Do you have to have suffered to sing with soul? Sampha Sisay is the latest unhappy proof that it helps, at least. “I definitely feel like when I’m writing or playing, it’s an alleviation of something,” says the 28-year-old south Londoner. “Those things can be a fuel.”
His current single, (No One Knows Me) Like the Piano, is surely the saddest, most beautiful song of the year so far. It’s about the instrument in his family home, which his father bought from a neighbour when Sampha was three, and on which the child learned to play music. The youngest of five brothers, the next youngest being 12 years older than him, he spent a lot of time playing on his own. It’s also about his mother, who died from cancer in September 2015. In very few words it says a great deal about nostalgia, loss and longing. A candid ballad in comparison to the more of-the-moment electronic sounds of his other material, it’s a classic-in-waiting that deserves to lift him, from collaborator of choice for the great and good of urban music, to the breakout star of 2017.
Sampha himself is too modest to admit to ambitions for the elevated status in which I’d place him. With two bunny ears of hair, still somewhat under the weather after a trip from New York via Paris to Sierra Leone to film and visit family, he speaks low and soft, hard to decipher in a crowded cafe near his Bermondsey rehearsal studio. “I’m not sure what my emotion is about that song being out. It might take me a while to know. I wasn’t happy or super excited about it,” he says.
He didn’t actually write that song on the piano in question, but came up with the key lyrics while in his family home before eventually recording it in Norway. He’s been making his debut album for a couple of years – not as long as some may think given that he first got some attention on a Jessie Ware duet and a SBTRKT album as far back as 2011. The album, released next week, is called Process. When he put out the first song from it, Timmy’s Prayer, in May last year, he released a statement saying: “Hello. It’s been a while. I’ve had a lot to process these past couple of years, as we all do, and it’s hard to articulate sometimes.”
He doesn’t seem like a natural type to be revealing all in song, but there’s something very intimate about his singing voice, with its slight huskiness that strains as it tips into a falsetto. His song Plastic 100°C is about his experience of a lump he can feel permanently in his throat, which may be caused by stress and anxiety. The sparse, fragile What Shouldn’t I Be? is addressed to one of his older brothers, who lives in Sierra Leone. “Family ties, burden round my neck,” he sings in a near whisper. On Can’t Get Close, a stunning layering of angelic voices that he released on an EP called Dual in 2013, he talks to his father, who also died of cancer when Sampha was nine.
He says he’s comfortable with giving this much away because there are still a lot of things that remain unsaid. “In the songs, I haven’t been graphic about the details. The way I write, it’s a bit more veiled. There are a lot of avenues that I haven’t really explored emotionally. There are things that I’ve thought, that I’d probably never say. And I think there is an element of ‘Sampha’ being a character. It’s not necessarily all me. It’s only a part of me that I’m sharing.”
If you don’t know his name yet, you may already be familiar with that voice, perhaps from two albums of sophisticated electronic soul by SBTRKT (pronounced “Subtract”). Sampha dropped out of a music production course in Cheshire to sing, write, produce and tour with the man also named Aaron Jerome. “We wore masks, so we weren’t recognised. I learned how to let go of my inhibitions, found that confidence.”
More recently, he was heard on some of the finest albums in North American hip hop and R&B. His song Too Much was refashioned for Drake’s album Nothing Was the Same. He can be seen singing with Beyonce’s sister Solange Knowles and wearing what appears to be an entire duvet in the video for her song Don’t Touch My Hair. And he sings on Saint Pablo, a stunning collaboration that Kanye West added to his album The Life of Pablo four months after its initial release. Being briefly part of West’s songwriting factory was eye-opening, he says, though he didn’t end up putting too much blood, sweat and tears into the song. “He wasn’t there all the time. I didn’t try to force anything. The bit he used is a freestyle,” he says, meaning that he sang it off the top of his head. “He used the first version that I did, chopped out a bit to make it into a chorus, and that was it.”
So many prestigious guest spots have amplified his credibility, but he’s still something of a poorly kept secret, who only embarked upon his first headline tour last autumn. “It hasn’t brought me that much attention because I haven’t made a huge hit with anyone,” he says. “It’s not like my friends imagine it, who think I must be rolling in it by now. It’s exposed me to a wider audience, but nothing astronomical.”
He’s done anything but arrive with a bang, which suits his subtle, intricate music – icy and computerised here, warm and piano-led there, incorporating both swooping synths and West African kora. He’s been involved with XL Recordings and its associated label Young Turks (also home to The xx and FKA twigs) since the late 2000s, when he worked there as an intern, but only signed a record deal in 2014. He’s a slow worker, he says, who currently hasn’t written a song in months. “It’s not something that I do that much. If I have a free day, I’ll watch a documentary, look up rubbish on the internet, or I make beats.”
It sounds like he needed music more when his mother was ill, as an outlet and an escape. “It was a coping mechanism. When she went into the hospital I’d go into the studio, which is what I felt I needed to do,” he tells me. “Sometimes I felt that I couldn’t stomach the physicality of what was going on. You could completely wear yourself out if you didn’t take something for yourself.”
Now those bleak experiences have resulted in great music, but that hasn’t solved his problems. “It’s like hitting the bottle. It’s not necessarily the thing to do to cope with the stress,” he says. “I have felt like there are some things I’ve written about that I should at least try and confront and sort out. I know that I actually need to deal with it, rather than bypass it. I do need to take some time off.”
That’s going to be hard, for Sampha has made one of the albums of the year. Things are only going to get busier.
Process is released on Feb 3 on Young Turks. March 29-30, Roundhouse, NW1 (0870 389 1846, roundhouse.org.uk)