“I am a perfectionist, but sort of not at the same time…There was a point where I did think I wouldn’t be playing live shows… I didn’t know when I was actually going to release an album, and technically, I still haven’t! It’s still yet to come”. Sampha is gearing up for release of the ‘Process’ and we’re at his label home in London, Young Turks an imprint of XL Records. It’s a pretty frosty early January afternoon and Sampha isn’t letting any heat out; he’s rocking two jackets, “not for any reason to be honest, it’s just really cold”. A self-confessed sort-of perfectionist, almost introvert and undeniably talented musician, Sampha’s debut album ‘Process’ has been a long time in the making.
Sampha is almost the best kept secret in music. While he doesn’t consider himself famous, he has worked with the likes of Kanye West, Solange, SBTRKT, Drake and Jessie Ware, yet his modesty and humbleness is almost enviable: “Life grounds me to be honest! That’s what grounds me. It’s like life says, ‘yeah you’re feeling like this let me throw this in your way’! Life literally grounds me, it constantly tests”. Having lost his Mother during the making of ‘Process’ and his Father in 1998, his music is marked with his own personal experiences of loss and grief, but that’s not to say ‘Process’ is a miserable album, in fact, it’s far from that.
As we wait in the reception of XL Records , across the walls, album covers of the likes of The xx, Frank Ocean and Adele glare down on us. Sampha sits down in front of his own album artwork, blissfully unaware. “I didn’t realise it was a mirror image, I always wondered how they made your hair exactly the same on each side”, his publicist notes. And to be honest, neither did I. “Yeah” Sampha adds, “it looks more perfect that way”. In person, Sampha is everything I expected. He’s down to earth, grounded and softly spoken, speaking every word with pauses and thought: “there’s importance in just talking things out and expressing yourself in different ways. I’m quite introspective, I try to figure things out in my head before I let them out”.
After connecting with SBTRKT on MySpace, back when Sampha went by the moniker, Kid Nova, he was just putting beats online with no vocal material as such. Both based in South London, Sampha and SBTRKT worked together, producing music, and it was during these long jam sessions Sampha would sing, “we would make beats together naturally and we would jam, I would sing with him and we would do really long jam sessions, he would arrange them and then these songs formed”. After lending his voice to nearly every track of SBTRKT’s 2011 self-titled debut album, Sampha then joined him on tour and quickly became known as the vocalist on SBTRKT’s project, some often speculating he was part of the musical project SBTRKT, the brainchild of Aaron Jerome. “I guess more people heard of me as a vocalist, but none of it was my intention” Sampha adds, “it wasn’t my plan to start doing that or feature on a bunch of peoples records. It was never at the front of my mind to be Sampha the artist sort of thing… even though I’d been around for a while, that wasn’t my intention”.
Two years after featuring with SBTRKT, Sampha released his six track EP ‘Dual’ in 2013. A lot of the songs from ‘Dual’ were made after Sampha returned home from gigs with SBTRKT. One of the most standout songs from that is ‘Can’t Get Close’, an emotive ballad, dedicated to his father who Sampha lost to cancer when he was just nine years old. The song is layered with Sampha’s lyrics, vocal inflections and is tinged in longing and mourning, yet ends in closure. “You know I wrote that in my bed, with a microphone and I just recorded harmonies and just sang the song over it “. Sampha adds after reciting some of the lyrics, “that’s it. That’s how I love making music. A lot of ‘Dual’ was like that, literally just made in the bedroom, me and the mic in bed… it was just a microphone, midi-keyboard… both on my bed and in my bed… That’s why some of the words are indecipherable, because it was like a long riff of me just saying whatever.”
Since ‘Dual’, myself, like most Sampha fans have eagerly awaited more material from the South Londoner. Yet, Sampha has been on his own journey of making music slowly, although he’s not released anything else since ‘Dual’, he’s not really escaped the attention of music fans, “I’ve just been constantly chipping away making music… I’ve got to this point now where I’ve got my first album. It hasn’t been so long me making the album, that’s been like two years… I’m now in a comfortable space and ready to release an album”.
Process was just this all encompassing thing that fitted into where I was and what I was thinking about, the album is a snapshot of these two year
What’s most interesting about the album’s title, is that Sampha used a word that he believes is ‘over used’, but is simply the most fitting: “I like how short it is… I know it’s weird, but I like the fact it is one word. There’s always an element of phonetics and aesthetics that go into a lot of things I do weirdly… But it was mostly that it spoke to me about how I felt I was processing stuff, letting things out and creating a dialogue with myself and being able to step back and look at things I’ve done or feel and view them objectively… Like making music or just talking to people, doing interviews like this now… Answering questions I don’t really understand or know the answer to.”
‘Process’ is an incredibly intimate album, at times you feel as if you’ve been let in on the most secluded studio session, his voice darting between soulful melancholy and honey laced joy. We’re given short snapshots into moments of Sampha’s experiences and life. Yet, grief is an unavoidable theme throughout the album: “At the time I was also going through this process of like grief… And seeing how that… not exactly shaped the album, but that’s where I was at. So alongside that, I was just thinking a lot about different processes… growth, life, death, nature and process was just this all encompassing thing that fitted into where I was and what I was thinking about, the album is a snapshot of these two years, what I was thinking about and going through”.
Music now often loses the art or the beauty in the process of making it. Singers, rappers, or producers sometimes put out things on a whim, quickly, without labouring over it. For listeners this can be refreshing, yes, we always want more, more and more music – are artists and listeners sometimes expecting musicians to skip the process? Sometimes external forces can be pressuring artists to release music, it’s all too often we’ve taken to Twitter and in 140 characters announced our disgust at our favourite artist not releasing their album when they said they would. “Yeah, I think if someone is being rushed by other people… sometimes it can be beneficial, sometimes people need a push, but there’s times when it’s not cool. But to be able to write something and put it out the same day is liberating, there’s a beauty to that, but then there’s also a beauty in taking your time with it and really developing it. Especially in the idea of an album, the way albums are perceived and viewed”.
For Sampha, the whole notion of releasing an album comes loaded with responsibility and almost anxiety: “I wanted to feel comfortable putting this out, once it’s out it’s out… There’s a lot that I imagine will come along with it, I wanted to feel comfortable knowing I could handle that. There’s a lot of artists I like who spend a long time on records, there’s a beauty to really spending time on something and figuring it out… In terms of the thought and the appreciation that goes into the music being made… But then there’s a lot of music that’s made quickly and put out and also works well too”.
Sampha’s obsession with perfection is a desired survival tool. For us listeners, it’s clearly his propellant to making good music. With a heavy sigh and laugh he remarks, “I’m never 100% happy. I think that’s the fuel, that’s the fuel, but you never reach though. But it’s also very human as well. Like you never reach the capital T or the total end… It’s almost cliche, but it is about the journey, as soon as you get to one stop, there’s another stop in the distance. But I feel proud about this album, I’m proud I’ve finished it, and I’m putting it out and I put my heart in it… I am happy with it, but it’s not necessarily the album I’ve been dreaming of or the music I imagined in my head”.
I got inspired by Kanye to sample
One of the first tracks unveiled to the public from ‘Process’ was ‘Timmy’s Prayer’. The track contains one of the only samples on the project and one of the only writing credits; Kanye West. The two previously collaborated on Kanye’s TLOP on the late addition track, ’Saint Pablo’. For Sampha ’Timmy’s Prayer’ is a slow burning soulful track, blending lamenting melodies and his standout electronic undertones. Sampling isn’t a normal trait associated with Sampha: “I rarely sample others material, I usually sample myself or I sample music I made, just because it’s there and I like that kind of collage or music, creating something and recontextualising it… Or trying to find something new in something you made, maybe by inverting it…I got inspired by Kanye to sample”. Sampling Timmy Thomas’ track ‘The Coldest Days Of My Life’, ‘Timmy’s Prayer’ began life a few years ago in a studio with Ye: “I started making it, and he [Kanye] came into the room… we was listening to the loop and just freestyling on it and I recorded some of it on my phone. I left it and didn’t really return to it until like a year later, when I opened the project again and listening back there was some words Kanye said that I thought was sick.. But I just made something out of what he was saying and built from there and built around it.”
Then there’s the piano led ballad, ‘(No One No One Knows Me) Like The Piano’, but don’t get it twisted, it’s anything but John Legend-y. Originally called ‘Mother’s Home’, Sampha opted for the longer title, “it was just a creative thing, I’m an over thinker… At first I wanted to use a really long title… Then I thought no… So it was a lot of changing”. Dedicated to his Mother, the video is so simple yet captivating. Starring model and activist Adwoa Aboah, who fades away throughout the video, like grains of sand, the video is bittersweet; it encapsulates grief, loss and memory, yet it is painfully sad.
The piano is Sampha’s choice of musical armory. Having had piano lessons from the age of 11-14 in school, it was one of his teachers who picked up on his natural skill for sound and movement: “I had these weird movement and sound lessons, I had a teacher who picked up on that I enjoyed dancing or drums, and she was also a piano teacher. She taught me for a couple of years, and then in secondary school.” The piano isn’t just Sampha’s choice of instrument; it’s also a reoccurring theme in his music, both lyrically and sonically: “Learning [piano] at a young age, sort of rewired how my brain works, how I understand melodies how I listen to music and just in terms of me and how I express myself. The piano is just a beautiful instrument, it was invented a long time ago, and the sound it gives off, the weight of it… it’s just very special. The keyboard as well, the tonality of it… all these things are recontextulised, but that thing is just there and even if it moves on to a synthesizer, it’s just a beautiful thing, it’s a beautiful invention”.
I have this picture in my head, of a film, where I haven’t told anyone what the plot of the script is, but I’m like in a dessert with a gun to my head, it’s really hot, and I get a phone call..
A lot of the writing for ‘Process’ was made on the piano. Sampha explains to me how he would spend hour’s free styling or playing lengthy piano improvisations while he was in the studio. Working closely with the Rodaidh McDonald, who would help Sampha with arrangements, but “without imposing his own sound…He just helped me make the picture clearer, and gave me confidence in my voice”. But ‘Process’ isn’t a piano-heavy album, there are plenty of other instruments on it too. The third track, ’Kora Sings’ is another personal standout track. Filled with flirting drum patterns and unsettling synth, ‘Kora Sings’ is simply beautiful; yet it conveys confusion perfectly. Packed with a variety of instruments, Sampha explains that Kora is an African instrument, “sort of like a Luti guitar”. In this track Sampha assumes a character: “That song [Kora Sings] is about me parking my issues aside and helping someone else. As in caring for my Mum. I have this picture in my head, of a film, where I haven’t told anyone what the plot of script is, but I’m like in a dessert with a gun to my head, it’s really hot, and I get a phone call, and need to set my worries aside and go and care for my Mum, and try and be positive…Like telling her to stay strong”.
However, lyrically Sampha might not be the most positive of artists. ‘Plastic 100’ refers to a very real chapter in Sampha’s life where he found a lump in his throat, on the track he sings: “Oh, sleeping with my worries, yeah, I didn’t really know what that lump was, my luck”. Sampha lays his vulnerabilities bare throughout ‘Process’ and invites us to join him as he navigates his way through what he’s felt. On bringing out positivity Sampha explains: “lyrically I find it hard, I seem to tend to gravitate towards things that aren’t necessarily seen as positive. The feeling in my music, though, is actually quite positive and happy, like Kora Sings’, has a lot of energy and positive sonics. There is a positive message in there for me anyway, you don’t know how strong you are sort of thing…”
Something else that will stand out when you listen to ‘Process’ is a lot of the songs end suddenly and unexpectedly. A track like ‘Under’, which is loaded and packed with a huge amount of sound, ends as soon as you start to get into it. Sampha laughs to himself as he remarks: “It was for the drama, and also there’s records that do that, there’s epic Beatles records that do that, and then just cut off”. It’s on these more energetic, frantic beats on ‘Process’ that Sampha harks back to the sounds he was making while working with SBTRKT, oozing those visually cinematic soundscapes. Yet at the same time as there’s all this massive instrumentation, there’s an element of minimalism to it. “I’ve grown to appreciate the minimal in music” Sampha explains, sipping on a now cold tea, we’ve been talking for a solid forty minutes. “A lot of my music was frantic back in the day. Maybe it’s a product of growing up and wanting things to be simpler, or just appreciating the beauty of one thing, instead of trying to embellish something, just seeing the beauty in the root of something… At the same time, I can make music that’s over flowing with stuff, like ‘Plastic 100°C’. That’s how I make music, sometimes I sit at the computer and make loads of layered stuff, or I go to the piano and make something simple”.
She’s pretty similar to me, I think she felt she wanted to really feel the music she was playing and she had a lot of things to say, and put out.
While Sampha was adding the finishing touches to ‘Process’ he also worked with Solange on her equally brilliant album ‘A Seat At The Table’. After briefly being introduced to Solange at SXSW in 2012, it was about four years later, when Sampha was asked to go and work with her on her album, “At first I felt she didn’t quite know what I did, she was in her own process of making music”, Sampha explains how the pair instantly hit it off, later going back to New Orleans and then to Ghana to finish the album with her. “I felt honoured to be part of it to be honest… She’s pretty similar to me, I think she felt she wanted to really feel the music she was playing and she had a lot of things to say, and put out. She’s a visionary. So involved in every aspect, the visuals, the production – she’s a very strong producer. There’s some songs I didn’t understand where she was going when I first heard, like ‘Scales’, I felt the harmonies were off… But now I’m like wow, she’s very mature in her outlook… That was really cool”.
One thing that came to me during my time speaking to Sampha was the idea that the process of ‘Process’ has been a little self-indulgent. But, after never releasing an album or his own long-play body of work, could you blame him? “There is an element of self-indulgence and ego… Even though that does have negative connotations, but there is that element. Like a huge part sometimes, but it’s [only] to a degree… But at the deepest level, there’s an element of honesty and being aware of it and not getting too lost in it. That creates these things though, that creates the beautiful music or artwork, it’s deep introspection. I really love music that’s been written by someone who has a strong vision.” In Sampha’s video to ‘Blood On Me’, towards the end of the video, he is seen impaled, paralysed by the branches of a tree after his vehicle crashes into it. “Sometimes music can be self-indulgent and I can get lost in that, not in an extroverted way, but in an introverted way, maybe become too introverted. I think it’s important to have the ability to just do things, and not overthink. That’s what ‘Blood On Me’ is about, you build up on something so much it paralyses you”.
As our time drew to a close, I began to think about Sampha’s narrative in music so far. As a self-confessed ‘in ya feels’ listener, I’ve thrived off Sampha’s musical tales of loss, longing and grief, but is it time to change the narrative? Again, pausing before he speaks Sampha explains, “In a weird way, it’s not a purposeful narrative; it’s not a calculated one. Sometimes it can be seen like that…I want to make sure I’m putting stuff out for wanting to express something, rather than me wanting to build on what people think of me”. Sampha comments that as a challenge he’d like to change how he writes: “But there’s also psychological barriers there too, it’s how I perceive myself… I’m very aware of things, like the tone, colour, saturation, the vibe and the content.. The mood, I’m very much a mood creator in my music, I like to create moods out of words… Yeah, I get lost sometimes! I got lost again!”
As the release of ‘Process’ awaits, Sampha’s got a hectic schedule of appearances ahead with his forthcoming Process tour and a film by Kahlil Joseph in March. Based on his schedule alone, Sampha’s pretty much going to be in the public eye. But what does music’s best kept secret think about fame? “I also have this feeling that I’m not going to be famous… I’m not famous, and that grounds me… I ground myself! That’s not my focus, it’s not like I’m just constantly bringing myself down”. Sampha’s greatest tool, aside from his voice, production skills and songwriting abilities is the ability to resonate. He’s the everyman; he grieves, he laughs, he creates and thinks, and although his music has shown a certain side to Sampha, it’s clear that’s he’s far from one-dimensional.
Sampha’s debut album ‘Process’, is out now on Young Turks.