because I thought it was aesthetically beautiful. You do the thing that aesthetically speaks to you, and the meaning materializes afterward.”
He claims no monopoly on interpretation when it comes to his lyrics. “I’m very adamant about saying that the lyrics mean, actually mean, whatever people think they mean,” he says, later adding, with a touch of irony, “No matter how sad of a song I write, [some listeners] always find hope in it.”
The idea of hope—and music’s function in providing it—is a complex one for Sumney. Long before the likes of Solange and others became evangelists for his work, he had a fateful run-in with another star, India Arie. “She looked me dead in the eye and asked, ‘Do you sing? Do you write music?’ It was really strange. She gave me her email and would give me advice on my writing and what I was doing with music.” Growing up, Sumney had been inspired by Arie and had planned to use his music to evoke the same hopeful, soulful messages. It was not to be: As he matured, Sumney wanted to “make the saddest possible music. I was very adamant about not writing in hope, not writing in a resolution to stay positive. In the end, she inspired me to do the opposite of what she did.”
Sumney’s pen and voice are both marked by this courage, this willingness to gaze at the limitations of love and intimacy and not blink. It is perhaps to protect this capacity that he retreats into the woods of Quebec, or Big Bear Lake in California.
“When it gets hard is when it gets good. You can’t distract yourself from your own mind, and the deep, vast places that a mind can go. It’s when you learn the most about yourself and about the world. It’s when you’re best positioned to create work and to create the work that’s most interesting.”
Sumney has the ability not just to unplug, but to forgo easy consolation and see life in its bruised, momentary reality. He gives few answers, and those he does provide are rich with familiar pain, familiar ambiguity. In a handwritten note above a simple self-portrait published on his website, he writes: “Is there implied hope encapsulated in the mere expression of hopelessness? That isn’t for me to determine. I’m just here to lament.”