Sampha: South London Singer and Drake Co-Conspirator Proves He’s More Than Just a Silky Voice
"Sometimes I've already said a lot that I want to say within the production. The vocal is just adding to it."
Who: Sampha Sisay, a British singer and producer born and raised in Morden, a bedroom community outside South London. You may know him mainly as that voice — that is, the heavenly, smoky, goosebump-inducingly expressive presence that gave SBTRKT’s self-titled debut album its incredible intimacy. Many more will know him for the air of heartbreak he added to Drake’s “Too Much” (a song the British vocalist co-wrote, in fact). But Sampha is gradually revealing that his talents run deeper than his larynx and his lungs. This summer’s self-produced Dual EP boasted lush, deeply nuanced electro-acoustic production on par with that of peers like SBTRKT and Jamie xx, resulting in a futuristic but deeply rooted take on R&B. “I guess singing is the most revealing thing about someone,” he says, adding that it’s understandable that so many people have latched onto his voice as his defining talent. “I’d be a hypocrite if I said I didn’t do the same thing. When I hear someone, instantaneously, I’m like, ‘Who’s singing?’ You’re giving people so much of yourself, and my voice is the most natural, distinctive tool I have. It’s up to me to express myself on a wider scale than just writing vocal melodies and lyrics.”
Oblique Strategies: He takes a 180-degree turn with this month’s “Too Much”/”Happens,” two stark, melancholic songs featuring only acoustic piano and Sampha’s voice. (The A-side is a re-recorded version of the song whose demo Drake sampled.) The decision to record an “unplugged” release was a way of flipping his usual studio method on its head. “When I’ve produced a song, I try to record a vocal over it, and sometimes it becomes really hard,” he says. “Sometimes I’ve already said a lot that I want to say within the production. The vocal is just adding to it, rather than it being a song. So I just wanted to try and finish off songs by concentrating on lyrics and singing and piano. I went into the studio with [producer] Emile Hayne and just recorded a bunch of piano songs. I did it all in one day, actually — it was quite a quick idea.”
Voice Is the Original Instrument: Such a low-key approach seems to come naturally to the soft-spoken musician, who has been playing and composing since childhood, when his father brought a piano home. It was his brother — well, his brother’s computer, anyway, which “had some software on it” — that inspired him to try his hand at producing electronic music. “At first I was trying to make grime beats and hip-hop beats for rappers who weren’t really feeing it,” he says, laughing. “Eventually I started including my vocals into my productions, and I found a community of like-minded musicians via Myspace.” As for his distinctive falsetto, he says that also came naturally. “I almost had to be told that’s what it was I was doing. That’s just the way I sing, really — I’ve had like one singing lesson and that was it.”
Get Out of the Van: Following the success of SBTRKT’s album, Sampha took to the road as SBTRKT’s singer and bandmate — a full-on experience that helped propel his solo productions towards a quieter, more introspective place. “I made a lot of that music [on Dual] when I had a bit of time off touring, in between extremely intense live shows,” he says. “Maybe it’s a contrast that I needed. It was quite a fragmented process. A lot of the time it was just having flashes of inspiration — just cathartic, I guess, getting something out of my system. It’s why I put the shorter songs in there, just to capture those fleeting moments. ‘Can’t Get Closer’ I originally recorded in about half an hour, just on my bed with a microphone. I actually re-recorded the song with a cleaner vocal take, but I decided to leave the demo version on there, just because I felt that instant where it was created is what captured the most emotion.”
Nothing Was the Same: In 2011, during a stop in Toronto, Drake came on stage to perform “Wildfire” with SBTRKT and Sampha. The rapper had already released his own remix of the song, and, as it turns out, he was already acquainted with Sampha’s own music, having received a zip file full of unreleased music from the Young Turks label. “He said that he really liked my music and where I was going, and that’s kind of how the relationship started,” says Sampha, who later flew back to Toronto for a few days of Nothing Was the Same studio sessions. “It was a great experience because he gave me so much confidence,” marvels Sampha. “He would say, ‘Why don’t you put some drums there, why don’t you add something else here?’ He asked me what I thought a lot of the time, which was cool. Very empathetic. Him and 40 were quite hospitable — just nice people, which was cool to see. Because just to watch him write, you realize that he’s actually very talented.”
Collaborative Effort: Since the Drake collaboration, Sampha’s career has shifted into overdrive. When we speak via Skype, he has just returned from a week in Ghana — not too far from his parents’ native Sierra Leone, as it happens — where Solange had assembled a small group of musicians (Kindness’ Adam Bainbridge, Dirty Projectors’ Dave Longstreth) for a week of studio time. “It was primarily just vibing, soaking up a different sort of perspective,” he says. “We did a session with some Ghanian trumpet players, and we spent a lot of time with this rapper called Manifest who showed us around Ghana.” Now that he’s back home, he’s putting the side projects on hold. “I’ve actually been doing a lot of writing for other people,” he says, “but I don’t know if I want to let any cats out of the bag—they’re not finished, and I don’t know if everything’s going to see the light of day. But now that I’ve got a little more me-time, I’m just trying to find my groove and really get into trying to write a body of work.” But he also admits that “me-time” doesn’t always come easy. “I’ve been helping out some friends from around my area as well. I kind of make music where and when I can, and I guess that’s why I collaborate so much. Like, ‘Yeah, I’ll be up for doing that!'”