‘It was the time for me to write an album, I was emotionally ready’ – ‘Process’, Sampha’s debut soul-pop full-length, is a spellbinding journey through heartache
Sampha Sisay is, by his own admission, a relatively unassuming figure. “On my day-to-day, I don’t necessarily feel the intensity of something,” says the 28-year-old singer-songwriter in a voice so soft it’s almost a whisper. “I’m quite good at repressing things. But when I get to the piano...” Then, Sampha comes alive. He’s become renowned for his unmistakable vocal, an aching falsetto that’s both raw and delicate yet, emotionally, enormous in scope. Frank Ocean, Kanye West, Solange and Drake have all understood the potency of that voice, tapping Sampha to sing on their individual projects, and on his first full-length, Process, he uses it in powerful and devastatingly honest ways. “I can be one of those people that keeps something in until I’ve figured it out, but I’ve realised just how important it is to let things out, to figure it out in the open, to create a dialogue.”
We’re meeting in a cafe not far from today’s shoot, where Sampha was joined on-set by Grace Wales Bonner. Having first met a year ago, the musician and London-based designer have struck up a creative partnership, with Bonner contributing to a photography and poetry zine inspired by Process, and Sampha writing and producing part of the soundtrack to her AW17 menswear show in London. “Hearing his musical take on what I’d shown him made me push things further,” said Bonner of the collaboration, which set the mood for her collection’s mix of meditative spiritualism and emotional urgency. There, Sampha’s music combined with the spoken words of Elysia Crampton (who also walked the show), and each model walked with their hands clapped to their hearts as a lyric rang out repeatedly: “You’re free.” On show day, the soundtrack emitted from speakers lifted from Notting Hill Carnival; today, the buzz of background chatter is almost as noisy. Though Sampha is sat barely a couple of feet in front of me, I often have to ask him to speak up or repeat himself to be heard over the din.
There are two different energies at play in Sampha’s music. On the one hand, he is very outward-looking, a prolific collaborator who has lent his vocal and production talents to some of the most vital artists working in pop, R&B and rap today. On the other, his own music is incredibly introspective, and requires almost total control: Sampha often acts as the singer, songwriter, producer and performer of his songs. “I find it hard if I don’t agree with something, or if something feels wrong,” he says. “I’m not one of those people who could just be like, ‘Ah, I need to make some money – I’m gonna make a pop song.’ I can’t do it. I literally cannot.”
“I can’t necessarily do things ‘nine to five’,” he continues in earnest. “There is an element of ‘you get what you get’ with me. I’ll have to sit on something for ages until (I’m) struck by inspiration. I’ve been in the presence of people who sit down for hours and hours, come up with a fully formed song and are like, ‘Yo, this is good.’ I’m really bad at that, it just doesn’t come to me.”
“I can’t necessarily do things ‘nine to five’. There is an element of ‘you get what you get’ with me. I’ll have to sit on something for ages until (I’m) struck by inspiration.’’ — Sampha Sisay
Process may be Sampha’s debut album, but he’s no newcomer. His name first cropped up at the start of the decade as part of a small, London-based music scene centred around artists like The xx and Jessie Ware, and record labels like Young Turks. At this time, he was best recognised for providing guest vocals on UK garage-inflected tracks by club producer SBTRKT (who Sampha also toured with as a live singer), but it was his 2013 solo EP, Dual, that marked him out as a uniquely gifted talent in his own right. With its delicate, piano-driven compositions, torn vocals, and poetic musings on themes of loss and doubt, the EP was met with universal acclaim. Later that year he featured on two songs Drake, the Canadian superstar recognising his talents not just as a singer but as a producer, too, with Sampha working behind the boards on “The Motion”.
Although expectations mounted on him to release an album, it would be three more years until Sampha finished his debut. In his mind, the cause of the delay was simple: it just wasn’t the right time to be making an album. “I wanted it to be a document of the time and space I was in, rather than an amalgamation of everything in my life up until that point,” he says. “Because, as much as it is my first album, to me it’s more like a document of myself from the ages of 25 to 27. It felt like a fresh start. I was in new spaces and wanted to write songs from scratch.” When the time came to write, the songs came quickly – “as quick as a snap of the finger, really. I felt it was the time for me to write an album. I felt like I was emotionally ready.”
“As much as it is my first album, to me it’s more like a document of myself from the ages of 25 to 27. It felt like a fresh start. I was in new spaces and wanted to write songs from scratch.’’ — Sampha Sisay
In 2010 Sampha’s mother, Binty, was diagnosed with cancer. At the time, Sampha was still living at his family home in Morden, a suburb of south-west London, and he became her primary caregiver until her illness finally went into remission in late 2012. He moved out to east London, and it wasn’t long before his music career was taking off – but just over a year later, her cancer returned, and it was terminal. Sampha went back to Morden until she passed away in 2015. The songs on Process explore the complicated time both before and after her death. Even its title is, in a way, part of coming to terms with it. “I came up with the album title near (the record’s) completion,” Sampha says. “I started to think how it was quite important that I was getting things off my chest, or expressing vulnerabilities, even if they’re not things I fully understand or can articulate. It was me realising just how much of the things I was going through – grief, for instance – how much of that process is captured in the feeling of some songs.”
Sampha has always had a particularly close relationship with his family. He’s the youngest of five brothers, and has a large extended family in Sierra Leone – his parents came to the UK from the country in the 1980s, with his father living in Morden until he died of lung cancer when Sampha was nine years old. “I definitely feel something when I go back (to Morden),” he says. “It always feels like some sort of reset.” Process seems preoccupied with family matters, its uneasy lyrics sounding at once abstract yet vivid, like an anxiety dream. “Family ties, put them round my neck / I’m walking round high / A ghost by my side,” he cries on celestial album closer “What Shouldn’t I Be?” Later in the same track, he sings, “And I should visit my brother / But I haven’t been there in months / I’ve lost connection signal / To how we were.”
Sampha’s family were always supportive of his music. “All my brothers were encouraging me, in one way or another – even if it was just joking, like, ‘One day you’re gonna be our insurance,’” he laughs, “or just showing off to their friends, or using me to play the piano to pull a girl. They gave me an element of confidence which was really important. Even though I’m quite shy and reserved in a lot of ways, there’s a drive I can attribute to the encouragement they exhibited.”
“All my brothers were encouraging me, in one way or another – even if it was just joking, like, ‘One day you’re gonna be our insurance.’” — Sampha Sisay
As he adjusts to a life increasingly on the road, Sampha often worries about the time he’s spending away from everyone he’s so close to. “I do find it hard,” he sighs, “because I enjoy physical proximity. Sometimes, when you’re so wrapped up in what you’re doing, you forget how nice it is to be around family. I get paralysed by guilt as well; I make a big deal out of things.” He pauses, and chuckles. “Then when I get back it’s like, ‘Oh, lovely.’ No one really cares that much.”
Family appears in the album’s most unashamedly sentimental and emotionally devastating moment, “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”. “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home,” Sampha sings over plaintive keys, recorded on the household piano his father brought home when he was three years old. “You would show me I had something some people call a soul.” Sampha wrote the song in Morden when he returned to care for Binty in her final months, but what started as something yearning and nostalgic becomes an emotional gut-punch in light of her death in 2015.
For Sampha, music is like a time capsule, uniquely able to capture these ephemeral moments and crystallise a time of his life emotionally. Often, it’s the fleeting but hyper-specific moments that leave the biggest impression. “I’ll listen back to music and it’ll remind me of a time and space, or particular visuals,” he says. “I might listen to a tune that reminds me of a time I used to go swimming a lot, and I’d come out of the pool and my eyes were bleached or everything went a bit white – these very weird, very particular times.” He especially values the way that music helps him to move on. “I appreciate the fact that I can’t necessarily go back to something. I can let go. There have been times when I might make a song and think (afterwards), ‘I wish I could write a song like that again, with that vibe.’ But, no, it was a document of where I was back then.”
“There have been times when I might make a song and think (afterwards), ‘I wish I could write a song like that again, with that vibe.’ But, no, it was a document of where I was back then.” — Sampha Sisay
Writing about such personal issues always felt natural to Sampha, but it wasn’t always easy to know if he should be sharing those songs with the world. “For a long time, I felt like I didn’t really have any close peers that I could empathise with, until I came across a guy called Kwes.” Sampha discovered the experimental pop musician born Kwesi Sey on MySpace in the 00s, and was drawn to his unconventional approach to sound and songwriting. Though he didn’t realise it at the time, Kwes was a similar age to Sampha, and was also a black man operating outside of easily marketable black archetypes. “I didn’t actually know who he was in terms of his identity or his age, to be honest,” Sampha says. “I was kind of shocked to find out that he was a black man writing these super-sensitive songs. I wasn’t really hearing that so much (at the time), but it was something I’d been doing naturally. That was the turning point, where I felt right embracing that.”
Kwes wasn’t just a musical inspiration: he helped the younger Sampha understand the music industry, too. Years later, both artists would find themselves together again, working with Solange Knowles to record what would become her incredible 2016 album A Seat at the Table.
Sampha connected with Solange in 2013, travelling to Ghana with a group of musicians to lay down initial sketches for the album before recording in New York and New Orleans. In Louisiana, they found themselves working in a converted church and checking out local jazz and Afrobeat bands for inspiration before heading straight back to the studio to record into the night. “There’s a video of the early recordings for the album, and there’s this bit where I’m literally just listening while also half asleep ’cos it was so late. There was a lot of that – working late into the night, zoning in and out – but it was great!” The result of their collaboration was album highlight “Don’t Touch My Hair”, the sort of moody, subliminal R&B you drift away to from the back seat of a mini cab at 3am. Towards the end of last year, Sampha and Solange performed the track together on Saturday Night Live. “That was fun,” Sampha nods. “It’s always weird going to TV stations – they don’t look real. It’s kind of comforting, because you never really feel how big something is. It doesn’t compute in your mind.” The singers took to the SNL stage wearing full gospel white. Sampha, the nervous, sensitive extrovert, the walking contradiction, shoulder-bopped and drop-danced to Solange’s sensuous intonations. “There’s a lot of positivity (when I perform live). A lot of it I can’t necessarily articulate, it just comes to life every time I go on stage. If I’d gone on stage when I was 17...” he trails off. “I can just lock into it. I guess people might call it (earning your) stripes.”
‘‘There’s a lot of positivity (when I perform live). A lot of it I can’t necessarily articulate, it just comes to life every time I go on stage.”— Sampha Sisay
Sampha’s humility is perhaps why he has proven such a trustworthy collaborator: there’s a sense that, even when he’s on one of America’s most iconic late-night shows or working with his idols, he never forgets his roots in a quiet London suburb. Even meeting Kanye West, who Sampha cites as a major influence growing up, was straightforward enough – ’Ye even ended up with a co-writing credit on Process’s “Timmy’s Prayer”. “That’s just something I had to learn – reaching the person inside the myth,” he says. “It’s made me more comfortable with myself, really. I don’t feel like, ‘Ah, I’ve got to be someone different,’ or ‘I’ve got to please this person,’ because a lot of beauty comes out of honesty, and it’s amazing when you meet people who aspire to be really honest.”
In his 2013 song “Demons” – a lo-fi, 55-second sketch recorded at that same piano in his mother’s home – the sound of Binty’s stomping foot is heard in the background, offering the song its slow, rhythmic clomp (according to Sampha, you can also hear a BlackBerry going off, but I’m not sure). “I remember writing that,” he says. “It was when this handyman came over. I was recording the song downstairs in the living room. He came in and my mum was like, ‘Ah, the piano – he’s good, he’s good.’”
Process is out now
Hair Hiroshi Matsushita using Oribe Hair Care, make-up Dele Olo, photographic assistant Dougal MacArthur, styling assistants Ioana Ivan, Kieran Fenney