Northern Transmissions chats with UK singer/songwriter Sumner (aka Kristina Sarkisova). Her new single “Shadow Park” comes out this May.
NT: You studied music business at NYU. When did you change your mind and decide you wanted to sing? How hard was it for you to quit school and go for it?
KS: Well, I actually started out studying Psychology (I have a BSc from Goldsmiths College here in London), then moved to New York when I was 20 to do a masters degree in Music Business, which was inspired by the fact that music has always been my true love. I had also spent some time writing for an online music magazine, and interning at FatCat Records in Brighton between my second and third year of university. I loved it there, so it felt like the right direction to take at the time. It was halfway through my first year of the MA that I began to have doubts. I was going through a rough time as it was very difficult to be so far away from everything and everyone I knew, in this brilliant but extremely intense city, starting completely from scratch again. I was also going through a breakup, and living completely by myself for the first time, in a tiny studio apartment with no flatmates, which made it even more lonely. In the midst of all this, and perhaps as a coping mechanism for it, I began to write song after song. I’ve always written (poems mostly, but also short stories and the occasional song), but I had never written anything I actually felt I wanted the world to hear; anything I was proud of. In that tiny apartment in New York, whilst losing my mind a little bit, I wrote ‘Salt Air’ at four in the morning. And I couldn’t stop writing after that. I guess that that’s when I realised that my studying music business was as much of a cop-out as my studying psychology had been. Back then I wasn’t ready to give what I loved most a go, because it was too scary! I didn’t think I was capable of making myself so vulnerable in that way. But at that point, in the winter of 2011, it felt like I would explode if I didn’t keep writing and singing. I just had to do it. So, from that point of view, it was a very simple decision to make. Explaining that decision to family and friends, and quitting my studies, and leaving New York, and all the logistics that that entailed, however…that’s a whole other story. That wasn’t easy. Uprooting my life and returning to London to do this thing that I had no concept of, and no previous experience with, that was very, very hard. But oh-so worth it.
NT:How did you feel after finally playing your first show?
KS: Playing my first show was both terrifying and exhilarating. Again, I had never even sung in front of more than a handful of people before in my entire life. And all of a sudden I was rehearsing, organising, setting up, promoting and putting on my own solo show. It was surreal. It helped that it was in a (sort of) safe environment, as it was in the cellar of the wine bar where I was waitressing at the time, and many of my close friends were there… Which didn’t make it any less scary! But it was also magical. It was wonderful to share these songs, which are so close to my heart, with so many friends, and to see people connect with them on a very basic emotional level… It was very moving, and it’s always going to be a very special memory.
NT: How is the recording of upcoming album coming along? Can we expect a bit of a departure from The Last Word EP?
KS: The album is coming along nicely, I’m very excited about it. It will definitely be quite a big departure from The Last Word though, yes. For one thing, The Last Word was a solo EP, that I recorded in a tiny room, one-on-one with a producer (the lovely Dan King of Kickstart Studios). It was quite intimate and lo-fi. This album (which you can hear a taster of in the single I released last month, Shadow Park) is mostly recorded with a band: Ross Palmer on drums, Mario Sposito on bass, and Julian Keenaghan on guitar. The writing process has been much more organic as a result, and it sounds much more like a real band playing together in a room. In terms of the songs, I retain the eerie, mysterious feel that all the reviews seem to allude to, but there’s a few more energetic tracks, where I let the guys rock out a bit more… Haha. There will also be some very minimalistic, intimate solo numbers. I’d like to think that the songwriting and lyrics are more evolved as well, of course… But that will be for the critics/fans to decide, not me!
NT: You’ve lived in many places, including Russia, England, Spain, and the U.S. How has this influenced your writing?
KS: I’m not sure, actually. My family left Russia to move to Spain when I was only three years old, and I left Valencia for London at seventeen. I guess the biggest impact that had on me is that it always made me feel like a foreigner, even at home. If someone asks where I’m from I say Spain, but growing up in a Russian household, I was never gonna be 100% Spanish. However, I’m not Russian. I know very little about the culture and my Russian is terrible! I’ve lived in the UK for more than five years and love it here, but I don’t feel like I ‘belong’ here either. Growing up with American TV shows and music, that’s definitely influenced me (Joss Whedon is basically entirely responsible for my sense of humour), but that doesn’t make me American, does it? It’s a tricky one. I guess I feel like I’m from nowhere sometimes, so if you feel any sense of isolation in my music, that could be why!
NT: Can we expect to you out for some live shows soon?
KS: Not at the moment, I’m afraid. This album is my complete focus right now, and I’ve also been writing a vast amount of new material, and experimenting with a different kind of sound for future projects. In addition to that, I’m going away to California to do a teacher’s training course in yoga in a months time. Once I’m back, sometime in the late summer, I’d love to play some shows if my band was up for it, absolutely.
NT:Which five albums are influencing you these days?
KS: Only five? That’s tough! Just in terms of what I’ve been listening to on a loop lately: St Vincent’s self-titled album is a likely contender for my favourite album of the year already. That one would be very hard to top. And it’s actually the quieter tracks on her albums that are the ones that get to me. I’ve also been listening to the new Angel Olsen record. I had the chance to catch her when she came to London recently and thought she was a total showstopper. Incredible voice. What else…I’ve been revisiting the Pixies’ Doolittle recently for some reason (such a good album), and I’m really enjoying Bryan Ferry’s The Jazz Age. The version of ‘Reason or Rhyme’ that’s on there just makes me crumble! I like some of those instrumentals much better than the originals, to be honest. Last but not least, the latest Throwing Muses album Purgatory / Paradise would have to be on there. It’s strange to me that it hasn’t gotten much press, but I think it’s a stunning record. The fact that it came out with an accompanying book is simply genius. I’ve also just read Kristin Hersh’s book Paradoxical Undressing and found it such a beautiful, moving snapshot of an artist’s beginnings. She’s definitely an inspiration.