Published Feb 08, 2017"Finishing an album or even playing live, I don't think I would have really felt fully comfortable even two years ago; I would have felt, emotionally, not quite ready."
Humble, gentle and incredibly soft-spoken, South London, UK-bred singer, songwriter and producer Sampha is hunched over a voice recorder at Toronto's Drake Hotel, talking about the difficulties he faced finishing his debut album. Over the clatter of chef's knives, the chatter of patrons and blaring music, the mic barely picks him up, but as he's been doing for years, he perseveres.
It's taken a long time — his debut EP, Sundanza, arrived in 2010, and since then, he's recorded numerous acclaimed EPs, singles and collaborations with the likes of Kanye West, Drake, Solange and SBTRKT — but this month, Sampha will finally release Process, a soulful, electronic-infused album he named after the laborious musical and emotional process that led to its completion.
Along the way, he's overcome hurdles like his admittedly slow songwriting style ("I'm not the most natural songwriter in the sense of, like, 'I can sit down and freestyle a whole song out and it'll just come to me,'" he says) and, more crucially, self-doubt. He cites "hang-ups" about his voice as an example.
"I can always hear the imperfections, and I'm sure other people can as well — like, 'How's that guy even a singer? He's terrible!' But others, they hear another quality to it, or I'm connecting to something with them. That's how I feel at home when I'm singing; I'm just expressing myself, liberated. I'm not incredibly technical or a specialist, but I definitely express a lot, and it's something I enjoy doing and find very spiritual, healing. I'm learning to appreciate that kind of artistry [in myself]."
It's one of many lessons Sampha learned en route to Process's completion — but some were harder than others.
"My mother passed away while I was making the album, and by the time I finished it, she was gone. When I realized I wouldn't be able to talk about something, I'd go to the piano and sing, and all this emotion would come out; I could suddenly feel it. So for me it was that: processing grief. Not necessarily getting things perfect, or them being these perfectly articulated feelings."
Learning how to process and let go of grief were essential to the making of Process. And though the album is beautifully produced, there's a lyrical rawness that permeates songs like the urgent, storming "Blood on Me," the yearning shuffle of "Incomplete Kisses" and, particularly, confessional piano ballad "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano" that give it an electrifying emotional charge.
By letting go, Sampha was better able to tap into what he calls "the flow of life" and connect to something "spiritual" on Process.
"You want to put measurements on everything, and people do," he says, "but the potential universe is endless; there are things we can never fathom. Sometimes, you feel the most alive when you're taken over by something."