Sisay’s tracks with SBTRKT veered between euphoric dubstep and shadowy, austere electronic soul The songs on Dual are piano-led sketches, with melancholic gospel harmonies bolted onto spectral clicks, whirrs and found sounds.
sampha glastonbury 2019 – CBC Radio
The London-based singer-producer Sampha Sisay is a secret weapon many of this decade’s most popular musicians have somehow agreed to share. I feel like a certain weight is no longer on my shoulders,” says Sampha, breaking into a chuckle, and I laugh with him, relieved. It’s an uncharacteristically hot day in the XL star’s native London, as the calendar nears six months since the release of Process, his intensely personal debut album. Anyone who’s spent those months, like me, returning time after time to its balm of piano, honeyed vocals and detailed production will know why I say relieved: for every moment of tranquility on that record , there’s a paranoid tale of blood-lusty eyes trained on him from a dark distance.
Sampha makes the conscious decision to place his voice in the foreground throughout the record, choosing dryness over reverb. It’s a voice that fissures mid-range, frays into a whisper, and reaches for hidden depths. And what he lacks in range he more than makes up for in sheer expression, no more evident than on the lullaby ode ‘(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano’. The most conventionally structured song, it soars because of its easy sonic simplicity. The piano is a symbol of Sampha’s ties to his mother and father, and the gateway into the music that would become his saviour. ‘Timmy’s Prayer’ is perhaps the closest Sampha comes to a spiritual reckoning, enraged and exhausted, he laments a higher power. He may be beaten but he’s learnt the hard way that there lies a visceral power in invocation.
For years, the British singer-songwriter has been one of pop’s secret weapons — just ask Kanye West, Solange, or Drake what he can bring to a song. But now, with his debut album, ‘Process,’ he’s making a solo move.
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.
The London musician Sampha won the prestigious Mercury Prize for his debut studio album “Process,” beating international sensations such as Ed Sheeran or The xx. After years of being mostly a featured singer, Sampha released his anticipated debut album, “Process,” in February.
Known for co-writing and singing on SBTRKT’s critically acclaimed debut album, Dual saw Sampha establish himself as an artist and producer in his own right. During his downtime from touring the world with SBTRKT, remixing the likes of labelmates The xx and Chairlift and collaborating with Jessie Ware, Drake and Koreless, Sampha holed himself up in his childhood home in Morden and recorded the 6 tracks that make up the EP. Dual, which came out on Young Turks in July 2013, offers an intimate and idiosyncratic glimpse into Sampha’s artistic intent, showcasing his talents not only as an accomplished singer, but also as a gifted songwriter and producer.
The second track on the album Blood on me” is emblematic of everything listeners love about Sampha’s debut work. The bridge Ay, oh, I am” is more than just a catchy ad lib. In an interview with Genius, Sampha explains how the repetitive nature of this line relates to the theme of the song; namely, feeling trapped and running from the haunting guilt of your past, always on the verge of being exposed. He took this concept quite literally as he would literally run around the studio to make himself out of breath before recording.
For years, some of the biggest names in music (and the best talent scouts) — including Drake, Beyoncé , Kanye West and Solange — have deployed his lush, tender soprano, which can feel wounded but never weak, to telegraph their vulnerability. Through guest appearances on tell-all songs like Drake’s Too Much” and Mr. West’s Saint Pablo,” Sampha has made himself a go-to collaborator for those in search of emotional heft.
Sampha Lahai Sisay, is a singer, songwriter, musician and record producer from Morden, South London, United Kingdom. Sampha is known widely for his collaborative work with SBTRKT, Jessie Ware, Drake, Kanye West, Solange and others. Sampha has released two solo EPs: Sundanza and Dual. Sampha’s debut album, Process, was released on 3 February 2017, through Young Turks and won the 2017 Mercury Prize.
Sampha has faced enough grief for a hundred lifetimes. He lost his father in 1998 and his mother in 2015, both to cancer. This loss and its aftermath makes up the lyrical and thematic thesis of Process, a record rooted in sorrow and the struggle to cope. On the opening track Plastic 100°C”, Sampha likens his emotional journey to that of an astronaut lost in space, crying out for help. It’s so hot I’ve been melting out here, I’m made out of plastic out here, you touched down in the base of my fears. Houston, can-can-can you hear?” he signs, referencing his fragility when flying too close to the sun. Plastic 100°C” is followed by Blood On Me”, a frantic and haunting track, and a standout from the album. On Blood On Me”, Sampha runs from his problems, but never quite escapes them.
Sampha, full name Sampha Sisay, has built his trade by being a reluctant artist. Tipped as a star on the rise at the beginning of the decade, his EP releases (‘Sundanza’ and ‘Dual’) packed delicate but virtuosic vocals over warped, fractious beats. Dexterous in his ability to unify disparate soundscapes, black heritage music through a prism of futurist underground greyness — Sampha was merely scratching the surface of his abilities.
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.
While “Process” is a lean 10 tracks, Sampha had plenty of material for the debut. But he learned another valuable lesson: knowing to stop tinkering when something is finished. One of five brothers, Sampha looked after Binty around the clock, only getting a chance to make music while she was in hospital or when he could snatch a few minutes with her piano.
It is a slow ballad, an homage to his musical roots, before his rise to fame and before the loss of his mother, as he sings about the piano he would play in his mother’s home. Though the subsequent tracks do re-engage with some of the early heaviness, it is less chaotic and gains precision as the artist gains understanding and control of his pain and grief.
Given his late mother’s years-long battle with cancer, it’s understandable that melancholia would suffuse so much of Sampha’s music. In person, however, he is shy at times but never dour. He smiles a lot and clams up only when he pauses to consider his responses carefully — not as a matter of any programmed hypercaution, just thoughtfulness. Sampha is thinking.
Sampha’s singing has always been a strength. The surprise that brings Process to life is its spacious and vibrant production. You can hear steam rising from the unpredictable chords of Take Me Inside,” while Reverse Faults” stitches together disorienting synth patterns before morphing into a hard-knocking expression of guilt. This is anxious, unsexy music, shaped by health scares and death. But it’s neither claustrophobic nor sour.
The only times I would go and make music was when she was in the hospital for the day,” Sampha said. As a caregiver, you can become a little bit numb because you have to be very functional,” he said. But songwriting, which he tends to do improvisationally at the piano, helped to sort of realize the gravitas of things and helped me reconnect and empathize with my mom,” he said.
The internet has wondered about the song’s meaning — guessing anything from phone-number country codes to biblical verses and tax forms — but Sampha isn’t saying. (“I think I’ll just let people go on about that,” he chuckled.) As he’s learned over time and demonstrated on “Process,” the best songs are often layered with possibilities, and ultimately, better left to interpretation.
Process swells with the impassioned, melodic expressions of South London’s Sampha Sisay. Despite not releasing a full-length solo album until now, Sampha has enjoyed mainstream recognition primarily as a featured artist. In 2016, he seemed to thrust out of a relatively quiet period, appearing on the albums of Kanye, Frank Ocean and Solange.
The season will open with a concert by by London-based singer, songwriter and producer Sampha. As one of the UK’s most enigmatic young artists, Sampha has spent years generously dividing his time between solo and collaborative work, lending his talents to a whole range of standout releases; from homegrown UK contemporaries such as SBTRKT, FKA twigs, Lil Silva and Jessie Ware to world-renowned superstars like Drake, Beyonce, Kanye West, Solange and Frank Ocean.
The final tracklist features some of his best work to date. A standout is the sparse single “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” which, on the surface, sounds like an ode to a trusted instrument, but is really a tribute to his mother, who died of cancer in 2015.
Sisay’s tracks with SBTRKT veered between euphoric dubstep and shadowy, austere electronic soul The songs on Dual are piano-led sketches, with melancholic gospel harmonies bolted onto spectral clicks, whirrs and found sounds. The warmth in Sisay’s gorgeous voice brings melodic cohesion, pitching the sound somewhere between James Blake and Al Green. His latest singles Too Much and Happens, meanwhile, are more traditional soulful ballads. I like trying to make sounds that are interesting and are a bit weird,” he says. I try to make music that captures people’s imaginations.” Lyrically, he can be painfully direct, simmering with troubles of the heart (as on Can’t Get Close ) and mind ( Beneath the Tree ).
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.
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.
Use the audio player below to listen to the full session and hear three songs from Sampha’s debut album, Process. The Alabama Shakes singer and guitarist brought an eight-piece backing band to the Tiny Desk for a set of deeply personal and affecting songs.
S: Now, my ears are very much more attuned to things. But I don’t necessarily think I’ve become a better songwriter. I feel like music is a documentation of where you are at the tie. So if I listen to something that I wrote when I was 14, I think, That’s great. That was really good.” And I might not be able to ever go back to that time and place, but I feel like some things drop off and some things get better. Your understanding of sound grows, but you might not have the same energy as when you were 21 or younger. You mature and maybe your sound…I wouldn’t say dulls, but maybe it’s not as hyperactive as it used to be.
Romance, loss and alienation are a major thread of Marshall’s work. They’re all topics Sampha leaned on for Process,” the debut from the experimental electronic soul producer-singer and the work that brought him to this month’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
If you’re looking for easy listening with catchy choruses and banging melodies, be warned: You won’t find those on Sampha’s Process. Instead, you will find an honest, emotional and very private narrative about dealing with loss and grief and coming to terms with one’s identity.
In 2016, British singer Sampha was pop’s most sought-after collaborator, lending his melancholy voice to critically lauded albums by Kanye West, Frank Ocean and Solange. Now, the 28-year-old keyboardist and electronic producer is taking center stage.
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.
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.
I wrote that song when I had moved out for a couple of months to east London to record. I had moved out of my mum’s house, and she got told that the cancer which she had had for four and a bit years, was terminal, so I had to move back home. I moved home and the song just came to me really. It’s more a metaphor because the piano is my mum’s home.
As he built a reputation for his work as a producer, Sampha began to appear on tracks as a guest singer. When calls came from Drake and West, it was clear his star was rising. Sampha was just as interested in soaking up as much knowledge from the faces he was used to seeing on TV.
Frequent Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar collaborator Stephen Bruner steps into the spotlight with his debut album, which packs 23 songs into 50 minutes. Thundercat’s bass chops are impressive, but it’s his inventive playing style, oddball arrangements, and unique sense of melody and harmony that make this album so special.
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.
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.
Coming in at number 6 in WSUM’s Top 10 of 2017 list is Sampha’s Process. This wasn’t Sampha’s first encounter with the disease: Sampha’s father, Joe, had died of lung cancer in 1998. One of your songs on the album discusses the object nostalgia of the piano in your mother’s home.
The loss of his mother, Binty Sisay, permeates the album and the film. After shunning the spotlight and working diligently to perfect his sound, Sampha has bared his soul by way of Process, his emotionally-driven debut album.
A pair of EPs released through indie imprint Young Turks (2010’s Sundanza” and 2013’s Dual”) introduced his falsetto — delicate and with a thick South London accent — to frequent collaborators SBTRKT and Drake. After gaining a following, Sampha decided to muster the courage” and write an album.
His soulful voice and lyrics are full of emotion, and having lost both of his parents to cancer, much of Sampha’s writing focuses on processing the hardships he’s gone through. That, along with his use of simple, repetitive melodies make his debut album, Process, a powerful one.