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Moses Sumney makes music that’s like a Rothko painting

The LA artist reflects on his rousing recent EP Black in Deep Red, 2014, and the importance of nuance

Moses Sumney’s latest EP, Black in Deep Red, 2014, opens with a question. The brief yet urgent three-track release, which dropped in August of this year, rumbles into life with “Power?”, a song that begins with recordings that Sumney made at a Ferguson protest in 2014. The impassioned chant of the crowd (“power to the people / the people have power”) evolves, gradually, into Sumney’s own darkly distorted voice, asking: “do we have power?”.

“That was me trying to be as obvious as possible,” Sumney says, wryly, of his decision to pose the song as a question. “I was just trying to communicate to the listener that my objective of the song is not delivered in the message of the recorded protest.” This is ‘protest music’ done the Moses Sumney way: confrontational, complex, and always interrogating itself. In an age where nuance is so often flattened by our accelerated sharing of information, it can often feel like artists have to work harder than ever to communicate a message in all its fullness and depth.

With his 2017 debut album Aromanticism, Sumney learned a lot about controlling the narrative and about when to let it go. The record, being a collection of twisted electronic folk-soul songs that unpacked both the liberatory politics and the personal loneliness of shunning romantic relationships, was a tough one to unpack in soundbites. As he readies himself for album number two, he’s thinking hard about how his music is encountered, and how it interacts with the world around him (including in the form of numerous TV spots – you might have heard him recently on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, or HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness and Insecure).  

Ahead of his show at London’s Southbank Centre on September 21, Dazed caught up with the hard-to-classify LA artist on the phone, as he packed in preparation for his European tour. 

There was a four-year gap between writing and releasing the songs on your latest EP. Why was it important to you to signpost that, by putting “2014” in the title?

Moses Sumney: There's a lot of protest music being made right now, and there has been since November 2016, 11/9. I'm not really interested in making protest music, I'm especially not interested in making protest music right now, just because so many people have that covered, and so many people are protesting the Trump administration. So the primary thing I wanted to say by putting “2014” in the title was like, I didn't write these songs about this presidency. I know things are bad right now, but things have been bad for a while. I think we romanticise the past; we forget that actually black people were being killed in the streets (in 2014), and no one was doing anything about it. Not only was that happening four years ago, but it was happening 14 years ago. I wanted to just pull a thread from 2014 till now and say, “we can't forget where we came from”.

Were you wary of people saying, “this is his Trump record”?

Moses Sumney: I'm very aware of that, and that would've really annoyed me. I was very explicit, by putting 2014 in the title, and by writing a piece for the press release. That’s the cool thing about putting “2014” in the title, because it’s named after a Mark Rothko painting, and paintings have the year in the title. So I was really able to name it after this painting Black in Deep Red, which is from the 50s, and say, ‘here's the 2014 version of that’. It’s… what is it called when a piece of art is about another piece of art… ekphrastic.

That’s not a word you get to use that often. What did you see in Rothko’s painting?

Moses Sumney: I first saw Rothko in London... He has a quote where he says, a lot of people describe his paintings as serene, or calm, but there's a lot of rage in them as well. I connected to that idea because I feel the same about my music. I think a lot of people listen to my music – my previous music really, because this EP is a lot louder – but my album, a lot of people listen to it and hear calm, or chill. I'm like, there’s so much joy and sadness, and a lot of rage even, there’s such a wide range of emotions.

The painting Black in Deep Red, it’s so many things. It’s dark and it feels like a bubbling under of rage to me. It also feels like acceptance and calm and resignation.

This is something you've spoken out a lot about before, in that a lot of people just look at the surface level of your music, and categorise you. Each new release from you feels like there's more and more layers to what you're doing, it’s getting more complex and difficult to categorise.

Moses Sumney: Yeah, I really wanted this EP to complicate it for those people. I am conscious every time I do something, people are like still like, “Here’s another really cool electronic R&B artist.” I’ve talked about it so much, and it still happens, so I’m going to keep talking about it. But then, with this EP, I was like, “Okay, really, fuck y’all.”

I wanted to ask you about “Doomed” appearing in the new season of Orange is the New Black. The scene that it appears in is really amazing, but brutally tough to watch.

Moses Sumney: Yeah – I haven’t seen the scene, but when I get a request, they send me a description of the scene, so I know what it was about. I love that show. I also find it hard to watch. As much as I actually like fucked up things, it's really difficult to see the women being brutalised.

I think “Doomed” is in maybe five different TV shows where people are dying. My friends joke now and say, “When I hear your voice in a show, I know someone's gonna die.” I'm really into that.

You’re also in this new show Random Acts of Flyness, can you tell me about that?

Moses Sumney: It's a show that I connect with... it's a really confusing show. It's like a variety show of sadness or something. It's got a really like chameleon-like nature. I dig it because I feel like, like my music, it can't really be described as one genre. It’s just about black shit, and it has a really irreverent tone that I’ve never seen before in television. It's one of those when you're like, “I can't believe they're letting people make this”.  

What are you working on next?

Moses Sumney: Whenever I'm not on tour, I've been trying to work on album two. I want to make the second (album) a lot quicker. I almost have a title. I'm hoping to put out another record next year, that would be the dream. After that, I think I’m more into film and TV, because music is hard.

Moses Sumney plays the Royal Festival Hall in London on September 21; more info and tickets here