Exclusive: Sampha Talks Stepping Out on His Own with 'Process'

Exclusive: Sampha Talks Stepping Out on His Own with 'Process'

Made famous by his collaborations with Solange, Kanye West, and more, the London-based musician sits down with V to discuss his debut solo album, out today.

Made famous by his collaborations with Solange, Kanye West, and more, the London-based musician sits down with V to discuss his debut solo album, out today.

Text: AMIRA RASOOL

Sampha is a master collaborator. Thus far in his young career, the 27-year-old singer, songwriter, and producer’s collaborative prowess has manifested in the form of several widely-successful albums, none of which were his own (A Seat at the Table, The Life of Pablo, Wonder Where We Land). As a solo artist, Sampha’s discography was limited to just two EPs: Sundanza (2011) and Dual (2013).

The London-based musician has lent his soulful vocals to popular singles for Drake, SBTRKT, and Kanye West. However, amidst the hustle and bustle of a busy mid-town hotel lounging area in late August, sat a casual man who’s vocal attributes were only apparent in the low volume of his speech. Sampha was conducting promo for his debut solo album Process, and for the first time, was properly introducing himself as a solo recording artist.

Since then he has performed his first string of live shows, helped write and produce arguably the year’s most powerful black girl anthem alongside Solange Knowles, and filmed a highly anticipated short film to accompany the album. Despite his bashful personality, the makings of a star have not escaped him. The individual limelight Sampha once deviated from has taken form, and it's his musical offering that has given it its shape.

Process is a reflection of two years of Sampha’s life during which he admits to having experienced a significant amount of turbulence. The sounds of loneliness, fear, and anxiety were apparent in the lyrics and tone of his voice, which filled the hollow spaces that were calculated around electronic improvisation. Within the same 10 tracks, the soothing vibration of hope and encouragement permeate through songs like “Incomplete Kisses” where he sings: "Don’t let your heart hide your story, don’t let your mind hide your story." This is an example of the many empathetic cures Sampha’s known for delivering in understated metaphors.

The highs and lows of his experiences are displayed in various tempos adding rhythmic percussions to a tale that would otherwise appear tragic. Piano-laden melodies “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” and “Kora Sings,” are odes to his family life. At times, the album calls for dance and in certain moments reflection, two entities that somehow coexist in Sampha’s world. In the spirit of collaboration, Sampha’s willingness to leave his makeshift bedroom recording studio and enter into a professional one has paid off. Process presents the fullest picture of his artistry, and it’s a notable one.

For years fans have unknowingly allowed this stranger to permeate and affect the most intimate parts of their lives through the music of others. His ability to reflect the thoughts and emotions of wide-ranging audiences is a testament to his skills as a contemporary artist living in a world where sounds and structure constantly alter. Nevertheless, in this moment his voice stands alone and tranquil as he caters to an eclectic audience of his own making.

V sat down with Sampha to talk about his new album, and finally feeling comfortable with his talents as a singer.

What are some of the main components you want your fans to take away from Process?

That's always difficult for me to answer. As much as I think about it, for a lot of my music making, I'm on autopilot. I'm just getting stuff out and then just kind of following where my mind goes and where my heart is, and sort of just managing that. It's not like a concept album I didn't start with something I really wanted to talk about. I guess I was going to kind of just document the two years of my life and the years that precede, just sort of trials. It's more so for me I felt like it's okay to just be vulnerable sometimes. For me it was like I guess if anyone could sort of empathize or if there's anyone out there that feel like not many people are speaking to them and to speak to them in some sort of form, either harmonically or just in terms of the feeling. Sometimes I guess I don't directly say what I'm talking about but you might get like a feel for the overall emotion through the sonics, through the lyrics as well. I kind of hope people get what I mean just in terms of relating to the feeling of things. I hope that people appreciate the production elements. I don't really know, to be honest, what I want people to take away. It's not a concept record or anything. Sometimes I like for people to tell me what they think.

You mentioned in a prior interview that you make music for yourself, but you edited it with the listeners in mind. What sort of edits were made for this album?

More so just like concentrating on the mix, trying to make sure my voice translates as much as I feel comfortable with it translating. I didn't want to compromise my vision but I did have in the back of my mind that this isn't just for me. I wanted to mix it in a way that sort of emphasizes the things I wanted to get across in terms of frequencies. I guess just normal things, like making sure everything has a space in the mix. Just creating this kind of world where, even though there's a lot going on, I wanted it to be sort of understandable because sometimes I can really heavy load tracks. I can also be quite minimal in my sort of arrangement.

Were the edits focused more on the sonics or lyrics?

It's more so the arrangements, and putting a lot of effort into that. It's mostly sonically not really lyrically. Lyrically, that was me wanting to write the best I can write. I mean, subconsciously, I love pop songs. I've grown up with pop songs, so there's a lot of verse, chorus, verse, structures and riffs—things that repeat. These are all things that you imagine you do so that people sort of sing along to this part. Even though I do want to venture into messing a bit more with structure. Not to say that the whole album is like that; there are a lot of twists and turns.

In terms of lyrical content, since you are younger and much of your audience is made up of your peers, is it safe to assume they are going through similar things?

I imagine that sometimes there might be things that younger listeners might translate through the music more so than the lyrics, depending on what they've gone through. I guess when I was younger there were a lot of things I didn't go through, but I was feeling Tracy Chapman. Obviously lyrically, but there was a lot that I never experienced but I could feel it; I could connect with her through everything else. One thing I would really like, I don't know why, is to have a young teenager or child listen to the record. Just because they don't have that many hangups or anything, they are not reading reviews. I just feel like the albums that affected me the most were albums that I picked up when I was younger. I always imagined that I would make an album for that reason for that other kind of teenager. [When you are young] you are whatever that CD is, as opposed to when you grow up; you see all the lights, the cameras, and you go behind the screen, and you see the strings. I guess that’s another thing when I was making the album, I wanted to do that for people of my own age.

You began your music career solely focused on production and it seemed like that was going to be your lane. What made you step to the forefront and actually perform and sing more?

I guess SBTRKT is where I started using my vocals more. He was getting his show together and putting an album together, and I was a big part of his first album. I kind of got thrust into getting on the stage in terms of actually being a sort of frontman. I guess from then on the gravitas towards me was my voice and I was uncomfortable with that for while. Then there was always a part of me that wanted to be like a performer. Unfortunately, I get older and I'm like, 'I can't dance as well as I thought I could.' I was big-headed, I use to think I was like Micheal [Jackson] from ages 3 to 13. So sometimes I'm like, 'I'm gonna live out this thing right now, I'm on the stage let me do my thing.' I'm not scared of moving around. Some people are probably thinking, 'Sit down, Sampha.’

What made you feel uncomfortable?

I just always felt uncomfortable about my voice, because I never felt like a singer. My voice is quite temperamental and I don't have the biggest range. But I do like to sing and I do express myself through it, you know just wailing. I'm getting used to the fact that some people like my voice. The majority of people who are into me as an artist, that is a big factor for them. Just slowly getting used to that, really, and not devaluing it. Not getting too mad about it just like it's out of my control and maybe I should just appreciate it more and be full of life.

What helped you become more comfortable with singing?

Before I always had to feel like I had to explain myself, like, 'I'm a music producer, I produce music.' Now sometimes I'm just like, 'I'm a singer, I sing.' I think what I'm more comfortable with is like the product and not worrying so much about the author. Reading the book and not caring so much about who wrote the book. I mean just letting people take away what they take away from things and feeling conformable with that. That being said, I do want to delve back more into the production side of things, because even though I hear myself, just like anything you perceive yourself on how other people perceive you. Like if you had a teacher that really believed in you, you sort of did better in school, if you had teachers, parents who don't believe in you sometimes you live up to those expectations too. There is a balance, and I wanted to bring it back a little bit. At the same time, I do want to explore. I'm all over the place really.

Sampha's album Process is now available to stream and purchase. He is currently touring throughout North America and Europe.

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