Moses Sumney is reminding us of nature’s generosity
On his directorial debut, Blackalachia, the artist is reconnecting with the land around him. He speaks to us about finding home, isolation, and why he's stopped caring about the genre question.
What genre does Moses Sumney’s music sit in? It seems to be a question that’s stalked the 29-year-old throughout his career. Is it R&B? Indie? Maybe jazz? Perhaps baroque pop? Or the latest sparkly category he finds himself in – genreless. But what feels most true is that there is no simple answer, and these categorisations are a symptom of black artists being pigeon-holed to be made marketable. What does Moses think about the genreless genre now? “I just don’t care anymore, people are dying, I don’t care.”
“I feel like we human beings have become more and more divorced from nature”
We’re speaking over a slightly sketchy signal, as he sits in his hotel in Miami with the morning sun pouring in through the tall windows behind him, occasionally throwing him into shadow. It’s ahead of Blackalachia, Moses’ latest project and feature-length directorial debut – a cinematic treat, shot in two days. At the start of the film, the pale blue sky is speckled with clouds. He’s dressed in a billowing black cape top and circle sunglasses with his black locs piled on top of his head, revealing a bleached undercut. Behind him are seven musicians, all in white, as they recreate his discography up in the lush fauna and flora of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western North Carolina, the state he now calls home.
Moses Sumney is known for his soaring falsettos, licks of lyrical prowess, intertwined with strings, guitars and brass to create a soft symphony of, well, ‘The Feels’. And for many of us with an inclination for existentialism – which has now been exacerbated by the pandemic – his music feels like a heavy, warm comfort blanket. Sumney released his two-part album Græ in 2020 with contributions from the likes of Michaela Coel, James Blake and Jill Scott. And, with lyrics like “And I realize none of this matters / ‘Cause I will return to dust and matter”, it provided exactly the existential crisis cocoon we needed.
“What I’m learning to just accept about the world is that everyone is always trying to market something or find a marketing angle”
One of Græ’s tracks, ‘boxes’, asks those questions of labels, with poet Ayesha K. Faines saying: “I truly believe that people who define you control you / And the most significant thing that any person can do / But especially black women and men / Is to think about who gave them their definitions / and rewrite those definitions for themselves.”
“It’s funny, people always need an angle, that’s what I’ve found,” Moses ponders, thinking about the idea of labels. Moses has an almost matter-of-fact way of looking at the world of music and his place within it; it feels like he can detach himself and his art from the big music machine and its embellishments. “What I’m learning to just accept about the world is that everyone is always trying to market something or find a marketing angle.”
In September 2021, he performed at London’s Royal Albert Hall for the Proms – an orchestral British institution dating back to 1895 – along with English conductor Jules Buckley and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. And perhaps from an outside perspective, singing in a place where you can hear both Beethoven and Boy George is a sign that he’s now no longer being squashed into genres that can’t contain him. “When I did the Proms, their marketing pitch was ‘genreless’”, he says with some humour to his voice. “And that was really interesting to see from an objective perspective, how shiny they made it.”
Throughout our chat, I soon realise while he might be staunchly serious about his art and work ethic, he’s not actually a very serious person at all – often giving tongue-in-cheek answers.
“It was two things that they were obsessed with talking about, the fact that I was raised in Ghana and America, and the fact that I’m ‘genreless’,” he says again before putting on a pretty damn good British accent mimicking journalists of interviews past. “‘It’s, it’s quite difficult to define,’” he mocks, even stuttering and stumbling over words in a way only Brits do best – myself included. “‘So, so what would you call it?’” he continues. “‘It’s a combination of this and that bla bla… and he grew up in Ghaaaaana!’” Moses rolls his eyes slightly and grins and I chuckle, internally wondering if I’m now among these interviewers he’s mimicking. “And to answer your question, do I feel like it’s changed now and I’m furthering my career? No, I don’t. I think what has changed is I don’t mind as much.”
“I actually loved Shoreditch, that’s why I left London because it was too much fun. Y’all go a little too hard, I have another album to write!”
This kind of self-assurance has long been clear in other parts of his life. It’s no secret, for example, that Moses loves being alone and enjoying his own company. So in many ways, being isolated due to the pandemic was light work. “I just got to experience more of the thing I already liked, you know, I had been living in North Carolina for a few years, and before that, I would go on little trips like isolation trips and I still do.”
A few years prior to the pandemic, Moses, who was born in California, was trying to settle on a home. He lived in East London for a bit. “I actually loved Shoreditch, that’s why I left London because it was too much fun,” he smiles. “Y’all go a little too hard, I have another album to write!” So he tried returning to LA, but again: too distracting. Finally, he settled on Asheville, North Carolina in 2017, where he found community and a place that gave him the time, space and clarity of mind to focus and “truly be unreachable” as he puts it. And during the pandemic, it was the first time he’d been home for longer than three weeks in three years due to work commitments.
“This project really pushed me to the limit”
Now, rooted in the South, he is trying to be more conscious of how he engages with the land. “I feel like we human beings have become more and more divorced from nature,” he explains. You can feel this vastness and appreciation of nature through Blackalachia – a word he coined because it was shot in the Appalachian mountain range, and he’s black. The isolation he adores so much in his personal life permeates throughout – no backing vocals, no audience, just a present offering of art and nature coexisting.
“This project really pushed me to the limit, you know, directing and directing the music, directing songs that I’ve written, location, scouting, producing, locations, tech scouts and choreography, rehearsal.”
I ask him if there’s anything he wants audiences to take away from Blackalachia. Without missing a beat he answers, “how brilliant I am”. We laugh, before he continues, “second to that is how beautiful and how giving and generous nature is.”