Sampha's New Album Will Destroy You

What makes Drake, Frank Ocean, Kanye West, and Solange seek out British singer-songwriter Sampha when they need to get real?

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Sampha 3

The great flawed voices make you forget about perfection: the strain of D’Angelo’s crinkly falsetto rasping at its limit; the graceful cool of Sade’s cropped range; Nina Simone’s thick-as-molasses melisma. Twenty-seven-year-old British singer-songwriter-producer Sampha, whose first album Process is out Feb. 3 via indie label Young Turks, has one of those voices. His mark, delicate and straining, is unmistakable.

Drake, Kanye West, Frank Ocean, Solange—some of the most significant artists of today— have sought out Sampha (born Sampha Sisay) to intensify their music with his vocals. “I quite like being of service to people,” he explains gently, behind the closed door of a small Midtown Manhattan office on a mild fall evening. He’s nearly inaudible by the time he reaches the end of the sentence—a habit of his. Self-deprecating laughter, frequent pauses, and an elliptical way of speaking, in which he constantly revises himself and lets sentence fragments only hint at what he’s trying to say, are the markers of his conversational style. “I’m an instrument,” he says, “but an instrument with my own processor. They’ll play a note into me and I’ll process it.”

Sampha admits that “process” is a popular, perhaps overused term among people with artistic aspirations. Nevertheless, he finds it useful. Just as he transfigures a request from collaborators such as Drake or Ocean, he finds that he processes difficult emotions and traumas as he records. Created over a period of time marred by the death of his mother, Binty, the album is a melancholy engagement with, as he puts it, “the feeling of memory.”

“I’d go to the studio, make these tracks, and when I’d hear them back I’d think, ‘Oh, I didn’t even know I was feeling that way,’” he says. “I was almost empathizing with myself. It’s really weird when you create something you can relate to outside of yourself.” The resulting album is just as uncanny. Process is a recording to lose yourself in; it will undoubtedly stand as one of 2017’s best.

"There are some things that I haven’t figured out how to express musically. Some things don’t sound right coming from my mouth.”

Sampha’s earliest public recordings are largely instrumental. Sundanza, a 2010 six-track EP of bright beats, is remarkable for what it mostly lacks: that voice. When Sampha does sing on “Rainstars” and “Shades,” he sounds boyish, even slick. The raw texture of his vocals began to emerge on the piano ballad “Indecision,” which he wrote and recorded after Amy Winehouse died in 2011. It eventually wound up on his 2013 critically acclaimed breakthrough EP, Dual.

Some of the songs on Process date back to that year, when Sampha moved into a place of his own in East London. At the time, his mother’s cancer was in remission, and his duty as a caregiver to her had seemingly concluded. However, less than a year later, her cancer had returned, and this time the diagnosis was terminal. He moved back to her home in South London’s Morden neighborhood to be with her until she passed. Sampha’s mother haunts Process, a ghost making the curtains in the many-chambered house of this album tremble.

Binty and her husband, who died from cancer a decade before her, were immigrants from Sierra Leone. These roots figure prominently into Sampha’s relationship with his family, his sense of spirituality, and, by extension, his music. “No one is ever alone in Sierra Leone,” he says. “There’s always family or other people around to be there for the elderly or the sick. The UK mentality is having a job, earning an income, and these other ambitions. The spiritual side of yourself might go a bit out of whack.”

That gnawing feeling that something is unbalanced informs a number of the songs on Process. On “What Shouldn’t I Be?,” he sounds beyond broken, singing, “I should visit my brother/But I haven’t been there in months.”

“A couple years before my mum was diagnosed with cancer, my brother had a serious stroke that left him physically disabled,” he explains. “I cared for him a lot when I was younger, and around the time of making this album. [But] living in East London, there was a period of not visiting [him]. Once something’s out of your physical proximity, it’s really difficult to feel things and emotionally connect. When you’re really into what you’re doing, it’s easy to let things drift away. And things get further and further and further....” He trails off.

Sampha likens the grip of guilt to sleep paralysis—the terror many experience in the liminal zone between wakefulness and sleep, when you’re semiconscious and it feels like bodily movement is impossible. It’s often accompanied by hallucinations of intruders sneaking into the bedroom to prey on the helpless dreamer. “I have experienced it once or twice,” Sampha says. “Your mind wakes up before your body and you have to find the energy to jolt yourself awake. You become paralyzed by this imaginary wall of guilt you’ve built. Sometimes you just need to push yourself, and once you’re there, it’s fine.”

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“Blood on Me,” a single from Process, is an account of a vivid chase, a dream where you need to run but your legs are useless. Sampha punctuates each line of the song with stuttered gasps, as if he can’t catch his breath, no matter how hard he tries:

Gray hoodies [breathe out, in]
They cover their heads [breathe out, in]
I can’t see their faces [breathe out]
an’t see-see-see-see-see [breathe in]

In his day-to-day life, Sampha relies on his girlfriend, Jojo, to shake him out of his waking nightmares. “She’s aware of me getting into bad cycles of activity, or trains of thought, when I start getting a bit into my….” Another habit: He sighs deeply and often while speaking, like he’s bracing himself for what he has to say next. He resumes: “When I start turning into myself a little bit too much.”

In an interview with Pitchfork conducted in 2013, Sampha said that “when the lyrics and the music is so real and raw, it’s not even pleasurable. For me when I’m writing something really personal, I don’t feel good about it.” He says that’s still true, “especially if [the songwriting] is super direct, which I don't do often.”

The most direct song on Process is his mother’s, “No One Knows Me (Like the Piano).” Like Dual’s “Indecision,” his vocals and keyboard playing are central in the mix. Close your eyes and you could mistake the recording for his actual presence: “No one knows me like the piano in my mother’s home/You would show me I had something some people call a soul.” He admits the metaphorical blurring of his mother into his first instrument is obvious, but what could be hackneyed coming from another is devastating here, a song so fragile it’s difficult to listen to.

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Sampha seems most at ease talking about subjects that don’t explicitly involve himself: the usefulness of record labels, the mystifying allure of the album format, the work he has done for others. He readily describes the pleasure of anonymous instrumental work, like the production he did early in his career, or playing keyboard for a friend. “There are songs I’ve played keyboard on and I haven’t been credited. And I’m OK [with that], because I genuinely like making music.” But anonymity is only granted to the silent. “My voice,” he says, sounding a bit self-conscious, “is so obviously identifiable to me.”

For example, Sampha’s name doesn’t appear in the liner notes for Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album, but a little over a minute into “Mine,” his voice floats in on a cloud of digital distortion. If you know him, you recognize him, even though it lasts all of 30 seconds. It came as a surprise to Sampha. “I didn’t know I was going to be on the album,” he says. While in Toronto with Drake in 2013, he worked on the rapper’s loosie “The Motion” and the song that became “Mine.” (He also appeared on Nothing Was the Same standout “Too Much.”)

“‘Mine’ was a song that Drake co-wrote for [Beyoncé], and when I was in Toronto I sang backing vocals on it,” he says. “Drake was super cool. He works one-on-one; he sat down with me and had a little conversation. 40 was there. It was kind of like how I would work with my friends, in the bedroom—that vibe. Drake’s sitting there with his BlackBerry, humming stuff and then, before you know it, he goes into the booth. You’re like, ‘Oh, that’s a song.’”

Sampha found an analog to Drake’s musical confidence when he worked with Ocean years later. In fact, when he met Ocean in New York to assist for a few days with the recording of Endless, the visual album Ocean released a day before dropping Blonde in August, Sampha found the artist to have such a strong vision that it was sometimes difficult to grasp his plan.

“Almost so strong you can’t see what it is to a degree,” Sampha says. “He’s a very quietly confident person. His facial expression doesn’t always give away what’s going on in his mind.”

The meeting evolved out of texts and emails from a connection at Sampha’s label, Young Turks. “He wanted some vocalists to help him glue the project together, and I said, ‘Maybe it would be better to come out and talk to him, see him face-to-face.’ He played it for me, didn’t say too much about it.”

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West, on the other hand, is all conversation. When Sampha joined him in Los Angeles and Italy to work on what became “Saint Pablo,” the most recent song West added to The Life of Pablo (and one of “quite a few things that will probably never see the light of day”), he found the rapper-producer eager to share. “He gives good positive feedback, but was very honest if he wasn’t feeling something as well,” Sampha says. “I think with him, when it comes to creating stuff, he doesn’t have a huge ego. As cognitive as he his, he works off a lot of emotion: how he feels and how something makes him feel. He’d ask my opinions on other bits of music and his music. He listens until he feels something is the best idea.”

Each of Sampha’s collaborators took a different approach to the writing and recording process, but he always played the crucial role of emotional interlocutor. His voice accompanies some of these artists’ most vulnerable, emotionally candid moments—meaning he either brings it out of them, or they go to him knowing that they need his sound to complete their thought.

For instance, on “Alabama,” the first song of original material on Endless, Ocean describes his coming-of-age in a way that mirrors the uncanny feeling Sampha experienced when making Process: "Duplex in New Orleans East/I was writing out everything, things I would tell nobody/Some things I didn't even tell me."

Sampha creates a space to say something that otherwise might not be expressed. It is ironic, then, that the one thing he wishes he could do to better express himself is rap.

“There are some things that I haven’t figured out how to express musically,” he says. “Some things don’t sound right coming from my mouth.”

He pauses to consider his peculiar dilemma, this private imperfection in his otherwise singular vocals. “If I could rap some of my stuff out,” he decides, laughing at himself, “I’d probably feel more comfortable.”

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