Athena brings Sudan Archives to the most lit she’s ever been; this music rides as much as it reveals, and marks her most extensive process with outside producers. Where her earlier work was heavily noted for its trance-like qualities, Athena builds her signature sound outward by taking cues from the R&B and soul traditions of Parks’ youth without rehashing by building from cheap nostalgia. While she dives deeply into the power of memories, Athena - like Parks herself - is a truly singular experience, arriving right as the leaves lose their color and the night comes quicker than one can call their name. Sudan Archives brings a violin to the moshpit, and puts a Black woman on the forefront of that weird shit.
The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
VMP: When you received a lot of acclaim very early after your initial two EPs - you’d expressed previously that your songwriting wasn’t exactly where you wanted it to be, or in the direction that you wanted it to go. So, what kind of effect did it have on you to have all these opportunities when you felt like you were still working through what you wanted to articulate?
I feel like… I always wanted to be in a band, or in a group: having ideas, and kinda riffin’ off other people. But it just ended up being a solo project for the last two EPs, so I think everything was there, but I was just naturally used to being in a group effort. I used to play in a church choir, and a fiddle club with other people, so it felt really good to go back to that space ‘cuz it’s a little nostalgic. Working with other people, they just naturally push you, because you start with your ideas, and the people around you know your story - and what everything’s about - so you’re held accountable a little more. If you’re just by yourself, and maybe going back and erasing things… I’m the type of person that’ll just delete a demo, like, “Oh, that’s scrapped.”
So you recognize a huge difference between being more insular and opening up to different producers for the new project… what was the huge difference?
I thought I wasn’t gonna like it before because I tried this before, years ago, but it was different. I didn’t have two EPs out which kinda represented my sound, and I didn’t have the communication skills, either. But now, I always have demos, so I come to the studio with ideas, and they’re just an enhancement of what I have now. I have this rep, this specific sound that I can’t really go away from because I have two bodies of work that represent, you know?
So that was like a challenge for you, trying to subvert the expectations and figure out how to work within them?
No, it’s because I was scared. “It didn’t work before, so why would it work now?” But that’s just negative thinking, so I came to every studio session with an open mind.
I actually encountered your work by chance: I was in L.A. several years ago, and I stumbled into a release show of yours, and I was mindblown. And I’ve just seen you at Dizzyland in Minneapolis, too!
Oh my God, man, I got all my gear stolen [at the hotel] that day. Everything I had that day got stolen, except my violin. I had all the gear with me, and I was traveling alone, but the guy from the Red Bull show dropped me off right outside the hotel, but as I went into the room, I left my gear case outside the door. And I think I forgot it was there, cuz by the time I woke up - which was only an hour or two - the gear case was emptied out in front of the elevator. And then the people at the hotel didn’t have cameras, it was really shady…
But I have an album release party, and a bunch of things to handle, and I don’t have renter’s insurance - but I do now! - but if I had it, I would buy another airbnb, stay there so I can make a police report. But I was so busy, and I had somewhere to be, I just, like, left. But it was literally $10,000 worth of stuff. That almost put me into a crazy depression, cuz out of three years of touring, I’d never got my stuff stolen. So it’s kinda… good for touring that long without something like that ever happening before. But it was right before the album dropped, all my gear’s gone, and I gotta figure out how to get all this stuff back so I can do these shows for the album and stuff!
Well, I will say, I think most touring artists have the “I got my shit stolen” story, and then the glo up is right on the other side of that. Maybe that means your shit’s finna take off, like, all the way.
Yeah! People have told me that, too, and it seems like something really good always happens after,
You said that you’re a really big gearhead, you’d had to strip stuff away to make yourself lean into performing and get over the awkwardness of it. How will you push yourself further with this new drop? Are there any new live techniques or tricks you’re working on to elevate yourself?
I’m tryna play violin more, and sing at the same time. I really wanna create that lead violin-vocalist-singer imagery. I feel like guitar players do it really well; they’re always throwing their guitar, they’re singing, they’re doing both at the same time… that’s most of the set, too, they’re just owning it. And I wanna do that more, and I also want to project my voice more, because I’m more confident in singing now. Before, I used to think of my voice as part of the beat, but now I think of it as a lead between violin and vocal.
It shows, too, this is a lead album, you’re leading with this one. Even in the visuals, you’re giving a lot of Aaliyah, so what made you settle on Queen of the Damned as your reference point?
That movie is visually, aesthetically what I really wanted to embody! There’s a scene where one of the vampires hypnotizes somebody with their violin, and that scene stands out to me the most. I almost feel like that on stage sometimes… I can hypnotize people with my violin! So, I thought it would be such a good visual reference to play with, this hypnotic fiddler vibe.
It’s like fiddler-goddess-temptress, “I reign this shit,” allat.
Yeah, and there’s a lotta visual things that you can play with in that vibe. When I first started performing and stuff - my first festival was MOOGfest - it was the first time someone called me flirty, and I didn’t know I was givin’ off that vibe. And then people would also talk about how the music’s very hypnotic; I never really noticed that until people would say it. So I’m just following what people were naturally feeling off the performance, and then I thought that movie would be a great reference.
I know you grew up with a lotta R&B stuff, especially around your sister, but the way I’ve seen your music contextualized, it made me wonder... do you struggle with how to categorize things? Because I know when there’s Black folks that make shit that’s not normative or weirder than whatever mainstream is, then people throw them directly into the R&B box, or it’s just too weird. Have you experienced that?
Yeah, I remember some people I used to date would just be like “I just don’t get what you do, sorry.” Where I’m from, there’s a small electronic scene, but it’s really hard to do something like this and to disperse outta Cincinnati like that. It’s almost like you always have to move to figure out your sound if you wanna go with that kind of approach. I grew up on these artists that I’m totally not like: India.Arie, Erykah Badu, Aaliyah… I’m sure there’s an R&B influence, but I don’t feel like I fit into that category, though. I feel like I’m weirder, or something.
But there were other Black artists that I would get a glimpse of at a younger age… I remember Santigold, I just opened up for her. It was kinda cool to open up for her cuz I remember listening to her when I was younger, and she was an example of a woman that looked like me, but was on some other shit. But I didn’t really grow up on that, I grew up on R&B, soul, and jazz that my mom listened to.
The same way that you stumbled upon your name and influences by digging through things and finding what’s cool - Sudanese stuff, West African stuff - say 100 years go by, and a Black person finds a tape or vinyl of you… what would you want that person to feel? The same way you discovered the music that influenced you, what do you think you could give for someone else who finds you out the blue?
Maybe on a wider spectrum, I want people’s heads to be twisted around. But specifically, people that look like me, I want them to feel how I felt when I found out about the alternative women of color, you know?
I’ve sat with Athena for a bit, and there’s a loose narrative that I’ve gathered around love and relationships. It’s really vulnerable, you dabble in a lotta themes of temptation and reconciling differences when things don’t work. The stories for this album, were they vignettes from your life, or were these particular experiences? What went into the loose framework for this.
I’d say that the beginning of it is an actual timeline from when I moved to L.A. The first song is a song that I made when I was little, and I revamped it. I wanted that to be the introduction of the album cuz that’s when things kinda started. And then “Confessions” is about me moving from Cincinnati to L.A., there’s a little bit of success, and then talking back to the family saying “Everything is falling into place now. But I’m accepting both sides of myself, and that’s how I got here.” Then it takes this psychedelic trip of a mental battle, but it kinda goes through my relationships with lovers and friends. Throughout those songs, I’m either discouraging someone [being extra,] or convincing someone that they should leave a situation that’s unhealthy for them. The end just talks about being one, and focusing on the bag so your family is good. And the last song is just about… embracing all of that, and becoming the Goddess you are.
I’m infatuated by your imagery - “Iceland Moss,” for example, or the idea of a “Black Vivaldi Sonata” - you latch familiar feelings onto unfamiliar surfaces in a way I haven’t heard articulated before. Where do you pull from? What do you consume as primary inspirations for you?
I don’t know how I came up with “Iceland Moss:” basically, I was making a break-up song in a park, and I was sitting in the grass and I started recording a voice memo to this guitar/drumbeat thing I made. I remember making that melody, and when I went back to listen to it, it felt like I said “You think I’m soft like moss.” I think I started lookin’ up moss and what it actually is, and Iceland moss is like one of the softest mosses. Like, you can lay in it and it feels, like, really good. So I was like, maybe it’d stick more, and it’s a good comparison of how soft someone thinks I am, but I’m really not. I stumbled upon that, it’s not like it was forced or anything, it just happened off a word I thought sounded like a word.
Do you feel the pressure of becoming a big star? Is that what you want?
No, it doesn’t feel like pressure when I’m on Stones Throw or anything, it… it doesn’t really feel like any of this is happening. I was talking to my manager about how it feels like things are goin’ a little too fast, and I was just wondering if he thought that was normal. He was like “No, it’s definitely a little abnormal. The first gig you got when you got signed to a booking agency was Coachella.” You’d think that would happen [after an album,] but I only had EPs out, so it didn’t make any sense. I just went to London to play on Jools Holland, and usually… it’s the second or third album in, and then you’re on there, but I went there and performed after the first album. And then I’m gonna do Tiny Desk next year and stuff, so sometimes it just feels like things are rushed and it shouldn’t be happening this soon. So that felt weird, a lil bit.
How do you remain calm and care for yourself as all these things are moving so quickly?
I typically take a lotta baths! (laughter)
That’s what a lotta folks say when I ask them that question, it always comes back to bath bombs and shit like that.
I make my own bath bombs, but yes, basically a lotta baths, and a lotta love, and a lotta baths, and a lotta love, and a lotta weed! Weed! Weed weed weed!
Can you detail what’s in your bath bomb?
The other day, I just made a special one, and I put milk, honey, and lavender oil in it. And salt.
If that is not a merch item on the Sudan Archives tour… the streets need that! Don’t block your blessing!