I meet Sampha on the roof of Young Turks’ studio in Hackney the night after he joined Alicia Keys on stage at Camden’s Roundhouse (Keys is such a big fan she got him up to perform some of his own songs). Before he arrives, I watch it back with his manager and friend from the label and you can feel his charisma somersault out of the screen on every note. We’re turning it up and marvelling as he shyly walks into the room just in time to catch us craned over the computer screen. He quietly laughs and admits he hasn’t seen it yet. This is the Sampha of Dual (his last EP) fame, constantly shifting the lines between producer spreading magic from behind the scenes and artist commanding the attention of the room.
His incredible debut album, Process, is a ribcage shifting, heart swell of a record which he wrote during and after the death of his mother. Fresh from working with Kanye on The Life of Pablo, and Solange’s A Seat At The Table, this year the south Londoner talks to BEAT about making the album, tapping into his pain, and how it might be time to get a haircut.
How was the process of Process?
I started writing in summer of 2014, and it’s the rst time I’ve really started renting out studios, and recording in studios as opposed to recording in my bedroom. The EP was mostly done from my bedroom.
What finally took you out of your bedroom and into the studio?
I was just like, “OK, I want to write an album”. I feel like I’m emotionally stronger to be able to take all the things that come with releasing an album, or I guess the things I’ve already experienced being a vocalist. I guess that in itself opens up the world a lot more to you so there’s a few more eyes on you and stuff. I felt ready to do it and take what comes with it.
Was Process about letting people in or letting something out?
It was probably letting myself out. When I was writing this album every now and then I would remind myself that I want this stuff to translate, I want it to be released into the world. I guess there’s always, I think, a natural fear of being judged or being critiqued for things that you share, I think that’s just natural human instincts. There’s part of me that just wants to be honest, and I feel like there’s a lot of other people’s music I enjoy where I really respect their honesty.
This is gonna sound like I’m plugging myself, but Kanye West on Pablo. There’s a lot of artists that I love but I wasn’t there when they came out, I just know them as the image that’s portrayed, I don’t really feel them. Working with him [on The Life Of Pablo] just sort of hit me in the gut, I was like, “Oh wow, there’s a real artistry to that”. I feel like there’s an element of liberation in just being able to speak truth and be honest.
Your cousin is legendary grime MC Flirta D. What was your relationship with grime productions?
I used to listen to my cousin Flirta D a lot. I listen to him a lot, and Wiley, Terminator, there were so many about. That’s the genre I started sort of imitating. I was a spitting bars in my bedroom kind of guy. When I was about 13/14, I was just free styling. I had friends in the areas and we just used to like, rap, and joke around and MC about anything, really. Grime production just seemed to ahead of it’s time, eccentric, really energetic.
Have you got a grime producer alter ego?
I used to be called Kid Nova. I was on Myspace, that’s how Young Turks first got me. Kid Nova was a Marvel comic, which was my Myspace background at the time. Nova were like these galactic, police- type people and Kid Nova was a police comic. I’ve made grime. I used to try and give beats to people but I just didn’t leave enough room for anyone to rap over my beats, they were just so full of piano, and synths, so it wasn’t really a vehicle for lyricists.
You dropped out of a music production course in University. Why didn’t it work out?
I was at Chester Uni, Warrington campus. Music production course, I was like 19, and I wasn’t really connecting with it because I just had a weird perspective on life. I was learning about things like the punk scene, music from the 50s and thing that I wasn’t connecting to, and just musically, I wasn’t surrounded by people who wanted to do what I wanted to do. Looking back, you just imagine that things are just there and they’ve been there forever, and you don’t really realise that people have been documenting things for a reason. It takes time to realise that things don’t just appear.
I feel like there’s an element of liberation in just being able to speak truth and be honest.
How has your ear has been influenced by African music? Was it played in the house growing up?
Yeah. I didn’t have a high-life ear for ages. My parents used to play it. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, because it was like, “Ah they’re playing this again”. I was listening to a lot during this record because I love the chord structure. It’s very sort of major and euphoric sounding, because of the harmonic language. Now I have more of an appreciation for the rhythm. I guess the things that did draw me in were listening to Malian folk music. People like Oumou Sangaré and her rhythms, language, her voice, everything just hit me so deep. I didn’t even know what she was talking about, but I could just feel the pain from the get go. Then I found out she’s a feminist, and she’s very much against polygamy, and arranged marriage, and she’s political. I really felt all of that, and something about that hit me very spiritually. I felt very deeply connected to the pain she was experiencing through the sound of her voice and something that kind of inspired me in my music.
One of your songs on the album discusses the object nostalgia of the piano in your mother’s home.
I wrote that song when I had moved out for a couple of months to east London to record. I had moved out of my mum’s house, and she got told that the cancer which she had had for four and a bit years, was terminal, so I had to move back home. I moved home and the song just came to me really. It’s more a metaphor because the piano is my mum’s home.
A lot of the album is tapping into the pain of what was happening with your mother during that time. What was the reaction from your family when they heard the album?
I mean, I’ve been playing my brothers music as I’ve been making it. They’ve always been really supportive, and they are both really avid music listeners. I’ve had influences from all of my brothers in terms of what I listen to. I have two brothers especially that I share music with, Stanley and Ernest. So my brothers will either be brutally honest, like, “those drums sound too weak” or “Oh wow, I think people are going to like this one’. Generally, it’s “You’ve just got too much going on”.
It’s also like you’re keeping it for yourself, because you give quite a lot on the new album.
I give a lot in some respects, but there’s a whole other aspect to myself that I haven’t learnt to express yet. Like when I listen to the album, sometimes I think if I could step outside myself I could give myself like a pat on my pack, or hug or something. I’ve had those moments where I’m listening outside of myself and I’m actually empathising with myself. Which is very weird.
Do your fingers move quicker than your brain?
No. I wish! Your brain is incredible, and a lot of being an artist is learning how to translate a feeling or translate what you hear, having the skill set or interface. My hands are an interface between what my brain is thinking, and a lot of it is muscle memory. That’s one of the lucky things about having a piano in my house from a young age, I feel I can express through those things. That’s what I think spirituality is to me, just that thing of really being able to connect to my living body and it’s capabilities, and just be able to be taken away in it.
Does your shyness sometimes feel at odds with the performative side of your identity?
The only way I see myself as unusual is in other settings, like socially. I’ve had quite a lot of friends or people who know me – because I was always quite a quiet person and not really that vocal or talkative – who are like, “Oh wow, Sampha, I never thought you would be making music, or doing all these things”. The times I feel unusual, are the times I realise that music is the way of expressing or showing people I have this perspective on things. I guess that’s the beautiful thing about human beings.
Was your mum the kind of typical immigrant mum that wanted you to be a doctor?
She did, and she didn’t. She did always really want me to have an education, which I sometimes thought she thought was a signifier that she’s doing her job as a mother, an African mother, but she was never too strict, and she was always helpful, she would always drive me to the station when I was late for my first DJ sets which I was panicking over. She was just a really nice person.
What are some of the classic lines from your mum that stay with you?
Yeah she’s like, ‘Sampha, why you so slow?’, ‘How long’s it gonna take you to wash those dishes?’. She was cool. She did have a little go once about my hair, she was like, ‘Do something please’, but then just gave up – I mean, I could do, to be fair.