FACT Rated is our series digging into the sounds and stories of the most vital breaking artists around right now. This week, experimental violinist Sudan Archives tells Claire Lobenfeld about her journey from covering pop songs to signing with Stones Throw.
NAME: Sudan Archives
FROM: Los Angeles-via-Cincinnati
MUST-HEAR: ‘Come Meh Way’, ‘Oatmeal’
FOR FANS OF: ’90s R&B, experimental folk, Fela Kuti
It is rare that a new artist is so innovative that their music genuinely surprises you. Prestige indie label Stones Throw’s newest signee, experimental violinist Sudan Archives, is one of those artists whose natural inklings for sound, texture and melody truly wow. Her self-titled debut EP, out this month, combines R&B, funk and West African fiddling to make some of the most exciting new folk music. Self-taught due attending Ohio middle and high schools without student orchestras or music programs, Sudan has a magnetic grasp of her instrument and uses loop pedals and other electronic hardware to create something truly her own.
In the quiet studio space in Stones Throw’s LA HQ, she explains how her stage name isn’t just a nod to the roots of her sound. “My mom is the one who started calling me Sudan,” she explains. “I never really liked my name, Brittney, I just didn’t think my name was fitting of me.” It fits. Keeping things ordinary isn’t her style. While many artists hone their musical talents in church through singing in the choir, Sudan was encouraged to use her violin. “I taught myself how to play by ear so I could play with the church music,” she says. “They were really supportive and they would pick songs that had violin in it so I could have a solo. They thought I was ministering through music that way.”
She used it to connect with people outside of church, as well, teaching herself to play pop songs to impress her peers. Her big hit was Jamie Foxx’s breakout single ‘Blame It’. “People at school would be like, ‘She can play the Jamie Foxx song! Play it!’,” she says. “That would kind of like win over friends and stuff.” But musical influences were coming from more than just her radio and the church choir. Her mother would play funk, R&B and soul in their house and Sudan notes that not all of her Midwest roots are in Ohio: “Most of my family is from Detroit, so I think that’s where I get my natural funk quality.”
“I always wanted to be wanted to be ‘different’,” she says with jovial self-awareness. “I thought that if I showed that ability, then people would realize I was cool.” The instinct for how to make music work in her favor guided Sudan through the rest of her adolescence. As a teen, Sudan played violin in a pop-rap band with her twin sister before getting “kicked out of the group,” she says, for being “rebellious and sneaking out of the house.”
The group didn’t lack pedigree, helmed by her late stepfather Derrick Ladd, who is credited by L.A. Reid for helping to launch LaFace Records and hone co-founder Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds’ talents. Despite these bonafides, Sudan couldn’t connect to the music. “Our step dad would put us in the studio with producers and I’d be like, ‘Man, I’m trying to make the beat. I don’t want him to make the beat.’ It just sounded so corny to me,” she says. “I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew it wasn’t that.”
She found inspiration scanning YouTube for music from Sudan. “They looked just like me, down to the headwraps, and I really like pentatonic scales. They just riff off of those type of melodies,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can do something in this style. It’s fiddly and folky and mesmerizing.’ And it’s very repetitive. It’s not super technical. They’ll just like play three notes repetitively and just play on top of it and I think that’s just like in my pocket.”
At 19, after saving money for an airline ticket out West from shilling clothes at Forever 21 and flipping burgers at McDonald’s, Sudan took her first-ever plane ride – a ride toward her future. Working jobs as a barista, a waitress and a donut-maker, she was able to buy gear to keep making her own music. “At first I was just using my iPad, music apps like GarageBand and iMPC and BeatMaker 2, but when I moved out to LA, I decided that I wanted to take beat-making more seriously, so I started buying equipment to make music with: the SP-404, an actual computer and a MIDI keyboard.”
The music she produced – including a hypnotic feminized cover of Kendrick Lamar’s bombastic To Pimp a Butterfly track ‘King Kunta’ – is now coming to your speakers. A chance meeting with Leaving Records co-founder Matthewdavid at LA’s well-known Low End Theory found her music in the hands of Stones Throw founder Chris Manak, whose response was, “Whoa, we gotta release this,” Sudan pantomimes.
The unadulterated awe her music inspires isn’t just a testament to her sense of creativity, but to the particularity she applies to whatever kind of music she wants to make. Although she’s honed her self-taught skill set for nearly two decades, she’s now a music student at Pasadena City College where she is finally learning how to read sheet music. It will be a wonder what she comes up with next.
Sudan Archives is out July 14 via Stones Throw.
Claire Lobenfeld is on Twitter