Moses Sumney sings (and writes, and produces) soul, but not as we know it. It's hard to put a finger on what exactly makes the L.A. based artist tick, so we called in the a favour from equally enigmatic So It Goes alumnus Okay Kaya to help us. The two talk getting back to nature, back to childhood, and plan a 2-person album preview for Moses' work.
Okay Kaya: How are you?
Moses Sumney: Chilling, you know I’m eating a bowl of cereal right now. Raisin Bran.
OK: Ooh, I like that.
MS: What’s up with you?
OK: I’m going to walk around and talk to you on the phone. It’s fucking freezing here.
MS: Oh yeah, isn’t there a blizzard on the way?
OK: Yeah, I don’t know. I’m from Norway.
MS: Oh yeah, wait, that’s nothing to you. Yeah, you’ll be fine. Who are you having drinks with?
OK: I’m alone now because I was going to talk to you. I’m meeting my friend Constance later. She’s an artist from Norway, too.
MS: Norway girls are doing it.
OK: They’re just like (mimics a Norwegian accent).
MS: Is that your language?
OK: That was actually a poem by a famous Norwegian poet.
MS: Wow, what’s their name?
OK: Uh, Okay Kaya. When was the last time we saw each other again?
MS: We last saw each other in LA. We went to Father John Misty’s preview show for his album.
OK: Have you been in LA all this time?
MS: Yeah actually, it’s the longest I’ve been in LA in a while. I’ve kind of had little escape journeys to the mountains. I’ve gone to Topanga twice and then I went to Big Bear last week. So I’ve been having little writing trips but I’ve mostly been in California. I’ve just been going [on trips] alone.
OK: Woah, what’s that like?
MS: It’s amazing. It feels like the only time that my mind has significant moments of clarity and yeah, it’s really beautiful. I really, really, really, enjoy being alone. Last time I was there, I was alone for five days in the mountains with no phone service or internet and I haven’t been as happy as I was, there, in a long time. It felt very real.
OK: That’s so nice. Did you turn off your phone then?
MS: Well this last time I didn’t have to because it didn’t work - but typically I try! I try to turn my phone off and just cook and read and write.
OK: Do you bring books that you’ve already read that are inspiring to you or do you get fresh books and get inspired by new stuff?
MS: No I don’t really. I’m typically reading something new or trying to learn something, cover new ground. I don’t really have faves I take with me but, one day.
OK: I think about going places to write as well and I always think about what the view would look like outside my window. I feel like a lot of writers sit by windows.
MS: I typically try to go to a place that has a nice view. This place was funny because I was in Big Bear which is kind of interesting. It’s in San Bernardino County which is where I was born and where I grew up the first few years of my life. It’s quite a poor neighbourhood and the mountains, especially in the LA area are typically really beautiful and elegant, and the San Bernadino mountains are not. Of course there are nice parts, as long as you can see the mountains it’s great – but the neighbourhoods are kind of interesting because they feel kind of abandoned. So I had this nice house that was modernly renovated but it was next to two houses that were essentially junk yards and so outside my window all I could see was trash. (Laughs). I didn’t have like a great view of the mountains or the forest or anything. It was literally these two junkyards that had piles of trash and a trailer. It was anti-romantic.
OK: That still sounds inspiring somehow.
MS: It is in its own way, you know. It’s really nice when imagery is juxtaposed – when you have a beautiful backdrop up against chaos and garbage. I often feel that way – like literal garbage trying to create beauty and so I feel like they go well together.
OK: Same, which is why I try to create beautiful things… But I’m just like a useless fuck.
MS: Exactly, it’s like “I am a pile of trash”. So I have to do something worth looking at or listening to.
OK: Junkyard musicians. Scrap up the pieces and try to make it nice. Keep it clean.
MS: Yeah that’s our genre, junkyard.
OK: The pieces of our heart…
MS: Oh, God.
OK: Yeah murder me now, I’m getting drunk. So what I really want to hear about… Is your album ready? What’s happening? What was the process? Where did you record the most? I’m just going to fire all of these questions and you can just answer them as you please.
MS: Okay… It’s not finished. I’ve literally just got one more song left and then I’m done. I mix it next week so it will be finished probably by the time this comes out. Um, where do I record the most? I’d like to say assorted bedrooms across America. I did quite a bit at my house in LA. I recorded quite a bit at my friends house in Montreal. I did a little bit in Asheville, North Carolina. Then my other friends house in LA. There’s probably just one moment on the record that was done in a proper recording studio, but it’s mostly bedroom music which I think is good. The music’s a little more expanded than my past stuff. It’s a little bit more developed so it’s quite nice to do a sound that was a little bit more produced but do it from home so that it still has a sense of intimacy to it.
OK: How was the process of choosing where you went?
MS: I chose places that I found to be calming and beautiful or people that I wanted to work with. I went to Montreal because I worked with this guy Matthew Otto who’s most known for the band Majical Cloudz and we played a festival together. He was like, “Yeah, come to Canada!” So I went to Canada maybe three or four times in the past year and a half – wrote some songs and recorded them there. But everything that I did elsewhere, I would bring back and work on it from home. I was just looking for serenity and inspiration, probably in nature.
OK: Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
MS: Yes, definitely. Very much so. Do you? You don’t, right?
OK: I mean, I definitely do. I don’t know if it emanates from me. Why would you say I don’t?
MS: I thought you were an atheist. But you can be an atheist and be spiritual person.
OK: I don’t believe in a god, I believe in the universe.
MS: It’s whatever you want it to be, I think.
OK: It sounds like you connected with nature between cities.
MS: I do think at our most basic, at our most raw, we’re probably made of the same stuff as like trees and flowers and water and shit.
OK: Yeah, we are. It’s so beautiful – I’m stroking a fern while you’re saying this.
MS: You’re doing what?
OK: I’m stroking a fern.
MS: You’re stroking my friend?
OK: A fern!
MS: Oh, a friend, ok.
OK: No, like a FERN tree. Like a palm tree.
MS: Oh a fern! (laughs)
OK: My accent comes out.
MS: I’m like petting our cat as I’m talking which is kind of funny... I feel the most human when I’m in nature. But spirituality is quite abstract so it’s difficult to say specifically how. I definitely feel a higher being’s presence constantly in life but particularly when I’m in nature. I feel like art is channeling whatever that is.
OK: Do you think your spirituality has anything to do with your upbringing? Or is that just a different community? You were saying that you sang in choirs and stuff.
MS: I sang in my high school choir when I was a little older and I did acapella groups. I wasn’t really singing church music but I did grow up in the church and in a very religious family. Whatever I do now is more broad and less confined by an organised [idea of] religion. I do think my upbringing taught me how to access spirituality and how to be appreciative of it and so I definitely took that part of my upbringing and then ran – kind of left the rest of it behind.
OK: I just wanted to know if you remembered the transition from being a child to a grown up and ever feeling fear becoming the man you are today?
MS: Oh wow, that’s interesting. Yes and no. I think because I moved a lot growing up I was kind of able to have very clear periods of growth or transformation where I said, “Okay, now I’m in this period of my life.” When I was ten we moved to Ghana, when I was 16, we moved here. I moved to Riverside when I was 20 and I graduated from university and moved to LA when I was 22. So at each point I had a clear marker to think, “Okay, this a new stage, this is a new level, I’m going to enhance my performance of being.” In that way I kind of remember growing up but mentally, internally, not really, because I still feel like a child in so many ways. I don’t feel like, “Oh, I remember changing into a man,” because I feel like I’m still the same person. I remember being seven years old and being very quiet and insular and pensive. Then, I remember being that person at twelve. I remember being that same person at 16, at 20, 22. I’m still questioning and curious about the world in so many ways. When I think about myself, I don’t really think of myself as a man. Not as a child, but I think of myself as a being who has been constant in some ways over the course of my life. Does that make sense?
OK: Yeah, I think that’s beautiful. I was just thinking about that today because I feel the same way – I am able to really tap into and recognise the more quiet and insular aspects of myself than I was as a child but I feel like I lost some of my intuition and that’s recently just getting back to me. I just find it so weird that I even lost it in the first place…
MS: When or how do you think you lost your intuition?
OK: I don’t know when I lost it, all I know is that it’s coming back to me and it’s just such a beautiful thing.
MS: Both of us have very strong intuition and intuition is very childlike – kids always know. But there’s something about living in LA and being in public, not being isolated enough, that makes my intuition feel dull. I don’t know what that has to do with being a child but there’s something there.
OK: I can’t remember that much being expected from me socially when I was a child. You know what I mean? It was like, “Okay, we’re hanging out.”
MS: Right, nobody cared. Nobody’s like, “Post your shows on Twitter!” when you’re seven.
OK: Exactly. I feel that looking at your own life through. How do you feel about social media?
MS: Excessive internet accessibility triggers the dullness for me. [It can] affect me, affect my spirituality in adverse ways. But I also think it can be very inspiring. I love, absolutely love Instagram. I love seeing people’s photos. I love seeing the way that people react to the world creatively. But it’s a lot like your real life if you surround yourself with shallow people who drain you creatively. You have to be really specific about what you choose to engage with or it will drain you in the exact same way. It’s a reflection of true life.
In the same way that you can’t have two hundred friends that you engage with on a day to day basis… It’s unhealthy to do that on the Internet – imagine over the course of a day, two hundred people coming up to you like, “Hey! This is what I did today.” (laughs) It would probably kill you.
OK: People have talked a lot about the dullness and all the information on other people’s lives and stuff, but I keep thinking about the Internet as somewhere you can find people with the same super-niche interests as you as well. You can be like, “I’m a big fan of desk lamps from the 1950s.” And all of a sudden there’s a forum and everyone just goes off and meets and hangs out and talks about this obsession in real life. I like the way that it could maybe get people together in real life. I don’t know if that happening or just in my brain.
MS: That part is really cool. Have you had anything like that?
OK: Not for something so specific. (laughs)
MS: Not for desk lamps from the 1950s?
OK: I feel like my best experience with the Internet is when friends send me songs. I liked when you sent me the song this morning. It’s not necessarily, “Hey, how are you?” It’s that little nod and someone knowing what you fuck with musically and then you send something back and it just makes my day. That’s probably my favourite part.
MS: Yeah, that’s really beautiful – I like that too. I definitely had that when I was a teenager because I didn’t have friends that were into music in the way I was and nobody I knew listened to indie music so having MySpace was such a big help. It helped me discover so much and learn about what I liked.
OK: I wanna see your MySpace profile so bad!
MS: My MySpace profile was popping.
OK: Do you have Tumblr?
MS: I have two. I have a super secret personal one and then like my website which is also actually just a Tumblr page.
OK: Your website’s a Tumblr page?
MS: Yeah, my website’s a Tumblr page. I just answer questions.
OK: Do you like when people contact you from all over the world? Do you respond when they do?
MS: I don’t know if like it. I don’t really care but I do respond. (laughs) I respond when it’s funny or if the questions are really weird or really unique but I get a lot of the same questions.
OK: What kind of questions do you get asked all the time? Just so I don’t fuck up and ask you while I’m interviewing you.
MS: I get asked about Radiohead so much. “Do you like Radiohead?” I finally answered after like a year of being asked that. I wrote, “Who’s that?” (laughing). I get asked the basic questions like, “How did you start?” Which I hate – I absolutely hate that question. Or, “How did you get here?” Because it’s one, such a lazy question and two, slightly patronising.
OK: You’re like, “It’s hard out there.”
MS: I think the best way is for people to just get out there, and do it, and struggle, and be lost and confused. I think that’s better than just being handed the answers. They’ll learn more and they’ll work harder or they’ll give up…
OK: I’m going to pretend that I have to interview more and just have you talk to me.
MS: Just lie to me and be like 'this is for this magazine' and then at the end you can admit that there is no magazine.
OK: I want to make my own Moses magazine with cool stuff you’ve said to me.
MS: That would be creepy. (laughs)
OK: I know, it would be up my alley. I wish we were having tea right now.
MS: I was just thinking that, actually. I wish the same.
OK: I have that photo of you drinking tea that I’m going to send you. I actually have multiple photos of you drinking tea. It’s kind of what you do.
MS: Oh my god, I have so many pictures of you.
OK: Lets swap Dropboxes – I’ll send you a Dropbox link.
MS: Oh sick, yes. Very internet.
OK: Yeah, I really want to hear more about your songs! I mean you showed me that one in the car and I’m so obsessed with it. I’m sorry I made you show it to me like, four times.
MS: No, that’s okay.
OK: But what are your songs about?
MS: Oof, really? You have to be more specific than that. That’s too broad – I can’t answer that.
OK: Okay, so I’m at Metrograph in New York and I’m just on the phone doing this interview, drinking wine, feeling so at home... Is there a certain time that you keep reflecting on in your songs? Or it is just constantly changing as fast as you are? I feel like I keep going back to a certain sort of mood. Right now when I write a new song, I sometimes get little hints or sentences – thoughts about a certain time. It’s tricky for me but I can’t let go.
MS: It’s kind of all about the now. I don’t know though – I go back to childhood a lot actually, kind of connecting to your question of not feeling like I’m a different person than I was as a child. But it’s not so much revisiting the time period as it is connecting who I was to who I am now. Maybe I’m just realising it’s all the same and the patterns we establish as kids are kind of just what we keep repeating over and over
OK: I feel like I was the most spiritual at a really young age and I’ve had this conversation a lot with people where you were very aware of yourself but not of an ego, without the me so much. If you were lucky you maybe had like a dash of unconditional love so you were allowed to just be which is essentially being connected to the universe In a different way. I think about whenever I have a serene moment I’m like “I’m five” I can feel it. It takes me back in a way.
MS: Yeah definitely. You kind of just grow up then become a worse person basically
OK: Yeah what’s up with that. Just all the shit along the way?
MS: I don’t know, maybe life is just too long. Maybe we should all like die when we’re thirteen.
OK: Before the puberty hits.
MS: We should all die before puberty, yeah. I hope they don’t make that the pull quote. But I stand by it.
OK: There are some people that seem to find serenity closer to death. It’s not like I’m bitter, it’s just that –
MS: Things get to you?
OK: Shit’s kind of fucked right now.
MS: I’m looking forward to coping with mortality a little better. I see old people who are pretty chill with the fact that they’re going to die.
OK: I guess I’m afraid of death right now but I’m also just looking forward to the concept of being old.
MS: I want to be old and okay with the fact that I’m old, you know? And just be like, yeah I’m here. Whatever.
OK: Maybe we get back to that childlike state. Have you watched any good movies recently?
MS: I watched Persona by Ingmar Bergman last week. Have you seen that film?
OK: Oh my god! Yes.
MS: Of course you’ve seen that movie. I feel like any movie I think of that I’m like, “That’s a cool movie!” then you would have seen it.
OK: Well, I mean, she’s Swedish.
MS: Scandinavian art film, of course you’ve seen it. Yeah, it was amazing. I watched that for the first time and I was so moved by it. I can’t wait to watch it again. By the end of it, I was just like, “What’s going on? Who is she? Who are they? Is there more than one person?” I don’t want to spoil it but I also want to talk about it.
OK: It’s super sketchy. You leave with a sketchy feeling.
MS: It fucked me up then three quarters of the way through I was like “ok I get it! I’ve cracked it!” and then when it ends you’re like wait I thought I already got to the twist, whats going on?
OK: That’s the perfect twist though. Those are the best.
MS: That was kind of the best film I’ve seen recently. I watched another film recently but it was really bad. When I fly, I want to watch something interesting but not something that I have to focus super hard on.
OK: I want to watch like, Bridget Jones' Diary 2 on an airplane. I’m always looking for that light shit because airplanes fuck me up. You travel so much, too – flying is such a crazy clinical feeling. I’m just 1 of 200 people sitting here eating out of our little boxes.
MS: I love that feeling. I love being on an airplane. I love being trapped.
OK: You like being trapped?
MS: I love that I’m captive in that moment and I can’t go anywhere. I just have to sit there and read or watch something and think.
OK: Are you agoraphobic?
MS: No, I’m not – that’s probably why I like it.
OK: My acupuncturist asked me that yesterday. I was like no, I just don’t leave the house. My house is spacious. I mean, not LA standards.
MS: You should come to the premiere of my album.
OK: I’ll come.
MS: You’re the only person invited.
OK: Can we have a listening party that’s just you and I in your car?
MS: Perfect. I don’t have a lot to say about it except that it’s almost done.
OK: I’ve been waiting for a long time.
MS: You and me both.
OK: Dropbox me that shit. I won’t leak it.
MS: Sure, no comment.
OK: This whole time I was trying to figure out a question to ask you where you would have to say no comment.
Photographer: Laura McCluskey
Stylist: Frances Davison
The interview above has been edited for length and clarity.