Sampha Sisay is among the most influential individuals in the UK’s surging electro-soul movement – a singer, songwriter, producer and DJ. His studio talents have been solicited by everyone from Drake and Kanye West to Frank Ocean and Solange. But he’s only now presenting his debut album – and Process is less of a manifesto than a personal narrative.
Recently Sampha made a whirlwind visit to Australia to promote Process, performing intimate industry showcases – a rarity. He chats to Music Feeds from his hotel in Parkville, Melbourne. “It’s nice so far,” he says graciously of his surrounds. “I mean, I haven’t really seen much of it, if I’m honest.” Yet Sampha has actually hit Australia before – touring Laneway as part of SBTRKT’s live vehicle back in 2012.
Until now, Sampha has remained shadowy. He was born to migrant Sierra Leonean parents – the youngest of five lads. He grew up in South London’s leafy Morden. Here, Sisay Snr acquired a neighbour’s piano and, from three, Sampha taught himself to play it. This delighted his mum. Later, discovering London’s urban underground, Sampha cut beats in his bedroom. He enrolled in a production course at uni, but dropped out. Indeed, he had befriended Aaron Jerome, aka SBTRKT. He’s consistently assisted on Jerome’s projects as writer, producer and vocalist – including that acclaimed eponymous debut. Sampha’s first key solo release was a 2010 limited edition beats-oriented EP, Sundanza, on XL Recordings’ Young Turks imprint. However, by 2013’s Dual, he’d developed his own avant ‘n’ B aesthetic.
Sampha – (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano
Today Sampha is known for his myriad collaborations. While on the road with SBTRKT in Toronto, he met Drake – and ended up contributing to Nothing Was The Same (and, through Drizzy’s facilitating, sang on Beyoncé’s ‘Mine’). He has since worked with Kanye West (The Life Of Pablo), Frank Ocean (Endless) and Solange (A Seat At The Table). He even stars in Solange’s exquisite video for ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’.
Sampha speaks quietly – his personality gentle and cerebral. He freely acknowledges that Process has been ages coming. After all, he was shortlisted in the BBC Sound Of 2014 poll (Sam Smith won). “I started making it in the summer of 2014. Prior to that, I only had one song that is on the album now – I wrote ‘Incomplete Kisses’. But, yeah, it was a two-year process.”
During that process, Sampha recorded in professional studios for the first time. Moreover, despite his production prowess, he decided that Rodaidh McDonald, XL’s in-house guy, should co-helm Process – “in the sense of, not stamping his own sonic identity on it, but really just helping me in the direction and arrangement.” (McDonald assumed a similar role on The xx’s I See You.)
For all his success, Sampha has encountered profound sorrow. He was nine when his father succumbed to cancer. His mother was then diagnosed in 2010. Sampha became her carer. Binty Sisay’s condition deteriorated in 2014 and she passed the following year. Process captures that period of bereavement, transition and transcendence in Sampha’s life. The ballad ‘(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano’ is most poignant, being a figurative dedication to his mother – and that cherished childhood piano.
The album’s meta title, too, is psychic rather than theoretical. Hearing Process has been revealing, if not disconcerting, for Sampha. He recognised, amid the “visual metaphors”, his sublimated feelings. “I think the thing I learned about myself really was just how I express myself musically – just having the weird experience of listening back to the album and almost empathising with myself from an objective point of view. I guess, [for] some people, music might be a real kind of mirror or representation of who they are from day-to-day. But, to me, it feels like the album was a real catharsis of emotions that I’d kind of buried or moods that I’d kind of buried – they come up when I am making music… I saw myself outside of myself.”
Sampha – Blood On Me
Process isn’t obviously ‘soul’ or ‘R&B’. Sampha exhibits his affinities with electronic music, the producer attracted to its “experimentation”. Surpassing the singles ‘Timmy’s Prayer’ and ‘Blood On Me’, ‘Reverse Faults’ is a techno banger. As an occasional DJ, Sampha plays “weird electronic tracks”. He laughs, “If you asked me the names of them, I don’t know – [it’s just] ‘I love that track!'” But he also offers traditional instrumentation on ‘Kora Sings’ – a nod to his West African heritage.
Inevitably, Process is informed by Sampha’s exchanges with those pop culture luminaries. He liaised with Yeezy in the epic lead-up to The Life Of Pablo – the hip-hopper belatedly adding their collab ‘Saint Pablo’ digitally. Sampha recalls the Chi-towner as open – and reciprocal. “I felt like he was misunderstood, just because, especially in the realm of celebrity, so much focus is on that aspect of him,” he shares. “Being around him, you really feel the artist and just the fact that he puts himself out there. So many artists are the same: constantly trying to find something – and one minute feeling one way and the next minute changing their minds. It can come across as bipolar or schizophrenic or completely… whatever. He definitely has a very strong aura. I was taken aback by the fact that I can’t figure him out – and seeing glimpses of what makes him him, just like the glimpses of freestyles he did in front of me or his musical choices. I could never quite guess where he’s going.”
Sampha himself doesn’t hold any grand ambitions. He simply wants to continue creating in his own intuitive way – and his own space and time. “I’m very much an artist in the sense of I’m good at expressing, or trying to connect with, whatever emotion I’m feeling. So, to me, my ambition is to expand on that and to really try to get out the harmonies or compositions I hear in my head.”
This May Sampha will return for his premiere Australian headline run – fresh from Coachella. He’s already sold-out two shows at the Sydney Opera House. Nonetheless, even here he’s unassuming. “Just expect some live electronic music from me – and me playing that music with a band as ‘live’ as I can.”
‘Process’ is out Friday 3rd February. Sampha will tour Australian in May.