Sampha's Perfect Song

He's become a muse for some of music's biggest names, but for the quiet London singer, true stardom is the chance to make something real.

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Oct 27 2016, 10:05pm

Some years ago in a house in Lower Morden, on the southwest side of London, a couple was preparing to move. Among their possessions was a piano, but, wherever they were going—it's not important to the story—they didn't need that piano. It was just an object to leave behind. And so this piano stayed in Lower Morden, on the southwest side of London, where the couple sold it to a family a few doors down with five sons, some of whom were already grown. The boys all loved music; they listened to Prince and Michael Jackson and The Smiths and Joni Mitchell and the Wu-Tang Clan. The youngest of the boys was just three years old. But it was to him that the piano seemed most clearly heaven-sent. He was the one who would discover that if you played all the black notes with a bit of rhythm that it could sound a bit like a song, in whose hands that piano would find a new life, to whom the piano would become something else entirely.

"That piano is a thing I knew how to play," Sampha Sisay told me, haltingly, on a windy August morning, trying to articulate exactly what was about the piano that made it well, you know, something about objects having emotional power—he trailed off. Sampha speaks slowly and quietly, often appearing to get lost in thought about whatever he's saying and letting those thoughts complete the sentence. His face, with eyes that crinkle easily in broad, hearty laughter, is warm and expressive and generally offers a lot, too. But the gist was, well, he's right; the piano probably says it best because there are some things that are just too big for easy explanations.

The song in question is called "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano," and it's about Sampha's mother. She passed away a year ago, September 3, 2015. If there is such a thing as a perfect song, as a song that sounds like a heart breaking, it sounds like Sampha singing these words:

An angel by her side oh all the times
I knew we couldn't cope
They said that is her time
No tears inside
I kept the feelings close
And you took hold of me and never never never let me go

The harmony rises from within the song, amplifying Sampha's voice in layers, quietly floating in on a barely perceptible synth behind the skeletally spare piano, before it all fades away, leaving just him and those solitary plinks, singing, "'cause no one knows me like the piano in my mother's home." At the end, birds chirp in the background. There's stillness and resolution, a sense of place, that piano, his mother.

"She could tell me things about myself, just like straight up," Sampha mused. He was pensive, but his face twisted up in comic, self-deprecatory memory. "Just like 'ah, OK!' [Like] ' Why are you so slow? Why does everything take you so—how long does it take you to make your room? How long does it take you to cook that piece of'—I'm very thoughtful, and I can make things very huge. My mum just realized that about me."

Sampha's debut album, Process, is due, after several delays, early next year on the label Young Turks, home to acts like the xx and FKA twigs. To a certain set of obsessive music fans, it has been a long time coming. Sampha first appeared publicly as a singer in 2010 on a couple of songs with the masked producer SBTRKT, with whom he toured as a live unmasked vocalist in 2011. He released another song in 2011 with Jessie Ware called "Valentine," as well as a collaborative project with the producer Koreless under the name Short Stories. He cropped up on two 2013 Drake songs, "The Motion" and "Too Much," before releasing a debut EP, Dual. He's received laudatory, high-profile press for all of it, although frankly his voice—warm but plaintive, like a cheat code for serious emotional depth—is all the resume he needs.

Still, almost invariably, Sampha's career is described in reference to the high-profile artists who have enlisted him to work with them, a cohort that I am obligated to say also includes Kanye West, Frank Ocean, and Solange. That Sampha is seen this way is partly because of the profile of those artists but also because he has arrived where he is after so much time with an improbably small catalog of readily available material: His solo songs until now can be counted on two hands and thus encompass only a corner of his career. He was first drawn to making music as a producer—he proudly points out that it was his beats, not his voice, that attracted Drake and 40's attention—and he views the trajectory of his work in a holistic way, without much ego attached to it.

"I didn't have a plan like 'oh I'm going to be a vocalist and then I'm going to hit you with the album one year after,'" he explained, the tiniest hint of exasperation creeping into his otherwise calm voice, which in speaking carries the most charmingly British tone of baffled amazement. "That's the thing with vocalists. People are like—you essentially think the next [thing] is an album, a full length. You know, because you sing. You get that more so than if I was like a producer." He later described his debut album as "just a thing... just one part of the things I do. Hopefully I'll move on to something else."

That restlessness with defining a focal point comes through on Process. It's an album bursting with compositional ideas, although they often appear in the margins, taking a while to reveal their complexity. Sampha's voice is too immediately striking not to draw attention and dominate songs, and one of his strongest tools is his instinct for knowing when to let his vocals echo in empty space. Yet as jarring and unexpected as his melodies often are, he is perhaps even more interested in the shape of the cavernous depths around them, which are filled with heavy, electronic rumbles of bass and piercing, abrasive synthesizer tones. Sampha's voice almost naturally suggests sadness, but the sounds that put it in relief don't always comply. The more you listen to his music, the less certain the path through its emotional landscape becomes.

The twin forces of a changing record industry and a new media landscape have especially rewarded artists who are shrewd in marketing themselves and dead set on pursuing whatever path might lead to maximum visibility. Sampha is almost frustratingly resistant to this attitude. He is somewhat uncomfortable "being the guy that the music is about." While reticence might scan as a clever marketing ploy to build mystique in the hands of someone else, Sampha is guileless about it. He's just a quiet, understated person.

He showed up for our interview accompanied by his girlfriend, Jojo, a friendly personal trainer with a similarly gentle demeanor, whose role as moral support involved shouldering much of the small talk. He was dressed simply in a fashionable T-shirt, loose-fitting jeans, and completely unfashionable running shoes, the sole flourish in his appearance his distinctive, sculpted tuft of narrow dreads, and he responded agreeably but shyly to each person he encountered, most of whom seemed to realize they were meeting the guy from those songs only after he walked away. Sampha credits the more industry-savvy SBTRKT with exposing him to the possibilities of music as a career, and you get the sense that if he hadn't gone on that tour he might still be sitting in a studio somewhere, happily tinkering away with no one paying a bit of attention.

"For it to be your thing and for you to pour your heart out emotionally, it's quite—for some people it's right, but for me, it's this thing of like being a persona," Sampha reflected, taking pauses to find the right words. He searched for a few sentences, then added, "Sometimes I feel like I'm like it's therapy to me and these are my actual feelings. That these are deep issues that I'm talking about. To be on stage and belting it out in front of, you know, like, so many people and potentially get—people will be like 'uh, I don't want to hear it.'" If that seems implausibly self-effacing, consider that, despite his relatively high profile, Sampha just embarked on his first headlining tour of North America this month. "Naturally I can perform when I get into the flow of things and nature takes over," he continued. "I think it's maybe the thing of me being a little bit too critical of myself and that stuff as well."

During his trip to New York in August, Sampha played a small show for his label and friends in the back room of a Brooklyn bar called Manhattan Inn. It was just him and the piano— a piano, rather—the setup that seems most obvious for capturing the simple intimacy of his music. He played "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano," appearing visibly moved, every bit as taken in by its arresting simplicity as the spellbound audience. Then he and cellist Kelsey Lu, who is both the opening act for Sampha's current tour and a part of his touring band, and pianist Jonathan Geyevu, who also is in the band, played a looping, jazz-inflected improvisation that lasted maybe 15 minutes. It was trance-like, calming and profoundly moving, although it would be hard to say, in a pithy, social media caption kind of way, what exactly it all meant.

Two months later, earlier this week, Sampha returned to New York on tour to play his first proper headlining gig in the city at a small, hopelessly sold out venue called Baby's All Right. This time, he had his full band setup, which includes an impressively broad array of electronic equipment: synthesizers and drum machines of all types. It quickly became clear that this, in fact, is the preferred way to see him perform, with each nuance of the production brought to life. Sampha's voice was commanding; over and over the crowd would start to sing along with songs, only to peter out as they found themselves unable to keep up with his tireless falsetto. Sampha was loose and energetic onstage, with little hint of his personal reserve other than the modest way he addressed the crowd directly. People who had come to the show to cry were—I say this from personal experience—pleasantly surprised to find themselves compelled to dance instead.

Sampha does, after all, come from a dance music background, and as much as the piano is the backbone of his music, there's another side to him that is resolutely digital. He first connected with SBTRKT (who, not to belabor this point, is a dance producer) and the team at Young Turks' parent label XL through MySpace, and it's undoubtedly because of the internet that his music has spread so far through so little promotion of his own. As a kid, he got into making tracks on the Windows sound recorder program using a webcam microphone. It was a process that also offered hints of work habits to come: He would go to his brother's apartment, where there were stacks of CD-Rs, and burn each one-minute draft of a song onto its own 80-minute CD. He'd make changes, burn a new copy, and repeat, sometimes leaving with ten versions of the same song at the end of the day.

I want people to know that it's a genuine thing for me. And that I love making music.

His approach now doesn't seem very conceptually removed: He compared recording Process to sculpture, explaining that he "would record big passages of piano and synth and recording drum machines or whatever," and then spend time "just like slowly clawing away" at the compositions. The product, aided by the similarly exacting production vision of Rodaidh Mcdonald, XL's in-house engineer, is both meticulously detailed and cinematic in scope. On album opener "Plastic 100° C," radio transmissions and washes of synthetic noise give an otherwise spare piano ballad the scale of an interplanetary odyssey, the stakes of a movie about a man stranded in the desert, the significance of a long phone call.

"It's a picture I had in my head about being on a beach with some glasses on and the sun beaming down," Sampha said, adding that he often writes songs based around precise visual images. In the song, there's a sense of desperation, which at first comes across as something close to panic but could also be seen as an invitation toward revealing vulnerability, making it a fitting overture for the album. "It was just about me sort of melting under the pressure—personifying the pressure of life, heat," he said. "Sharing that with someone is essentially just having a conversation with someone. At the end, I talk about the conversation and someone talking to you and their light shining on you."

Would it be too obvious to point out that Sampha is writing these songs from a place that is fully his own? Is it unnecessary to mention how simple his goals are? "I want people to know that it's a genuine thing for me," he told me. "And that I love making music."

When Sampha was nine, his father died rather suddenly of lung cancer. Sampha's next-youngest sibling is 12 years older than he is, so, although he has large extended family, he grew up a bit like an only child, with his mother in many ways raising him on her own. They became very close—"sometimes I didn't realize how close," he said, reflecting on how difficult it was for her to have him leave home. He went to university in northern England, studying music production and business for a year and a half, but he found it disorienting and felt more purposeful at home, where he had met a like-minded collaborator in SBTRKT and had a strong support network. Sampha's parents had moved to England from Sierra Leone with his two oldest brothers a few years before he was born, but they had lots of family in London (among them a cousin who was the reasonably popular grime MC Flirta D, an inspiration to young Sampha). His brother, provider of CD-Rs and good music recommendations, lived right around the corner.

In 2009, Sampha's mother was diagnosed with cancer in her stomach lining, and, just as his music career was beginning to show some potential, he was compelled to be with her. She eventually went into remission for a few years, during which time Sampha was able to travel the world and make connections and share his excitement with her that Drake wanted to use his beats. But the cancer returned around the end of 2014, at which point Sampha returned to his childhood home to care for her. He plays down the pain as less than what some people have to deal with, but it seems titanic nonetheless to have lost both your parents to separate cancers by the age of 27, and the grief of that naturally colors his music, too.

While "(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano" is a song for Sampha's mother, the other great highlight of Process, "Incomplete Kisses," is a song for his father, or rather for the ideas his father has come to represent. On "Can't Get Close," from Dual, Sampha laments the unbridgeable distance between them in a melody that collapses in on itself, struggling for space. "Incomplete Kisses" is, by contrast, tightly drawn, with a huge, sweeping chorus, sticky little yelps of melody, and crisp, bouncy instrumentation, exhorting the listener not to hide from their heart and mind.

"It's kind of like the presence of things not being there and as well of things you could've done but didn't do," Sampha said, drawing the connection to growing up without his father. "It was more so the wonders of what it would be like." If the former song is cathartic, the latter is transformative.

"The magical thing about music or the crazy thing to me is how dramatically it can change your disposition," Sampha offered, toward the end of our conversation, dwelling on what makes music worthwhile. "How some music has just helped me at some points. I feel like when I was really going through some shit or like Donny Hathaway, 'Someday We'll All Be Free,' and it'd calm me down, and it's be comforting. It really fucking helped. Like genuinely. Nothing else."

As he heads out on this tour and prepares the final tweaks of Process, Sampha is still working on making music that timelessly fills this role and that taps into a personal sense of calm. There are many ways to read the word in the album's title, but one that stands out is its meaning as far as coming to terms with internal pressures. It's not something that happens abruptly; instead it unfolds slowly, not unlike the way many of Sampha's songs work, kneading a single phrase over and over.

Live at Baby's All Right, he ended the show with a song from Dual called "Indecision," the central line of which is "let it all work out." At times, the lyric might be a prayer to someone above; at others, it might be an exhortation to someone nearby; at still others yet, it's a personal mantra: Slow down, step back, let everything take its natural course. The theme is one Sampha keeps coming back to, both now and looking forward. "I want to be a little bit easier on myself," he told me, imagining what comes next. "I just kind of want to express myself and be happy with that, too. There's always that."

Photos by Matt Seger. Follow him on Instagram.

Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.