A Conversation With Sampha

As the singer prepares to release his debut album, titled "Process," we spoke with him about his own processes.

By Jeff Ihaza Oct 4, 2016

The British singer Sampha has the type of voice that could occupy its own taxonomy. Husky, piercing, and profound all at once, Sampha's vocals make his contributions to songs by the likes of Kanye West, Drake, and most recently, Solange convey a distinct emotional sincerity. In his smattering of singles, EPs and collaborations throughout the years, Sampha—born Sampha Sisay to parents who immigrated to London from Sierra Leone—has defined a thoroughfare in all of his output: a tenderness that pierces through genre to get to something more meaningful. Recently, via Skype, Sampha described his main musical objective as making audiences "feel something." It's a goal that, when aspired to, eliminates distraction in the same way that Sampha's music can swiftly hush a room. At a performance in Brooklyn last month, the singer played impromptu collections of music that effectively used the audience's silent astonishment as an instrument of its own, filling the room with a sort of sonically distilled feeling that proves Sampha is, at the very least, rather diligent about achieving his goals.

We caught up with the singer shortly thereafter to discuss his upcoming album, Process, slated for release in January. In conversation, you wouldn't guess you were talking to the same Sampha who so effortlessly mesmerized a packed room. The singer speaks carefully and gently and is sort of shy. There is, however, no doubt that he's thinking. Sampha answers questions with a delicate earnestness that comes only from an extensive amount of reflection on, well, feeling.

You just performed with Alicia Keys at the Apple Music Festival. How did that come about?

She actually called me to do a duet.  And she said I could join her for a duet as well as sing a song on my own.

On the surface, you two have a lot of similarities—is Alicia Keys an artist you were particularly excited to work with?

Yeah I mean, she's one of those people who's just, you know, a star. She's an artist I have a lot of respect for, not only because she's able to perform the way she does at such a high level, but from a musical sense, you know, her vocals, her songs––she's got so many great songs.

Does it feel different putting on an album versus doing the other types of projects you've worked on over the years?

I mean, I guess I'm yet to put one out. But yeah, I imagine it's going to feel quite different just because it's like, this is fully my project. I've kind of slaved over every aspect of it. Every instrument and every hi-hat, every single second of this bit of music, really, and it's something that I've lived with as well. Which isn't to say it's this perfect piece of work, just that it's my piece of work. I'm really excited for people to hear it, and I think it's going to feel different because it's fully, like, "Me" with the whole thing. That being said, I did have plenty of help making the album, too.

I always like collaborating and just being of service and helping out musically where I can, and I just like creating. But I guess with other people's projects, it's their project at the end of the day. As much as I try not to compromise anything that I'm doing, I try not to be overbearing as well when I'm working with another artist. I kind of see it as like, if I like the artist, then I just sort of try to trust them with what their vision is. I've never worked with anyone who I'm not genuinely a fan of.

Was there ever a point where it felt like this actually finished or did you have to kind of force yourself away from the project and let it live?

Yeah, I mean, I could have just kept going. The album was very long at one point, but I sort of just kept chopping and chopping it down until it became this 40-minute thing that felt just right. Once I felt like it had a good flow there was a point where it started to feel like it's getting closer and that it could be. And there were lots of 'It could be,' 'This could be the version,' 'This could be the version,' until it just got whittled down and I felt like, OK. This is it.

At the same time, I don't know if anything ever feels finished.

In writing this record, were there any moments where you found yourself really digging into a particularly emotional place?

There were moments. I guess sometimes I'm kind of in the moment where I'm sort of coming over things on the spot, and I kind of just let my soul take over my body. There were points where I was getting quite deep into the takes. When you've been playing piano for two hours nonstop and then you just stumble across something you say and something comes out. Those were definitely moments where I thought, 'Oh, yeah, I kind of dug deep.' I never felt exposed necessarily, though. The way I write, I have this element of being both very close and personal, and yet sort of veiled. It’s just my natural way of writing.

I listen to a song like 'Blood on Me' and it seems like the type of song where it's so emotional that you can almost like supplant your own feelings or your own anxieties at the time on it. Is that something that as a songwriter, as a writer, you enjoy? Where you write about a particular subject, but you know that it's going to reach people and hit them in a lot of different ways.

I think so. I do enjoy people's interpretations of what I've written because sometimes it's like, 'Oh wow that's amazing.' That in itself is like, super imaginative, or you know, just the lengths people will go to sometimes to interpret something. Rather than me just telling them. I do tell people what songs are about once they're out, but I really don't want to annotate them super deeply. I kind of enjoy the idea of listening to music and figuring out what they're talking about. Just there being that element of work on my part, on my mind, you know?

What sort of motivation did you have in making the album?

My main thing is that I want make something that people can feel. I want to be felt through the music, just as an artist. There isn't anything I conceived or pre-determined with this record so much as I wanted to get the mix to be, you know, clear. I know I wanted lots of layers. I wanted everything to be audible and just having dense layers and for things to be very spatial. I wanted it to feel imaginative.

What sort of music were you listening to or inspired by making the album?

I always mention Oumou Sangaré, she's a Kamalian singer I've listened to a lot. I also came across Steve Reich in the time that I was making the record and also like Radiohead, Kuwai, Skepta, Kendrick Lamar's record. Owen Pallett, just a lot of different things, really.

What’s it like looking back at the record as you prepare for the release?

There is this huge element of me having created this thing, and then listening back, where it's like being able to look at yourself almost from an objective point of view, which is extremely weird. It's like being in a room with someone, and another person comes in and you suddenly have a completely different perspective. For me listening back, I kind of felt like the things I was going through were expressed, from like, chaos and trying to make sense of the chaos, to coming right back. It's full of these very reflective, solemn, simple moments.

I think it's interesting how you come back to thinking about yourself over the course of the years and how the album is almost this automatic response to your life. Something I've been curious about is, as a black artist, do the subtle ways in which race affects people of color ever find its way into your music?

I guess it's weird just because there's always been so much going on in the world at all times and some things become more visible on a bigger scale. But I think for me, growing up I definitely had these sort of deep, dark moments thinking about my race and the way I'd been treated. Like there are things that are out there and things that I went through that really crushed me. And I think when you grow up, having been through that, I don't know, it's weird. There's a lot of things I don't express in music and a lot of things I would like to express. I think the things I do express all come from the things I'm going through of in my own proximity. So it's there in a way, the racial element, I just think that's what experience does. It kind of seeps into everything you create.