Much is made of Sampha's solemnity. The South London electronic producer and singer's voice carries a somber weight that has lent emotive richness to collaborations with the likes of Drake, Kanye West and Frank Ocean. His lyrics too are earnest and introspective. They make people cry.
In conversation Sampha speaks with a thoughtfulness shaped by a painful few years, a period marked by loss and ill health. He is also good-humoured, with a laugh that cracks deep and distinct from his chest. Lately he's had more time to himself. He will release his debut album Process via Young Turks this Friday.
It's a Tuesday afternoon and I sit among a small crowd in a gloomy bar while the sun waits to set outside. Heavy damask curtains soak up the sound as his fingers wander up and down the keys. "No one knows me like the piano in my mother's home," he sings in the candlelight. This declaration might be alienating if it didn't fill the room so beautifully, ringing in our ears.
Earlier that day we met on a nearby rooftop to talk Process, Solange and broccoli.
You've described Process as reflecting your "growing pains." Do you feel some kind of catharsis, now that the album is finished and you're on the cusp of presenting it to the world?
I reckon I'll feel the full brunt of it when it's released. It feels like catharsis may come, you never know. It's kind of like the clichéd line, "It's not the destination, it's the journey". I need to get it out there so I can move on and make new music. There'll be an element of catharsis, hopefully. For everyone's sake, haha.
Do you enjoy touring and promoting your music?
Do I enjoy it? It's not painful. I kind of just go with the flow of it. I'm sometimes very bad at knowing where I am, from a bird's eye view. Maybe that's something I need to learn a bit more about.
What is Sampha's in-flight ritual?
Make sure my laptop is in the pouch, make sure my passport is zipped up and safe, get my headphones and charger out. I'm usually an aisle seat person. I feel like I've gone cold. I don't have a romantic relationship with the window seat anymore. Maybe I'll go back to it, 'cause I was jealous of certain views on the way here.
Speaking of the window seat, there's an astronomical scope to your album opener "Plastic 100°C." You repeat the refrain "It's so hot I've been melting out here" while voices converse around you. Are those astronauts you're sampling?
It's from the moon landing, so it's Neil Armstrong. But it's the long take, so it's not as well known.
It's a deep cut.
Yeah. It's just a metaphor for me crumbling under the pressure of life and going back to my coping mechanisms, whatever they may be. It's a metaphor for when it all gets a bit too much. Nothing too complex.
What makes you laugh?
Lots of things… people's facial expressions–some people are just funny, like Dave Chappelle. I've got quite a simple sense of humour and I can be quite immature. Sometimes I find things funny when I shouldn't be smiling, haha.
I saw you made a video for Genius, annotating the lyrics for "Blood on Me." How did it feel to dissect your own work, especially when it's so personal? Was it uncomfortable?
It was a little bit. When I watch myself back, I can see my face is all tense.
I mean, it was fascinating. I was just thinking, "Wow, they really put him on the spot."
I was put on the spot. It was one of those moments. It was cool, but I realised I don't want to just explain the songs to people.
Have you ever submitted an annotation to Genius?
No. Maybe a little further down the line after people have made up their own minds about it. A lot of the time people's minds reach for things that I hadn't thought of and I find that quite interesting.
In the comments section for your music video "Blood on Me," YouTube user @MBhelter51 wrote "This song is so nice but I don't know whether to get in my feelings or get hype." What do you say to that person?
Haha! See, that kind of made me laugh. It's a weird song, cause it's quite dark and yet… I was working with a bunch of people in LA and we took a minibus to see Kanye and someone started playing "Blood on Me." And I was like, "Okay, sonically this fits in…" but then I was listening to the lyrics thinking "Fucking hell!" It really hit home, these people just yelling the lyrics like "BLOOD ON ME! HEY!" Sometimes when I'm writing music I don't always see the slightly psychotic elements of it, haha.
Do you ever get tired of your or your music being characterised as serious and introspective?
It would be nice if people picked up on the sunnier aspects of what I do, in terms of my production. Sometimes I get tired of myself. I do revert to these things. I'd like to challenge myself and be more open. I find it very hard to feel just happy. It always comes with other things.
All at once.
It's like when you're meant to call someone and you know you need to speak about some other stuff with them. Like, I need to speak to this guy but I know I owe him something else and so I don't wanna talk to him yet.
How has your music making changed since 2013's EP Dual ?
It's become really terrible. I've become a worse songwriter.
Yeah, I noticed a downward slope.
Haha. I watched a Tyler the Creator interview where he said he's just "trying to make the shittest album ever." It's difficult for me to say that if I've progressed, but I feel I've become more direct in my production and my vocal aesthetic is more clear and dry. Lyrically things are still quite veiled and not too literal. There's still an element of "What the fuck are you talking about?" I think I've matured a little bit. That can be a good or bad thing. I might become more boring, to be honest. Not as adventurous as I used to be, but a little more calm. I think that my chaos is more calculated than it was before.
You do look quite serene and meditative on the album cover.
Yeah. It's very much an internal thing. The album isn't a social commentary or political commentary. It could be viewed in that way, but it's very much just me dissecting the experiences I was going through emotionally.
Speaking of politics, earlier this year you were featured on Solange's "Don't Touch My Hair"—a track with clear political resonance. Do you ever feel a desire to be explicitly political?
I think so. I think it takes quite a lot of bravery. We're all aware of the serious ramifications that starting a dialogue can have. It comes with negative and positive consequences. Even talking about the title of my album Process made me realise that sometimes I need to talk about my thoughts or what I'm going through more often. I used to think that I would sound pretentious, because I don't always fully understand. But it's important to talk things through and ask yourself questions. That's the kind of thing I should have been doing with Brexit, for instance. At those points, I think it's really important to talk about what you think even though you might not fully understand.
It's been well documented that Solange wrote parts of A Seat at the Table as long as eight years ago. How long have you been working on the tracks or themes of Process?
I wrote one song before I started recording or thinking about the album as a whole, which was mid-2014. I haven't got songs on there that I've been working on since I was fourteen, haha. Process is very much a documentation of the last three years. In my iTunes, I've got whole eras of me that no one knows about, 'cause I haven't released that much music. Sometimes there are melodies that have been in my head since I was a teenager.
You grew up in Morden as the youngest of five brothers. What did that house sound like?
I was exposed to a huge variety of music. My brothers would have been listening to D&B and garage in their bedroom with their mates. My dad would listen to African music and Pavarotti, and mum would play Celine Dion and Shania Twain. One of my brothers used to listen to James Brown and Brian Eno. There was a lot of soul music.
Yes, we had a Minnie Ripperton anthology.
What's your favourite Minnie song?
"Les Fleurs." That's the song that hit me.
Did you have a nickname as a kid?
They used to call me Short Fat Man.
Short Fat Man?
It was my uncle's joke. I was about ten and I just kept increasing in size, haha. And then other people call me Sam or Samph.
What was the last record you bought?
You can't say Process.
I haven't pre-ordered it yet. Maybe I should pre-order… I think it was Bon Iver's most recent album.
Did you have a favourite track on Anti?
I quite like "James Joint." And there's one called "Woo?"
Yeah. "Woo!" That's probably my favourite tune on the album.
Do you think there's a link between moving from collaborations to more solo work and the development of your confidence or identity as an artist?
In terms of confidence it mostly relates to having other people realise that I have a whole musical mind, not just a voice. It used to get on my nerves. I'd be around people and they'd leave me out of the conversation when it came to production. Then I'd play them some tracks and they'd ask, "Who produced this?" or "Who's playing piano on this?"
There's an element of natural, human frustration, the desire to be credited. I'm less like that now. I used to care a lot about people know who the author is. Naturally, I'm me and so I'm bad at not being me. Some people are really good at satisfying briefs and then others just do themselves.
What was it like working with Frank Ocean?
He's an interesting character. He's relatively quiet–an inwardly confident, thoughtful guy. He's him, though. Most people are individuals. I say, most people. Some people are like everyone else. He's definitely in his world and it was a cool experience. I was blown away by the first version of Endless I heard, just the inventiveness of it. It came out a bit different from how I initially heard it. It reminded me of Todd Rundgren's The Wizard, a True Star, the way it flows.
I first heard Indecision on Soundcloud when I was still in high school. I was dealing with my first breakup and would listen to it over and over. What's your go-to break-up song?
I haven't really broken up, haha.
Good for you.
I have a song that soothes me when things get too much. It's "Someday We'll All Be Free" by Donny Hathaway. That song's really powerful.
I was just listening to "A Song for You" on the way here.
Oh! His voice has so much conviction; it's so powerful. That song really helps. It can change my disposition drastically.
You've said that in recording parts of this album, you did push-ups inside the studio to have the desired vocal effect. What's your opinion on exercise?
I think it can teach you really great things. It reminds you that life is painful and that you have to confront that on a regular basis. There's an element of being out of your comfort zone. I can be quite good at it when I've got a structured plan, but when it comes to doing it just for my own benefit... haha. Knowing your own body is extremely important and liberating.
Perhaps to counter that, what would be your last meal?
I love so many types of food. Probably the finest assortment of Japanese food, just because of the wide-ranging textures.
That's not too anti-exercise. That's a healthy answer.
It's not the worst, no. If I am being healthy I've got a very particular diet. I'll eat a lot of greens like broccoli and gelatinous vegetables, to clear out my liver. Parsley for the chlorophyll…lots of water and lime… things to aid my digestion. I've got an issue with that, because I kind of use food like a drug. Like, "I need to be feeling better today, so I'm gonna eat some broccoli". Someone told me that nutrition-wise, food is like heart surgery in the 17th century. So much of it hasn't been figured out.
How do you feel about 2016?
There's a lot that happened. It was turbulent. A lot of seeds were been planted that we're going to see the effect of in 2017, when it comes to things like Brexit or Donald Trump. But yeah, it's been a good year, haha. For me anyway. I've had a lot of challenges to face and I think I've done a lot of growing.
Process is out this Friday via Young Turks.