The musician Moses Sumney left Los Angeles for Asheville in June 2018, in part because he knew no one here.
Sure, big-city acquaintances mystified by his decision to relocate to the South at summer’s start told him about pals he should meet, people who might introduce him to this hiking spot or that coffee shop. But Sumney was looking for the space and silence to write his second album and the vistas that might inspire it — not friends of circumstance.
“I never thought, ‘Oh my God, how am I going to meet people?’ I thought, ‘Sick, there is no one I have to see. What a dream,’” says Sumney, chuckling at a picnic table in Carrier Park and swatting away an early afternoon mosquito. “I like drastic measures.”
Sumney’s two years in Asheville have indeed been the most productive of his career. He has contributed to records by James Blake, Bon Iver and The Cinematic Orchestra. He has played exactly one local show, a surprise performance in January at The Mothlight, where a line snaked around the block amid a light winter rain with folks hoping for the chance to bask in the glory of his glowing voice.
And on May 15, Sumney released the second half of græ, an immersive double album written largely in and around Asheville but recorded with a cadre of collaborators from around the world. græ is so ambitious and imaginative that it suggests its own unified theory of how future music might work — pieces of a dozen-plus idioms woven together in brilliant patterns, a seamless digital quilt that stretches toward forever.
As Sumney synthesizes plunging gothic rock and dazzling folk confessions, lithe soul vocals and daunting electronic collage, he offers a sophisticated self-assessment of the complexities he craves, particularly as a black man — how he can pine for love while coveting the freedom of solitude, or how he can squander energy worrying how others perceive him despite knowing existence is zero-sum. In the first line of the 66-minute opus’s first single, “Virile,” Sumney confesses to having such realizations while lumbering through the Blue Ridge Mountains.
“I lived in a shoebox studio in LA, in a significantly sketchy part of town. I couldn’t live alone in LA the way I wanted,” says Sumney, a proud introvert who turned 29 in May. “The things that were paramount to me were being able to afford to live alone, having a yard and either being in the mountains or being very close. There was something spiritual calling me to this place.”
Breaking out of the box
The middle child of undocumented Ghanaian immigrants, Sumney spent much of his early life in the suburbs of Los Angeles, save for a short stint back in Ghana. His parents were pastors, and Sumney grins visibly beneath his black cloth face mask as he recalls their childhood church camps. He was struck then “by the freedom of the white Christian kids,” who had girlfriends or ear piercings, and stunned by the vastness of the surrounding San Bernardino Mountains, a sensation that’s lingered.
Sumney’s family wasn’t artistic, and even though he sang in secret, he didn’t consider himself particularly musical. The first kid in his family to attend college, he studied creative writing at UCLA. But he slowly slipped into the music industry through networking, lending his otherworldly falsetto to projects by the likes of Beck, Solange and Andrew Bird long before releasing his staggering debut LP, 2017’s Aromanticism. For years, Sumney was considered just a singer, a stylist blessed with a vaporous marvel. His voice could, in an instant, wrap you like a low-lying cloud, deep and drifting, or lift to a high, delicate wisp. It became, he says, a limiting gift.
“There was a lot of working with white dudes who said, ‘He’s got a nice voice. I know what to do with it.’ No, you don’t,” he says. Sitting in the bright park, clad in ballooning black jeans and a ribbed black tank top that hugs his broad chest like a second skin, Sumney unfolds his legs across the table’s bench, as if demonstrating a newfound confidence in claiming space. At 6 feet, 4 inches tall, with rippling arms and hair piled in dreadlocks above sides dyed a brilliant gray, Sumney seems statuesque in the afternoon sun.
“People tried to put me in this box, as just a singer or just an R&B artist or something simpler,” he continues. “They didn’t think I could write.”
But the success of Aromanticism — and the fact that it took him four years to finish his debut — taught Sumney two invaluable lessons. First, he was good enough to trust his instincts. That might involve dismissing the ideas of those with more experience or those with more mainstream visions, but it was clear he was more than a virtuoso singer. When he began making græ in May 2017, the instant he turned Aromanticism in to his label, he understood he had a newfound authority to say “no” to bad ideas and end uncomfortable relationships. “People wanted to be auteurs of my work,” he says. “But that’s my job.”
In turn, Sumney made græ with a dazzling array of talent — singer Jill Scott, producer Oneohtrix Point Never, bassist Thundercat, harpist Brandee Younger and novelist Michael Chabon, to name only a few. From the start, he made it clear that the final decisions and the overriding ego were his.
A second realization brought him east, to Asheville. In LA, Sumney, who has contended with ADHD his entire life, struggled to maintain focus when surrounded by constant stimuli, especially since he’d launched his career via music-industry networking. There were shows and parties to attend, friends to indulge. In 2014, he actually crashed at an apartment near Asheville to escape LA and write. And in California, he would often retreat toward the Sierra Nevadas to find some headspace. But he couldn’t resist the urge to mingle, so he decided to cut the temptation entirely.
Even his first apartment in Asheville wasn’t quiet enough. When he was in the throes of writing græ, Sumney would decamp to short-term cabin rentals in rural burgs like Weaverville or Mars Hill, turning off his phone and internet access to concentrate on the songs. He would walk in the woods or take joy rides through mountain passes in his car, letting the scenery filter into his songs. Indeed, græ unfurls like a slow roll around a ridge line with unexpected surprises in sound and sentiment hiding behind every bend.
“I wanted to make a work that spoke to our ability to be diverse and the ambiguity of grayness, of living between margins,” says Sumney. “I wanted to take a color that is so boring and inject it with as much energy as possible.”
Friends still wonder why Sumney lives at the edge of Appalachia, even if Asheville is the cultural hub of a region long pegged for provincial mindsets and recalcitrant mores. But he talks with pride about how Nina Simone, maybe his most distinct musical and emotional muse, grew up less than an hour away in Tryon and took piano lessons in Asheville. He appreciates the complexity of this place and how there’s more here than a stereotype. That idea is the core of græ, after all: There are worlds beneath the surface we see.
“If I feel like I’m being limited, I’m not free. The ultimate success to me is to do whatever I want,” says Sumney, before heading home to finish cleaning his house. He was preparing to host an online screening that night of 13th, Ava DuVernay’s documentary about racial injustice in the U.S. justice system — his way of remotely joining protests across the country in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. “Success to me is freedom.” mosessumney.com