Known for his heartfelt lyrics and unfeigned sound, Sampha has quickly earned himself a reputation as one of Britain’s most distinctive young vocalists. Talking built-up emotions, spirituality and fear of his own ego, the singer/songwriter reveals all behind the making of his highly anticipated debut album.
Few contemporary musicians can soothe the soul quite like Sampha Sisay. With his soporific, bruised voice and lyrics that cut straight to the core of collective vulnerability, the singer-slash-songwriter-slash-producer has won over listeners worldwide. This month, he finally rewarded the faithful with the release of his debut album some six years after his breakthrough.
Collaborations with Jessie Ware and SBTRKT back in 2011 showed Sampha ticked all the necessary boxes for a future superstar. Independent record label Young Turks (FKA twigs, The xx, Chairlift) soon snapped him up, but since the release of his debut EP Dual back in 2013, we’ve all been waiting with baited breath for a full album. Well, now we can relax. With the release of Process, Sampha presents his heart on his sleeve and takes us all on a soulful, personal journey, using his music as a self-medicating cure to ensure he never forgets to feel.
“I just love making music and playing,” he says. “It makes me feel alive and gives me a strong sense of feeling that I don’t generally have day-to-day, not like anything else really. It’s a special thing, it’s more that I want to create music to feel something and to stimulate myself intellectually, spiritually—it’s all for that.” In line with that sentiment, we can’t help but assume Sampha’s reference to spirituality is the result of being bought up by religious parents—a notion he is quick to disregard: “My parents were religious but not in an overbearing or forceful way.” He goes on to explain: “Music is about me articulating what I think spirituality may mean, it can be a sort of outlet from where you are in your life.”
Talking to Sampha, Glamcult quickly learns that his off-stage persona matches every word he sings; with a softly spoken voice and a calming disposition there’s no doubt of his authenticity—which of course makes his lyrics evermore potent. When we dive in to find out what first inspired him to create music, he racks his memory for a moment before answering: “My earliest memories of consciously listening to music was listening to Michael Jackson. I was also really into grime; I just picked it to be my training ground for production. Then I kept coming across other music and discovered MySpace, which helped me learn about producers such as Kwes and Micachu. It was a natural progression to becoming the artist I am now.”
Growing up as the youngest of five boys meant that Sampha developed a broad knowledge of music, fast. “In a weird way I felt like some sort of archaeologist in my house,” he explains. “I would just find things like my brothers’ and dad’s CDs and vinyls lying around. So yeah, I was bought up on nutritional earth in my house, musically speaking.”
Hailing from London, the 27-year-old artist has already racked up an impressive list of collaborators—including Drake, Solange, Kanye West and Frank Ocean. So what’s it like working with these A-listers? “It’s pushed me to either think about music differently or to pace myself more seriously in terms of me feeling okay with recording a solo record.” He pauses and frankly admits, “I always struggled with the concept of having a big ego, but then I thought, Sometimes ‘ego’ has too many negative connotations. I learnt that it’s okay to follow your own vision.”
Having recorded his debut EP, Dual, in his childhood home in Mordon, Sampha decided it was time to take his music to the studio for the creation of Process. “They are acoustically treated and have cleaner vocal breaks, which is a nice change from making music in my room.” From his music it’s easy enough to tell that Sampha isn’t afraid to sing the truth, but when questioned on the emotions he addresses so sincerely, he sounds a little sceptical. “There’s an element of nature to what I’m doing. As much as I’m being conscious on the production side of things, some thing’s just come out that I wouldn’t normally say.” He pauses and goes on to explain: “More conflicting things that I haven’t really learned to express as such.” Despite not being a concept album, Process encouraged Sampha to delve deep and explore his own mind, he says. “Sometimes I feel like I am creating emotions.”
When quizzed on the self-discovery that went hand-in-hand with the making of Process, Sampha is cautious of selling himself short and reluctantly uses the word ‘cathartic’ to describe his experience. “It might dumb down the amount of effort I put in on an intellectual level, but it did feel like a relief of repressed emotions; I was having to numb myself from feelings just so I could function from day to day.” He’s referring to the tragic loss of his mother—almost two decades after the loss of his father—then goes on to acknowledge that the album actually led to him “realizing how music is a way to channel into a part of human body that otherwise stays locked.”
The making of Sampha’s first album collided with a spiritual affiliation when connecting the dots; he came to the conclusion that music is like spirituality. “It’s like jumping into a pool. It’s that kind of faith that I attribute to spirituality, just connecting and fully committing yourself and letting your body take over.” Still contemplating this binding connection, he sums things up by describing his album as “a sort of documentation of my production and growth, and my ability to really articulate moods.” After all, “you just need to alleviate some of the existential angst—that’s all.”