Moses Sumney Talks Defying Genres, Romantic Myths on Audacious Debut LP

Newcomer who has worked with Beck, Solange, Karen O opens up about his ambitious album 'Aromanticism'

"I felt really alienated by mainstream society's vocabulary around what romantic love was, and what it looked like for different people," Moses Sumney tells 'Rolling Stone.' Credit: Elizabeth Weinberg/Redux

Listen to any playlist of smash hits from the last century and you'll probably hear the word "love" within 10 minutes – romance and its pursuit have been popular music's number one topic since the Songs of Solomon were published, if not earlier. But the young singer Moses Sumney's debut album Aromanticism turns that ideal upside down, exploring the pursuit of happiness without a happily-ever-after – examining the whole idea of "love" with a critical yet caring eye.

"I felt really alienated by mainstream society's vocabulary around what romantic love was, and what it looked like for different people," he tells Rolling Stone via phone from Houston. "I was looking around, like, 'What is it called when you feel this, but you don't feel this, but you kind of feel this – but you don't feel that?'" Finding out about "aromanticism" – the capability to feel love without the desire to have a romantic partner – set off a lightbulb in his head, and created the conceptual core for his first full-length.

Aromanticism's flipping of the cultural script is mirrored in the album's category-busting vibrancy. Sumney, a self-taught singer, can squeeze his voice into a whispered falsetto and multiply it into a pleading choir; his songs defy verse-chorus-verse convention while incorporating R&B's grooves and dreampop's hazes, rumbling-stomach drones and robo-funk synths. (Listening on headphones both enhances the musical experience and doubles down on Sumney's idea of being apart from the world.) He embodies the genre-agnostic world of playlists yet he crafted Aromanticism as a seamless work.

The album grew out of a period where, Sumney recalls, he "went into the mountains and shut off my phone and did not have internet [and] was not really communicating with the outside world for days to weeks at a time…. I was very adamant about not including others in the lyric-writing process or in the melody-writing process." This approach both reflects the LP's theme of solitude and showcases his undergraduate poetry training; his verses are economical yet not clipped, emotional yet accessible. In September, he wrote a manifesto of sorts on the album's origins: "Many of the origin stories about the inception of our species establish this blueprint for coexistence – that every body has an equal and opposite body, a destined companion without which we are incomplete," he posted to Tumblr. "Our modern construct of romance still upholds this paradigm; romantic love is the paramount prize of existence. But what if I can't access that prize?"

That forceful statement was meant to work in tandem with the album's softer side. "I wanted to really explore beauty in language," he says. “That was radical for me. But I also wanted to be direct. I wanted to be understood, and I wanted to not let the brain overtake the heart." Sumney uses poetic imagery to enhance the dreamy feel of songs, like the adrift-in-space "Plastic" and cuts right to the chase on "Make Out in My Car," where, amidst string flourishes and depths-plumbing beats, he sings "I'm not tryin'a go to bed with you/ I just wanna make out in my car" repeatedly and with building intensity (and, eventually, his own voice in choir). "Stoicism" pairs finely wrought, spoken micro-fiction about the complicated love between a mother and son with droning horns. Closing out the album is the sparkling, hopeful "Self-Help Tape" which, featuring Sumney's soaring, multi-tracked vocalizations, abandons words almost completely.

The six-plus-minute epic "Quarrel" takes an even more ambitious approach. Musically, it began as a beat that Sumney made with producer Cam O'bi (Chance the Rapper, SZA) – the goal, he says, was to make "something that was like a fucked-up Stereolab song." Over the next year, New York-based jazz harpist Brandee Younger contributed to the track, and Paris Strother of the synth&b revivalists KING added keyboards to its outro – which explodes into a space-funk come-on, then blooms into piano cascades. "Quarrel" runs the emotional and musical gamut, echoing the searing pain and self-protecting ambivalence outlined in its lyrics.

Restlessness has been a constant for Sumney. Born in California, he lived in Ghana as a child, then returned to the Golden State to attend UCLA.  In 2014, he released the EP Mid-City Island, which he followed up with 2016's five-song Lamentations. He's also collaborated with a number of musicians from Los Angeles' varied music scenes; he played and produced the opening track for the official recording of Beck's sheet-music collection Song Reader, sang backing vocals on Solange's A Seat at the Table, and has worked with the likes of Karen O and Sufjan Stevens. "I'm kind of a floater," he says.

With Aromanticism, though, Sumney has staked out solid ground; he's released 2017's most creatively audacious debut, a hushed yet steely-eyed agitation against societal and musical expectations. "I didn't want to make something that was just one thing," says Sumney. "I wanted to be able to honor a lot of different types of music – I didn't explore everything sonically, but I wanted to. I feel glad that I got to do something that was multi-dimensional."