Magazine Feature

Kanye Co-Writer Sampha Prepares for the Spotlight After Family Tragedy

Sampha photographed Dec. 21, 2016, at Loft Studios in London.
Daniel Kennedy

Sampha photographed Dec. 21, 2016, at Loft Studios in London.

Sampha is perched on a chair in a small, windowless room in downtown New York; it’s late afternoon, and the 28-year-old singer-songwriter-producer is grasping for words to try to explain the effect of his mother’s death, in 2015.

“It’s one of those things you don’t really expect,” he says. “It’s like losing an arm or a leg.”

Two years ago, Sampha was coming off the ­success of working with Drake on “Too Much” and “The Motion,” as well as putting together his debut album, Process, when his mother, Binty, succumbed to cancer at 67. The creative process was understandably halted. “I wanted to be ready to release an album -- emotionally, psychologically,” he says, speaking barely above a whisper. “I wasn’t quite ready -- writing a record and dealing with being out in the world, that increased level of attention upon me ... It’s always hard to live with losses.”

After spending nearly seven years as one of music’s most coveted collaborators, Sampha heads into 2017 with his highly anticipated Process, out now on Young Turks/Beggars Group/XL Recordings. Despite his relatively short ­discography (a pair of EPs, 2010’s Sundanza and 2013’s Dual), the London native doesn’t have the rough edges of a new artist. He speaks softly, yet his tone is measured. His sentences border on lyrical, and he often closes his thoughts with a definitive “yeah.” He doesn’t flinch, even at the most personal question. This quiet confidence is partly why he has been summoned as a featured artist by Frank Ocean (“Alabama”), Kanye West (“Saint Pablo”) and Solange, among others.

“There’s something quite unpredictable about being in the room with Sampha,” says Jessie Ware, who worked with him on her 2011 debut, Devotion, and lovingly recalls how he tapped away on his Jomox XBase 999 drum synthesizer while making tracks like “Valentine” and “What You Don’t Do for Love.” “He is dialing into Mars, and then he’s taking you on a crazy, cosmic journey. He can’t stop all this amazing creativity flowing out of him.”

Courtesy of Apple
Alicia Keys and Sampha perform at the Apple Music Festival in London on Sept. 20, 2016.

Sampha Sisay was born in London -- the youngest of five brothers -- to immigrants from Sierra Leone and gravitated to music early, playing piano at the age of 3. “When you’re the youngest, you’re used to being more submissive and introverted,” he ­says. His father died from cancer when Sampha was 9; at 12, one of his brothers introduced him to Cubase editing software, and music became catharsis. His first song, “God’s Promise,” grappled with faith. “I think there’s a clarity when you’re young,” he says.

In 2008, Sampha ­connected with ­electronic artist SBTRKT on MySpace (via the screen name Kid Nova). “I had one song called ‘Subconscious’ where I was ­singing a little bit. SBTRKT liked my voice,” says Sampha. SBTRKT released his self-titled debut in 2011; Sampha contributed lyrics, vocals and ­production and was featured on the lead single “Living Like I Do.” The exposure resulted in Sampha signing with Young Turks, and like a juicy secret, his name circulated -- Drake, West and Rick Rubin soon came calling. “I didn’t really advertise myself,” he says. “I guess word-of-mouth is how all this happened.”

For Process, Sampha retreated to Ocean Sound Recordings in Giske, Norway, in 2015, nestling into a picturesque setting between mountains and sea with co-producer Rodaidh McDonald (The xx, Savages). A typical day included Norwegian rye bread and kefir (a fermented milk drink), and breaks to watch Seinfeld. He reflected on the most ­tender details, what he describes as the “little bits” of his mother and his relationship with her. “You tend to analyze someone a lot more after they pass,” he shares.

The idyllic setting surfaced many of Sampha’s vulnerabilities, too. “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” is about his mother (“You assure me I have something, some people call it soul,” he sings), while “Timmy’s Prayer” -- which began as an iPhone freestyle in the studio with West and has lyrical contributions from Ye -- and “Plastic 100°C” are wrenching love songs. Still, there’s pleasure alongside the pain. “It can be melancholy,” he says, “but there’s a lot of life and energy in the instrumentation.” In addition to West, there’s Laura Groves on vocals, Pauli PSM on drums and, nodding to the African music he grew up listening to, Josh Doughty on a 21-string harp called the kora.

Sampha is slated to hit festivals like Coachella and Primavera Sound in 2017, and will open for The xx on the band’s North American tour. “I want Sampha to be the breakthrough artist of 2017,” says Stephen Campbell, head of Young Turks Records in the United States. He isn’t worried about the slow burn; the label gladly has waited this long for Process. “What happens when you give an artist time is that the artist gets better ... It’s very important he stand on his own. It’s everything he’s worked for.”

Sampha is finally ready for the spotlight, too, although he’s open about still processing his grief. “I think I’m becoming more content ... I’ve moved on from that head space and emotional space,” he says. And then he adds, without reservation: “Still, there are lots of things that I need to deal with.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of Billboard.