Around 2:30 a.m. one December morning in Antwerp, the British DJ and electronic musician known only as Vaal strode, head down, black baseball cap pulled low over her face, through the crowd of sweaty Belgian kids toward the booth at a club called Ampere.
A good DJ is like a conductor, charismatic in an authoritarian way, able to control the energy of the crowd and use it to power a communal physical and emotional journey (drugs or no drugs). As Vaal took her place behind the wall of speakers, tucked her hair behind her ears, and plugged in her headphones, several hundred backlit faces looked up at her, ready to be told how to feel. For the next two hours, via an unrelenting wall of intricate sound that referenced everything from sticky dub beats to sweet electro melodies, Krautrock to the Ronettes, Vaal brought the room up into a state of jittery joy, down into a brooding, primal kind of melancholy and back again. If, as she built to the final crest of her set, you wandered through the mass of steaming bodies, you would have seen a series of young couples who just couldn’t take it anymore, pushing each other up against walls and ecstatically making out.
“She’s like an alpha, she takes control of the crowd,” says Matteo Milleri, one of Vaal’s closest friends and the founder of Life and Death Records, an enigmatic Italian music collective where Vaal got her start. When he first saw her perform, Milleri found it unusual that someone with such a sophisticated sound and such authority onstage could have come completely out of nowhere. He even wondered if Vaal wasn’t one of his peers from the dance world performing under a pseudonym. And as she gave one last round of hugs to her fans at the club in Antwerp, it did seem strange that someone just becoming known at age 25 could be so at ease with the whole routine of fame.
Vaal has kept her true identity a closely guarded secret for the past three years, as she made a name for herself on the European dance club circuit. She went so far as to demand that Life and Death remove her photos from their website. “I really needed to do something where the music could speak entirely for itself,” she says. Part of it was that she didn’t want her DJ name tainted by association with her previous identity: a sugary dance-pop princess marketed to the Urban Outfitters girl. Signed when she was just 17, Vaal, who was then known as Coco (a family nickname) put out a highly manufactured album with her then-band I Blame Coco.
By the time she was 21, Coco was already part of the music industry’s ingénue graveyard. “You get told you have to make something popular and as soon as you’ve done that you can go and do your own thing,” Vaal says. “But I didn’t believe in what I was doing. It wasn’t me.” So, she “systematically sabotaged” her own career. She stopped touring. Stopped working with her then managers. Stopped drinking. Stopped going out altogether. She moved, by herself, to a cottage in the Lake District, where she focused on tangible tasks, like learning to make stock from a whole chicken. She also got curious about genres of music she’d never explored, including house music. Soon, Vaal, the mysterious electro artist, was born.
For the past three years, while fans and industry insiders alike have wondered what happened to I Blame Coco’s lanky, cat-eyed frontwoman, Vaal — whose look is less art school pinup and more androgynous bad girl/boy (think Leo circa Basketball Diaries) — has been supporting herself by touring Europe’s premiere clubs, all while keeping her past under wraps. But today, the secret is out. Vaal is Coco, and Coco, who is back with a new album and an American tour, is now working under yet another name — her real, legal birth name: Eliot Sumner.
Yes, that Sumner: Her father is Sting, frontman of the Police and a solo superstar, winner of 16 Grammies and seller of more than 100 million albums. Her mother is the British producer and actress Trudie Styler. Sumner is rock royalty. But being born into bohemian privilege is complicated, especially in the UK. “There are a lot of great things about the English music scene, but they have an obsession with taking down their own,” says Andrew Wyatt, a friend and collaborator of Sumner’s who is also the frontman of the band Miike Snow. Or, as one prominent executive at a prestigious British label put it: “I’m not rooting for her, and no one is rooting for her.”
A few days after her gig in Antwerp, Sumner and I meet for lunch at Koya, an udon bar in London’s Soho. I keep calling it ramen, and Sumner keeps politely correcting me. Noodles are serious business in her world; approximately 50 percent of her Instagram is photos of soup. We sit down at the bar, order vegetable tempura and cold noodles with hot broth, and start talking about Curb Your Enthusiasm. With her Nordic cheekbones, lilting accent (her speaking voice is, pleasingly, like Julia Child’s after several whiskeys), and decorous manners, Sumner isn’t someone you’d peg as a fan of Jewish-American neurotic comedy, but she’s fascinated by spectacular displays of awkwardness, and Curb is one of her favorite shows.
In particular, she enjoys making fun of what she calls her own “chronic Englishness.” She tells a story about how she once, in New York, spent two hours staring at the wall while sitting upright in a tub full of Epsom salts — it was supposed to be a sensory-deprivation tank, but she wasn’t sure how to turn out the light. “I didn’t want to be rude, so on the way out I’m like, ‘Thank you so much, that was amazing,’” she remembers. “The guy was like, ‘Your light was on, and I could tell.’” She cracks up. “I’m such a Larry.”
To hear Sumner describe herself as a kid, she was essentially Woody Allen in Annie Hall — a nervous, hypersensitive dreamer, rebellious by accident. She grew up mostly at the Sumner family’s country estate, Lake House, a grand but ramshackle manor not far from Stonehenge. As the most outdoorsy of the six kids in the family (she has an older half-brother and half-sister from Sting’s first marriage, plus three full siblings) and with parents who were often away for work, she spent a lot of time on her own in the woods. “I have very repetitive thoughts,” she says. “It would be like a man with a snake’s head, and I can’t get this image out of my head, or a black suitcase just following me around.” She pauses. “Fuck off, black suitcase.” She also has sleep apnea, which has made her hyperaware of her own breathing, obsessively focused on whether or not her body will naturally take the next breath.
That’s what was keeping her up the night she wrote her first song, at 13. She’d been playing guitar since she was very small, but not particularly well. “I wasn’t very interested in the classical part of learning,” she recalls. “I just wanted to make noise. On my fourth or fifth birthday a guitar was given to me, and I made a new friend. A very loud friend.” In her early teens, Sumner discovered the camaraderie of band life. “With a band I feel stronger,” she says. “It’s not just me and my weird thoughts.” But she never wanted to be a front woman. “I thought lead singers were vain and smug,” she says, smirking at the implication about her father. “And they are.”
Sumner rarely talks specifically about her dad, but she does occasionally like to toy with people's curiosity about her rock-and-roll heritage. The Swedish pop singer Lykke Li, with whom Sumner toured a few years ago, remembers, admiringly, how Sumner would “get pretty lit up after shows and sing ‘Roxanne’ really loud,” referring to the Police's most famous song, “and then start fighting. I would just sit in wonder of how hard she can punch and how much she can drink and how loud she can sing.” Sumner is silent for a beat when I mention that comment. “Yes, that’s true, and I’m going to kill her for telling you that,” she says, half-serious. When asked why that song, she says simply, “Because it’s funny, and I’m quite good at it!”
But this is no punk rebellion, symptomatic of some deep parental loathing. Sumner refers at various points to each of her parents as her “best friend.” She recently, for the first time ever, beat her dad at chess, which thrilled them both. “He was destroyed,” she says. “But I think he was quite proud because he was like, Well, I’ve created something that’s stronger than me intellectually.” She is close with her siblings, too. Her brother Jake, a documentarian, made one of her favorite movies ever (unsurprisingly, it’s about a Jewish Long Islander whose ramen was embraced in Tokyo), and she speaks of sister Mickey, an actress who was in Frances Ha, with a sense of awe. “Her genius knows a wide spectrum,” Sumner says. “Most people are either artistic or academic, but she’s both. I look up to her.”
It’s a story as old as the music business itself: A teenage artist with sky’s-the-limit potential and the deep desire to please signs a multi-album deal with a big label, giddy at the prospect of getting to work in a real studio with real producers and go on a real tour. Managers and publicists and marketing executives come onboard to help the talent locate her most commercial sound and look, all in an effort to connect with a predetermined target fanbase. “That was my dream,” she remembers. “I’m a tribal person, and traveling around the world and being a working musician, that was everything to me.”
So one wonders why, when Sumner was offered her first record deal at 17, she didn’t avail herself of the wide variety of experts on navigating the business of art who were either living in or frequently passing through her own home — most notably her parents. “I probably should have taken more advice, but at the time I was incredibly stubborn,” she recalls. “I’m also just really glad I got there on my own.”
It’s not that anything all that terrible happened. She wasn’t duped by an evil Svengali; her record wasn’t shelved for eternity; she wasn’t forced to collaborate with people she hated. It was more that she was young and trying to do as she was told, and it just wasn’t working. “I would wake up one morning, and I would be a totally different person. It was very confusing for everyone.”
Sumner can’t even look at photos of herself from that time without feeling physically ill. “I want to jump into the picture and shake this human being, and say, ‘What the fuck are you doing?!’” The cover of her first album, as I Blame Coco, is a close-up of her face, and she looks good, in a slick, expertly contoured, fashion-magazine kind of way. But she also looks trapped, and strangely camp. When she released her new album, Information, a collection of slinky, brooding tracks, earlier this year, she posted this on her Facebook page: “I’m so proud to present my new and first album as the person who I am: Eliot Sumner.” “I will never again release a song I don’t like,” she says. “I can only be myself, and if I have to suffer for that, that’s okay, because to pretend to be somebody else — I tried that, it’s terrible.”
After lunch, we wander through Soho, with stops at Sumner’s favorite music store (a Yamaha Dx7 keyboard is her current prized toy) before heading to her dingy boxing gym. Sumner hates being idle and gets antsy when she’s off the road. Boxing is her daily Xanax. Inhaling the stench of decades of stale sweat, she spars for an hour or so with her coach, Jo Moran, wearing long black basketball shorts and her favorite Kenny G T-shirt, surrounded by the inspirational sayings that decorate the gym (“Walls are put up not to keep people out, but to see who has the will to knock them down”). Afterward, as is their ritual, student and coach head to the pub for a couple of pints, and the stories begin. “He put my dad in a headlock” at the family Christmas party one year, Sumner says, raising her pint in Moran’s direction. “And Eliot’s mum put me on my ass the first time I met her,” he recalls. “I said, ‘What’s all that Pilates stuff you’re doing, stretching and all that shit?’ Next thing I know, she’s on top of me on the floor.” Sumner cracks up. “Yeah, don’t fuck with the Truds.”
A few rounds later, Jan Blumentrath, the keyboardist in Sumner’s new band, arrives. He looks, as Sumner has promised, “exactly like Klaus Kinski.” Even more rounds later, we are in an Uber headed to a Lebanese restaurant Sumner knows that serves food into the wee hours, a rarity in London. Over grilled haloumi and salad, Sumner and Blumentrath recall the American tour they did last fall, the band’s first real run through the U.S. “Deep down, it was all of our dreams,” she says. Sumner has a romantic relationship with the States. “Kansas City, Milwaukee,” she muses, exhaling dramatically. “We did a whole tour of La Quinta hotels and also Best Westerns; those were our places. Very comfy beds.” She tells a story about being mistaken for a man and hit on by a giddy waiter at one such motel’s breakfast buffet in suburban Arizona. “It happens quite a lot,” she says with a shrug. Blumentrath nods. “In Germany, some fans came up to me after the show and said, ‘Your singer, he’s great,’” he says. “And I was like, ‘Wait, who?’”
Understandably, Sumner resents being asked about her sexuality and gender. She never formally came out to her parents, not since, as a teenager still living at the house she grew up in, her mom caught her messing around with her girlfriend. “I was like, ‘I’ll be out in a minute!’” Sumner recalls, laughing. “I came downstairs and she said, ‘I know exactly what’s going on,’ and I was like, ‘Please know what’s going on, because I don’t want to have to tell you.’ She left the house, and I broke down in tears. That was a huge deal for me.” They haven’t talked about it since; there was no need. Sumner has been in several relationships and currently lives with her girlfriend, Austrian model Lucie Von Alten. But it keeps coming up in the press. The week before we met in Antwerp, a British tabloid ran a story declaring that Sumner had spoken to them, for the first time ever, about being gay. “My parents called me and literally congratulated me. They thought I’d called News of the World and said, ‘Hey, I want to come out today!’” She shakes her head. “I have friends and they read that and thought that I was revealing something,” she says, disgusted. “I didn’t come out as gay, I came out as I don’t really believe in gender.” And that shouldn’t even be news, she says. “I haven’t been hiding it! I am very open about who I am.” She pauses and smiles. “At least they put in that my girlfriend is a supermodel.”
It’s not just prurient click-bait merchants that are interested in the topic: Sumner’s androgyny and her unique sex appeal come up in almost every conversation I have about her. Wyatt, who says they now talk mostly “about chicks,” remembers exactly what Sumner was wearing the first time they met, six or seven years ago: “Some kind of baseball bomber jacket and yellow shorts, obviously not wearing underwear. I’m like, ‘Who is this hot, very aloof girl, skinny as can be, wearing shorts in the middle of winter in Stockholm?’” Li says it outright: “We all have a crush on her.” The singer fits right into the David Bowie–Patti Smith–Marc Bolan paradigm: rockers who defy traditional gender categorization while radiating sex appeal. “I don’t want to make it into, like, a sexist… or you know, like, about whoever you are in bed with,” Li stammers, “but it’s refreshing to have someone like her in the mix … Women in pop, especially in America, there’s nothing real about them at all. Eliot is very real.”
For a self-described neurotic and paranoid lead singer, Sumner is unusually empathic and graceful about the way her sexuality and her famous family make other people feel and behave. She always takes her baseball hat off and fluffs her long hair up a bit before entering the women’s restroom. (When asked if she’d prefer the pronoun “they” to “she,” she responds nonchalantly, “call me how you call me.”) And she’s nice to the strangers that regularly approach her and claim to be her long-lost siblings. “This guy came up to me in Nashville and he started telling me the story about his mum, and then he goes” — she breaks into a spot-on Tennessee accent — “‘So, you can probably see the resemblance.’” She couldn't, but she let him believe that he’d convinced her. “If that’s what he’s been told, let him believe it. And it could be true, I don’t know,” she laughs. “I was like, ‘Cool! Nice to meet you, bro!’”
Sumner has a promising future as a DJ and singer if she wants it, but it won’t matter unless Information is strong. She says it’s the album that she’s been waiting to make her whole life, though it took longer to finish than she’d hoped, something Sumner affectionately blames Von Alten for. “Being in love is one of the worst feelings I’ve ever experienced,” she says. “It’s really very impractical.”
That tension between ecstasy and anxiety is what animates this collection of, as Sumner puts it, “angry love songs.” Li describes it as “sexy and hard at the same time.” The sound is ’80s synth pop, like the listener needs a raincoat and some heavy eyeliner, but Sumner cites Brian Eno, Phil Spector (“despite him being a psychopath”), and Kraftwerk as her primary influences. She worships Krautrock bands like Kraftwerk and Neu! for their ability to “write amazing songs about not very interesting subjects, like autobahns and models.” She envies their levity, but it’s her sincerity and her directness that make the album compelling. “Hello, are you home?” she sings as the opening line on “Firewood.” “I need to kill some time / The world is ending, and I want to come and say good-bye.”
A few weeks after the Vaal gig, I meet Sumner at her apartment in New York. The London flat she crashes in is her mom’s, so this spot in Brooklyn is the place she really calls home; she owns it. Von Alten is in town for Fashion Week, and she’s sitting on the couch in sweats drinking tea and Instagramming. Sumner opens a bottle of Pinot Grigio and makes a joke about arm wrestling. It’s something she brings up a lot, a desire to take the world by the hand and wrestle it to the ground. Back at the pub in London, in the middle of our conversation about what the Sumner clan is competitive about (Scrabble), she turned to a group of women speaking Russian at the next table and asked, “Are you guys from Russia? I know a little bit of Russian.” They were Latvian, actually, but still impressed when Sumner unleashed a blue streak of Russian curse words, then bought them a round of Jägermeister shots. Then she challenged me to arm-wrestle.
Did the Latvians want to place bets on who would win, she asked? Without hesitation, a ponytailed brunette with long eyelashes pointed to Sumner. “She doesn’t seem like she’s going to give in.”