Sampha's Sonic Serenity Is All About the Process

Dan Hyman
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

If there’s one major takeaway Sampha says he garnered from creating his album it was learning to embrace the spirit of collaboration.

A few years ago, deep in the throes of creating his debut album, Sampha Sisay would regularly make trips back home to his quiet native South London suburb of Morden. Here, he’d enlist his friends and family members for feedback on the soulful, sensual music he was creating. He’d drive around at all hours of the night with them listening to the rough mixes. And most importantly, he says, in his quietest moments he’d strap on high-fidelity headphones and become supercritical of his creations.

“That’s usually where I find my home in albums I listen to,” the genre-pushing singer-songwriter who performs as Sampha says when calling from a tour stop in Vancouver. “Because as much as I might listen to music in different spaces, I need to listen in my headphones. That’s where I understand things a little bit better. Panning sounds from left to right. Thinking about the space and depths of the mixes. For this album that’s definitely the headspace I was in.”

It’s this sense of serene intimacy that colors “Process,” Sampha’s stunning LP released earlier this year via the London record label Young Turks. The interplay between the 28-year-old’s voice — fragile and evanescent but powerful — and his delicate piano-playing anchors much of the album (see: the elegant “Take Me Inside” and the aptly titled ballad “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”). But along with XL Recordings in-house producer, Rodaidh McDonald, the singer, who cut his teeth in the experimental UK music scene, is able to push the sonic limits like never before. On album highlight “Under,” calling to mind James Blake with its tender hip-hop flavor, the singer makes use of a trap beat to winning effect. The singer, who previously released a pair of EPs, says he was “moving into a new space” creatively.

If there’s one major takeaway Sampha says he garnered from creating his album it was learning to embrace the spirit of collaboration. It’s a surprising and ironic statement coming from a man best known for his work with others. Sampha has either sung on or contributed ideas to tracks by a trove of A-listers including Drake (“Too Much”), Kanye West (“Saint Pablo”), Solange (“Don’t Touch My Hair”) and Frank Ocean (“Alabama”). Additionally, he forged a deep connection with London producer SBTRKT when helping him create his 2011 debut album, and in whose band he toured.

Nonetheless, Sampha says when creating “Process,” he found comfort in embracing the assistance of others like never before: McDonald, as well as other engineers and studio wizards, he notes, were essential in helping him parse through his myriad ideas. “As much as it’s me being the captain of the ship on this record, making this album was realizing that nobody really does anything by themselves. As much as it is about me or my process, it has been learning about other people.”

An ability to connect with others while still finding deep meaning in his art has been a journey for Sampha. Loss inspired much of “Process”: namely the death of the singer’s father from lung cancer in 1998 and of his mother from cancer in September 2015. “You would show me I had something some people call a soul,” he sings on “Like the Piano.” Later, on the jittery “Kora Sings,” Sampha sings, “You’ve been with me since the cradle,” presumably referring to his mother.

And yet despite the seemingly autobiographical nature of his work, Sampha says it’s a bit shortsighted of listeners to place such heavy emphasis on his lyrics. After all, he notes, he spent countless hours crafting the album’s lush sonics. “After all of that, the main thing people latch onto are my lyrics and my voice. My personal life did seep its way quite heavily into the album, he admits, “but it’s weird for me when people talk about lyrics purely and don’t mention anything else.” Not that he doesn’t understand the impulse: “It’s the most recognizable and distinctive thing — and also the most relatable.”

For the soft-spoken singer, who in conversation regularly pauses and doubles back on his declarations, performing the intimate material from “Process” has helped him comprehend a bit more how and why others are connecting to his art. “There is something about being in the same physical proximity to people and seeing people’s reactions,” he says of his live show. “It’s a weird sensation. It feels new. It’s kind of hard to articulate really. I’ve tried to figure it out in my head. Maybe I’m coming a bit closer to what it is I’m feeling.”

What that is is often something of an out-of-body experience. “It’s quite a complex thing,” he says growing quiet for a moment and thinking about finding a home in his personal material on a nightly basis. “When you’re performing, there’s an element of detachment. Even though I’m engaging with the song, I guess sometimes the hardest part is really engaging with the emotion. There’s a lot of things to think about. I guess I’m just growing into it.”

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