'I'm Different, But I'm From Here': Sudan Archives Reaches The End Of Her Beginning
"I'm not gonna be that artist that's gonna put out the same body of work until I die, because that's probably gonna be the reason I die — 'cause that sounds boring."
Brittney Parks, the 25-year-old artist who records as Sudan Archives, speaks the way her music sounds — meandering passages that flutter and unravel, threading darkness and humor, creating novel avenues to fundamental truths. The truth she's landed on here — that a lack of change might literally kill her — is evident in her work, which never sits still.
The throughline in the Cincinnati-raised L.A. transplant's music is the violin, but listening through her catalog — two EPs and her debut album Athena, just released — it would be remiss to reduce it all to that one instrument. Those first two EPs, Sudan Archives from 2017 and Sink the year after, were splintered emulsions of filtered strings, gurgly synth bass and programmed drums, drawing from R&B, L.A. beat music and West African fiddle music. Athena, by contrast, is glossy and refined; the songs are longer, the grooves run deeper. Themes of family, rebelliousness and heartbreak frame and shape the album, giving it thematic cohesion and helping to establish a singular voice.
But before the violin loops, DIY beats and oddball melodies, Sudan Archives was nearly a pop star. Recognizing her and her twin sister's talents, Sudan's stepfather — a music industry big-shot who had helped launch LaFace Records (once home to TLC, OutKast and Goodie Mob) — tried to groom the pair into N2, envisioned as the teenage pop duo of the future. He outfitted them with a bevy of producers and shopped them around the industry, having them perform for LaFace co-founder Babyface at one point.
Sudan hated it. She hated the music, she hated the industry politics. Most of all, she hated ceding control of the creative process to people she didn't know. So she'd ditch rehearsals regularly to smoke weed, go to electronic shows, experiment with her own craft, and, well, be a teenager.
She was kicked out of the house at 19 and so moved to L.A., where Sudan began to refine her sound — initially making beats on an iPad, later on an MPC sampler — while studying ethnomusicology at Pasadena City College. Thanks to her studies, she dug deeper into the West African and Sudanese fiddling that had piqued her interest as a teenager. And thanks to being in L.A., specifically at the city's legendary venue Low End Theory one fateful night, she got her music to label executives at Stones Throw Records, who quickly took interest and put out her first two EPs.
Last week, she released her debut album, Athena, which feels like the statement of identity that those EPs hinted at. It's bigger, more ambitious, and for Sudan, perhaps tinged with a little déjà vu. For the first time since her alienating N2 days, she chose not to ride solo, working with a team of producers — her friends, as well as industry names like Danny Brown collaborator Paul White. Yet Sudan seems ready to expand outward again. An artist who once scoffed at the thought of going pop is turning into a budding star. But this time, she's doing it her own way.
Mano Sundaresan: Was it weird going from working by yourself to working with so many big names?
Sudan Archives: Yeah, it was weird. A lot of my friends are on the album too — they're just not big names. But it was just as hard as working with them [as] people like Paul White, because I didn't know how to work in the studio with anybody, period. Working with people in the studio and having to say, "Oh this what I wanna make today," that was really hard for me because I just didn't know where to start. But I figured out my own technique when I realized that I'm a producer, so I have to come to the studio with four weeks on a song and production and my loops and that's how you create with me. And if you come with an instrumental, then we're gonna have to take it apart and dissect it and basically delete some stems, because I need to feel like there's space so I can add violin and add my part.
Was that happening a lot when you were recording this?
Yeah those two things would happen a lot, yeah.
Your older stuff sounds like fragments, ideas compared to these songs.
They were just like freestyles. I kinda consider those EPs haikus and now they're full stories. The EPs were just haikus of my potential and now the album is a narrative. It's actually the biography of life from 19 to now.
I know part of that biography includes a rebellious phase, fighting against your stepfather.
When I was 19 to 20, those were the times that was going on. So it talks about that. And then it probably just ends at this time now where everything is kind of fleshed out and stuff. I talk about that, I talk about my family a lot. Even in "Confessions" I'm talking about my family. "Did You Know," that's actually an older song. There's an original version out there somewhere on SoundCloud. It was one of the first songs I made with my twin sister. That was the starting point of the album, the song that I made with my twin sister, in the place where I was at years ago. I made that song probably when I was 16, but I revamped and thought that it would be a good idea to start the album like that.
And the reason why there's a lot of pop-style songs on the album is almost to make fun. For example "Down On Me" sounds really pop — it sounds like a Disney song, almost, but the subject matter is very evil. It's a twist on pop music in this Disney fairytale. Pop music sounds like fairytale world to me, and this world that I'm in with this relationship is definitely not a fantasy, it's kind of f***** up. I'm using an aesthetic and format and structure of song to tell an emotion.
"Limitless" is like that too. I feel like "Limitless" is the second-most-pop song, but it's almost like, "You're stuck in this little fantasy, girl! You need to leave this guy." And that's why the song sounds so pop, because I feel like she is living in a world that is too polished. And she won't leave this man because she's just obsessed with his money. That's why there's pop styles in there. It's purposely done to tell a story.
Were you anti-pop growing up?
Yeah. It was also coming from a naïve place — but not really, though, because I would get told, "Don't you wanna be like Justin Bieber?" ... And I remember saying, "No, I don't wanna be like that, I just wanna make my own s***." Like, I don't know what to talk about. And then there'd be times where I would try to be involved in the production and they found beats and [my stepfather] would be like, "You don't need to worry about that! You need to focus on what matters. You don't need to worry about that. Other people can do that for you." So I feel like there was a way that he thought that things should be done, and obviously I was trying to do something else. So we were always clashing. So I wasn't really anti-pop, but I just felt like I was being the pop asset being dangled, and I had to choose. So I was like, "Well, no." If that means I can't be involved in this, this and this, then no I don't wanna be like that.
But that's not realistic. There's a lot of pop artists that are totally in control of everything, like the production, everything. But the way I said that, he was like, he had a rare — he passed away — he had a rare bone cancer so he was being a little pushy, a little frantic, because he didn't have a lot of time. So I'm sure there's a lot of factors that tie into that, and pop music isn't a bad thing. It means, actually, electronic music, and that's what I make. ... But when he was comparing me to certain types of acts, especially that didn't even look like me, it was definitely like, easy for me to say, "No I don't wanna be like that, 'cause I'm me. I don't even look like that person."
Did your sister feel the same way about this?
No, I think she wanted to just take care of him and his whole theory of what we could be. And in a way, it was maybe making him feel better. She didn't [want us] to affect his health, so maybe she was just kind of scared, and wanted to just be there for him. And just kinda like, "Oh, let's just look up to him and see what happens." Another part of her really did believe it though, because we're just different. So she was looking at it in a different way.
What type of health condition was he suffering from?
My mom always said he was suffering from a rare bone cancer. He was losing hair and he had really intense skin and he would always have to go and get some type of surgery, and it would hurt his bones and stuff, his body would always be hurting.
Did you feel guilty at all?
Yeah, because he's big, and then my mom's mad at me and nobody's really understanding. And I'm also doing things like going out at night and smoking weed and stuff — and that's really bad, like, coming home high. If you're doing that, what else are you doing? And then [I'm] just like, "No I just kinda wanna open my mind and go to electronic shows." And I would run into people with drum machines and loop stations at night doing all of these interesting things, and I was coming home to people saying "You gotta do this, this and this." But I'm going to shows and I'd just be like a free-form way of being an artist. And that just appealed more to me. It's kind of the lifestyle and the gear. I always was into computers and stuff. The fact that these people had a computer, had all their electronic gear, just seemed like something I could do better rather than just be the style that my step-dad was talking about.
Do you feel like if you were to have a hit song, that would be weird to you?
Yeah, because that means my mom would be straight. People that make the Billboard, they can always pay their bills on time and even help their mom. So if that means that, then that would be amazing because that's really all that really matters — which is what "Glorious" is about.
Do you feel any déjà vu making "pop-sounding" music on Athena?
It feels totally different; you know when you got your hands in the soil and you're building it yourself, rather than having someone else build it for you?
It just feels totally different. Even when people say, "Oh, it sounds a little more like this," it's hard for me to really tell, because I'm so in it. It's hard for me to look out and look at the bigger picture.
Is there anything you want people to take away from this album?
I think I want them to know that this album is a fusion of my life, like my influences. Like FYI, there's a little bit of pop, there's a little bit of R&B, a little bit of punk, little bit of this and that, because it's like a fusion. And, even though before I didn't want this certain type of sound and this and that, it's necessary because this a biography of my life and I grew up listening to stuff like that. It's a showcase of where I'm from and hopefully people can reciprocate that in their own life and find their own fusion.
What do you want people to know about your identity?
I want people to know what I grew up on. I'm from Cincinnati, Ohio, not a strange alien from Africa. I'm from Cincinnati. And I grew up listening to all types of music. And I'm not just inspired by certain types of African styles, but like, my mind was blown when I made the connection between Irish jiggin' and West African rhythms. It's all the same. Everybody in blues, rock, they all kinda use this pentatonic scale, and it's this uplifting, hypnotic scale. Also a lot of pop music doesn't have pentatonic scales and these kind of obscure scales, which is also why I chose to put some pop influence in the album, because I wanted to mix those two together.
Do you feel like an Angeleno?
I feel like I'm from Cincinnati, Ohio. And that's the whole point. I want people to know, "Oh, she's from there." And that's why the only feature on the album is from a Cincinnati native. I really feel rooted right now, like, I've never felt like that before. Usually I feel like I'm not from here, and Oh I'm different, but I'm different, but I'm from here, and I live here, and this is what I have to offer.
As you keep making music, do you feel like a certain part of you is coming out?
Yeah, I feel like I've touched on every kind of little influence, and the next album I'll probably dial in on one of those influences. But I wanted the first album to be like, "This is everything."
Like a sampler.
Yeah, like a sampler.
Where did you get the ideas for the imagery on here? It's so random to me. Where did you get the idea for "Iceland Moss?"
Everyone says that! This is so weird. I don't really know how to describe it, but I can take you to the day that I made it. Okay so, I was at a park, and I had my iPhone, and I remember I made a guitar riff and a drum riff. I was just recording in the park because I had a vocal idea. I remember just mumbling, almost, but it was a melody. And I played it back and I was like, it sounds like I'm saying "soft moss." And when i figured out the song — I kinda wanted it to be about a sweet breakup — I was like ok, so he thinks I'm soft like moss. And then I remember researching moss and finding out that Iceland moss is the softest moss. It's pretty soft moss. I remember even one of my friends, he was like, "You have a song called 'Iceland Moss?' I'm in Iceland right now." And I was like, "Really? Is the moss really soft?" And he sent me a picture and was like "Yes, it's really soft." So I don't know man, I really don't know how I come up with these ideas.
This interview was edited and condensed.
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