We tend to use the terms “musician” and “artist” as though they are interchangeable.
Festivals sling “artist passes” around the neck of every act on the bill. Music award shows hand out Best New Artist gongs—sometimes to musicians who are actually good new artists, sometimes to that band fun. Remember them?
We know though, instinctively, that they are not the same thing.
And that’s not to say that there is a hierarchy—that being an artist is the aspiration, when being a musician is the reality for most. As Charlie Steen, the lead singer of the South London post-punk outfit Shame, repeatedly told the crowd during his band’s raucous Laneway sideshow, “Smile! This is entertainment.”
But the mood couldn’t have been more different as the crowd waited for Moses Sumney to take the stage for his own sideshow at the Sydney Opera House. Reverence vibrated through the cavernous space. A quiet anticipation, broken only by a burst of applause when Sumney emerged from side of stage, cloaked all in black.
There was a theatre to all of it—a concept, tightly controlled; a vision. It was as if you were watching the opening scene of a musical as Sumney launched into “Selp-Help Tape,” the closing track from his 2017 breakthrough Aromanticism. It’s a song that heroes his voice—the undeniable star of the show—all celestial octave runs and breathy reverb.
At times Sumney’s voice was almost two characters: his dreamy falsetto and sonorous bass sparring with each other, bouncing off one another, on songs like “Doomed” and “Quarrel.” It was there in the lyrics too, on “Make Out in My Car” perhaps more so than any other track.
“I’m not trying to, go to bed with you,” Sumney crooned, one foot up on the foldback. “I just wanna make out in my car.”
Purity and sexuality, in equal measure.
As with any masterful performance, Sumney gave the crowd moments of release—dropping his character, or perhaps picking up a new one. The self-deprecating young artist who’s found himself playing one of the world’s most-coveted stages with just a single album to his name. He told a charming aside about a call from his mum interrupting soundcheck, he tried his hand at crowd participation.
Some felt these choices were jarring—flashes of humanity that pulled you from the crafted perfection. For others though, they shaded in the portrait of vulnerability Sumney sketched out that night with his songs, giving it life and depth.
Watching Sumney live, even more so than listening to Aromanticism, feels revelatory. That could be because the entire concept of the album sprung out of revelation for the singer himself—one late night on the internet when he came across the term “aromanticism.” Now when you Google it, all that comes up is Sumney. But back in 2014 it led the young singer to a dictionary definition of a person who “does not experience romantic attraction.”
“I found the word online, and was like, Wait, this sounds like exactly what I’ve been thinking and feeling,” Sumney told Fader in an interview. “Trust me, I’m hyper-aware of the way that this seems like WebMD culture.”
Aromanticism is not asexuality. It is the absence of that feeling of excitement that we’re told we should feel about the prospect of love. A complicated idea to explore through music, or any medium. But it’s in this space that Sumney has found something that’s both novel and all too familiar.
And this is the art of Sumney’s songs, asking a question so few brave to touch: How would this feel if I actually let myself feel it? There’s true loneliness here, not just the fear of being lonely. And there’s also an acknowledgement that because we’re told the “prospect of love” should usher in nothing by joy, we feel crazy when it cripples us with anxiety, apathy, and self-doubt. It’s brutal. It’s something musicians too often choose to ignore.
“You give me all of you, I recognise my heart as black and blue. You accept all I do, but I don't know if that is wise,” Sumney sang during a solo rendition of the heavily autotuned “Worth It,” late into his set. “You offer all of you. I recognise your hand as a budding bruise. You reject solitude. But I don't know if I am worth it.”
Sumney closed out with “Plastic”—a song everybody was so sure he’d play no one even yelled it out when he asked for requests during his encore. Under a single spot, guitar in hand, the distinctive opening chords echoed through absolute silence. Feigning a failing voice, a showman until the end, Sumney whispered out the heart sinking lyrics…
“I know what it is to be broken and be bold. Tell you that my silver is gold, though we're much too old for make believe. And I know what it's like to behold and not be held… But nobody told me, to never let it get too far. You see my silhouette, so you're standing scared of me. Can I tell you a secret?”
… and was met with a standing ovation from the entire Opera House crowd.
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