Sampha: From Drake, Kanye and Solange to the Challenges of Debut 'Process'

Sampha: From Drake, Kanye and Solange to the Challenges of Debut 'Process'
Photo: Ben Walker
For an artist who once told The Fader that "Somehow, in my head, I think it's not possible for me to get famous," UK singer, songwriter and producer Sampha has certainly gotten close; in the past few years, he's collaborated with Kanye West, Drake, Solange, SBTRKT and others, and on February 3, he releases his debut full-length, Process, on Young Turks.
 
Sampha's garnered accolades for his honeyed croon and the sheer emotional heft of his songwriting, but despite his ascent, the road to Process has been a fraught one. As he told Exclaim! before his recent show at Toronto's Drake Hotel, the past few years have been a musical and personal learning experience defined by patience and resilience.
 
"Finishing an album or even playing live, I don't think I would have really felt fully comfortable even, like, two years ago playing live," he says, softly. He's saving his voice for his forthcoming show, but one gets the sense he never raises it anyway.
 
"I would have felt, emotionally, not quite ready for all the things I perceive come with releasing an album — especially being a vocalist and writing music, doing everything. As soon as I was recording on SBTRKT records and recording as a vocalist, people were like, 'So when's the album?' I just decided to make an album when I thought I could."
 
Sampha got to work slowly putting together a full-length that would give listeners a more complete sense of his artistry than his EPs could. He stayed in the public consciousness and fine-tuned his craft with a series of high-profile collaborations, but saved his best material for a full-length statement.
 
"I didn't want to release anything for any other reasons, especially just to have something out there. I have no control over other people's stuff and how they release it. But personally, I felt like, 'I'm working on an album.'"
 
He stockpiled songs, beats and ideas, then waited for experiences to inspire and inform his writing.
 
"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. "I have to finish or process something before I can write."
 

That word, "process," came to define the making of the record.
 
"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. In my day-to-day, I think my brain would hide things away, because it can't handle or process so much emotion simultaneously, so for me it was that: processing grief, processing the importance of talking things through — not necessarily getting things perfect."
 
The difficult lesson of learning to let go affected the making of Process in a huge way.
 
"I have anxieties about playing live, but there's that element, it's like, 'Okay, this is the unknown — but I can't just sit here and stare just because I'm nervous.'"
 
His voice, for example, was a source of "hang-ups," but in learning to accept what he calls its "imperfections," Sampha learned his strengths, too.
 
"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 appreciating that kind of artistry [in myself]."
 
Process, Sampha's defining statement, is characterized by an ineffable sense of purpose and feeling. Singles like the urgent patter of "Blood On Me" and slow funk ballad "Timmy's Prayer" certainly give a sense of the LP's balance of soul, UK bass music, piano balladry and synth-pop, but the album's crowning jewel is undoubtedly "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano," about the piano beside his mother's chair that provided him an emotional outlet and confidant. Sharing the song with an audience feels like a natural conclusion to the album's long, emotional making.
 
"I am quite a bit more open here, and I'm definitely talking about things that are more personal to me," Sampha says of the album. And, as always, the goal is to connect.
 
"People will get the gist of it, even if it's not always outright."