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Music/Interviews

Sampha is a hesitant star in the making

May 04, 2017

After working with artists like Beyoncé, Drake, Kanye West and Frank Ocean, a humbled Sampha sets out on his own.

The original plan was to interview Sampha about Seinfeld, maybe quiz him, ask about favourite episodes, iconic moments, etc, but it all falls apart the moment we begin speaking. “No, I don’t think I’m a big enough fan,” he says over the phone from his Toronto hotel. According to a recent profile on the English singer-songwriter, he routinely took frequent breaks to watch episodes of Seinfeld during the recording of his debut album, Process, in a remote Norwegian studio.

I would say we watched like two or three episodes a day,” he says. “The DVDs were just there, so because we were in a residential studio for 24 hours a day it was just a nice little rest from being in the studio for hours upon hours.”

Since I have him talking, I ask him something I’ve always been curious about: Do you think it’s possible for a musician to use the Seinfeld theme, be it through sampling or reworking the music, without sounding foolish?

Sampha laughs at the question and politely humours me. “No. Well, maybe if you change the chord structure of it,” he says with some thought. “I don’t think the bass line could hold the same chord information. I guess you could rework it maybe, but it just is what it is. You just need to embrace it.”

The irony of watching Seinfeld while you’re in one of the most breathtaking, uninhabited destinations on Earth isn’t lost on Sampha. “I’d usually go out in the mornings for a walk or a jog, just on the coastline,” he says. “We were pretty remote, to be honest. We had to be driven to the supermarket to get some supplies and then go back to the studio to live.”

But withdrawing from the bustle of his London home was an important decision to make. “I wanted to get away so I could really delve into the recording process without being disturbed,” he explains. “So I found Ocean Sound. It’s on an island off the west coast of Norway, and the scenery was stunningly beautiful. There’s the ocean and the mountains. That’s really what drew me. The studio is lovely as well.”

Photo: Johannes Lovund

After his mother’s death, he didn’t put his songwriting on hold for long. “I had a little bit of time off, but that was more so for the funeral stuff,” he says. “I went back into writing rather quickly. That was really where my head was at. I’m not sure if that was the best thing for me to do, but it’s what I did.”

There is one song, above all, that demonstrates the beauty Sampha can mine from such a tragedy. “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano” finds him ruminating with just the piano he learned to play on as a child, in his mother’s home. It still lives there, but he will one day bring it home to his place. “I can’t see myself selling that piano because really, I don’t think anyone would buy it,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve scratched my name into it and peeled off some of the white from the keys. Growing up I was into vandalizing it. But it was the one I learned to play on.”

“I once said, ‘I’m not gonna play piano and sing ballads,’” he adds with a laugh. “And look at me now.”

 

I had this perception of what I wanted to put myself out as, which was a producer. That was kind of my passion,” he explains. “I went through all of these stages in my teens of pushing my sound forward in things I didn’t want to do. Like I would wonder, ‘Why don’t musicians try to play the synthesizer instead of the piano?’ Or ‘Why do people have to play acoustic guitars all the time?’ I was a bit of a futurist in a way. But then growing up I realized that I was being too totalitarian. I guess I realized that progress isn’t always the most important thing. There is just as much power or emotion in someone playing piano and singing. I learned to appreciate that and not be so snobby. I calmed down a bit, I guess. I just got comfortable with that and came full circle to become the opposite of what I said I’d be. Playing piano and singing was very much for me. It’s something I did out of my own personal enjoyment, and it can be difficult to realize how I can transcend that for other people to enjoy.

“I once said, ‘I’m not gonna play piano and sing ballads,’” he adds with a laugh. “And look at me now.”

Sampha bears his soul on Process, but you get the sense he still imagines himself in his bedroom while he’s performing, even when he’s in front of a sold out crowd. On the album’s closer “What Shouldn’t I Be?” he seems to struggle with his role as an artist and performer, but also as a grown-ass man. Despite now having his debut album out for the world to hear, he still has his doubts about who he is.

“That’s the feeling I constantly have, always wondering,” he says, again with a laugh. “What I like about making music is that it gives me time to articulate what I’ve learnt or experienced. It’s just not something I have at the forefront of my mind day-to-day. You always look at your school friends as teenagers and sometimes [you might] not see yourself as the age you are or [as] a fully-grown man, but you are, and the thing that makes it that way is your experience. But you can’t always put your finger on it, but you just are.”

Working with some of the biggest names in music, however, has given him a better idea of the kind of artist he aspires to be. Since breaking out in 2010 with his SBTRKT collaboration, Sampha has become a songwriter-in-demand for the likes of FKA twigs, Jessie Ware, Beyoncé, Solange, Kanye West, Alicia Keys, Frank Ocean, and Drake. The latter invited him on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to perform “Too Much,” a song that samples Sampha’s song of the same name. Sampha views these opportunities as valuable insight into how these artists operate.

“I definitely learnt a lot from the artists I worked with,” he says. “I was humbled a lot. I feel like when I was in my teens I pretty stubborn, which can have its advantages as an artist. But I guess working with other people showed me different methods and something that is unique to me isn’t necessarily unique. Most producers or songwriters go through the exact same struggles and work through it. When you’re younger, you can sometimes think that what you’re going through no one has never experienced before. It was good to see that and the different levels of ambition.”

All signs point to Process becoming a breakout album of the year, making Sampha a star. But he is definitely a hesitant star-in-the-making. Sampha is not the type to soak up all of the glowing press and adoring fans he’s amassed with Process. Richard Russell, the founder of XL Recordings, which spawned Sampha’s label Young Turks, said, “Sampha doesn’t want to be the centre of attention.” And despite becoming the centre of attention, he downplays it.

“It hasn’t been crazy amounts of attention. I haven’t become a huge superstar,” he says. “But so far the attention has taken a little bit of adjusting. I don’t want to be completely naïve to it. I think it’s been okay and manageable. It’s nice to feel appreciated on a human level. I haven’t felt too overpowered. But I do like the idea of not being super-famous. I’m not completely averse to attention; I appreciate it when someone asks to take a picture of me.”

As a title Process is a loaded one with different meanings. But right now it feels as though the most relevant one is in how Sampha is just getting started with his music. As a young boy he took an interest in dancing, then as a teenager he turned to making grime under the name Kid Nova. It was right when Young Turks came knocking that he began evolving into the velvety-voiced singer-songwriter we now know. Despite the fact that he’s been making this music for a number of years now, reflecting on his growth seems to surprise even him.

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