MOSES Sumney is spinning and curving his limbs against the looming brutalist lines of Surry Hills police station; Sydney photographer Cybele Malinowski and her camera on the ground below him.
He’s in his favourite colour (all black everything, later interchanging with concrete grey), his own clothes and stark-soft garments by local label SHHORN and designer Alistair Trung. He flirts with his reflection in the camera lens, tour fatigue and sleep debt brushed off like sand. A few days later he will bring the entire Sydney Opera House to their feet with his impossibly haunting future-soul, stretching each note delicately with perfect control like a glass-blower.
Cops pass by in their combat boots, bemused and rubbernecking, staring at Moses as he spins and stills. Cybele tells one of them how beautiful she finds the sharp-finned concrete shell of his workplace.
“Are you kidding?” the cop replies. “It’s the ugliest building in Sydney. But at least it’s bulletproof.”
“I LOVE taking photos,” Moses says several days later, on the phone from Melbourne, his voice still a little cloudy from an overdue sleep-in.
After winding up the Laneway tour in Fremantle, he’s finally got a few days to himself. After this call he has another shoot to head to. The camera loves him, and the feeling is mutual.
“In those moments, it’s just like, ‘This is mine.’ Like, ‘This is really mine.’ And so, I get really into it and I usually come with a lot of ideas.
“It’s all about letting creative energy flow and letting spontaneity reign,” he continues. “Being able to improvise in whatever space in whatever medium, I think, carries through all of my work.”
When he says whatever space, he means it – from municipal buildings in inner Sydney to a run-down amphitheatre in Accra. Sumney’s parents moved the family from his childhood home in LA to the Ghanaian capital when he was 10, then back to California six years later.
Early last year, he was roaming the city with photographer Eric Gyamfi, in search of distinctive locations where they could shoot the cover of his upcoming debut album
“So in that cover shoot, the photo that we ended up using was completely improvised. It’s just me saying, “Okay. What if I jumped now? Okay. What if I put my hands behind my back? Oh. What if you took the photo from a lower angle?” It’s just getting into the space of being as free as possible. So yeah, I think there’s definitely a musical rhythm. I think there should be that musical rhythm to everything.”
I heard you got a standing ovation at the Opera House show.
Some people got up and stretched at the end. I think they were just stretching. They were so ready to leave they actually just stood up immediately.
The Opera House was one of the first theatre shows we did with a drummer, but I think it was just the space. The space is what made it so special. When you are in a space that’s– what’s the word? Sacred, kind of. It changes the tone of the whole show, and I felt like we were really given the space to create beauty.
Soundcheck was the first time I went into the room. I just felt like, “This feels right. This feels like home. This is [what I] want for my life.” It’s just my dream to be able to perform in spaces like that more often. So walking in that room, I just immediately felt like, “Ah. Yeah.”
And they let us have a little after party after the show for as late as we wanted, and they put us in this backroom that has this gorgeous balcony that looks over the Harbour Bridge. So we just kinda hung out there staring at the Harbour Bridge for hours.
All Black Everything
I almost only wear black, but I have a very specific number of earth-tone colours that I wear when I feel like wearing colour. But on stage, I definitely only wear black.
Is wearing black about simplicity?
It’s so many things … One, I feel like I take myself more seriously when I’m wearing black. I feel like … I have a friend who has the word SUICIDE tattooed on his forehead. Serpentwithfeet is his actual artist name … When you see him [live] it’s really intense, but when you meet him he’s the most sweet, like, jovial person ever.
But being able to present in a way that’s a bit more harsh, or in a way that lets you know that there’s a side of him that recognises darkness, I think, allows you to view him in a wider way with a broader spectrum. And I feel that way about black because I feel like there’s, I don’t know, a side to me that’s a bit more strict, and more structural, and more minimal, and more serious. And I don’t always know how to communicate that to the world. And so just wearing that colour does it for me, and I don’t have to explain certain things.
I like the simplicity of it. Yeah. I like the cleanness of it.
Do you feel like you kind of need that little prompt sometimes to take yourself seriously? Do you have trouble taking yourself seriously?
I do have to trouble taking myself seriously sometimes ’cause I know myself too well. But also I think sometimes other people do too. Or I anticipate them not taking me seriously. Or maybe I’m used to people not taking me seriously. So, it’s like, every little bit helps.
Are you comfortable with your style now? Or is it something that’s still evolving?
I love my style. I think it’s great … I’ve been working on it for the past seven years … I come from a really stylish family, where people in my family don’t necessarily dress with the trend, but they all pay attention to details. And they pay attention to what to they’re wearing, and so I think I grew up seeing my parents and my older sister always dressed really well.
And so there was this kind of familial pressure to present well. My dad’s always wearing a suit, or always really ironed African garb, shoes always polished. So I’ve always been conscious of that, but in terms of coming into my style now, which is mostly black, a lot of loose-fitting clothes, baggy clothes, or stuff that flows, garments that move on stage. I’ve kinda been workshopping that for a minute.
And if I feel like I really nailed it in the past two years. Now, I’m trying to take it a little further, even just get a little bit more dramatic at times.
I was always the odd one out in my life. In my childhood before we moved to Ghana, we were one of the few immigrant families at my school. And then I moved to Ghana, and I was the only American at my school. And I moved back to America, and I was the only Ghanaian. I was the African. So I think kind of being conscious that I was always the odd one out made me comfortable in not conforming, and not fitting in because I was never really allowed the opportunity to fit in anyway. And so, I kind of grew up with the mentality that I could just do whatever I wanted to do. And that definitely relates to style.
I always thought I was very weird looking. And so, in the past few years, I have to take photos so often that I really leaned into it and learned how to best not look strange. Or to best look strange on purpose. I don’t know. I have to figure it out. Also, I’m really dark-skinned. That’s part of why. There’s a lot that goes into that as well with my clothing. I only wear colours that feel like they accentuate that…
I have to make sure the lighting’s right. I have to make sure that I’m aware of when the light is hitting my face, otherwise I won’t even show up in the photo. So there’s a lot of thought that goes into it.
Because the actual technology of photography wasn’t developed to photograph dark-skinned people, right?
Exactly. Exactly right. Like in the ’60s, the first [colour] photographs when they were working on, “How do we make human beings show up in photos? We only ever tested it on light skin.” And that’s obviously been corrected, but there’s a lot of people, especially when I go to parts of the world like Australia where there’s not a lot of black people. There’s a lot of people that just don’t know or aren’t familiar with how to photograph black people.
And when I show up to a photo shoot, I don’t know which one it’s gonna be, if they’ll be good at it or not. So I have to kind of do the extra work of just turning my head towards the light, knowing when it’s hitting me. Or like saying, “Can we step over here?” Or like saying, “Oh. This grey background. I know that that looks really good against my skin tone. And it’s all in shadow, but it’s light shadow.”
Or like saying, “This garment will actually make me look crazy.” Or, “If I wear white in certain shots, it’ll absorb all of the light.” Or, sorry, “My skin will absorb the light.” It’s a lot.
I’ve lived in a lot of different types of places. I’ve lived in places where I was the only black person. And I’ve lived places where there were only black people… And I travel the world so much and I often go to parts of the world where no one looks like me. I have to go to parts of the world where everyone stares at me, or everyone completely ignores me. So I feel pretty comfortable everywhere, and I actually don’t really notice.
Do you find that you have that ease when you’re recording?
That part I’m learning more, the comfortability with recording music is a much newer thing in my life because I’ve only been recording music for about four years now. Or four … Yeah. About four years now. So the learning curve for me has been pretty crazy. And I work alone a lot because that’s easier, but I definitely still get nervous or feel awkward when I’m working with someone new.
Because you want to learn from them, or because you feel vulnerable?
Yeah. I mean, it’s all of the above really. I don’t have a tonne of technical knowledge, but on the other end, I really know what I want a lot of the time`s sonically. So I have to work with someone that makes me feel comfortable because filling in that gap, explaining what I want without always being able to say, “This is what you need to click.” Or, “This is the button you need to turn to make that happen.” It’s a comfort thing more than anything.
One of the people that made me feel most comfortable was probably Matthew Otto, who’s a producer from Canada who was in a band called Majical Cloudz … I just went to Canada and I lived in his tiny, tiny, tiny studio apartment, where the bed was right next to the kitchen, which was next to the studio setup. And, yeah, we just wrote songs and recorded pretty freely. And the song ‘Doomed’ came out of that, and a few others. So he’s someone I felt really comfortable with.
Are you thinking about the next album? Do you feel ready to think about it?
Yeah. I mean, I turned Aromanticism in in April  and I started working on the next album in May. So I’m ready to go.
It was a concept album, but I think that there’s so many different avenues that I could’ve explored in talking about love, and I only talked about a few of them. And then I feel like sonically … you know, it’s a very short album thankfully. So I think sonically, there’s still quite a lot of room. I mean, I was playing a lot with minimalism and space. Again I feel like there’s so much more that I could’ve done.
At the same time, I’m curious about writing about other things and exploring different sounds. So, it’s gonna be interesting to see which way I go, I think. It might be pretty different – or similar, but more complicated or more seasoned.
Are you pretty emotionally open with your friends? Or does it mostly come out through your music?
That’s a great question. I mean, probably not, honestly. It’s probably mostly in music. It depends on which friends though, but yeah, probably more in the music than in real life.
Do you find people don’t separate you the musician from you the person as much as you would like?
Personally, the way that I regard people, I like to separate their music from them just because the recorded act or recorded work is just a snapshot of a time. It’s the snapshot of a feeling. It doesn’t embody your entire mentality about anything. With me … I don’t know. I guess people can kind of do whatever they want. I like to think I’m more complicated than my music and it’s kind of hard to explain how complicated you are to anyone.
I suppose even the most beautiful photo is just one angle, right?