Sampha Sisay

Photography by Hanna Moon, Styling by Max Clark

For a name as lauded as Sampha Sisay’s, it’s hard to believe that 2017 marks the release of his first full LP, Process. Maybe it’s because lis­ten­ing to his music, you feel like you know him inti­mately. His vocals rip through the melodies and emo­tion looms over every note he sings. We first met him seven years ago, as the elu­sive voice on top of the beats of pro­ducer SBTRKT. He then struck out on his own making an impres­sion with his own EP releases Sundanza (2010) and Dual (2013) on the Young Turks imprint and with it, catch­ing the atten­tion of a list of col­lab­o­ra­tors that reads like the who’s who of modern music’s most cel­e­brated young musi­cians (FKA Twigs, Frank Ocean, Solange Knowles) — who all saw the poten­tial in Sampha, arguably before he saw it in him­self. Hopes were high but sure enough, life with all its unfore­seen cir­cum­stances, had a dif­fer­ent plan for the 27-year-old south Londoner. Binty his mother, whose cancer had pre­vi­ously been in remis­sion, had her ill­ness come back, only this time it was more aggres­sive so Sampha put his musi­cal plans on pause to move back to their family home to care for her. Binty lost her fight with cancer in September 2015, leav­ing Sampha, the youngest of five broth­ers dev­as­tated. His mother’s pass­ing is at the core of Process, an incred­i­bly emo­tive 40-minute jour­ney through his joy, his fear, his pain and his loss.

Photography by Hanna Moon, Styling by Max Clark
Photography by Hanna Moon, Styling by Max Clark

I was back at my mum’s house recently and I was going through old nurs­ery reports. At that age they observe you and write down every­thing in detail. There’s a whole para­graph in one of them that says, Sampha was making a mon­ster out of play­dough and the head fell off, so he put it back on and it fell off, and he put it back on and it fell off again, then he looked at it, squeezed it and put it back on.’ I’m so per­sis­tent. They all also noted how quiet I was in circle time but how com­fort­able I was speak­ing to adults, I think that’s still a true reflec­tion of how I am now,” he says as he fid­dles with a cup of herbal tea at a café near where he lives now in Willesden, with his girl­friend Jojo. He’s quiet, speak­ing in hushed tones that grow to a hearty chuckle when he finds some­thing funny. He grew up in Lower Morden in a Sierra Leonean house­hold that pro­vided what Sampha describes as an encour­ag­ing envi­ron­ment.” You know, as a child I felt very looked after. My mother was quite a quiet person too. I hate the word tra­di­tional’ but she def­i­nitely cared a lot about me. She made sure I was well fed and went to school… all the things I appre­ci­ate more now,” he explains.

His broth­ers passed down a love of music. Everything from the sounds of Herbie Hancock, James Brown, Groove Armada and The Clash met Sampha’s ears. His brother Sanie, par­tic­u­larly had an influ­ence. He pro­duced music and had a small studio set up at his flat a few roads away. Sampha’s father passed away when he was young but when he was alive bought the house a piano that Sampha cher­ished, often spend­ing hours tin­ker­ing with its keys; find­ing a release in his new found musi­cal sto­ry­telling.

Sampha had a short stint in Chester University study­ing Music Production but found the course lim­it­ing. I actu­ally wasn’t very good at writ­ing or aca­d­e­mic work,” he laughs. I just don’t work well when I have to write in a cer­tain way. I also think it was where I was — I don’t think I was sur­rounded by like-minded people.”

Photography by Hanna Moon, Styling by Max Clark

Instead Sampha returned to London and started dab­bling in music with SBTRKT (who he met through MySpace) who lived close by in Tooting Bec. Binty, fret­ful about the uncer­tainty of a music career, lov­ingly let Sampha do his thing. “[SBTRKT and I], we just vented really. I didn’t have the tunnel vision he had, I just liked making music. It was very unspo­ken what we were doing. I was com­fort­able with him and what we were cre­at­ing.”

SBTRKT’s unwa­ver­ing cre­ativ­ity rubbed off on Sampha, who along­side his own music releases and tour­ing with SBTRKT, started col­lab­o­rat­ing with Drake on 2013’s Too Much and Kanye West’s Saint Pablo, but explains the jump from behind the music to centre stage was some­thing he wasn’t wholly pre­pared for. The switch from pro­ducer to singer was more dif­fi­cult than I imag­ined. The hard­est thing was being seen and being heard. Now it is some­thing I trea­sure, it’s some­thing that is unique to me. But it’s not some­thing I think I appre­ci­ated before. Sometimes it’s easier to work on my own stuff than it is to work with other people’s but some­times vice versa. I do spend a lot more time labour­ing over my own music and paying more atten­tion to detail as I don’t have to answer to anyone in the same way.”

Working with Kanye West and seeing the con­fi­dence he had in his work gave Sampha the con­fi­dence to begin work on Process. Written over the course of two years, Sampha wrote 40 songs before, like chip­ping at an ice block”, he whit­tled them down to a suc­cinct ten tracks. His lyrics are never lit­eral, they instead tell a story within a story, build­ing on lay­ered metaphors and abstract sonog­ra­phy to emo­tion­ally cap­ture your heart from the very first beat. With open­ing track Plastic 100c, Sampha har­row­ingly recalls the trauma of find­ing a lump in his throat — a bleak threat to the future of his career. With the lump, I had never had that feel­ing before, that very phys­i­cal feel­ing of some­thing being wrong.” The lyrics liken the phys­i­cal pain as well as the emo­tional stress and anx­i­ety to heat, it’s so hot I’ve been melt­ing out here, made out of plas­tic out here,’ he sings. That just came out actu­ally,” Sampha reveals. I don’t really write a single word when I write, things just flow out of my mouth. I try to trans­late what I write to some­thing I can see. With Plastic, I could see a very blue sky, a very cir­cu­lar yellow sun…”

Photography by Hanna Moon, Styling by Max Clark

Blood on Me fol­lows and sees Sampha med­i­tate on the extremes of his anx­i­ety. It’s quite simply about run­ning away,” he describes, about being scared. It’s quite uni­ver­sal in its feel­ing… creepy almost.” Repetitive and endur­ing, it draws par­al­lels to the relent­less pace of Nina Simone’s Sinner Man and plays like a dream you can’t get out of. A gen­tler, more exu­ber­ant moment on Process come via Kora Sings, the tran­scen­den­tal and exper­i­men­tal third track on the album, all clash­ing beats and woozy vocals. I had been lis­ten­ing a lot to the Malian singer Oumou Sangaré and started research­ing African instru­ments. I lit­er­ally just jammed with a kora player on my syn­the­siser and built out the song out of a 12 minute jam.

The jewel in Process’ crown comes by way of Nobody Knows Me (Like the Piano), writ­ten in ref­er­ence to the piano that still sits in his child­hood home. Its sad­ness pal­pa­ble, the har­row­ing ballad was penned both pre and post his mother’s pass­ing and was the emo­tional cathar­sis he needed. Sampha is still vis­i­bly grieved when you bring up this mother. He looks down and says, I can feel very numb some­times. Life can be very banal but it really is the most extra­or­di­nary thing, you just don’t walk around like that every­day.”

Process is a med­i­ta­tion on Sampha Sisay’s life thus far. It’s painfully honest at times, and lis­ten­ing to it stays with you long after you have left it. It’s authen­tic, inti­mate, sober­ing and haunt­ingly beau­ti­ful all at the same time, with exper­i­men­tal arrange­ments, tin­kling per­cus­sion and a cacoph­ony of rich ambi­ent sounds (every­thing from Moon land­ings to the subtle patter of rain) that buoy the album when Sampha’s pierc­ing vocals aren’t there.

Photography by Hanna Moon, Styling by Max Clark

The album will make Sampha a star, albeit an unlikely one. Fame wasn’t some­thing he had really con­sid­ered up until this point. In my head I never thought I was going to be famous. That doesn’t make sense in my head. The music that I am making, I’m pretty sure it isn’t the sort of music that makes you famous. At the same time, I don’t want to be naive. I very much have a face, I use my real name, I sing per­sonal songs that people con­nect with and people very much iden­tify with.” Most of this year will see Sampha on the road, taking Process to the live stage, and giving his grow­ing number of fans a more inti­mate look into the window of his soul. When I toured with SBTRKT, I earned stripes. The hard parts for me were talk­ing to the crowd, I found that really hard. I hadn’t even really gone to a fes­ti­val before so it was a real explo­ration of self Seeing people’s reac­tions [at a live show], there is some­thing quite weighty about that. I think going on tour now [with Process] is going to be a bit dif­fer­ent; you know, with my own band set up, the visu­als… but I am really look­ing for­ward to more people lis­ten­ing to my music and relat­ing to me a little bit more,” Sampha asserts.

Process is so-called as a nod to the metic­u­lous way Sampha approaches his work, he’s con­sid­ered, always trying to per­fect things in [his] head before speak­ing on them.” Shying away from the spot­light, and the usual trap­pings of the indus­try; he avoids glitzy music events and awards shows and spends his time look­ing intro­spec­tively — qui­etly try to figure things out, to express a mood, or a feel­ing.” The space between him grad­u­ally get­ting to know him­self and get­ting some­thing out phys­i­cally was the process of deal­ing with my emo­tions.”

I knew with Process I wanted to take my time. I wasn’t emo­tion­ally ready before. I knew my view on the world was fuzzy. Then there came a moment where I was ready to take things on and to let people know…” The beauty in the album isn’t just about the end prod­uct, it’s about the jour­ney it took Sampha to get there — it wasn’t easy, Sampha endured more than a lot of people do in a life­time but chan­neled his pain into some­thing beau­ti­ful, some­thing that can now soothe others.