Even though he’s only 46 years old, Joe Sumner’s time served in the music industry found him and his old group Fiction Plane dropping its 2003 debut Everything Will Be OK just as the old framework was imploding unto itself thanks to Napster, with the major knockout punch of streaming lying in wait a few years down the road. And while the subsequent two decades found Sumner and his crew releasing three more records, the latest chapter of the London native’s creative life finds him readying to release his solo debut Sunshine In the Night on October 6.
It’s a journey that’s taken place over the past five years with a pandemic conveniently popping up in the middle of that time. For Sumner, COVID-19 notwithstanding, it’s been a liberating experience to be the one calling all the shots.
“I thought it was cool relaunching myself and I really need to be comfortable with whatever I’m saying and feel like it’s approximating my identity as close as possible so I can really live it in an integrated way,” he explained. “I was able to say when the tempo would change in a song. Or where I want the drums or chords to change and I’m going to leave a bar empty of lyrics and I’m going to put a flute in there. It was really amazing to choose that without any kind of debate or discussion. And then to take responsibility for that. I made that choice. I’ve had that experience where I played a demo or a recording for someone and when I ask what they think, they’ll say the verse is a bit long. And I’ll say, ‘I know. The other guy said it should be longer.’ I want to stand on my own two feet and be responsible for it. I want to take the good and the bad and the flack for it. It’s really nice to experience that. So making choices and reaping consequences is awesome.”
And while the fact that Sting is the singer-songwriter’s father, it was not The Police who wound up sparking the younger Sumner’s inspiration to go from picking up a guitar to trying to form a band. That honor would go to Kurt Cobain and company.
“This old Scottish guy taught me classical guitar for four years starting when I was 10 years old,” Sumner recalled. I pretty much didn’t do any of my homework. I didn’t do any of the practicing or studying. He was very nice and I think he was right because I would have probably just quit if he pushed me too much. And then suddenly I got into Nirvana and I was in a band the next day. I wish I could pretend to have been hipper but ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was on the radio in my friend’s mom’s car and it was just like this visceral sound that punched me in the chest. I was in this complete trance and it was everything that I needed. It described my world so perfectly.”
Currently out on the road (“I’m going to be on my own on stage with an acoustic guitar and voice and just keep it simple”), Sumner was happy to share some of the records that helped inspire him early on.
Nirvana – Bleach (1989)
“I can listen to it on my own on repeat as long as you like. It just feels organic. It feels like some old rocks from some ancient tribe. It feels like the three stones from The Temple of Doom and they just do something together. It reminds me of a psychedelic experience. It’s visceral and raw and it is physical and deep. The instrumentation is not complicated, but I can’t understand how they put all those sounds together to make that thing. It’s like a totally impenetrable piece of rock. I can play it for a thousand people and none of them might feel the same way, but I still feel the same way.”
Jeff Buckley – Grace (1994)
“When Jeff Buckley came to London, a friend asked me to go see him. I heard a snippet of [his material] and I thought he was kind of a dandy. I was not into it. I was till more into heavier stuff. Someone played me the record and I thought there was some interesting stuff. Then he died and someone put it on again while I was around and I was crying for like the entirety of the record. There were just floods of tears. It has some kind of transcendental vibe to it. His voice is amazing. You just ask yourself what this music is. It’s rock with all this noodly little guitars. It’s romantic but it’s heavy.”
Jethro Tull – M.U.: The Best of Jethro Tull (1976)
“Aqualung was great, but my friend’s parents had the Greatest Hits playing in their car every single day. The creativity, choices, the changing styles, mixing stuff up. And then there is an amazing live performance video from Madison Square Garden that is absolutely mint. It’s perfect. Maybe that’s the one. It’s visually incredible—they’re really on it. I love that stuff. I was watching a live clip of them in the ‘80s and they’re playing a lot faster—maybe influenced by a few chemicals or something. But there is an era of Jethro Tull that was just perfect. It was like people from the English forest like fairies somehow making rock.”
Joe Sumner will be playing on September 11 at The City Winery, 25 Eleventh Ave. (at 15th St.), NYC. For more information, visit www.citywinery.com or call 646-751-6033.