In a crowded Italian restaurant in Hackney, Moses Sumney turns heads as he moves across the room.
The Los Angeles-based musician has just finished his Crack Magazine photo shoot, and he’s wearing a sharp ensemble of drapey black fabrics and small, round sunglasses. He’s immediately striking and as we speak his softly spoken demeanour commands attention. At the same time, he possesses an instant warmth, an aptitude for listening intently to what others have to say, and a dry wit.
Recently, Sumney has been capturing attention on a much larger scale, partly thanks to some high profile affiliations – featuring on Solange’s A Seat at the Table, touring with James Blake and working alongside Beck, Sufjan Stevens and Karen O. With his solo work, you could make the case that it is Sumney’s intensity that makes his music so enticing. The abstract notions of love, fear and loneliness that structure his tracks evoke feelings that we all feel at some point in our lives. “It’s the 2 a.m. sweat you wake up in, fearing that lonesomeness might not just be a transitionary hallway that you’re passing through on the way to inevitable partnership,” reads the bio of his debut album, Aromanticism.
On its cover, Sumney hangs mid-air alone in the midst of a white room, headless and with both arms tied behind his back. The image, a surreal and uncomfortable composition, is a reference to Plato’s Symposium, where it is said that humans were originally four-legged, four-armed and double-sexed. Fearing that human beings were becoming too powerful, the deity Zeus sliced them in half, making their heads face inwards. As a result, the only way a human could feel whole again would be to find their other ‘half’. Aromanticism isn’t a concept album based strictly around the Ancient Greek text, but it does seek to subvert the suggestion that romance is normative and necessary.
“Obviously people have talked about loneliness and heartbreak since forever, but I was interested in something deeper: the idea that it isn’t in everyone’s constitution to be able to fall in love romantically,” Sumney tells me. “I think society in general doesn’t acknowledge enough ways to be. There are many ways to exist on this earth and there are only a few that are accepted and acknowledged.”
In the song Plastic, Sumney sings a stripped-down ballad to a backdrop of simple guitar chords, before barely whispering, ‘can I tell you a secret?/ My wings are made of plastic’. Adopting the role of a humble Icarus, he flirts with notions of fragility and vulnerability, qualities that are not commonly associated with his identity. “I think my expectation as a black man is to not express softness and sincerity,” he begins. “It affects the way people speak about the album and it affects people’s ability to accept it. It changes the way people speak about my music in general, because it places me into certain categories. I get put into a box.”
“What we allow black men to do and the way we allow them to perform in terms of the way they dress, talk and express themselves is more limited compared to the ways that other men are allowed to perform,” he says. “There are things about the way I dress that would be more remarkable to people if I looked different, but I just don’t let that influence my style”.
Instead, Sumney values personal freedom and liberation. “I’m trying more and more to get to a place where I do whatever I want. If I feel like wearing baggy pants, I’ll do that. If I feel like wearing something that looks like a dress, I’ll definitely do that.” For Sumney, he’s not so much dismantling people’s expectations as he is opting out of societal expectations entirely. “It’s about deconstructing gender rules and going against the grain,” he explains. “I’m going to express softness and curiosity, honesty and sadness.”
The relationship between the seen and the unseen is a reccurring theme in Sumney’s aesthetic, and it seems to be the uniting factor in both his music and style. “I think that everything that we don’t understand with clarity is worth investigating,” he tells me.
This mantra is apparent in his day-to-day aesthetic: he prefers clothes that ‘catch the air’, shapes and sizes of fabrics that leave a feeling of mystery and secrecy. “Church clergy and drapey choir robes are a huge influence,” he says. “My dad’s a pastor and he used to wear these crazy outfits on stage – well, it’s not a stage, but whatever. It’s the same aesthetic my dad’s into, except instead of wearing Kente cloth and purple, I wear black”. I ask Sumney why it is important that some things are left unseen. “I want people to fill in the blanks of the story with their own mind,” he replies. “Like, what is beneath that photo that we’re not seeing?”
Photography: James Pearson-Howes
Styling: Luci Ellis
Aromanticism is released 22 September via Jagjaguwar