Sampha: I was like, 'Mum! Drake wants my beat!' And she was like, 'Who?'

He was tipped to be the next big thing – until family tragedy stalled his career. But Kanye West and Frank Ocean got him back on track

In a quiet Italian restaurant near his home in Cricklewood, north London, an even quieter Sampha Sisay, voice muffled by his own hands, is describing a convoluted career. In the past seven years, the 28-year-old singer and beat-maker has become the go-to guy for authentic emotion. His honeyed, mournful vocals have appeared on some of the most personal songs by the biggest names in US hip-hop and R&B: Beyoncé’s Mine, Kanye West’s Saint Pablo, Drake’s Too Much and Solange’s Don’t Touch My Hair. Much like Pharrell is hired for his cosmic production, Sampha is parachuted into writing sessions armed with depth and soul. So it is ironic that, as the prospect of his own debut solo album, Process, looms on the horizon, it’s the fear of feeling nothing at all that worries him most.

“It’s that thing of not being able to embody something as much as I thought I would when reality comes,” he says of the anticipation in the buildup to his album release. “I go into shutting-down mode. Maybe I’m not meant to feel excited. Maybe it’s partly that the journey is more important than the destination. The closer you get to something the further away the next stop is.”

From his early collaborations with the new wave of leftfield British pop and dance artists in 2010 – SBTRKT, Koreless and Jessie Ware – to the present day working alongside an assortment of global megastars, Sampha has had to “fight” his submissiveness in order to succeed. Relationships with recent collaborators have helped a more confident version of himself emerge. While working on Ocean’s surprise album last year, Endless (Sampha’s vocals can be heard on the track Alabama), he ended up giving his own song-in-progress, Blood On Me, a spin. Ocean – who he describes as “quiet” but also “very confident” – encouraged Sampha to speak his mind in the studio. “Frank said: ‘Don’t worry about [what anyone else thinks] – what do you think? Tell me what you think,’” he says, though he also explains how that experience in Ocean’s writers’ room was, by contrast, relatively functional: “I felt like I was of a service.”

A similarly determined Solange, meanwhile, inspired Sampha to consider his politicised side. “She was having conversations with people who were very passionate about the state of the times and how she felt about all the things that were going on,” he says of working on Solange’s record A Seat At The Table, which was both a celebration and a sombre assessment of modern black identity. “A lot of that I was learning about – coming from [the UK] and going over to America, in terms of seeing the difference in how black people or African Americans are treated.” As a result, he started “just trying to embody the feeling. Just assessing myself in that context. Being a little more brave in terms of creating a dialogue and not necessarily feeling like what you are saying is perfect. To actually start speaking about it.”

There is a parallel narrative to Sampha’s star-dotted life, however; one that contributes to his ability to channel sorrow. His parents moved from Sierra Leone to London, where he and his four brothers were brought up. But in 1998, his father, Joe, died of lung cancer. Then, during Sampha’s late teens, his older brother had a stroke that left him physically disabled, and a few years later, in 2010, his mother Binty was diagnosed with cancer. For five years, her health fluctuated. At the time, Sampha was tipped as a star on the rise, affiliated with an exciting wave of British talent, but progress on Process was often put on hold as Sampha’s two worlds collided. His time was split between work and caring for his family. Binty’s cancer went into remission in 2012, but two years later it returned. She died in 2015.

It must have been tough to shoulder both career expectations and family responsibilities during that period? “In way, I go into autopilot,” Sampha says softly. “There were times I had to take off and times I had to go on tour and she went into remission. It was difficult to try and balance that. [The song] Kora Sings was me struggling with my own issues. I paint a picture of being in a desert with a gun – I know it’s dramatic, but it is like a movie scene. Me in the desert with a gun, going through what I’m going through. But then I get a call saying mum’s ill. I have to put the gun down and suck it up.”

Sampha performs at Electric Brixton in November 2016
Sampha performing at Electric Brixton, London, in November 2016. Photograph: PJP/Rex/Shutterstock

Unsurprisingly, he eventually filled his debut album with that pain, reflection, even a longing for spiritual healing. The ivories loom large, and his knack for creating sonic intimacy with them is perhaps best exemplified by gospel ballad (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano, a song about loss, his relationship with his mother and the instrument that always had pride of place in his family home. Other times, the rhythm of his compositions recalls that of the Malian folk music his parents would listen to when he was growing up.

Process is not without a subtle scattering of stars, either. Timmy’s Prayer features a writing credit for Kanye West. The end result is a whirring electronic track, which showcases Sampha’s beautifully textured voice, always understated but full of tenderness. On it, the lyrics refer to the “heavens” and “the gates”, but while he and Kanye have both shared the loss of their mothers, the two musicians never discussed their emotions. “When we did talk it was mostly about music,” he says. “We didn’t really have much time to get that deep.”

Even so, it appears that Sampha has always had a knack for introspection. Unlike most artists’ rudimental first attempts at songwriting, even his earliest songs were loaded with melancholy messages. He recently found some childhood lyric sheets that surprised him. “I was going through stuff at home, and was like: ‘What the fuck! What was I thinking?’ What was I writing about? ‘It’s so hard to make friends, but so hard to lose them,’” he quotes himself, before laughing. “You’re seven!”

Sampha with Drake on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon
With Drake on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in September 2013. Photograph: NBC/Getty

He didn’t always make the same beats, though. Far from the introspective soul of Process, Sampha originally started making music as a grime MC and producer called Kid Nova, a name based on a Marvel Comics character. It was under this guise that, in 2007, singer Kwes discovered his music on MySpace, and sent it to a friend who worked at XL subsidiary label Young Turks. They released his first two EPs, but they also passed his music on to a Canadian rapper called Drake. “The first time I got an email saying: ‘Drake wants to use your beat for his album’, it came with the name of the beat and some kind of contract. I was like: ‘Mum! Drake wants my beat!’ And she was like: ‘Who’s Drake?’”

The star has continued to support and encourage Sampha’s career since their first encounter. In 2013, Drake sampled his track Too Much on his track of the same name – which doubled up as Sampha’s breakthrough moment – and had some words of encouragement for Progress. He recently sent Sampha a bottle of wine and a typically profound, Drake-like message, which read: “Drink this with some real friends when you’ve finished the album.” The album is complete, but Sampha hasn’t touched the bottle yet. Has he at least Googled how much it cost?

“Er, yes... It’s probably less than you’d think. I was like, really? Come on dude …” he scrunches face and emits a gentle laugh. “I’m joking!”

Maybe the sad times won’t last for much longer.

Process is out now on Young Turks


Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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