On His Debut Album 'Process', Sampha Proves His Journey is Just Beginning
By letting go of himself completely, the singer, songwriter and producer has connected with something greater.
There's something poetic about living at the end of the line. It's in the enclaves at the end of railway tracks that suburbia is at its most painfully suburban, where lives develop unobserved and childhoods flourish in slow motion. Perhaps that's why it makes sense that Sampha – an artist renowned for his plaintive, thoughtful disposition – grew up at arm's length from London, in the comfort of his mother's home in Morden: Terminus of the London Tube's Northern Line.
These childhood surroundings have left the imprint of time and space on Sampha's music. The piano is his primary instrument; like his voice it has the ability to carry opposites, at once intimate and distant, warm and cold, weighty and graceful. Many of his best compositions are the result of long sessions spent drilling down into particular patterns, tinkering with harmonics and improvising melodies. "No One Knows Me (Like The Piano)", one of the standout singles from his first full length record, Process, is a tribute to that practice, to the house in Morden, his mother's home, and to the piano there which he first played aged three. It's an intimate and heartfelt masterpiece, painting a simple picture of his return to the house, of sitting down on a piano stool surrounded by memories of his late mum, who died in 2015. Listening, it feels a bit like you're keeping him company, or vice versa.
Sampha has a natural ability to create these connections, between sound and place, tone and feeling. His earliest experiences of listening to music are tied to memories of his father Joe Sisay, who died of lung cancer when Sampha was nine years old. Joe introduced Sampha and his older brothers to a new CD every week, including everything from contemporary pop to Pavarotti and Malian singer Oumou Sangaré. As Seirra Leone's Awareness Times put it, "The pervasive emotional honesty in Sampha's solo work is rooted in his upbringing. Visitors to the lively London house where he grew up will remember the late Joe Sisay, Sampha's father, as a great host, conversationalist and music lover. Discussions about everything from music to politics, world affairs to sport, were set against of the backdrop of Mr Sisay's extensive and varied music collection."
These early memories imbued Sampha with a curiosity that would see him go from a child teaching himself jazz chords on the piano and playing around with early music production programs, to a teenager making beats on Cubase and Reason and a young adult making a name for himself as a producer on MySpace alongside artists like Kwes and Elan Tamara. By 2011 he was getting noticed and collaborating with the likes of Jessie Ware, soon began touring with SBTRKT, and by 2013 he was blowing up globally. Drake and 40's decision to use "Too Much" on Nothing Was the Same was the moment his career crossed the Rubicon. A rollercoaster few years followed, including recent guest spots with Kanye, Frank Ocean and Solange. It was set in stone: Sampha was the guy you wanted on your record, even if there was no firm release date for his own debut.
2013's Dual EP was an important moment amid this maelstrom, opening up the pathway to the sound we're now hearing on Process. His first solo release since a glitchy collection of productions from 2010, Dual represented the young artist's first cautious steps towards bearing his soul openly on a record, on his own terms. Yet whilst it was a big development towards a more open form of musical expression, it is an opaque piece, fuzzy and hard to decipher. In an interview with Pitchfork, Sampha said the name of the EP partially refers to anyone presenting themselves as doing OK when in actual fact they're hurting badly inside. But while Dual begins to present similar feelings to those on Process – love, loss, grief, yearning – it does so in a guarded, or at least less forthcoming way.
The closing track of the EP, Can't Get Close, is the clearest parallel with Sampha's new record, a sign of the power he has when he commits to pouring out his emotions. It opens with the words, "Father, I hope you're listening", and sees him struggle with the absence of his dad as swooning backing vocals pull him slowly backwards from the object of his love: "See I… can't get close… to you". It's the same sense of longing with which he has grown more comfortable expressing since, and which he's developed into something spiritual on Process. "You've been with me since the cradle/ You've been with me you're my angel/ Please don't you disappear," he sings frankly on the new record, backed by the the heavenly, harp-like sound of the kora, a West African instrument used by those same musicians his father would play around the house when Sampha was a child.
Sampha's increasingly honest approach to songwriting has developed in tandem with his rapidly developing fame, but his relationship with the limelight remains complicated. When his 2014 Boiler Room set was uploaded to YouTube, commenters argued that a girl dancing next to him had stolen the camera's focus. When the girl appeared in the comments to defend herself she was told by one user that "the camera was constantly focused on you, not Sampha. He was slightly blurred and you were in crisp detail so ppl's eye naturally was drawn to you." In actual fact, the ability to be centre frame yet out of focus, so wrapped up in the music he lets someone else take up the limelight, was pretty typical of Sampha. He wasn't aware his distorted vocal would end up on Beyoncé's "Mine" from her 2013 self-titled album (and without any accompanying credit in the liner notes); he's even stated on record that he's OK with not being credited on other tracks he appeared on early in his career playing keyboard, simply because he enjoyed making the tracks. It's unlikely he'd have cared too much so long as the person dancing next to him was having a good time.
After releasing a record of Process' gravity, complete with a companion film of the same name directed by Kahlil Joseph, it's likely Sampha will leave these self-effacing days behind and take up his rightful position at centre stage. Or at least, we can hope. And yet the album literally ends with the lyric "it's not all about me". Ironically, The record that will finally launch him headfirst into the spotlight is also partially about his desire to avoid it. Listening closely, it's clear this is about more than being shy: it's about letting go of himself completely in order to connect with something greater.
In a way, Process is an out of body experience. As a narrative, it's like something from Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void, a psychedelic film shot from the aerial perspective of a young man experiencing death as a floating ghost. Sampha has read The Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying, a modern take on the 8th-century Tibetan Book of the Dead, read by the central character in Noé's film. The book teaches that death frees awareness from the body, leading the mind to create its own reality complete with flashing visions that can be peaceful and paranoid alike. It sounds a lot like the imagery on Process, in which the narrative takes place somewhere between wakefulness, death and dreaming. "I wake up, and the sky's blood red", he sings on "Blood on Me." "I'm still heavy breathing, felt so much more than dreaming. I get up, they're at the edge of my bed. How did they find me?... Let's get away... I'm on this road now, I'm so alone now, swerving out of control now, and I crash the whip." A similar vision of his own death appears on "Reverse Faults": "I took the break pads out the car and I flew, smashed this window in my heart…" Often, Sampha is envisaged as a kind of ghost, able to watch his loved ones but unable to reach them. "Flying high above all your memories, I have a bird's eye view", he sings on "Incomplete Kisses."
The lyricism goes from the epic to the subtle and back again in a non-linear narrative that leaves your head spinning. In the hands of a lesser songwriter this ambitious project would feel messy and incoherent, but somehow Sampha finds clarity in the chaos. What binds the imagery together is that recurring theme: the sublimation of his own ego to the forces that surround him. He is submerged by waves on "Under", melts beneath the raging sun on "Plastic 100°", recalls the coming of a storm on "Take Me Inside," On "Timmy's Prayer," he is overcome by something as simple as the darkness of his own closed eyes. The album is infused with a sense of the sublime similar to the Romantic paintings of JMW Turner or Carl David Friedrich, in which humans are swallowed up by the overarching power of nature. In Sampha's lyrics, nature saves him from his emotional turmoil; his desire to be overwhelmed by nature stems comes from his urge to escape the frustration of being left alone with himself, unable to reach the loved ones with whom he yearns to reunite. It seems that only by disappearing completely can he escape the prison of his grief.
The album ends with his coming back to earth: "I wake up in my own skin again", he sings as a harp-like synth remembers heaven in the background. It's a sombre but hopeful moment. Process doesn't offer any solutions to the sadness it draws on, but it does offer solace and solidarity. Listening to music is an inherently social act – even if the only connection is between listener and artist – and with his first solo record Sampha has created something in which we can all share. In the process, he's conjured some of the magic of those early memories in Joe Sisay's living room, and at that piano, in the semi-detached house in Morden, at the end of the line. But coincidentally, if this long-awaited debut album is anything to go by, then Sampha's journey is only just beginning.
You can find Francis on Twitter.