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If Sudan Archives were an animal, she would (obviously) be a unicorn. The Los Angeles-based musician-producer, with an impressive output, makes beat-tripping R&B that draws from Sudanese fiddlers. She is to the violin as Lizzo is to the flute. Which is to say: sparkly, clever, and enviably visionary.
Pitchfork said of her latest album, Natural Brown Prom Queen, “She’s a one-woman band who…transmits a frenzied energy that is as emotionally soothing as it is physically crushing.” Her pull is so undeniable that Barack Obama included her dreamy, rhythmic track “Home Maker” in his coveted annual playlist for 2022.
So, it only makes sense that Sudan, who came to LA by way of Cincinnati, would find inspiration in a fellow force of nature, specifically her Terrier-mix rescue, Junko. Sudan adopted Junko with her boyfriend, the talented-in-his-own-right rapper James McCall, a.k.a. Nocando and All City Jimmy, in 2020. Well, technically he surprised her with a puppy. Since then, they’ve forged their own version of domestic bliss that involves extra-long canine cuddles and hilly hikes. (More recently, McCall was single-parenting Junko, while Sudan spent a good chunk of time on the road.)
We recently spoke to Sudan — between European tour dates — about how Junko has become the great equalizer in her life.
I read that you recorded your album Natural Brown Prom Queen in your home studio. Was Junko with you?
My home studio is in the basement. It’s separate from the house. So, I’ll just leave and go into the little home studio. She seems to know I’m not gone. She doesn’t really have a very [intense] attachment style, which I love. If I’m recording, she won’t cry. James is there, and she’s also OK being alone. I think even if we were both gone, she would only cry for a little while, and then she’ll just kind of get over it — and maybe go take a nap.
Are there any songs that you’ve written about Junko?
Oh, well, there’s a song where I mentioned her, but it wasn’t really inspired by her. It’s “Milk Me.” I mentioned her because it was a story about my boyfriend and how he was going through a lot during the pandemic. It was kinda, like, mentioning how Junko makes him smile.
Your title track, “NBPQ (Topless),” really hits hard: “Sometimes I think that if I was light-skinned / Then I would get into all the parties.” But the way you frame the lyrics, that song is kind of joyful.
Yeah, because it was kind of confident. I’m empowering myself that this is just the way it is, but I don’t care. I’m going to do what I want.
When I listen to your album, it feels very American. But you’ve toured a lot in Europe. How do they receive your music?
I honestly think I might be more famous in Europe than America. When I go there, people treat me like Beyoncé or something. Maybe that’s because Europe is ahead [with] music sonically? Maybe Europe is more ahead in embracing new music? The fans are great. They’re really fun and, like, very expressive. Everyone’s just dancing, which I just love. I don’t like when people just stare at me when I perform. I love seeing people have a good time. Every night is like a prom night. It’s me recreating prom because I never went to prom. Kinda like that racism in Ohio? I was just the Black thumb that no one wanted to go to prom with.
What about the lyric, “All she wanna do is watch Sailor Moon / Smoke weed and stare up at the moon.” Was that you on prom night?
Yes. Like, my whole high school experience.
Do you ever play violin for her to see how Junko reacts to it?
Oh, yes, sometimes she’s there when I’m making music. She just looks at me. I was like, “You’re gonna make noise,” but she just watches me. Lets me do my thing.
I guess if she were a Husky, she would attempt to harmonize with your violin.
Oh, my gosh! That’s gonna make me want to get a Husky. That will be cool. I don’t know, though — I don’t know how to react to us having another dog.
It’s also so uplifting — the way you treat the violin less preciously and more viscerally.
I started researching African violinists...when I came across Sudanese musicians. When I saw them, it really inspired me because these are people playing the violin that look like me. And they are playing…it’s kind of wild, with strings coming off. And I was like, “Wow, this is so cool!” I just practiced a lot. My sister was like, “You would just be in your room practicing all the time and sounded so bad, but now look at you!”
Critics loved your first album. What sort of pressure did you feel working on your second one? I was surprised that there’s more of an ease to this one.
During the pandemic, I literally was just calm so much. I think being home created that ease. And then, of course, I’m sure Junko influenced me in some way. It was a very therapeutic process, having a space for me to just express myself. Back then, [with my first album, Athena], I felt pressure for sure. Because it’s, like, your introduction, the first thing people hear.
I think now I’ve grown as an artist and as a person. I’m more focused on just being my authentic self. I’m inspired by life experiences. I experienced a lot after my first album, which kind of helped me create the storytelling to express how those things made me feel: evolving as a person, going through friendship, breakups, learning how to set boundaries.
Speaking of boundaries, raising a dog requires a lot of structure. Junko is still pretty young. What was she like as a puppy?
She was really kind of, like, hyper — when they’re in the beginning phase, trying to be in everything. But she learned super fast what to do and what not to do. I feel like she is so obedient, even though it was hard in the beginning. I’ve seen puppies that are way worse. She’s super affectionate. Like, she loves to cuddle. Junko reminds me of a cat because if I’m sitting on the couch she will just sit her head on my lap. All my friends love her. And she really likes my sister. If [Junko] really loves you, when she sees you, she will bark at you until you pick her up and pet her, and then she’ll just cuddle with you.
Have you taught Junko any tricks?
[When] we first were training her, when we [made] her food, we taught her how to sit until her food’s done. Because she used to cry and kind of, you know, move around watching us. Now she knows what “wait” means — like, sit until we’re done. And she won’t move until we say “eat.”
How do you spoil her?
Oh, my gosh; she’s spoiled in many ways. But she really is very athletic. I don’t know if this counts, but she’s always going on some crazy hike with my boyfriend for, like, hours. They’re probably on a hike right now… And we’ll take her next door to play with her best friend, Charlie. She knows Charlie’s name. So if I said, “You want to play with Charlie?” she’ll start crying like, “Open the door! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
Does Junko ever fill an emotional hole for you sometimes?
Oh, that’s such a cute question. Growing up, I not only didn’t fit in, I also just felt like an outcast. I didn’t really belong to a particular group. The schools we went to were cliquey. Everything was kind of, like, “I’m at the school because I have to be here.” But I didn’t really have that sense of, like, belonging, you know?
My last question for you is possibly a controversial one: Who does Junko like better — you or your boyfriend?
Oh, my God. Don’t ask me that! I don’t know! I’d say she prefers me when she’s home. Because she likes to like cuddle and watch movies and take naps. With James, she’s very adventurous: going on the hikes, outside, being in nature. If I’m with her, I feel like there’s been times where she’ll literally just run off during a hike [and] forget about me. She’s like, “I just want to run and be free!”
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Her serendipitous cat adoption story is just as otherworldly.
Nisha Gopalan has been a writer/editor for The New York Times, New York magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and NYLON magazines. She currently resides in Los Angeles.