The Self-Aware Solo Artist
ELIOT SUMNER IN LONDON, NOVEMBER 2015. PHOTOS: MATT HOLYOAK/KAYTE ELLIS AGENCY. STYLING: NIC JOTTKANDT. HAIR: MAKI TANAKA. MAKEUP: YUMIKO YAMAMOTO. RETOUCHING: THE SHOEMAKEER’S ELVES.
Though she previously performed under the moniker Coco in her band I Blame Coco, multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Eliot Sumner has now embraced her birth name, given by parents Sting and Trudie Styler. Unlike Coco’s 2010 highly produced pop release, The Constant, Sumner’s forthcoming album, Information (out January 22 via Cherrytree/Interscope), is rife with raw, husky vocals expressing anecdotes of both conflict and hope. “I don’t recognize the first album at all,” the 25-year-old says. “It was a confusing time.”
On Information‘s “Halfway to Hell,” Sumner devolves into a near scream, singing, “I’m all alone / And I’m far from home,” atop heavy guitar and percussion; whereas on the synth-infused track “Firewood,” the singer urgently croons, “Hello, are you home? … Everybody needs a confidant for all that wreckage kept inside.” Under I Blame Coco, Sumner released one album and landed various modeling gigs, but after touring Constant, she moved to a remote cottage in England’s Lake District for two years and left all things Coco (and fashion) behind. “I wanted to reset myself and just write songs every day,” she explains. “Once I did that I got more confident as a songwriter and kind of had a direction of where I was going.”
Now, when we meet her at a Brooklyn coffee shop, she wears an engulfing black coat, thin black pants, and no makeup. The shop is slightly overcrowded and noisy, so she immediately suggests relocating to her Williamsburg apartment, where we’re greeted by her girlfriend of two years (Austrian model Lucie von Alten), an oversized television (“I’ve got to get rid of that; it’s too big…”), and a glass coffee table laden with games like Banagrams and Scrabble as well as books, such as Wrinkles of the City, which highlights the titular collaboration between artists JR and José Parlá (“He’s a good friend”). Having been born in Pisa, Italy, grown up in Wiltshire, England, and currently being based between New York and London (but frequently touring and traveling), she says, “For me, everything is temporary. I don’t really believe there’s any permanence in life.”
EMILY MCDERMOTT: How did you decide to move to a cottage for two years all by yourself? How did it go from living in a cottage to making a new album?
ELIOT SUMNER: I kind of got inspired by [William] Wordsworth and [Samuel Taylor] Coleridge—I went the old traditional way of finding inspiration, I guess…Then I started sending music back to the label and management, and when I got back to London I met Duncan Mills, who produced the album. We immediately clicked. We would play something and look at each other like, “Wow that’s really cool.” I think his enthusiasm created the beginnings of the record. I’m still at the age where I’m constantly seeking approval of people I have respect for. He was perfect for that role.
MCDERMOTT: Who are some of the other people you really respect and would seek affirmation from?
SUMNER: I’ve never met them but Nick Cave is a huge hero of mine… Thom Yorke, Björk…
MCDERMOTT: You grew up surrounded by music and started playing guitar at age four, but when did you discover and come to appreciate these great singers and writers?
SUMNER: When I was four, I think I just wanted to make noise. When I was about 10 years old I was given five CDs for my birthday: Pink Floyd’s Dark side of the Moon, the Sex Pistols, Prodigy, Jimi Hendrix, and I can’t remember the fifth one, but really different kinds of music. That’s when I started to grasp it and enjoy it, listening to it. Then I started being in bands at school.
MCDERMOTT: Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
SUMNER: Yeah. I sometimes suffer from insomnia and one of the first times it ever happened I was like, “I don’t know what to do with myself,” so I started writing a song and by morning it was finished. It was about how I couldn’t sleep…I was 14.
MCDERMOTT: Do you still suffer from insomnia?
SUMNER: Yeah, I’m a terrible sleeper. I get these obsessive, repetitive thoughts and it’s horrible.
MCDERMOTT: I also read that learning languages is one of your hobbies.
SUMNER: Yeah, I don’t speak anything fluently, but I love picking up languages and I do this Duolingo app. I started when I moved to Sweden, when I was about 19, 20. I really loved the language; it was super melodic and really sexy. So I started to pick up bits of it and now I can have a basic conversation. Now I speak a little bit of German, I live with two German speakers. I speak a bit of Italian; I end up doing a good impression of the language, as opposed to speaking it because I was born there. My French is terrible and my Spanish is even worse. I find Spanish really difficult. They speak so quickly, whereas in German it’s very clear what they’re saying. It’s easier to repeat.
MCDERMOTT: Bananagrams and Scrabble are also on your table, but I know you grew up with dyslexia. How does language play a role in your life? Are you interested in language as a whole?
SUMNER: I guess so, I never really thought about it like that. I try to read, but my attention span is so bad, and ever since Netflix was invented, that’s all I do in my spare time, which is really bad, but it’s like a chore to read for me.
MCDERMOTT: How do you feel about visual art?
SUMNER: I don’t know, really. It confuses me. I think I like it; I know what I like and I know what I don’t like. Francis Bacon is one of my favorites. Lucian Freud. I prefer darker things and more minimal stuff. I don’t like when people just put words on canvases.
MCDERMOTT: What is the writing process like for your music? Has it changed since I Blame Coco?
SUMNER: I have a few methods that I use. One of them that kind of works but is a bit a boring is that I lock myself in the studio and I have four hours to work and come up with stuff. If nothing’s sticking in four hours, then I can stop. That’s a Brian Eno method.
I started doing one now, where instead of stressing out about what the song’s about or what the melody should be, I put myself in a place, on a stage maybe, and [think about] what it feels like—What am I wearing? What’s everyone else wearing? It sets a mood and that seems to be working.
MCDERMOTT: You were first signed when you were 17, so you were put on the stage at a pretty young age. Coming back now, this music is so much deeper and more raw than the Coco record…
SUMNER: The first album, I was really young, and any teenager, they’re not fully formed people. I felt bad because I kept changing my mind and the record company was like, “We need to get an album together.” I’m like, “Yeah, but I don’t know what I want.” It got lost in translation; there were too many people involved. I like to leave that in the past and focus more on the present…Then I had this head injury [from a severe accident in 2009, after which she lost her sense of smell] and that really slowed everything down, because I woke and I was a different person. A lot of people said, “You’re not really the same person,” which is fair. I damaged my brain quite badly and that’s your whole world.
MCDERMOTT: You seem to travel constantly and you split your downtime between London and New York. Do you call any place home?
SUMNER: I take every day as it comes and if I have to be somewhere, I’ll be there. I like to move around. It suits me. I grew up in Wiltshire on a farm and that’s the only place I call home. That’s why I haven’t really moved in [to this apartment]; it still looks like a hotel.
MCDERMOTT: Growing up on a farm, do you feel like still has an influence on you now?
SUMNER: Yeah, for sure. I think I’m very in touch with nature because I grew up in that surrounding. That’s a big part of who I am; I don’t know anything different. I moved to London when I was 17 and it was so strange. I couldn’t keep up with it. People in London are so much more exposed to danger, or bad things. It took me quite a long time to grow up in that environment. When I saw kids my age doing drugs, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol, I was like, “I’m still climbing trees.” It was quite shocking.
MCDERMOTT: Did you easily embrace that?
SUMNER: No comment…I had fun when I moved to London.
MCDERMOTT: Fair. [both laugh ] So, under your actual name you released an Information EP and then another EP. Now there’s the album. What made you want to use the title Information for the full-length as well?
SUMNER: For me, it ties everything together. It’s my favorite song on the record. Also, I think it’s the most interpretive song. I think people can connect with it more than the other ones…Some of the demos are totally different than the recordings. They just transformed into different songs. “After Dark,” for instance, was an acoustic, happy song, and then I was like, “I really don’t like this.” I was in the moment and I didn’t like it anymore. Duncan was like, “No, this is a great song, we have to work with this.” We got together in the studio and it took us a few hours. Every band member put in some input. They were like, “It needs to be more minimal, it needs to be darker.” It became a song that we really ended up liking.
MCDERMOTT: Some of your songs are autobiographical and some are purely fictional, like “Firewood.” What is that balance like?
SUMNER: It depends on if you’ve got anything to write about—if you’re really uninspired because nothing exciting or depressing is happening. If something depressing is happening, that’s gold. That’s the best possible situation you could be in. But if that doesn’t happen, you just have to make up stuff—it’s more fun because you have more freedom with what you can write about. You can invent characters and situations. It’s actually easier.
MCDERMOTT: You’ve also done some work with film scores, and that seems to relate to the ease you find in making up stories. What is it about scoring that attracts you? Do you remember when you realized that scores were important, critical aspects of film?
SUMNER: Blade Runner. Vangelis did that soundtrack, and he was one of the first people I locked onto. I love sci-fi movies and I love music in sci-fi films. It was that basic arpeggio he used, that piece of music was very inspiring to my sound. I love the feeling of films’ suspense and dread. If you watch a film without music, there’s nothing that you can connect with. I’ve always loved film scores and Clint Mansell, who I worked with [on Filth to cover Radiohead’s “Creep”]. He was one of my favorites for a long time. I would eventually like to get more into that.
MCDERMOTT: What was it like covering Radiohead? Do things of that nature make you nervous?
SUMNER: Yeah, for sure. When I covered “Creep,” it wasn’t my decision, but the director of the film Filth. He was like, “You and Clint Mansell should do a version of Radiohead’s ‘Creep'” and I was like, “That would be amazing, but that makes me anxious.” They’re my favorite band of all time and I know for a fact that they don’t like that song anymore. So I was a bit nervous, but doing it with Clint gave me a lot more confidence because he is also one of my heroes.
MCDERMOTT: Is it mostly these heroes that give you the confidence to embrace what you’re creating?
SUMNER: Yeah. I don’t have a lot of self-confidence. I’m getting there. Before I had zero confidence, but it’s one of those things you learn and accept.
MCDERMOTT: Moving on to something totally different, I read that worked in a circus when you were younger?
SUMNER: Yeah, it wasn’t so much of a circus. It was more of a stunt group. I was there from when I was 11 to when I was about 13. I used to do crazy stuff on horses, stuff that my mother shouldn’t—I’m glad she never saw me do it. I used to do vaulting, where the horse is going at full speed and then you jump off and then swing back on again. Roman riding is where you have two horses and you’re standing on one of them.
MCDERMOTT: That’s so intense. How did you become involved with it?
SUMNER: This guy, Jarrod. He’s this awesome, kind of a bit mad French guy, who’s been a horse master on film sets for the last 30 years or something. He worked with my dad on a few things and came to the house to say hi. He gave me this flyer and said, [in French accent] “This is what I do, you should come work for me.” I was like, “Alright,” and took him up on it. After school, I used to go every day just to train. That was an interesting time.
MCDERMOTT: If you had to describe your approach to music what would you say?
SUMNER: I have a complicated relationship with it because most of what I hear I really don’t like and I don’t understand, like stuff that plays on the radio. I feel like we’re getting brainwashed with so much bullshit and it’s insulting. I realized when you have all of that noise, it creates a vacuum for much better music in these cool subgenres, these underground things. That’s where I feel much more comfortable, opposed to listening to mainstream music. What’s your approach on it?
MCDERMOTT: It’s pretty similar, to be honest. I have to listen to so much new music that it can become so overwhelming. When you hear something that’s good, it really resonates with you, but it’s rare that it happens.
SUMNER: It’s crazy because it feels like we’re living in a joke era. Everything is a joke and everything is funny.
MCDERMOTT: Everything becomes a meme and nobody takes anything seriously.
SUMNER: Yeah, it’s in all of the music; it’s everything. It’s not serious. It’s the age of the idiot.
MCDERMOTT: [laughs] The age of the internet idiot… Is there anything you wanted to talk about that I didn’t mention?
SUMNER: I love True Detective. Just putting that out there.
MCDERMOTT: And you mentioned you’ve been watching Curb Your Enthusiasm today.
SUMNER: I am a huge Curb fan. I’m just getting Lucie into it. We’re watching from start to finish. It’s good for this weather. We might see a movie tonight. We want to see this Austrian horror film called Goodnight Mommy and it’s playing at the Williamsburg Cinema.
INFORMATION WILL BE RELEASED JANUARY 22, 2016. FOR MORE ON ELIOT SUMNER, VISIT HER FACEBOOK.
For more from our 16 Faces of 2016, click here.