Sampha Bares His Symphonic Soul

Sampha Sisay has a quiet, shy demeanor that belies the attention he’s received as an musician. The Young Turks-signed singer, songwriter, pianist and producer had an auspicious start in 2010 as the producer of his own solo material and a vocalist/collaborator/live band member for SBTRKT, but it wasn’t long before his work captured the attention of pop stars such as Jessie Ware, Drake and Kanye.

Given the high-profile nature of much of his work, it’s odd to realize that Sampha’ s new album Process is his debut full-length. Demand as a collaborator as well as a series of family illnesses meant their time and attention was split between various things for years, but he’s finally found the time to deliver on the solo promise of his 2013 EP Double . Although it was a long time coming, Process reflects the care that he put into it. Richly textured and meticulously arranged, it has a complexity—both musical and emotional—in its modern symphonic soul sound that may take a few listens to sink in but stays with you long after you’ve turned it off. Alongside the songwriting, that’s due to the stark honesty of his lyrics, which are intensely individual and delivered in a heartbreaking falsetto. We met in Berlin on a hot day last summer to talk about the warmth of his family, how his music serves as the primary electric outlet and expression of his emotions and what he’s learned from the biggest names in music.

Your debut EP, Sundanza, and the one along with SBTRKT (“ Break Off” /” Evening Glow” ) both came out in 2010 and seem to be sonically associated. But after that your sound changed quite a bit. The shift became actually apparent with Dual , which came out in 2013. Can you talk about what happened in between?

I guess I started growing up a little bit. I was thrust into the bigger world, and maybe I calmed down a little. Also that was around the time when I started using a brand new production software, Logic, which naturally changed my sonic aesthetic. I was using Reason beforehand. I think I used to be just into a different thing. I wouldn’ t say I was a lot more superficial, but I had a different perspective on life. I think a lot of that was me not actually experiencing things—before I had no idea of what a record label does or what carrying out in a venue was like. And maybe also the music that was happening around myself, people like The xx or what ever, opened my ears a bit.

There was also quite a lot going on in your personal life and your family during this interim period, correct? When you mentioned growing up, it sounded like you were talking about musically we were young, but…

Yeah, I had a lot going on through 18 to 19. My earliest brother had a serious stroke when I was that age. He almost died, and now he’ s living with the effects of that. Then my mum got diagnosed with cancer. So those are heavy realities that happened. I actually made some demos just before all of that kicked off. I guess music is a documentation of where I am. Sometimes it can be a bit, “ Oh my gosh, I was so… delighted . ” [ laughs ] Not happy, but I guess the “innocence is bliss” line comes in. Which is also the deeper undercurrent.

It sounds like your family members was really key in your musical development.

Yes. I’ ve got four older brothers, and in terms of musical knowledge, I feel like I’ ve been well nutritioned. It’ t an extremely supportive family, and they’ re all into music—they’ re passionate about it. I don’ capital t think they’ re living vicariously through me or anything, but they have said, “ If I can, I’ d do what you’ re doing. ” I’ ve got an older brother who produces [music], and he opened me personally up quite a lot because he has his own taste. I’ d be strolling into his room or their flat and he’ d be listening to The Clash or The Shots or Brian Eno or Mos Def. He has no limits to what he’ s listening to. And that had been extremely important for me. I was opened up in order to stuff very early; that’ h just the view I have.

The music you put out from Dual onwards is a lot more soul-baring. It feels actually intimate and personal and it’ ersus very sensitive. I think you said in an interview that you feel a great deal, and that really comes across.

Yeah, I guess there’ s a lot of times when I don’ big t express that outside of music. It’ s weird—without music, maybe people wouldn’ t know what I’ m feeling or how much I do really feel things that I can express through creation. So it’ s very important. Plus it’ s what happened naturally. There’s an element of calculation—obviously, I’ m sitting down and producing something. But the actual roots of it are very cathartic: it’s a place where I can speak about things or feel emotion. As much as I feel a lot, you can get quite numb in order to everything. Things just happen and you will be passive to everything that’ s going on around you and not actually appreciate what you’ re going through.

One of the things that I find interesting is that you’re a node that connects many musical moments. You connect Young Turks, dancing producers like SBTRKT and Lil Silva plus artists like Kwes, Micachu and Dels and main rappers and pop stars like Drake and Kanye. What do you believe it is about your music that attracts all of these different kinds of people?

I dunno. Basically, genre is a weird thing, and extremely rarely do I have the experience exactly where it falls away from my mind. I’ ve only had a handful of experiences where I’ m like, “ Oh wow, I’ meters not even thinking about genre. ” I might be listening to some Malian songs or whatever and realize that this certain tempo is the same speed as hip-hop and there’ ersus so many crossovers that I wouldn’ t necessarily think of. I’ m in to a lot of different types of music; my ears are open. But I think lots of it has got to do with the fact that I sing plus I’ m a songwriter. That’ s the connection that means maybe I can cross over that bridge. At the same time, I’ m into production and electronic music.

That will sounds about right. But I was also referring to the social facet of it.

Yeah, it’ s weird. I did previously talk to Kwes a lot through Myspace . com. He loves Kanye, for instance. Plus [Kwes] heard of me really early, when no one was really listening to me, but he said to me, “ Yeah, one day people are going to listen to you—Kanye will. ” That was all I could dream of; I was like, “ Oh yeah, whatever. ” But he had that vision, and I didn’ t. Even though from a young age I was listening to these guys and type of had that thing—” Oh yeah, I’ d love for them to hear our stuff” —it always becomes a small amount different in reality. But there’ ersus always been that connection, so it’ s not completely separate worlds. These guys know of these guys.

You seem really humble and self-possessed, so it’ ersus really interesting to think of you inside a room with personalities like that. What was the most important or useful thing that you simply learned from working with Drake or even 40 or Kanye?

There’ s normally something about meeting the person. Externally looking in you don’ t always appreciate things because they’ re just right now there, so you have the realization that things actually aren’ capital t just there. People are actually doing things. With Drake, I realized how talented he is. His ability to write—he just sat there, published something, looked at his Blackberry, got in the booth, and there was a record coming out almost straight away. He’ ersus quite prolific. And also his vision—just him being a really determined person. Like, talking about his album as well as the future and being really confident in the future. I think it takes a lot of guts to think about the future. With Kanye, the realization was more about accepting that you can be at different places in different times of your life and you don’ t necessarily have to adhere to the way you were. For instance, for him it’ s come into this thing in which he doesn’ t have to be in a room producing by himself anymore. That’ s not where his mind and mind are at. He can have people helping him with manufacturing. It’ s very much open-source. That’ s how he does their thing: letting people in, discussing ideas. That’ s just the way he works.

Inside my head, I realize that I’ mirielle not really doing anything by myself in any case. Even the computer I’ m upon, the laptop, the software I’ mirielle using—someone’ s made that. All of your existence is interconnected. There’ s nothing I’ m truly doing by myself. I didn’ to really work with other people on my own music. I was mixing my own stuff, recording my own vocals, and I don’ to necessarily have to do that. At the same time, if I want to do that, I have all the right to do that. It’ s more which i don’ t feel like my genuineness is going to be diluted by working with other people, because you’ re living in a false world if you think that, in any case.

Were there any musicians you respect who you really learned something from as a pianist or as a singer or anything like that? Because We get this real sense of orchestral soul. That’ s how I would certainly describe your music.

I guess it was 4 Hero. Obviously their remix function, like “ Black Gold Of The Sun” and “ La Fleur”. Through that, I listened to the Rotary Connection and that whole psychedelic, orchestral soul thing. That hit me hard.

That’ s interesting, because within your music I hear a family tree from Stevie Wonder.

Talking about the big you are Stevie Wonder. He’ s up there. The fact that I listened to their stuff when I was seven and am felt the same as I do listening to your pet now is very rare. It really is magic, I believe.

You perform, you play instruments, you produce electronic tracks—what do you find the toughest and why?

I find correcting things the particular hardest. Or consciously thinking that some thing has to be different once I’ ve actually done it. Mostly, producing music is I would say natural or even spiritual. Like I’ m talking to you right now, I don’ t think about the words I’ m saying; they just flow away from my brain. The same thing with performing. That’ s why I think spirituality is for me just not knowing plus things kind of happen. It’ s i9000 when you consciously edit things. That will part of things is always the toughest. Doing it and feeling it—you don’ t have to think about at all.

Process is out February 3, 2017 on Youthful Turks.

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