The London-born producer, singer and songwriter confronts grief and identity issues on breakout debut 'Process'
Sampha wasn't exactly an unknown when he released his debut album, Process, in February. Previously he lent his voice, production and songwriting talents to marquee names like Drake, Beyonce, Kanye West, Solange Knowles, Frank Ocean and others.
But now that Sampha has emerged from the liner notes and made his own artistic statement — and a singular, gorgeously soulful one at that — it feels like a weight has been lifted off his shoulders.
“There's always negative connotations that come with the word ego, but there's an element of feeling like you want to be appreciated for the things you envision,” Sampha said recently by phone from his hotel room in Chicago, where he stopped on his current tour opening for the xx, which arrives at Express Live on Friday, May 5. “It's nice to feel like people are understanding me more as an artist. I feel like I can follow my own compass.”
Born Sampha Sisay in the South London, England suburb of Morden to parents who emigrated from Sierra Leone, Sampha, 28, began tinkering with the piano at age 3 and never stopped. “No one knows me like the piano in my mother's home,” he sings on the starkly beautiful “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano.”
Sampha got into production in his teens, and eventually his talents caught the ear of London producer Kwes. But it took time for Sampha, who's naturally shy, to grow comfortable with his inborn instrument: his voice. He sings with a vulnerability that's delicate but not brittle, smoky around the edges and imbued with a pathos that pairs naturally with his fluid, genre-bending instrumental beds.
“I knew I liked to sing, as opposed to sharing it and what people thought of it,” he said. “That's the thing I have to get used to, because in my head I enjoy singing, but I can definitely hear that it's not all perfect. I just sing because I like to sing. I've learned to appreciate what people are appreciating about my voice a bit more, and be confident in that and not play it down. I've grown to embrace that and also embrace my imperfections.”
While making Process, Sampha also tended to his mother, who was ill with cancer. “I had to look after her, caring for her, taking her to hospital, chemotherapy — those kind of things, every day, for a long time,” he said. “When things of that scale happen, you can't compute how you're feeling in the moment. You just have to swim. … That's what adults do in their daily life, really. You're just kind of coping a lot of the time. You get into the motion of surviving, and you don't assess how all these things are impacting you emotionally, physically, psychologically. And so, people do various things. Some people take ayahuasca (a hallucinogenic brew), but for me, music was that thing to unlock some of the tension.”
His mother died in the fall of 2015, and cancer also took Sampha's father years earlier. “The grieving process was a big part of the reason I called [the album] Process, and also realizing that it's good to get things out of your system in the physical sense — making something like music or art or jotting down your thoughts,” he said. “There's a lot of things I didn't really speak about, and I realized that, you think you're fine until someone asks you a question like, ‘How did you get over this?' Then you realize, ‘I haven't actually got over it.' … I didn't necessarily connect to the gravitas of things that were going on around me. I had to numb those things. The album was a place I let those things bubble to the surface.”
In addition to the album, Sampha also recently made a short film of the same name with Los Angeles director Kahlil Joseph. Filming took place in both England and Sierra Leone, mirroring the dual identities Sampha realized he embodied from a young age. “It was that thing of being in school and being a black kid, and it being made clear to me that I was different. Then, going back to Sierra Leone, you're the English guy,” he said. “You never quite fit.”
Sampha continues to wrestle with questions related to identity (“Where do my responsibilities lie? Why do your responsibilities lie to a particular place where you're from? Where am I from?”), but during filming in Sierra Leone, the country's simple pleasures overpowered those issues.
“Going back, I felt better because I was in the sun,” he said. “The older you get, the more you realize the basic things that are good for you, like the sun and the sea. Africa is a really extravagantly beautiful place. … There's some sort of deep connection between myself and Africa.”