Moses Sumney, 26, is only interested in making people feel shit. Frankly, he’s interested in the presence or absence of feelings, and the tensions created by societal norms around which expressions of our feelings are encouraged and silenced throughout time and space. His music is interrogative, soulful, rooted in folk and difficult to define, but feelings and intimacy drive the core. Sumney revels in minimalism; he recorded earlier work on a four-track, focusing heavily on acoustics with choral arrangements centering his otherworldly falsetto into layers upon layers of what sounds like a fallen angel shrieking for help as he falls into an abyss he’s yet to name. It’s the same voice that’s spent the past few years captivating festivals across the country; with a loop pedal and perhaps one other person backing him, Sumney reigns a gentle supreme, facilitating enough exposure of himself and comfort in others to to leave his audiences stunned to silence and moved to tears.
Aromanticism, by definition, describes someone who doesn’t fully experience romantic attraction, if at all. Considering Aromanticism is the title of Sumney’s debut album, there’s a dark humor in lifting his work by suggesting the improbability of feeling nothing when engaging with it. With Jagjaguwar behind the release, Sumney finally found the time and infrastructure necessary to improve his workflow and expand beyond the ease of a bedroom folk record. Thematically and sonically, Aromanticism stands as an anomaly; to Sumney, it’s an understatement of his life.
“I wanted a word that no one had used before,” Sumney says. “That was really important to me: something that was a real word and wasn’t just a name of one of the songs, but it needed to be weird and unique. That concept… really, it’s something I’ve been feeling kinda for years and I didn’t know how to quantify it or name it. I looked up the associated feelings in 2014—which is when I started writing the album—and I came across that concept. I thought it was really interesting ’cause it felt really unexplored in music. People have explored these general themes forever: love or lovelessness or loneliness. But just in terms of really naming the thing and recognizing it, [it] felt really powerful.”
Framed in today’s dialogue around the spectrums of gender identity and sexual orientation, Aromanticism sounds like an overdue passage in the oeuvre. But Sumney’s quick to note how this generation’s yet to prioritize a conversation around romantic spectrum: some fall in love all the time, some never fall in love, some fall anywhere and everywhere in-between. Why are marriage and monogamy still the gold standards, casting everyone else away as incomplete beings on the fringes of eternity? This album’s about lifting and validating the othered, finding Sumney asking questions before asking more. It’s an inversion of our world’s intimacy, wiping classic pop clichés away for an exploration of love from an untapped vantage. As human beings have run art about love into the ground, this album’s protagonist isn’t wallowing in despair as he awaits his one true love to save him from the void. And he knows he’s not alone.
“I wanted to acknowledge that these are not new feelings or new ideas,” Sumney says. “This is not a millennial or modern thing, it’s just that we’re now more interested than ever in representing all of the different ideals and identities that have always been around. People being lonely or on their own, this isn’t a fluke or a small number of people in society, this is a real-ass thing.”
Aromanticism is three years of searching, composed in quiet bedrooms sprawling different cities and countries. At one point, he wrote in his bunk on a ship in the Pacific after TED invited him as a musical reprieve during a gathering of the world’s top marine biologists working to save the oceans. Leaving the four-track behind, Moses works alone by recording into Logic before shipping the work off to the few folks he can trust with the process. The results—boasting credits from Thundercat, Cam O’bi, and Nicole Miglis among others—alternate between the intimacy of Sumney’s previous efforts with grandiose swells of breathtaking grandeur. Signature songs like “Plastic” and “Lonely World” get the studio treatment: the former’s now complete with strings and the latter with a rare drum arrangement, like a rampant heartbeat.
“Quarrel” is a glistening, six-minute opus that best melds all of Aromanticism’s ebbs-and-flows together. In its early stages, the record’s collaborators mentioned their desire to sleep with their partners to this record; a thought Sumney’s getting more used to, even when his lyrics imply the opposite. Beginning as gentle as a lullaby with harps shimmering against the guitar and piano, flowing into a full-on jazz rhythm section and spiraling out into a pensive piano resolve—every element, subtle to dramatic, feels meticulously measured. Sumney chooses to guide the listener through scattering sonic choices rather than jolt them into a new universe with no context or warning.
Within this beautiful mess, Sumney tackles the intersectional imbalances in relationships, dispelling the myth of love and all its trappings being measured on an equal scale. Who exists where in this imbalance, and who’s willing to subvert their privileges to challenge this world?
“Within that song, I wanted to say ‘Actually, hey! We are not equal!’” Sumney says. “In this society, we are not equal, and therefore in this relationship, we cannot be equal. The idea that it’s all love, or we’re just lovers—and when we fight, it’s just two people saying things to each other on an equal level—that’s just not true. I have the weight of the world on my shoulders in terms of being burdened and weighed down, and you have the support of the world in your opinion, in your view. You have all those people behind you, and then you come to the relationship with this kind of pre-established position.”
Sumney’s the first to admit he’s dramatic, his scatterbrained mind manifesting in small bursts; luckily, he lets us watch. Aromanticism begins with a reprisal of “Man on the Moon” from his 2014 debut Mid-City Island, a brief greeting into the universe cut from a studio version that was scrapped at the last minute. The album interludes exist somewhere between the anecdotal and the autobiographical: in a flash, we’re transported to a childhood memory of his mother’s Mitsubishi, in another, we’re narrating a baby’s first introduction to the world’s oppressive nature. “Make Out in the Car” places us right into his navy blue 2013 Honda Civic, the track rocking easily and steadily as the game he’s spitting to whomever he’s trying to make out with. Sometimes he’s pulling from feeling, sometimes he’s pulling from experience; knowing when and how to do either is what makes it all connect even when he’s not the subject.
“When we’re writing about autobiographical experiences, sometimes we’re writing about times in which we were playing a role,” Sumney says. “I would argue: most of the time that we’re in social situations, we’re playing a role; those things are intrinsically linked. Also, every time we write about an experience that is not our own, we are being autobiographical because we’re writing it as ourselves. We’re still putting our own perspective on someone else’s experiences. It’s quite difficult to separate what’s real from what’s fiction because they’re one in the same in a lot of ways.”
A California child of Ghanaian parents, Sumney has considered himself a writer since age 12, thumbing through poems and short stories. He spent a chunk of his childhood back in Accra, Ghana, where he was bullied for the Americanness on his tongue and in his tastes. Once he returned to California as a teenager, he studied creative writing and began performing at UCLA, literally finding his voice and stage presence after years of concealing his lifelong desire to sing. He’s long shed any sliver of nationalism, saving for the privilege of mobility through a U.S. passport—“in terms of Americanness as an identity, it means nothing to me, and I really don’t care”—and he’s been to Ghana three times in the last half-decade.
Last April, he returned for three days, split between grieving the loss of his grandmother, doing 10-hour shoots of the Aromanticism artwork with photographer Eric Gyamfi, and calling his engineer back in California on a nine-hour time difference to finish the album. The front cover offers Sumney’s back and clasped hands, draped in all black against a void of a background that reads as the middle. It’s ambiguous and open, a space he thrives in, but it’s engrossing no matter what’s left disconnected in space.
“I think what I’m always trying to get at within my work—both visually and musically and lyrically—is an intense sense of intimacy, the idea that you’re just this close to a person,” Sumney says. “But also, a sense of alienation at the same time. And so you’re this close, but you’re also quite separate. I wanted to symbolize that with my body: in that picture, I’m jumping and bending my head forward. I asked Eric to shoot it from below so you can’t see my head. The idea was to capture the feeling of being really close to someone; just the presence of flesh implies intimacy, but also the fact that it’s my back that’s being offered and it’s headless, it’s talking about a sense of absence, alienation and incompletion, which aromanticism implies: the idea that you’re not complete.”
The Allie Avital-directed clip for “Doomed” casts Sumney’s body further into this void of incompletion, submerging him in an orb of water for what appears to be an eternity. His flesh presents the intimate, and as he appeals to another body in a nearby orb to no avail, the literal doom sets in upon him. Upon revealing Moses as a speck in a sea of orbs, perhaps it’s upon many other people in this world; thus, the song’s questions of love’s absence, implying God’s absence, elect to revel in this loneliness, preparing oneself for life if the world will not have you the way you are. Peace exists in damnation, but who’s to say this is damnation anyway? That’s the essence of process music: the idea Sumney coined for his creative process.
“The idea of protest music is you have an idea of how the world should be, and you’re protesting the way the world currently is in order to get it to that place. That feels really explicit.” Sumney says. “This music—although it is kind of crying out ‘Hey! The way we look at things is fucked.’—it’s kind of tracking the process of discovery and realization that you’re essentially an other or an outsider when it comes to the way you interact with the world. For me, it was about processing the world; processing the realization that you don’t exist in [it] in a way that is typical or normative.”
Sumney can rarely remember his dreams, sometimes even confusing them for reality, but he swears they can be prophetic or predictive. Though he’ll admit he doesn’t actually know anything, he’s not above the healthy self-deprecation or the humorous error left in jest. The Ben Monder-inspired album closer “Self-Help Tape” comes from a three-year-old session with Ludwig Göransson: behind dueling guitars and a winding vocal arrangement, Sumney plays on the darkness of his dramatics by reciting affirmations like incantations for the tortured soul: “You can get through this. You can be a real person. Imagine being free. Imagine feeling. Oh, what if you felt something!” But is there hope to one day feel normal? Is normal even worth it? In validating the romantic spectrum, one may also consider the fluidity of this attraction the way many consider other identities and orientations. Perhaps Moses finds true love, saving himself from the purgatory of a life without it. Perhaps he’ll thrive in solitude and share another blunt with Solange from time-to-time.
Nonetheless, he’s still searching for home and finding the words to describe how he feels about it all. He’s still praying for protection from the music industry, but he’s working to dabble in the public sphere as he needs to. But the work’s done in the shadows; if Aromanticism can help a few other folks tune into themselves and rejoice in an idle heart, then it’s a victory to the condemned. As the eureka moments continue to direct him where he must go, he’s more equipped than ever to continue questioning society and calling it out on its bullshit, one Godly note at a time.
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.