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Decoding the Mind of Sampha

In celebration of his new album ‘LAHAI’ we caught up with the enigmatic London artist to talk fatherhood, physics and creating a canvas of a mood.

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If you’ve listened to the gut-wrenching vocals of British musician Sampha, you’ll know how conceptually intricate his music is. It makes sense then, that the man behind the songs would think in a way that doesn’t quite translate to the structures of a “normal” conversation.

“I get lost when answering questions,” he laughs, “There’s a lot of things going on. Somehow it’s still connected and quite veiled at times.”

“I get the feeling you’re someone that has 100 ideas in your head at once,” I say.

“Yes, I think so. I feel like I’m very scatterbrained to be honest.”

During our 30-minute back-and-forth, I find myself accidentally interrupting him or finishing his sentences. I’m not sure whether it’s because he doesn’t know what to say or is deep in thought. It’s hard to know, sometimes, when he’s finished speaking. It’s both surprising and not. 

Over the last few years, Sampha has solidified himself as a deep-thinker who takes the most nuanced or complex feelings and imitates them in song. He’s lent this talent to innumerable projects since the 2010s, including Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Father Time’, Drake’s ‘Too Much’ and Solange’s ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’. His 2017 debut album, Process, became his magnum opus for this. Released in the aftermath of his mother’s death from cancer it was saturated with slow-moving, bruised and soulful ballads that masterfully navigated grief and self-discovery. 

Whether listeners knew his story or not, they were transported to the same places he was when he wrote them. “(No one knows me) like the piano in my mother’s home” comes the lyric from the paramount track off the album – a story of longing for childhood comforts and an ode to his mother. Also, a lyric that could leave anyone’s stomach twisted.

Six years later, Sampha writes from a happier place. He’s just become a father, he’s moved to a new house in a different part of London, and he’s just released his sophomore album LAHAI (his Grandad’s middle name). While more hopeful in its contents, it still encapsulates the thousand thoughts that swim around Sampha’s brain simultaneously, then to be soundtracked by his wayfaring piano melodies. The product is a documentation of the connection of family (particularly the bridge between his daughter and late mother), of passing time and, interestingly, of magical realism, sci-fi and the supernatural.

“I’ve been working with different eyes,” he says, appearing on camera with the soft, white light of his windows casting shadows onto his signature black lochs, “There are lots of different things or ideas,” he laughs, “it’s all a bit of a jumble.”

The sheer amount of books that Sampha skims through in explaining these “different things” is hard to comprehend. Not because they’re too complex but because he moves through ideas quicker than I can translate their meaning. 

First comes the book More Brilliant Than The Sun by Kodwo Eshun, “he was talking about another writer who had this idea of African percussion music,” he says, “it doesn’t necessarily flow in a linear way, it builds upon itself so you have a complex rhythm…and it becomes an architectural form.” He was interested in it because it connected afro-futurist notions to nonlinear time and let him see how both the past and present were written, and by who. 

“I was also reading physics books about how there’s different nows…[books about] entropy and how chaos increases…[and about how the] direction of time is stuck going forward,” he says.

This is how the sonic of his album was built. A sound he describes as “metronomic and percussive” – that also interweaves his signature ethereal R&B that makes you think of wide-open skies and vast landscapes, maybe even better places, “And obviously that gives this feeling of a tik or a tok or of how rhythm and time are intrinsically linked,” he adds.

It’s obvious that he understands things in a feeling and visual sense – sometimes words don’t seem enough to communicate what he’s actually experiencing. He’s famously known to enter a session where a movie or a video of the ocean are projected onto a wall. And then he’ll sit behind an instrument and play. He did that this time, too.

“I’m quite a visual person,” he says, “I’m usually trying to create a mood. That’s the first thing, as opposed to writing lyrics or trying to sing about subjects. I’m creating a canvas of a mood.”

What’s resulted on this album are lyrics and sounds that feel intimate, almost like you should feel guilty for peering too far into his life. For example, on the quick-paced, ticking and unorthodoxly timed, ‘Can’t Go Back’, he sings about his past, “Chronic trauma discovering/ Mind is master of covering /Fear of your future developments, yeah/ Based on your past life experience”. 

It’s the curse of being a musician. When you put something out into the ether, everyone wants to know the story behind your work. And with a swift Google search, his story can be found.

He is the youngest of five brothers. His family was originally from Sierra Leone but immigrated to South London in the ‘80s. His dad bought him a piano when he was three, and in 2007, as a teen, he started making music. Then Sampha lost both his parents to cancer (his father in 1998 and his mother in 2015). 

I wonder for someone who shares so much of himself through his music – especially intimate details about family – how he feels about this information being so readily available, “I think I’m a quite plain speaker, and there’s things I’ve definitely said in the past where I’m like ‘Oh my god, why did I say that’,” he says.

“So it is difficult…but I write from a relatively honest place. I do sometimes feel slightly uncomfortable with being associated with certain things. Whenever it’s these big subjects which I’ve wrestled with in my music, and I wrestle with it because I’m struggling with it sometimes, it’s a strange one.”

I joke that he can do an MF Doom and wear a mask, “Well, yeah, the thing about me is I’ll be in the spotlight for a bit then I’ll probably disappear in a dramatic fashion,” he laughs, “Just not speak to anyone. That’s how I kind of deal with that sometimes, which probably isn’t healthy.”

One of those big subjects is his journey into fatherhood – From being a son who lost his parents to becoming a parent of his own. And his experience raising his daughter seems to bridge the gap between something amiss. On the gospel-toned ‘Evidence’ he sings about finding meaning, “Wake in the morning and I stare at you dreaming/ Little one, so new to things/ Making me believe in things.” 

But despite how he responds to his own struggles, it’s obvious that LAHAI has become a place where he’s found solace, just as he hopes other people will. Especially on the ambient, James Blake-esque ‘Spirit 2.0’ – the one, he says, that encapsulates the project’s message in its entirety. A song that is spiritual, about self-discovery and “[feels] like cool air and blue skies.” “Waves will catch you, light will catch you/ Love will catch you, spirit gon’ catch you,” he sings.

Follow Sampha here for more and stream the new album LAHAI here.

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