“I’m Still in Shock at how Things are Just Sprouting:” An Interview with Sudan Archives

Cory Lomberg and Sudan Archives talk about music theory, working with Stones Throw, and covering songs by other artists.
By    November 21, 2016

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Rising from a picnic table with Sudan Archives, I mutter my relief. The 22 year-old violinist and her friends, who slid in on each side, are the kind of genuine, like-minded women I look out for at every show. (According to Sudan, both Jess and Monica—named in tribute to the westside city—have had her back since she moved out to Los Angeles three years ago). They muse in agreement, 22-year-old Sudan in particular. “I still feel like a little girl,” she says, though her tone recognizes the singular agency in that. Being a girl isn’t a condition, but a specific lens through which to view the world.

Sudan recounts her recent success like stars falling into alignment. Still, it’s unlikely that a record deal can be attributed to good fortune, especially when it coincides with Sudan’s talent. Humility keeps her from fully acknowledging the foundations she can shift with a violin, a loop station, and her voice.

Since sharing a demo with Leaving Records head Matthew McQueen (better known as Matthewdavid), Sudan found herself tied to Stones Throw, where she will release her debut album next year. She’s recording with her violin, her voice and possibly synths—nothing like the full quartet she performs with at her label’s 20th anniversary festival in Highland Park.

On the day of the “Superfest,” one thing seems to stun her more than the acclaim: a surprise appearance by her mom and twin sister. After spotting them at the helm of the stage, she spends the afternoon rooted in her own world, surrounded by friends and family—as every early-20-something deserves to be. —Cory Lomberg


Could you tell me a bit about the history of your relationship with music?


Sudan Archives: It all began in fourth grade. A group of fiddlers came and played some fiddle music and I was like, oh my god, I wanna be a fiddler. That’s how it all started. And then I convinced my mom to rent out a violin. I was just so into fiddle music at that time. Then a year after—we moved around a lot, and I wasn’t able to have training anymore or be in an orchestra. Most of the schools didn’t even have an orchestra. So I continued to play in church by ear, and that’s how I learned how to play by ear. I didn’t even know how to read music yet. All I knew was just how to hold it and play a few notes and stuff. Once I started playing at church, I was experimenting, making up my own riffs in my head, and eventually I started experimenting with electronic music. I got a looper and started uploading things on Soundcloud. Doing my own thing.

After that, I still felt really insecure about playing violin because most people have private lessons right when they get it until—you know? And I was just kind of self-teaching how to do techniques and stuff. Whatever I could learn by ear. I started to dig deeper into Sudanese music and West African folk music and I realized that the reason I liked fiddle music so much was because African folk is similar. So digging into African music and indigenous violins, one-string fiddles—that inspired me to find my style of playing.

West African folk is like fiddle music, but they don’t have violins. They have indigenous violins, which are made out of a gourds and horsehair for the string and the bow. It’s just one string and they play these basic lines and sing over it. It’s very repetitive. With sudanese music, they play regular violins, but they use the pentatonic scale and sing a lot. It’s like this call and response thing. Those two styles influenced my style of playing heavily because I was so intrigued with the style of it and the sound of it, but mainly, that they’re a bunch of people of color playing string instruments, and I’m sure that they didn’t have private lessons. They were just like feeling it and playing off of what they felt.


Do you typically play with a quartet like you did today?


Sudan Archives: Never. I usually just play by myself, with my loop station and my voice. But I always wanted to play with a quartet. That’s how I see my future sets. Like an orchestra.


Did you collaborate on the arrangements with the members of the quartet?


Sudan Archives: Right. So I make all of my music and I hooked up with one of my good friends, Max, who is an arranger, because my music theory isn’t that good. I just make up the stuff by ear. But he found the musicians and helped transform my songs into arrangements. Everybody had their whole part written out for them, so that was pretty cool.


How long have you been in LA for?


Sudan Archives: Going on three years now.


How did you get involved with Stones Throw when you came out?


Sudan Archives: I think my ex at the time was really into, like—I don’t know anything about music. I don’t know what’s new. I don’t know what’s going on. But he was really into experimental music. He had all these labels he fucked with and stuff like that. He would go to shows and he wanted me to go with him. So I guess I met some people from going to a lot of shows and eventually I met Matthewdavid, who owns a DIY label and does A&R for Stones Throw. He was just really interested in me and what I did and my vibes and always said, hey, send me some stuff. And I was like, okay, no, I’m not going to because I’m nervous. At that point, I just felt like I didn’t have anything that I wanted to show anyone. I was still experimenting with loopers and stuff. But he was like, no, for real, send me something.

So eventually, when I felt like I had a song to show, I sent it to him and he was blown away. He wanted me to put something under his label, Leaving Records. I guess Chris [Manak] found out he was working with me and he was like, hey, let me check this out. Next thing you know, I’m meeting with everybody at Stones Throw and they were like, we think you should just release your album and do a deal with us instead. And I was like, okay. I wasn’t even looking to do any of that but okay, cool.


Did you come out here not thinking that music was going to be your focus?


Sudan Archives: I wanted music to be my focus, yeah, but I wasn’t expecting a deal out of it. I was just gonna do my own thing, DIY-style and pursue school because I’m really into ethnomusicology. And after I get my music degree at PCC, I wanted to study that. UCLA is one of the best schools for ethnomusicology. So I thought I was in the right place, like, I’m just gonna stay here, go to school, work on my music, see what happens.

It just worked out like this, I guess. I was grinding hard. I was working two jobs, and then the next thing you know, I’m meeting with Stones Throw and they were like, just do a deal with us. We like what you’re doing.


Are you still at PCC now?


Sudan Archives: I’m just trying to get my music associate. My A.A.


Do you like studying music in that context?


Sudan Archives: Yeah, I’m learning theory because I don’t even know what some of the notes are. I had to go to the beginning, like, this note is D, this note is A, and then learn the circle of fifths. It’s like the code to music. Every song is in a key, and if you know what key you’re in, you can communicate with musicians—hey, we’re in the key of A. Then you know that the key of A has a certain amount of sharps and flats. You kind of have a grid on which you’re able to communicate with musicians clearly.


How is that affecting the way you play?


Sudan Archives: In a good way and a bad way. Now I’m super critical about what I’m doing, but also I feel like I’m getting better with techniques and I know how to play straight. You have to learn how to play your bow a certain way and stand a certain way to get a fuller sound. So, I think it is affecting it in a good way. It’s not bad to be a critic of yourself.


Where were you performing when you first came out to LA?


Sudan Archives: I was doing a couple of shows, like Echo Park Rising. People would just ask me to do shows. I wasn’t really like trying to perform as much. I was just trying to practice. But people were so interested, like, hey, just do a couple sets here or here, so I did that for a little bit. That was cool.


It rarely happens so organically for people trying to focus on music.


Sudan Archives: Yeah, it really did happen organically. I’m still in shock at how things are just sprouting.


Are you planning on playing more soon?


Sudan Archives: I plan on touring after the album, so the album’s gonna be done next year, end of next year. I have like 8 songs done, but I want to make like 30 and pick. But people have been hitting me up in like London and shit. And I really want to go but I feel like I should wait.


When fans hit you up, what do they say?


Sudan Archives: They just say they saw the “Queen Kunta” cover and they want me to come through.


It seems like people have responded really well to that song.


Sudan Archives: I’m really happy about that. I’m stoked about getting positive feedback to that because I always felt weird about doing covers. I’ve never even done them. But when we were doing the Stones Throw video, I was like, I have this one cover I want to try out and see how it sounds. They ended up choosing that one. I’m really glad people have been giving me positive feedback about it because Kendrick Lamar is one of my biggest inspirations for hip hop.


Why do you feel weird about covers in general?


Sudan Archives: I don’t know. I just feel sensitive, like, I don’t know if people want me doing that shit. How could you know that? It’s really personal, but I feel like that song specifically hit me on a personal level because I feel like I’m a kunta, but I like how he flipped it and put “King Kunta” on it. It’s this weird—he turns something negative into a positive thing, and I can relate to that because he looks just like me. He has the same type of hair as me, same skin complexion. I just felt so inspired by that song.