Just over a year ago, Moses Sumney was the social media director for California Pizza Kitchen, and was depressed. And then, the now 24-year-old landed a month-long residency in Los Angeles opening for the Prince-endorsed trio KING. The highlight of his set was “Replaceable,” a catchy breakup song that the self-trained singer-songwriter created from scratch using a loop pedal.
Enchanted, an affiliate of the West Coast production company Mochilla captured the performance on video — one take, no edits. The clip made its way to a booking agent, and Sumney ended up on a bill with Beck, John C. Reilly and Jenny Lewis for the artist’s performance of his Song Reader project. As if being backed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic on the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage weren’t enough, Sumney was named one of the evening’s two standout performances by Rolling Stone. The other? Jarvis Cocker.
Since then, he’s released an EP, Mid-City Island, added Solange to his growing roster of fans and, at last, quit his day job. Rebecca Haithcoat spoke with Sumney about growing up in church, listening to country music and the agony of going through puberty in Africa.
Tell me a little bit about the family in which you grew up.
My parents are pastors. It was cool. I dug it. I think a lot of kids end up jaded, but I had a good time for the most part. I’m not really involved in the church anymore, but I’m appreciative that I grew up with a moral background. I most appreciate being taught about faith, how important it is to believe in things. I think that’s necessary in order to pursue a music career.
The Charismatic church is super charismatic.
People are so stoked about God and life, so there’s a lot of speaking in tongues. In my church, there were a lot of people who would run around. Not at all moments, but when it was time for praise and worship, people would get really involved — they’re dancing in circles, jumping up and down. Not everyone has to go there, and not everyone does, but a good number do. I became quite accustomed to seeing people cry really passionately, call out, react to their emotions. What’s interesting is I went and saw Meshhuggah recently — they’re this Swedish death metal band, and a lot of it reminded me of growing up in church. Headbanging, moshing, jumping up and down, having really intense emotional responses to the music. I definitely want to pull that into my music as well — the idea of being completely free and not being uptight and stuff, like some churches are. I really appreciate the passion, the calling out and singing. The craziness, I guess.
Your music pulls a bit from the country music tradition. Did you listen to much country growing up?
I only listened to country music until I was 10 years old. It wasn’t even like old, good country — it was a lot of George Strait and Shania Twain and Garth Brooks and Faith Hill. I don’t know why, but that was all I listened to. Nothing else. My sister listened to R&B and I would hear those songs, Destiny’s Child. But my personal influence was country. My dad made fun of me when I told him I wanted to be a singer: “What, are you going to be, the first black country music singer?”
After I moved away from country music, I went to soul and R&B and then circled back to folk music. I think my early days listening to country music helped me come to folk, because they’re so closely related. What I appreciate about those two genres is the storytelling aspect and the heavy focus on lyrics and words and narrative. I’ve just recently realized that’s the inspiration I’ve taken away from [country].
How old were you when your family moved back to Ghana? What was that experience like?
I was 10 when we moved back to Ghana. I was born in San Bernadino, and then we went to Ghana for six years. When we moved to Ghana, my parents were so busy in the church that we never had dinner together again. [Puberty in Ghana] was pretty awful for me, because I was a very Westernized child and I was quite accustomed to American culture, even more than my siblings were. The whole process was really difficult. I’m the middle child, and I was very quiet. That, combined with the culture shock of moving to not only a different city or state but a different country and continent, was really difficult. I was a really late bloomer. I’m really tall now, but I didn’t start growing until I was 16, so I got beat up a lot and bullied. I was really awkward. The whole thing was not great. American culture is exported internationally, so growing up in a developing country, you’re constantly aware of American culture. I was more so aware because I was an American. It was just a feeling of, “Oh, I’m missing out. I’m not experiencing this or that.”
One of the things I’ve noticed about your live performance is how energetic and engaging it is.
I try to get people involved as much as possible in my show. I have call and response, I’ll ask people to sing along or clap. I want people to be involved. My show philosophy is: It’s not just my show, it’s our show. When you play a show, it’s the only time all of those people will ever be in the room together and [it's the only time] all those energies will be combined at the same time in that way.
If I mess up, I just keep going! The idea of starting a song over is so mortifying to me. There have been times where I’ve been like, “This is really bad, let’s do it again,” but I’ve learned that nobody cares. I’m learning not to control every little facet, because an exciting thing about playing shows for me is improvisation. I try to do some improv singing, or I’ll even make up songs. The idea that “this isn’t perfect” is okay, because it means that’s the only time people are going to get to hear the song in that way. If it’s perfect every single time, it’s almost like, what’s the point of playing this show?
In addition to your songs being so emotionally candid, you’re also pretty open about being sad on Twitter.
I am still often sad on Twitter. I think that aesthetic is great and really funny. My favorite Twitters are the really sad, self-deprecating ones. I was particularly sad and depressed when I had a day job. I know I can’t go back. It was so hard — I woke at 7 to get to my job at 9 and sat at a desk till 6 every day. I was in a band and we would have rehearsals after, so you get home and eat pizza and fall asleep. I’d be like, “How’s everybody doing!?” on the company Twitter and then, “I’m going to slit my wrists” on my own Twitter.
It’s a particularly interesting time to be a young 20-something because the age we’re in is really weird. I don’t entirely get it. Internet culture really bothers me. The constant attachment to phones and the internet and technology is particularly fascinating. We’ve never lived in an age that was so technologically plugged in, to the point where we have almost symbiotic relationships with our technology. I think living in a big, busy, overpopulated city, and then having a big, busy, overpopulated phone at the same time affects my psyche. That’s been influencing me. I guess you could call it inspiration — or maybe negative. I’m interested in how that psychologically and emotionally affects people, and what the outcome of that will be ultimately. The more time I spend on my phone, the less happy I am.
Everyone’s conscious of it. Even being sad on Twitter, it’s ironic, because often the thing that makes me sad is being on Twitter. I’m really curious to know what the climax is going to be for us. We’re either going to become robots, or throw our phones into the ocean.