Nick Bollinger checks the soulful debut of British singer and songwriter Sampha.
Sampha Sisay isn’t the kind of musician to push his way into the spotlight. He’s sensitive and introspective and might be happiest when alone at his piano, if the songs on his debut album are to be believed. He’s that good, though, that the spotlight seems to have found him anyway.
Sampha is a 28-year-old singer, songwriter, keyboard player and producer from South London. His album reveals a soulful and individual singer, with one ear on innovation, the other tuned to classic songwriting traditions.
But though this debut has been some time coming, big names have been making use of his talents for a while. Electronic boundary-buster SBTRKT was early to catch on, featuring Sampha’s voice and keyboards both on disc and on stage, and cameos on Drake and Kanye West cuts followed. But his most high-profile appearance until now was on Solange’s great A Seat At The Table album from last year. That’s Sampha in the ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ video, with the short dreads, dressed in monkish white and dancing freestyle with Solange. And there are moments on his album where you might want to move and groove like that too. But Sampha’s more rhythmically driven tracks tend to be the ones where he expresses his greatest anxieties. ‘Blood On Me’ is a powerful piece near the start of the album. It might be a paranoid bad dream or an only-too-real episode of ghetto street life.
In the similarly dreamlike ‘Kora Sings’ he is in a desert, armed with a gun, somewhere unnamed but which feels like West Africa, as the plucked strings of a kora conjure his Sierra Leonese heritage. Just as a music-scape it’s imaginative and eclectic, and a good example of the record’s rich production. But it’s also deeply personal, and points to the heart of the album. In the song, his desert dream leads Sampha to thoughts of his mother, and the mutual needs of a mother and son.
Sampha’s real mother died in 2015, just as he was embarking on this record, and ‘Kora Sings’ is the first of several songs here that make specific reference to her. Family ties feature heavily in these songs. The other recurring motif is his first instrument, the piano. The title of the song ‘(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano’ says it all; the instrument he’s played since he was three years old is just as much his kin and confidante.
This, in a way, might be the realest Sampha on the record; the sensitive introvert finding solace in his instrument, singing himself back home. His voice is smoky and warm, and the song wears his soul on its sleeve.
Process is a strong album with a vulnerable core. It’s frontloaded with some powerful sonic and rhythmic stuff, but it’s in his quieter, more pianistic moments that Sampha Sisay ultimately seems most at home, most able to show us his soul.
Songs featured: Take Me Inside, Blood On Me, Korta Sings, (No One Knows Me) Like The Piano, What Shouldn’t I Be?
Process is available on Remote Control.