It would be easy to paint Sudan Archives’s story as a classic Hollywood rags-to-riches tale. Her first plane ride was in 2014, from her childhood home in Cincinnati to Los Angeles, where she now lives. (“I got drunk!” she laughs, recalling how nervous she was.) Her day jobs included making coffee in downtown’s Fashion District and vegan doughnuts in Highland Park, a northern neighborhood where both her first apartment and Stones Throw, the label where she’d eventually sign, were located. She was briefly scouted as a model, although she admits she found posing “kind of boring.” Even her nickname Sudan, selected by her mother when she was a teenager — the musician says she hated her birth name — smacks of cinematic foreshadowing.
“My parents had twins, and they named my sister Catherine, but they couldn’t think of the name for me, so they named me after the nurse,” says the 24-year-old, formerly known as Brittany Parks, calling from a tour stop in Italy. “[My name change] felt preordained, because I just found out that there’s a lot of really interesting violinists from Sudan. That basically changed the whole style of my music. I believe in fate.”
As she says that, almost on cue, a music photographer walks by, recognizes her, and asks if he can take her photos, she tells me over the phone. She politely takes down his information in a way that suggests calling him for a few quick snaps isn’t entirely out of the question. Maybe it isn’t so much that Sudan Archives is a very lucky woman but rather that she’s more open to opportunity than the rest of us.
But it took a while for her to get to this point. On the gently strummed single “Wake Up,” she might have touted, “I got too much to swag / That's why I ain't got no friends / I'm too confident,” but for Sudan Archives that wasn’t always the case. She had the guts to audition for the orchestra while studying at Pasadena City College. Despite not knowing how to read music (“I just figured I could play something,” she recalls), she nailed it. But her higher-education goal was to become an engineer for other people’s music. While she enjoyed making her own songs as a personal, Sudan Archives never saw herself as a front woman — so much so that she once hunted for a vocalist so she wouldn’t have to sing live. Because of that, she describes her first show after moving to Los Angeles as terrifying.
“I played for my friend’s birthday party,” Sudan Archives says. “I was just playing the violin and my beats. I wasn’t even really into performing. I was shy and would hide behind the [laptop] table.”
If there’s a cinematic equivalent for what came next, it would be a montage. Booking gigs demanded that Sudan Archives became a self-contained act, and repetition meant that she actually began to feel comfortable strutting across the stage, strumming, tapping, and bowing her violin, using looping pedals to create real-time beats. Having already left behind her first attempts at rock (“It was kind of corny and cheesy,” she confesses) for beat-driven ballads, she drove deeper into the world of West African fiddling, studying artists like Juldeh Camara, Asim Gorashi, and Ali Farka Touré on YouTube. Without trying, the untrained violinist discovered that she already shared her heroes’ technical style.
“For some reason, I have a habit of bowing crookedly,” she says. “They say that’s why my violin is scratchy sounding, because I’m not making smooth movement.”
Her 2017 self-titled EP made use of that natural style, particularly on lead single “Come Meh Way,” which features a combination of bowing, hip-hop beats, and Sudan Archives’s assured chanting. She describes the track, recorded in her first LA home, which she shared with an artist she met on Instagram, as a creative turning point.
“That’s the first song I made where I just liked what was going on,” Sudan Archives says. “Typically, I would make music and not show anyone, sometimes throw it away.”
Sudan Archives’s recently released sophomore EP, Sink (a name that references the film Get Out), introduces more electronic elements into her work. On the breezy single “Nont for Sale,” she sings, “This my light, don't block the sun / This is my seat, can't you tell / This my time, don't waste it up / This is my land, not for sale,” and her free-flowing blend of R&B, hip-hop, and pop hooks demonstrates just how fully she’s inhabiting the confident persona — the artist who used to hide behind tables while performing long gone. Western Africa is still a large influence across all six tracks. Sudan Archives praises her trip to Ghana for exposing her to their musical language (“You have to have a melodic tone; you can’t just be mono and speak it”) and simple day-to-day joy. A traditional violin she brought back from a recent visit even made its way onto Sink’s icy title track.
“It’s made out of a gourd,” she says. “Lizard skin is nailed to the gourd. The string isn’t metal, it’s horsehair, and the bow is horsehair. So it sounds more like an old whisper; I made the octave down eight pitches so it sounds more like a baseline than a violin.”
Thanks to a dense slate of tour dates, Sudan Archives’s life has changed significantly in the past few years. (“I’m not serving fashion designers coffee,” she jokes. “Now I’m wearing their clothes!”) But she’s found her path. There’s a full-length album in the works, even though she can’t reveal when it’ll be finished; she teases that the album will be full of more genre-gobbling tracks, beats, and bows, and maybe even have a few upbeat anthems.
“I want it to be really dancy,” she says. “I want to make one song with Auto-Tune on my voice because I want to be a trap star. I just want to be a trap star!”
That last statement is delivered with a laugh, but Archives is serious about her ambition. From violinist to trap star? Why not? As she’s already learned, anything is possible before the final credits.
Laura Studarus’s Patronus is a platypus. Follow her on Twitter: @Laura_Studarus.