Earlier this year, XL artist Sampha released Process, a mesmerizing debut solo album that arrived five long years after the Londoner first burst to fame (not to mention onto the radars of the likes of Drake and Kanye West). Ahead of his performance at London’s Lovebox Festival this weekend, the Solange collaborator tells Al Horner why he’s glad he slow-burned to success – and whether his next chapter will be another half-decade wait.
“I feel like a certain weight is no longer on my shoulders,” says Sampha, breaking into a chuckle, and I laugh with him, relieved. It’s an uncharacteristically hot day in the XL star’s native London, as the calendar nears six months since the release of Process, his intensely personal debut album. Anyone who’s spent those months, like me, returning time after time to its balm of piano, honeyed vocals and detailed production will know why I say relieved: for every moment of tranquility on that record, there’s a paranoid tale of blood-lusty eyes trained on him from a dark distance.
The suggestion on that record, one of this site’s favorites of the year so far, was of a soul-searcher who, despite the likes of starry collaborators Solange, Drake, Frank Ocean and Kanye West bringing him to the brink of A-lister status, had not quite been able to shake certain demons, a weight very much fixed on his shoulders.
“Anxiety has definitely been something I’ve struggled with, a presence in my life that has stopped me from doing certain things”
“It was cathartic in a sense. That’s what made the title quite fitting I guess, this idea of going through something and coming out the other side,” continues the 28-year-old, real name Sampha Sisay. Process was the therapy its name connotes: a resolution of sorts to a period proceeding the album in which, having built a name for himself as the velvet-smooth voice that stole the show on the first album by Young Turks producer SBTRKT in 2011, was forced to confront not only his mortality but the mortality of loved ones.
“It’s one of those things you don’t really expect,” he told Billboard earlier this year of the tragedies that threatened to stall his career, “like losing an arm or a leg”: at the same time as he fretted over a painful, unusual cyst in his throat, mentioned in Process opener ‘Plastic 100ºC’ (“usually I’d run home/ And tuck the issue under/ Oh, sleeping with my worries, yeah/ I didn’t really know what that lump was”), he was forced to watch his mother battle admirably against a cancer that went into remission in 2012, but later returned. Binty Sisay died in 2015.
“I was in a personal space, so I wasn’t really thinking of other voices who might be good on it,” he says of the resulting period of reflection, and how it turned Process into a more solitary album than it might otherwise have been. Having written in Ghana with Solange, Toronto with Drake, and Italy with Kanye after the cult success of his 2013 EP Dual, the stage was set for a similarly internationally-assembled first full-length, on which he called in favors from the bigger names to whom he’d lent warm hooks and guest spots, like his cameo on Solange’s ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’.
“There’s a lot of things that came up while making this debut record where I thought ‘wouldn’t it be interesting to do this, to do that.’ Now I can try to bring those things to life”
Instead, he returned to the places and people he’d always called home, for a more introspective listen than many would have anticipated. “I love everyone I’ve worked with but I wanted to share my voice,” he says. “The whole point of me putting out a solo record was to do that. It was important to me to do that. I’m glad I did it, and that I took my time to do it that way.”
He describes a “weird sort of outer-body experience” in learning to detach himself from self-doubt when making Process and thinking about its merit. “I would listen to other music and think, ‘what if my album is shit?'” he’s able to laugh now. “Anxiety has definitely been something I’ve struggled with, a presence in my life that has over time been responsible for me not doing certain things, or being overly cautious when doing them. Not going to the doctors or dentist ‘cos you’re more scared of what they could say than the reality. I get anxious a lot. But music in itself, and playing good shows, they help.”
After a busy summer that’s included massive shows at Coachella and Glastonbury, the singer is now looking ahead to the future, and what lies beyond a debut album that’s currently joint favorite at 6/1 to win this year’s Mercury Music Prize award for the best British album of the last 12 months, up there with Stormzy’s Gang Signs and Prayer.
“There’s a lot of things that came up while making this debut record where I thought ‘wouldn’t it be interesting to do this, to do that.’ Now I guess I can try to bring those things to life, compositionally and in terms of song structure and storytelling, trying to get a bit deeper,” he says. For fans who grew to love Sampha when he first emerged five years ago, it was a long journey to Process. Will his next release have an equally long gestation period? “You know, I really just want to connect to what I’m making, which sort of dictates it a little bit. But I definitely want to put out more music. I’m not sure how long it will be till my next album, but I don’t want to wait to release more music. I want to be a bit more free.”
Spoken like a man with a weight off his shoulders.
Al Horner is on Twitter