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Upfront: Sampha

Still, but not entirely calm

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When Sampha first arrives at our Collingwood studio the first thing I notice is his presence—it’s very still, but not entirely calm, like water. His voice is soft and often almost inaudible at the end of a sentence, but that somehow lends what he’s saying a certain gravity. And considering how raw and clear his recorded vocals are, it’s an unexpected but somewhat revealing trait.

No track represents that juxtaposition as strongly as ‘(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano’, the single off his debut album, Process. Stripped of nothing more than the instrument, some slight electronics and himself, Sampha divulges how the piano in his mother’s South London home provided the basis for who and what he is today. “They said that it’s her time, no tears in sight, I kept the feelings close,” he sings, “You took hold of me and never, never, never let me go.” In this track it’s clear that Sampha has completely come into himself without losing sight of what got him there.

The now 27-year-old British singer-songwriter-producer has been around for a while, putting in the hard yards, but it wasn’t until he first began collaborating with the likes of Jessie Ware in 2011 on ‘Valentine’, and SBTRKT in 2012 on ‘12”s’, that his full potential became obvious, even to himself. Since then Sampha has worked with a number of incredible artists, including Kanye West, Solange, and Drake, but this year I’ve got a feeling he’ll be joining their ranks as more than just a guest star.

What’s your first memory of music affecting you?

Probably watching this old VHS of Jack and The Beanstalk, I don’t know if you know that story. It must have come out in the late 70s, early 80s and it was just full of these really trippy psychedelic rock music — I think that’s what really transfixed me about it. A bit earlier than that just listening to Michael Jackson.

Was it that experience that made you want to be a musician?

Nah… I mean I’d always been making stuff because I had a piano so I’d been writing my own music for a long time but it wasn’t till my early teens that I actually started to show people and share that world with people. And then in my early adulthood, around when I turned 20, I realised that I could actually make a living out of it and I started working with SBTKRT and a few others. That’s when I sort of got introduced to the mechanics of the music industry.

What sounds do you gravitate towards in your production?

I’m very harmonically driven, it’s melody and harmony that really attract me. As I’ve grown older I’ve begun to understand the rhythm section more, when I was younger I didn’t really gravitate towards deep, minimal techno, or appreciate something just because the drums were that good. But when I was younger I really like Stevie Wonder and Daft Punk because of the chords they used, the melody, and the production — as a whole.

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Prior to the release of your solo EP Dual you’d always been a bit of a behind-the-scenes guy, what was it like stepping out as a solo artist?

It was kind of natural because nothing ever happened on too steep of a curve. I never got got thrust into an area where I felt super uncomfortable and never for any other reason but me making music. I guess I started to get the most attention when I worked with Drake, in terms of people recognising me more or getting more attention online. And it was cool and nice and everything but it wasn’t as life changing as people would imagine, like my friends were like “Yo you must be caked, you must be ballin [laughs].’”

You’ve peaked, that’s it, there is no more.

Yeah [laughs], but it was nothing like that. That’s just the outside looking in.

I guess it’s always a case of perception. It’s so interesting hearing artists talk about what they’ve done like that versus the hyped up version you might read about.

Yeah it’s just like most things, and I do think there’s a little bit of romanticism about it, when you’re not around something physically it becomes bigger than it is.

Speaking of big collabs you worked with Solange on her debut album, what was that like?

It was great, I have really fun memories of the music we made. And it was cool because it was a relationship that kind of blossomed over time. I guess initially she might not really have known everything I could do or did at the time … I think we worked well together because I sort of realised more about her and she realised more about me—but also working with all the other people that were a part of that album.

You’re such a collaborative artist, have you brought that element to your new album or is it all you?

Yeah it’s mostly me to be honest, there’s no features on there. I mean I have worked with other musicians and there’s backing vocals on there but the focus remains on me. On the production side of stuff I co-produced the record with someone else but I sort of played and programmed most of it and that helped keep the direction … that just happened naturally though, it wasn’t super conscious to have no features or anything.

How long did you work on it?

It took about two years … it’s a real personal album in terms of talking about my experiences and going through my emotional landscape in the two years that I wrote the record; it’s all relationships and dealing with existential questions around life and death. I guess it’s just me kind of analysing my sort of interior design.

Is there a track that you’re particularly proud of?

I don’t really have a favourite to be honest, I’ve kind of listened to it so much that I’m sick of it … I’m sick of all of it, it’s all rubbish [laughs].

You hate it [laughs].

Yeah, just so you know.

That can be the subtitle of this interview, i’ll just put ‘Sampha Hates It’ [laughs]. So does that answer my next question? Are you happy with it?

[laughs] No. Actually I really am happy with it, and I’m kind of proud to have reached this point because potentially I could have never finished the album. It’s exciting to have a record that I’m going to be playing live and doing all these things … all of it is just out of my … people sort of thrust this upon me. Because I’m a vocalist they expected me to make an album whereas I initially wanted to make beats and sing here and there … So I have to get used to—not get used to in terms of compromising, but I just had to grow into to being ‘Sampha’ and being comfortable with myself, this is me.

Sampha in lights.

Sampha in lights, yeah exactly.

Sampha’s debut album Process is out February 3rd via Young Turks/Remote Control Records.

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