Twenty-three-year-old singer-songwriter Moses Sumney likes to make music. In bed. Raised in the Inland Empire and Ghana by African Christian-minister parents, a shy young Sumney started writing songs in a notebook, which he hid under his bed. At 20, he decided to teach himself guitar.
After graduating from UCLA's creative writing program in 2012, he served as an L.A. Weekly music-writing intern and began recording his songs at his Mid-City studio apartment. “It's so organic, and feels real and honest,” he says over evening tea at his neighborhood coffee shop, Paper or Plastik. “Why wouldn't you just chill and sing from your heart? Studios can feel very mechanical sometimes.”
Last summer, he convinced a former classmate who worked at the Bootleg Theater to let him play there – it was his first off-campus performance. The members of the R&B outfit King – a band discovered and endorsed by Prince – were in the audience and invited Sumney to open for them during their monthlong residency at the theater that June.
Since then, Sumney has shared the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage with Beck, performed in New York with Solange, and held his own residency at the Bootleg, but his apartment is still the place he prefers to make music. His recently released EP, Mid-City Island, was recorded exclusively in bedrooms – his and his friends' – through a four-track onto a cassette tape.
Sumney seems at ease on his island. Sans label or studio, his one-man folk-soul band is lean, but he has no trouble keeping himself company onstage. Listening to him create a complex aural bath from scratch is like being enveloped by fields of ambrosial sound. He plays guitar, sings in pristine tones or straddles two mics while recording onomatopoeic lines to loop and layer into an aural narrative. It's an orchestra of one, and he completely pulls it off.
He might give ritual apologies at the beginning of his show and express embarrassment that his opening acts outshine him, but, ultimately, he's confident. “I sing. I write. I'm in Los Angeles. I'm gonna make it,” says his YouTube profile.
So why does he perform alone? “Playing with other people can be a crutch, and performing alone forces me to work hard and bring it,” he says.
That's not to say he doesn't play well with others. You might find him alongside buzzed-about indie group Local Natives or collaborating with guitarist and songwriter idol Blake Mills, who is producing some of his music. If you're lucky enough to catch Sumney singing a cover of Bon Iver's “Holocene” in a voice that you'll want to hold onto, you won't be able to believe him when he sings “and at once I knew I was not magnificent.”