Created in collaboration with Grace Wales Bonner to celebrate the release of Process.
When Sampha dropped his debut album Process this February, it was met with universal praise. Known for his collaborations with artists like Drake, Frank Ocean, Solange and SBTRKT, this marked Sampha taking center stage. The New York Times gushed that the record was the London-based artist
“firmly and finally establishing himself as one of the premier talents in independent music.”
In a similar vein, Pitchfork called Process
“a remarkable, meditative work, as he processes grief and navigates self-discovery.” It feels, the writer noted,
“like a concept album on which Sampha rediscovers himself.”
This question of Sampha’s sense of self is inextricably bound up with the Sierra Leone, where his parents come from. Both the country’s influence and that of his parents infuse the album; Sampha’s mother died while he was working on Process, his father died when he was young.
“a remarkable, meditative work as he processes grief and navigates self-discovery.”
So to understand Sampha, you need to understand Sierra Leone. He worked with a multi-talented creative team of Grace Wales Bonner, Jamie Reid, the Durimel brothers (Jalan and Jibril) and Tom Ordonyo to produce this impressionistic ode to a country very close to his heart. Told through photographs and Sampha’s own lyrics, the magazine offers an intimate insight into how Sampha sees the world.
To mark the release of the zine, the digital version of which is available exclusively on WeTransfer, Gilles Peterson (WeTransfer’s Creative Director) and Sampha sat down in London to discuss his past, his parents, and the process of putting together Process...
Gilles: When you came to my attention – and most people’s attention – working with SBTRKT on those early records, what had you done before then?
Sampha: I was producing, that’s how SBTRKT got in contact with me. I was just making things and putting them on MySpace. SBTRKT was the first time I had done live stuff, been on the radio, played at festivals. That’s where it all started for me.
Gilles: Had it always been your intention to get to a point where you could make a record like Process?
“I was always the clumsy one. It always seemed like music would be my saving grace.”
Sampha: No, it was never at the forefront of my mind. I didn’t feel I was ready for it and it wasn’t my plan. I just got swept up in everything and was having a good time.
G: What do you think you’d have done, if the voice hadn’t been noticed?
S: I don’t know. I feel I would be sad. My cousins always used to be like, Sampha if you don’t sing, if you don’t make music, then I don't know what you are going to do. I was always the clumsy one. It always seemed like music would be my saving grace.
G: Let’s talk about the process of Process – I was waiting for this album all of last year. One of the things I think your label Young Turks does really well is they seem to be quite patient. When did it come to you, the beginnings of the album?
S: I would say late 2013. It felt like a switch just got flicked – that I was ready to make an album, I was emotionally stable enough. The music industry felt very blurry, I didn't feel I would be able to handle everything that comes along with putting an album out.
G: And you kind of tested the water because you did tracks with Koreless, Short Stories...
S: Yeah I had been releasing music. But when you put an album out, there is an added attention and it’s seen as the statement piece. EPs and singles can be just as good, but that was the time it felt comfortable being a vocalist and being Sampha, which is my real name. All these things I had been battling with.
“I didn't feel I would be able to handle everything that comes along with putting an album out.”
G: I think it’s going to be hard for anyone to better this record in 2017. It’s phenomenal. Obviously there was a lot of turmoil, you lost your dad when you were very young, and you lost your mum a couple of years ago. You really feel that in this record…
S: My mum had cancer, but it wasn’t terminal when I started the album. About halfway through making it, it got diagnosed as terminal and she passed away before I finished it.
Quite naturally all that seeped into the record, and making music became an escape from all the tension of what was going on. The song about the piano in her house – I hadn’t been home for a while, and I realised that all of this wouldn’t be here forever. I had never had that feeling before. That line,
“No-one knows me like the piano in my mother's home” is me reflecting on the importance of my mother and where I grew up and how formative all of that was.
G: Who was the most influential of your family?
S: I would say my brother Sanie who has a really eclectic taste. I would walk into his flat when I was 10 or 11 and he would be playing Brian Eno or The Strokes. Listening to all of that at a young age opened my ears up.
G: You did the Solange stuff and the Drake stuff and the Kanye stuff. What did you get from the US that was different from the UK, that you might not have been able to get otherwise?
S: I guess here in the UK, I was used to working super one-on-one, it would just be me and the other person. Going over the pond, I was working in bigger groups. That opened me up a little bit because I felt like even though I was jamming with people, I didn’t feel it was diluting the potency or the authenticity of the music.
Beforehand I might have had that view – I have got to produce, I have got to mix, I have got to do everything. But going there I realized that I can share a bit of this weight, and let more people in.
G: Working with Solange what was that like? How did it come about?
S: I met her at Fader Fort in 2012 in Austin. She had heard of me, word of mouth. And she was working on an album and she invited me and a bunch of people. It was great.
I was really blown away by her compositional ear and production know-how. She has got a very strong vision. There were certain things she was doing harmonically that I didn't really understand at the time. I was like, I don’t get it. I hadn’t experienced enough to fully grasp where she was going with it. She had a lot to say as well.
“I was really blown away by her compositional ear and production know-how. She has got a very strong vision”
G: You did some shows with her too?
S: Yeah she did Saturday Night Live and she invited me out to play Don’t Touch My Hair with her which was crazy.
G: And you did Fallon recently. It must have been hardcore with Fallon watching you and Questlove (who leads Jimmy Fallon’s house band) in the background watching you, and you just going on, on your own, doing a song on the piano...
S: Yeah it was pretty intense.
G: It doesn’t get much more intense than that. Is it live?
S: Nah it wasn’t, so I could have completely messed it up and had the chance to do it again. I have got into a routine before to get the nerves out, I jump around a lot…
G: You don’t drink, right?
S: No, not anywhere near perfoming. A good two weeks before a show, I stop drinking.
G: Like a sportsman?
S: Well yeah because my voice is really sensitive. Some people can drink and smoke and sound like an angel but I wouldn’t. I’d sound like a crocodile…
G: Your voice is so unique and soulful, I put it in the same line as Marvin Curtis. There’s not been a British singer who’s got such personality in his voice for a long time. Did you grow up listening to those old soul sounds?
S: I didn’t – the oldest thing was Stevie Wonder and then I got into Donny Hathaway. But now I am going back and listening to Otis Redding and Sam Cook, and really appreciating what they did.
“It took me a while to get to that place, not to feel like you have to be a certain thing” or you have to be super strong.”
G: With a lot of those guys, there was a certain political awareness that was resonating in their music.
With the world where it's at now, where does the artist fit? How do you straddle being an artist singing personal songs and being someone who is maybe representing a certain voice for what is going on around them?
S: I don’t wanna ever box myself in. This album, I was going through such heavy personal things, that it ended up being about those things rather than a political and social commentary.
It took me a while to get to that place, not to feel like you have to be a certain thing or you have to be super strong.
In that way, me being a black man and singing about the things I sing about and being that vulnerable, I feel like I am maybe saying something. Not necessarily something overtly political, but more so by just being me.
G: For your live shows, how hard is it to be at the front now? I have you down as quite a shy guy...
S: I definitely enjoy it. Talking to the crowds is quite difficult, but I am finding my stride I think. It feels nice that people coming to the shows aren"t like,
“Yo Where’s Kanye?” Because I feel like people are actually coming to see me, and it’s nice to have that physical relationship.
G: Do you enjoy touring?
S: I do. It’s weird because you go places, but not for that long. You don’t necessarily get to take things in so much, but I feel good when I come back and reflect on it. And there are certain places I always love going to, like Japan.
“It’s such an extravagantly beautiful country. That’s maybe a light that’s not shone on Sierra Leone very often.”
G: What is it about Japan that gets you?
S: Everything feels like it has been thought about. Your chewing gum comes with a bit of paper to throw it away in. Every train station has its own departure melody.
There is a juxtaposition between things feeling very technologically advanced, but entrenched in a culture that is really old.
G: And you went back to Sierra Leone too?
S: Yeah, it was an amazing thing to do. It’s such an extravagantly beautiful country. That’s maybe a light that’s not shone on Sierra Leone very often.