Moses Sumney On 'Grae,' Leaving LA And Releasing An Album In Two Parts NPR's Ailsa Chang talks to the experimental musician about his new genre-defying, double album grae, his decision to move from Los Angeles to Asheville, N.C. and not shaving down the edges of himself.
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Moses Sumney Puts The Industry Behind Him And Explores The In-Between On 'Grae'

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Moses Sumney Puts The Industry Behind Him And Explores The In-Between On 'Grae'

Moses Sumney Puts The Industry Behind Him And Explores The In-Between On 'Grae'

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Moses Sumney spent years searching for the sound you hear on his new album, "Græ."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CUT ME")

MOSES SUMNEY: (Singing) A stiffness inside my neck and bangin' (ph) my head against the desk - whoa.

KELLY: It began in 2013, when he first tried to break into the Los Angeles music scene and got interest from record labels almost immediately.

SUMNEY: You know, I expected to spend many years totally grinding in obscurity. So in a lot of ways, it was living the dream - quote, unquote, "making it," making a name for myself in the music industry - but also discovering that it's not all it's cracked up to be.

KELLY: The experience didn't sit right with him. As he told our co-host Ailsa Chang, Sumney felt typecast by the labels, pushed into a certain image, all while he was still searching for his own sound. So he turned them all down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOSES SUMNEY SONG, "IN BLOOM")

SUMNEY: I was not ready yet because I had not kind of incubated my artistry enough. And so in a lot of ways, I felt like I was, you know, starting an internship, and then I got offered a position before I would have been able to take the position (laughter).

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Right. You're, like, I still have a lot to learn.

SUMNEY: Yeah. I mean, I had so much to learn. And I didn't know sonically what I wanted, visually what I wanted, creatively. And, you know, I think if you partner with companies and you don't yet know what your identity is, they will, you know, ascribe one to you. They'll give you an identity. And so I didn't want to leave space for that, and so I walked away from it all.

CHANG: That's really self-aware of you, I mean, to, like, self-enforce some breaking so you could figure out your own identity. I mean, speaking of that, I read that the industry, at least in your early years - they were trying to typecast you. They wanted to peg you as an R&B artist just because you're black. How did you try to describe your music to them back then to the extent that you could put that into words?

SUMNEY: I definitely struggled to. I didn't often get to describe my music to people because they would describe it for me (laughter) to me. But probably, I would say that I wanted to be a folk artist and a soul artist and an experimental indie rock artist, which - you know, the more adjectives you add, the more diluted it becomes to people, the more they're, like, what? They're like, what is this (laughter)?

CHANG: Well, did those early experiences feeling the industry try to put you inside a category, try to define for you who you were - did it make you want to tighten your control over your image and your music going forward?

SUMNEY: Yeah, fully and totally. You know, I got to see a lot of artists who kind of fell for the tricks of the music industry and were lost. And by kind of not doing so myself, I learned a lot about what I actually wanted sonically and visually. And I got to go really insular and try to self-actualize artistically as much as possible.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ME IN 20 YEARS")

SUMNEY: (Singing) Hey; after all these years, I'm still here, fingers outstretched.

CHANG: So you got your start in music in LA, and then you decided to leave. You moved to a city that is totally different from LA in so many ways - Asheville, N.C. What made you want to move?

SUMNEY: So many things. How much time do we have?

(LAUGHTER)

SUMNEY: I found LA distracting as an artist. I found often that I was so kind of wrapped up in the cult of personality that it was distracting from the art. And whenever I needed to write music or work on my album, I would leave LA. I would go to the mountains - you know, go to Big Bear, go to Topanga or come to North Carolina. And at some point, I felt, like, well, why not just live in a place that gives me constant inspiration instead of retreating and running away to go find it every time?

CHANG: Well, you made this new album, "Græ" - that's G-R-A-E - while you've been in Asheville. So I want to talk about what this album is about. I mean, let me hear you put it in your own words. What is this album about? Is there one vision holding it all together?

SUMNEY: Yes, there is one vision holding it all together. And the elevator pitch, I suppose, is that it's a concept record about grayness - the idea of living life between the margins, not existing on either side of a polarity or an extreme, to emphasize the idea of - well, celebrating ambiguity and obscurity or, if not celebrating, at least exploring it and pronouncing it with confidence.

CHANG: Yeah. Like, it's OK being in this middle ground, sort of rejecting black and white. I mean, do you feel like you are living in a kind of in-between place right now?

SUMNEY: Yes. My identity has always been a patchwork. I never really fit in in just one place or could see life through one lens. And I think that most people occupy a space of multitude when it comes to their identities, right? Like, we're all into...

CHANG: Yeah.

SUMNEY: ...Lots of different things.

CHANG: Absolutely.

SUMNEY: And everyone thinks their music taste is unique, and...

(LAUGHTER)

SUMNEY: Everyone thinks they're special. But...

CHANG: Right.

SUMNEY: Kind of in order to be understood by other people, you have to simplify yourself and shave down all of the edges. So I wanted to kind of explore that concept and say, well, what does it mean if I'm not going to shave down the edges, you know? What does it mean if I say no, I am complicated and confusing, and that's the thing? You can't simplify it to get it. I think a lot of people occupy that space, but they don't have the language to verbalize it. And I wanted to verbalize it for myself also in hopes that other people could see that, hopefully, in themselves or at least be able to kind of also produce and recognize that critique of society.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLLY")

SUMNEY: (Singing) You remain in motion.

CHANG: Moses Sumney's new album is called "Græ."

Thank you so much for sharing this time with us.

SUMNEY: Yeah. Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLLY")

SUMNEY: (Singing) ...Sycophants telling you their true lies, like no moon is higher - hollow as a hallway.

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