When startlingly unique singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Moses Sumney plays Pitchfork on Saturday, it will mark the Los Angeles artist’s second appearance at Chicago’s longstanding home-brewed music festival. But as it happens, he pointed out in a recent interview, “It’ll be my first as a person with an album out.”
That unassuming self-description doesn’t even hint at the impact of said album, Sumney’s debut full-length release. Having followed a short string of press-approved EPs and singles that began in 2014, his dazzling 11-track “Aromanticism” was showered with superlatives right out of the gate — ultimately adorning “Best of 2017” lists in such prestige media outlets as Rolling Stone, the New York Times, NPR and the Guardian.
When: 4:15 p.m. Jul. 21
Where: Pitchfork Music Festival, Union Park, 1501 W. Randolph
Tickets: $75 single-day $75, three-day $175, all ages
Each of Sumney’s gorgeously strange songs melts into the next, a siren’s-call melange of electronic soul, folk and purest unearthliness. His bewitching falsetto, at times multi-tracked into varicolored harmonies, is a seductive delivery system for the thesis of “Aromanticism”: namely, that we’ve all been ill-served by antiquated notions of romantic love, which posit that only two specific halves — each the other’s predestined counterpart — can make a happy-ever-after whole.
“When I was making this record, I was thinking of other ways of experiencing romantic love,” Sumney said, phoning while walking through a park in Milan, Italy, during an off day on his recent European tour. “Outside of just The One — which is, y’know, the heteronormative ‘Go find that one person of the opposite sex, marry them, have two or three kids.’
“But of course you end up meeting people who don’t fall into the canonical category of what romantic love and partnership is,” Sumney continued. “For some, there will be many Ones over the course of a lifetime; for others, several at the same time. And for some people there will be none. But in media and art, that [alternate concept] is usually not pushed into the spotlight of mainstream discussions of love.”
Sumney, 28, was raised both in San Bernardino, Calif., and his parents’ native Ghana (where the family relocated when Moses was 10). An early obsession, he noted, was a rather unexpected musical genre.
“My entire time living in San Bernardino, I would only listen to country music. I have no idea where I got it from,” Sumney laughed. “Not old country — it was Garth Brooks and Randy Travis and Martina McBride.” He readily professes an “encyclopedic knowledge” of ’90s pop-country.
While there’s nary a trace of twang in Sumney’s own music, Brooks, McBride, et al., were nevertheless formative influences. “Country led to folk music, which led me to a love of lyricism and storytelling,” Sumney explained. “And guitar; I’m self-taught. I learned how to play the guitar mostly from the Internet — watching, like, tutorials and stuff. And I taught myself to sing.”
Back in southern California in his 20s, Sumney performed the L.A. club circuit, riding what he terms “a strange [vocational] trajectory.”
“I’d always thought my dream was: Work really hard and be unrecognized and then put out a record and maybe people will hear it. And then, over time, people will come to know me,” he detailed. “But a lot of people came to know me [when] I started playing shows, and a lot of people wrote about me. I didn’t put out a record for three years.”
When he did craft his first release, the cassette EP “Mid-City Los Angeles,” it was at the behest of a prominent early fan, Dave Sitek from much-acclaimed band TV on the Radio. Sitek was intrigued by the upstart artist’s growing renown, and as mutual friends told Sumney, “He was like, ‘Who is this Moses guy? Bring him to me!’ It was very, like, ‘Wizard of Oz.’” When Sitek gave him a four-track tape machine, Sumney’s recording career followed the yellow-brick road.
“I was really struck by Moses from the first time I heard him” observed Troy Hansbrough, senior director of programming for Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, scene of a sold-out, nigh-legendary Sumney show last October. “Moses’ team wanted to present him in an intimate theater rather than a club, and were honored that they chose us.”
Sumney himself confesses “relief, on some level,” that his “left-of-center album” resonated with so many people. “I did what I wanted to do,” he said. “I didn’t bend to mainstream demands.”