When she was 10, Eliot Sumner visited San Francisco with her dad, and the two Brits went to Chinatown, where he bought her a set of nunchucks. Not even her dad, who happens to be Sting, could talk airport security out of confiscating them. She was deeply saddened, and did not return. That changes next week, when Sumner, now a 25-year-old singer-songwriter, performs at Popscene.
Sumner already has an album to her name, which she released in 2010 as I Blame Coco, a childhood nickname. She’s been largely absent in recent years, and when she decided to write again, Sumner realized she didn’t connect with her old songs anymore.
“I couldn’t really recognize that person anymore,” she said last week from Milwaukee, the first stop on her current U.S. tour. “I went away and went into hiding for close to two years and started making music that I put a lot of thought and effort into. I needed a new name, and I decided to use my real name.”
Sumner’s parents (her mom is actress-producer Trudie Styler) gave her a guitar when she was 4 years old. She fell in love with it, decided she’d made a friend for life, and is still convinced that was when she decided music would be her livelihood. She loved playing with her half-brother, Joe, the lead vocalist of Fiction Plane.
But she’s never been interested in following her father’s footsteps. She taught herself to play, and has always worked to make a name for herself; perhaps why she didn’t use her surname at first. But no matter what genre with which she experimented, synthpop, indie . . . as far away from her dad’s ska influences as possible, her smoky, husky voice has remained unmistakably “Sumner,” passable for Sting’s.
At 17, she signed her first record deal, with Island. Initial demos leaned toward ska, which sounded too much like her dad for her liking, and were never released. Instead, she mixed punk and synth influences, and that resulted with I Blame Coco’s The Constant. Looking back, she views most of those songs as immature, and lacking enough of her fingerprint – she went along with producer’s suggestions without getting her say.
In the two years she was away, she listened to darker pop like Nick Cave and tour mate Lykke Li, Krautrock and noise pop, such as San Diego band Crocodiles. With Information, an EP she released in October 2014, she incorporated her newfound influences. The title track, written about a relationship in its last stages, showed Sumner is still interested in darker themes. It’s a taste of her next album, which she finished at the beginning of the year but won’t be released until January.
The new album was produced by Duncan Mills (Crocodiles), as well as guitar contributions from that band’s Charles Rowell.
“I don’t have a particular formula when it comes to songwriting,” she said. “It just kind of slips out. (The album) is more in the first-person. Some songs I empathize with a character or maybe another persona of mine, I guess. But I like writing from both sides, from my life experience and also fictional characters.”
Sumner’s professional music career was almost not to be.
In 2009, Sumner suffered a seizure in a Los Angeles restaurant. As a result she lost her sense of smell, and had the possibility of losing her hearing, she said. It has returned, slightly; just enough for her to notice the bad smells. She remains wary of being alert for gas leaks, which would not be strong enough for her to notice. Six years later, she has learned to live with her condition, and music has provided an extra sense through which she can interact with the world around her.
“Music is my day-to-day life; I don’t know anything else,” she said. “Communicating through music is awesome.”
On An On, Eliot Sumner
September 3, 2015