Soul Searching

By
Photography Hans Neumann

Published February 2, 2017

SAMPHA IN NEW YORK, AUGUST 2016. PHOTOS: HANS NEUMANN. STYLING: SAVANNAH WHITE. GROOMING: NICOLAS ELDIN FOR RENÉ FURTERER.

There’s soul in Sampha’s music—an aching tone, singer-songwriter storytelling, and everyday existentialism. These qualities often feel absent from electronic production, making the soft-spoken 27-year-old’s show of vulnerability refreshing. Recently, the South Londoner—who first found solace playing his mother’s piano—came even further into the open; he cites touring and those he surrounds himself with bringing him “out of [his] shell a little bit,” and will release his debut LP Process (Young Turks) tomorrow. “Everything that I am goes into making what I made,” says Sampha of the album. “I’m excited for people to really get a good sense of me or my intentions. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll be able to hear that I really love music—and I’m trying.”

Here Sampha speaks with his friend, filmmaker Kahlil Joseph, whose work includes directing part of Beyoncé’s acclaimed visual album Lemonade. In March, Apple Music will premiere an accompanying film to Sampha’s Process directed by Joseph.

KAHLIL JOSEPH: We’re just getting to know each other. We’ve only met a handful of times, but it’s been great and as easy as it’s ever been—one of the easiest, most natural [experiences of] meeting another artist that I vibe with. I remember my first impressions of when we met. What were your first impressions when you met me?

SAMPHA: If I’m honest, you seemed like quite an interesting guy, quite outgoing. I felt comfortable, because you offered me a drink and asked me some interesting questions. You always imagine what something would be like, and I guess it was quite different when I think about the questions you were asking me.

JOSEPH: Do you remember what those questions were?

SAMPHA: Yeah, you asked, like, “Do you consider yourself articulate?” [laughs] I think you were talking in relation to how different some people can be when they’re in their zone. I think you gave Kendrick [Lamar] as an example of someone who when you speak to them feels like a regular dude from L.A., but then when he raps it’s like this whole different level of language.

JOSEPH: Right, I remember that. [laughs] I know that for me, I use images and sound, music or sound design, to really express [myself]. I feel like I’m most articulate making stuff and not always in conversation, so I’ve been very curious in the last couple of years about people who I meet who are artists and creative: do they too feel most articulate, in your case, making music? Because it’s true, man, you’ve got two different modes—maybe more—but from what I’ve seen, you on stage is definitely not the same person hanging out at the hotel or at the studio: you transform. That was profound for me when I first saw you in L.A. I’ve been listening to the album—fortunately, way before this—so I was familiar with the songs, which was another interesting layer. But to see how much you blossomed was… Do you see those two things getting closer—is who you are off stage starting to become who you are on stage?

SAMPHA: I definitely feel that in working on the live show, and it being my own live show, and being surrounded by people who have been really encouraging. And just being around people for so long, I feel like there’s an osmosis between my performance on stage and how I act off stage. I realized that the more I let my inhibitions go when I was off-stage, the more I’d feel comfortable on stage. So before I go up, I’ll start jumping around or doing crazy movements, just trying to feel free. I tell myself, “Don’t hold back.” I think that’s slowly soaking into how I actually perceive or react in my daily life—being a little more brave or a little more open, at the same time not jumping too far over the bridge or anything.

JOSEPH: I remember a musician saying—he dropped his first album when he was 26, I think it was Jay Z, and it was a classic, Reasonable Doubt—but he talked about how that album was 26 years in the making, and then every subsequent album was less built-up. This was his explanation or understanding. Do you feel like Process, your first album, is your lifetime in the making? Like everything you’ve ever felt and everything you’ve ever heard, this is the full monty?

SAMPHA: I feel like my lifetime of experiences informed the way I made the album. … But I don’t think it was all the ideas I’ve ever had, or what I imagined my first album would sound like. It’s very much a documentation of the two years it took me to make the album; I didn’t rehash old ideas or go too far back. I didn’t have any melodies that I had since I was 14 or lyrics that I’d had written when I was 21. It was all fresh material. I’ve always been making quite a lot of music, but I haven’t really released that much. If I go through my iTunes I can hear the different eras of production or styles that I kept to myself, so to me it feels like I’m maybe on my second album. [laughs] I feel like if I made this album when I was younger it might be more like, “This is an accumulation of everything I’ve felt up until this point,” and a real autobiographical thing, but this is more natural for the particular time, I think.

JOSEPH: It’s no secret that you’ve collaborated with some of the biggest names in music in the last few years. The music you make is super soulful—that’s also no secret. You make real music about things that you feel deep in your soul. And not that maybe these other artists don’t feel it in their soul, but their music feels more light. I understand why they would want to work with you; because your music is so soulful, there’s a tension. It allows them to do their thing and then here you come. Whatever the hook might sound like, your voice is just way more soulful. There’s a balance in the music you’ve made in the past with these other people. I noticed there are no guest verses [on Process]—there’s nothing like that. You could easily call a handful of people and be like, “Hey, want to be on my first album?” But I don’t think there’s anybody on the album. This is you. It’s a huge, personalized, soulful letter.

SAMPHA: It was a natural thing if I’m honest. … When I’m in my own space, I’m creating. When I was making my album I really was just in that space and valued the solitude. I liked that feeling, even though I didn’t quite make it totally by myself. I naturally didn’t reach out. I feel like I will in the future. A little bit of that is just me and my nature. I always feel like I’ve maybe got some guilt complex about asking people to feature on mine. [laughs] But it was also a little bit of a conscious thing, I felt like because I’d featured so much on other people’s records, I really just wanted to put across the sense of me. Maybe that’s a little bit of an ego or something, but I always say that—maybe you said this to me—ego can have some negative connotations. I felt like I needed to express that I have my own ideas, and I’m not just a singer. Looking forward, I probably will try to reach out to other people and collaborate more on my own projects.

JOSEPH: I’m actually going to back it up a little bit, because I realize there’s probably a lot of stuff that people don’t know that I came to know in our exchanges and getting to know you better, which might be related to your willingness to do it on your own—the first being that you’re the youngest of five. I was the oldest sibling. I also know that you’re the only one in your family that was born in the U.K., and people have no idea that your family heritage, culturally, you’re full-blown British and African, from Sierra Leone.

SAMPHA: Yeah, there’s a lot going on there. I have four brothers and I do think I have maybe a little bit of “little brother syndrome.” I am quite a lot younger than my other brothers, and I’ve always been the quiet one or been asked to do something, so there’s that element of submissiveness that you grow up with. Not obedience, but I was always taking things in and not really asking much—just being the one who, if someone asked me to do something, I’d always help them out. When I was younger I felt like I had to do it, but that nature just grew into me, really, and the way I am. So there’s a lot of that, in comparison to someone who might be an only child, and who might have a different outlook or act differently in particular situations.

JOSEPH: It says here that your dad brought you and your brothers CDs home every week. Is there an album that you can remember that stands out? That’s a lot—is it true that it was it every week?

SAMPHA: Not every week, but he would bring home singles. He would buy a lot of pop singles so it’d be, like, the Spice Girls or [Luciano] Pavarotti—anything.

JOSEPH: So he wasn’t no Joe Jackson, and you guys weren’t no Jackson 5, were you?

SAMPHA: [laughs] No, he wasn’t. My dad was a strict man, I’m not going to lie. He didn’t have any big plans, but he was definitely an entertainer and a partygoer. He loved his music, he loved his food—he was that kind of guy. He loved to share music. The one album I remember he bought, that I only found in my late teens after he’d passed away when I was younger, was an album by Oumou Sangaré, a Malian folk singer who I always talk about. That’s the one album that really hit me hard. I felt it had that feeling of roots, of being brought back somewhere that I felt really connected to. That was like the first time I felt that kind of thing super hard. I imagined being in the village or wherever. It just took me to somewhere.

JOSEPH: That’s one thing that you and I have in common: we’ve both lost a parent, a father, especially to cancer. My dad—I was older, so I had more time with him—but nonetheless, a lot of stuff he did, said, gave me, enjoyed, have a super profound importance in my life. Does the same hold true for you? Like, music your dad loved, records that he gave you, or things that he gave you, do you find yourself unconsciously or consciously incorporating that kind of stuff into your music?

SAMPHA: A little bit. As much as my dad brought home music, it was really my brothers who built the foundation of the music that I go back to regularly. There’s that feeling I hold dear. It’s weird because when I go back now, I get to learn a little bit more about him through what he’s left behind, like music, books, clothes. It’s more me not holding onto anything but finding out more about him.

JOSEPH: Do you identify with being a British musician, or do you think with the internet and 21st century kids, those cultural markers are far more dulled or less relevant?

SAMPHA: I definitely feel like I’m from London, or English, just in terms of things that I intrinsically understand, like grime music; there’s nothing I have to try to get about it, as opposed to maybe people from the States or people who live abroad. That being said, there are obviously those people out there who understand it intrinsically because of the internet. I got all of my grime references over the radio and through the internet, and I guess people internationally can do the same. I identify as a Londoner or from England, but at the same time I feel like I’m an internet kid—but one who has seen both sides, because I grew up without the internet. It’s not like my nephews or my nieces who will never know a world without it. I grew up, as I said, only being influenced by what was in my physical proximity, like my brothers or my friends or family.

JOSEPH: You’ve had the chance to work with these musicians at the top of their game intimately before you were able to put out your own album, which is relatively unique. We’re all constantly learning. What would you say you’ve learned from working with Drake or Kanye or Jessie Ware or SBTRKT?

SAMPHA: I learned a lot from all of them. I learned a lot from SBTRKT because he was the first guy who I knew “in the game.” He actually had experience releasing music and playing live, and had a vision. I learned so much from him in terms of how to put together a live show or how to use this bit of music software. It was also the first time I was in the presence of someone who had that much determination and vision in terms of where he wanted to go, the way he saw things, and his ability to psychogeographically put himself in the future and be like, “Next year, I want to be doing bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, and this, this, this, this, this. I want to be on this bill.” I’m just not like that. I’m still not like that, to be honest. I’m very much living in the moment. But that was cool to see. Working with Drake, it was cool to see how small-knit his crew was, because I assumed he was going to have a larger entourage in the studio—more producers. But for all that they do, they’re a small unit. It was cool as well on that level to see people’s talent shine. Sometimes I guess I see them as products; you don’t realize, you don’t really empathize with them as another human being. That was cool, when you’re in that physical proximity, to see, “Ah, he’s actually talented.” The thing that got me was his musical memory: his memory was crazy. The way he’d reference songs or demos that I’d sent, he’d remember the smallest little things of the way I sang something, that I went up and not down—things that no one else really notices. No one. I was like, “Drake is noticing this.” That threw me off a little bit. But there’s something to take away from everyone, and I think that’s just a life thing: in life you can learn a lot from anyone. Everyone has their individuality; these people are individuals just like everybody else, it doesn’t matter if they’re hugely famous. Some people obviously are who they are for a reason, and I see that Kanye West has a crazy aura, and you feel that, and it’s obvious to you why he’s doing what he’s doing. When people talked about his aura, I was like, “Yeah, I understand what that means.”

JOSEPH: I’m sure your new music has come out live, but it’s different when you hear it on a CD or streaming and you can play it over and over, and really have the music wash over you. How do you feel? What are you anticipating? Your life will never be the same, I’m sure.

SAMPHA: I don’t know if everyone’s going to be like, “This is terrible, what are you doing?” [laughs] I sometimes have those anxieties, like, “Are people going to think there’s too much going on? I should have made it more minimal, and just played the piano.”

JOSEPH: No!

SAMPHA: No, I’m joking, but I genuinely don’t know. I’m excited about it coming out and I anticipate I’m going to have a cathartic feeling, like a deep sigh of relief or something. At the same time, as it always goes, there’s the cliché thing about how it’s about the journey and not the destination. Anytime something happens it’s like, “Okay, so what am I going to do now?” I’m definitely putting my heart and soul into it; that’s what I hope comes across. But in terms of what people actually react to—if they like it or not—I have no idea what to expect. I have no idea how it’s going to do. I’m just anxiously waiting for the third. 

KAHLIL JOSEPH IS A FILMMAKER. SAMPHA’S ALBUM PROCESS (YOUNG TURKS) WILL BE RELEASED TOMORROW, FEBRUARY 3, 2017. FOR MORE ON SAMPHA, VISIT HIS WEBSITE