Drake sent Sampha Sisay a bottle of wine, with the message: ‘Drink this with some real friends when you’ve finished the album.’ The album in question, Sampha’s ‘Process’, has been out since February. Has he cracked it open yet?
“You know what,” he laughs down the end of a phone line from Austin, Texas, “it’s at my mum’s house. I should’ve... I feel like at the end of the year, when I’ve finished touring, I will…”
The bottle has been gathering dust for a reason: Sampha is currently touring the States to share his masterwork with an American audience, along with fellow Young Turks signees The xx. But the 28-year-old’s transatlantic links run much deeper. Born in Morden, South London, to Sierra Leonean parents, Sampha has become the favoured vocalist of some of the US’s biggest stars - Kanye West, Beyoncé, Drake and, more recently, Solange (you can spot Sampha throwing shapes next to Bey’s sister on the ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ video).
The singer-producer admits that he loves being stateside - naming Arizona, Minneapolis, Portland and Dallas as his favourite stops on the trail so far. Album cut ‘Plastic 100°’ samples Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin tentatively preparing to take their first steps on the Moon, and just a few days ago Sampha had been getting museum legs at Houston’s NASA centre with The xx. “It was really cool,” he gushes, “we got to see Mission Control and chat to the people who worked there. I learnt a lot, I kinda got overloaded with information...”
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A tour like the one he’s on could be a daunting prospect for someone to whom the spotlight hasn’t always come naturally: Sampha has often been described as a ‘reluctant’ soloist. “With every performance I become more comfortable with variation,” he says in response to this. “And external changes which could throw you off - in terms of the venue, crowd… Just being able to focus on the fact that we’re performing and channel nervous energy into actually connecting to the music.”
“It’s trying not to be too scared of change,” he continues. “We can always get too stuck in our routine and sometimes you lose a little bit of the X factor, the liveness of it. It becomes a little bit too automated. So yeah, it’s nice to keep adding a little bit of excitement, of change.”
Do American crowds react differently to European ones, particularly in response to Sampha’s music where you’re often torn between getting hype and wanting to cry?
“[Americans] perform a bit more, in the sense that they’re louder, maybe more extroverted than European crowds, who might internalise their reactions a bit more. And then also it feels like they feel their position as performers, how they react. They’re a lot more vocal. But not to say that’s better or anything.”
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It’s fun to be around people who really care about and love music...
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Although he admits that “sometimes you might crave a little bit of solitude or alone time” while touring, he says has a “high pain threshold” for life on the road. His tips are keeping hydrated, Paracetamol, and a humidifier, to counteract how Americans “air condition the shit out of everything”. “I’ve got a great band and crew of people who are really nice, which helps. And it’s not like awkward; it’s fun to be around people who really care about and love music and I can indulge in those conversations.” The main source of his frustration has been not being able to produce while in transit. “It’s hard to be focused on making music, in any sort of depth. It’s not necessarily frustrating until I realise I’ve been penting up all these things and when I get back into the studio it kind of all comes bursting out,” he says, before laughing: “Hopefully…!”
While Sampha’s feature slots on the albums of megastars might have catapulted him to a certain level of fame, his debut album has marked him out as a solo artist capable of carving out his own path. It’s a document that will, Clash would bet serious money on, make a slew of Best Of 2017 lists - thanks in part to how bare Sampha has laid his soul on the record. Touching on the tragic loss of his mother to cancer and struggles with his own anxiety, ‘Process’ inspired emotion in his listeners through its layered, soulful fragility.
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The response to the album - which emerged after a three-year hiatus from his solo work - has been immense. Audience members have approached him at shows to tell him how the album’s emotional poignancy has affected them. “I’ve heard some pretty deep stories about people who’ve been having psychiatric help and going to groups,” he says, “everyone having to play some music and they’ve played ‘No One Knows Me (Like The Piano)’ and that’s helped them get through whatever they’re getting through. Or a woman, who’s a recovering alcoholic, she was saying that the music really helped her.”
“The song articulates something I’ve found hard to articulate,” he ventures. “It’s quite intense for me because I don’t really speak to people like that! It’s my avenue to express particular things which I don’t really to talk about. It’s always a bit overwhelming.”
“I think that’s the main thing for me,” he continues, “when you make something you never really know how anybody else is gonna internalise it or other people are gonna feel. Sometimes you maybe end up underestimating your audience - when in fact they actually might feel something more than I intended, or felt myself!”
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It’s quite intense for me...
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While Sampha’s been peeping the other side of the pond, the visual accompaniment to ‘Process’ has dropped, directed by celebrated filmmaker Kahlil Joseph (responsible for Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’). It’s a movie that takes the album’s personal explorations even deeper. In the film, shot between Sierra Leone and Morden, Sampha plays a tiny Rhodes piano atop a bandstand in his native South London, delineating the cultural heritage of his family.
Intimate shots of Sampha and his brother are interspersed with narration by his grandmother, who’s in her nineties. How did his family feel about being involved in the project? “I’m quite a bit younger than my brothers - they’ve seen me grow up and, yeah, they were really happy to be a part of it,” he explains. “They’re not necessarily the most extroverted or outgoing of people… I kind of asked them on the day! Just called them up like, ‘You in?’ They were really understanding and cool.”
Despite the film being an incredibly intimate exploration into Sampha’s world, he humbly states that “it’s very much Kahlil’s vision”, adding: “I like to give people their freedom - I know how it feels being sometimes too tied down to another person’s vision, so I really embraced that collaboration, letting him take the driver’s seat.”
Soon Sampha will be boarding a flight home (after a quick stop off at Primavera) to get back in his driver’s seat, behind the piano. Oh, and he can finally pop that cork on Drake’s bottle of wine.
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Sampha's debut album 'Process' is out now.
Words: Felicity Martin
Photography: Hans Neumann
Fashion: Savannah White