AUSTIN, TEXAS -- Moses Sumney stood alone with just his electric guitar and whispery whisp of a falsetto. He electronically looped his voice into a choir; shaped his tongue clicks, handclaps and finger snaps into a rhythm section; and gently plucked the six strings until they sounded like a harp. Pretty soon the sound was coming at the entranced audience in undulating waves.
And what an audience it was Wednesday at the South by Southwest Music Conference. There was famed talent scout Mark Williams (who signed Smashing Pumpkins to their first record deal), Rough Trade label founder Geoff Travis (Smiths, Strokes) and Pulp singer Jarvis Cocker. Sumney, who is of African heritage and studied at UCLA, says he only became proficient enough at the guitar two years ago to begin playing solo concerts. He doesn't have an album out, but his songs are buzzing around the Internet and are already being played on the influential Los Angeles public-radio station KCRW.
As an unsigned artist already generating radio airplay and collecting influential fans, Sumney was in huge demand at South by Southwest -- the type of artist who uses the conference as a springboard several rungs up the ladder, from promising newcomer to rapidly rising star. Tall, articulate, and possessed of a feathery, wide-ranging voice and a guitar tone that suggests the influence of his parents homeland in Ghana, he was a standout in a sea of 2,000 bands and artists striving for validation. Most will go home empty-handed, but Sumney will undoubtedly have his choice of suitors before the week is done.
After his brief but persuasive set at the Austin Convention Center, he paused backstage to assess where he's been and where he's going. His first break came last year when Solange, Beyonce's sister, began featuring him on her mix tapes. There was a show with Beck and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. "I was the complete unknown" on the bill, he said with a smile.
He began looping his voice and creating elaborate rhythmic and vocal patterns because "I hear arrangements in my head. As a kid I would sing them out loud." But he's limited because he can't yet afford a band.
He has had no vocal training and taught himself to play guitar by listening to records. Lyrics come easily -- he studied creative writing at UCLA. He has an EP coming out "very, very soon" but, because "the tranjectory of the last few months has been so fast," he wants to take his time making his first album.
"I'm in no hurry," he says. "I want the album to be kind of epic."