After several years of building up his profile, British neo-soul star Sampha Sisay – known mononymously as Sampha – is edging ever closer to releasing his debut LP.
Entitled Process, it’s an album of neo-soul, late-night R&B and earnest vocal pop. Fans have been anticipating a full-length release from Sisay following a couple of EPs and some A-list guest features, which means it’s been a long time coming. And though it’s often said you get a lifetime to write your debut album, Sisay wanted Process to be a reflection on the man he is today, not who he once was.
“It’s a documentation of probably the last couple of years of my life,” he begins, holding court at a back table in a busy Surry Hills cafe while on a whirlwind promo visit to Australia. “It’s my debut album, but I didn’t want to completely raid the vault and pull out songs from when I was 14 or whatever – not even from when I was 21. I wanted to make sure it was mostly fresh ideas. When I’m writing, I’m really just trying to just pull whatever’s going on in my head up the well. It can be quite weighty, but it’s a much greater release and is so much more rewarding than just trying to keep it down.
“I don’t necessarily write in the most traditional sense – I feel like I’ve always kind of been forced to write. I never really thought I was a wordy type of person, but something seems to happen when I let myself go, just freestyling in that environment. You can really surprise yourself.”
One such surprise came with ‘Blood On Me’, the album’s lead single, which was released back in August. Although originally written from a primarily fictional place – a dystopia of sorts – there are key lyrics from the song (“Grey hoodies / They cover their heads”; “I hear them coming for me”) that have hit a little too close to home in regards to the police shootings of unarmed black men in the US.
“If I’m being honest, the politics of that song are very coincidental,” says Sisay. “I wrote that song from a personal place, but in an entirely fictional world. It was more so gathered thoughts about things you’ve done wrong, written from the perspective of someone regretting their actions. It was inspired by Nina Simone – a song like ‘Sinnerman’ – more than it ever was in regards to a social or political commentary. It’s definitely very interesting to see how the song has taken a life of its own.” He smirks, laughing to himself as he adds: “I can definitely see how the parallels were drawn – I mean, I could have just as easily said, ‘Yeah, that was all me…’”
If you haven’t heard ‘Blood On Me’, there’s still a good chance you will have come across Sisay’s voice on some other key tracks from 2016. That’s him laying down the hook on Solange’s authoritative ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’, for instance, while he also turned up on Frank Ocean’s Endless cut ‘Alabama’, as well as Kanye West’s ‘Saint Pablo’.
Throw in the likes of Drake, SBTRKT and Jessie Ware for good measure and you’ve got yourself one of the hottest collaborators in contemporary music. It begs the question as to what makes a great collaboration for Sisay – and the answer, he says, is not always so clear-cut.
“For me, it’s interesting because it means I get to make music that I wouldn’t have made otherwise,” he says. “It’s a natural thing for me. As a vocalist, there’s always people wanting to work with you – other artists, session musos, everyone. Sometimes it’s quite refreshing when someone has a really different take on something. Other times, it can be a little frustrating – I remember working with this one producer whose style was really different to mine.
“His approach was really minimalist, and at the time I was trying to make songs with a really maximal approach. I was like, ‘Why isn’t there more stuff going on in this song?’ It’s all up in the air, really – it’s always a risk. You can have two really different people create something really complementary to one another, just as much as you can write with someone who is really similar and have nothing fruitful come of it. It’s all about perspective – a great collaborator will know how to alter yours and create something that’s challenging.”
On the subject of collaborations, conversation turns to some of Sisay’s television appearances. In 2013, he sang and played piano on Drake’s emotional live performance of ‘Too Much’ on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, a song that itself is based on a Sampha original. Last year also saw Sisay appear alongside Solange on Saturday Night Live to perform the aforementioned ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’. When asked about the experience of performing on such notable shows in such grand company, Sisay’s response is surprisingly calm and muted.
“There’s a bit of nerves going into performances like that – I suppose it’s because you’re a lot more aware of what’s going on. At the same time, though, it feels kind of…” There’s a beat, as Sisay looks around the room; as if someone else in the cafe will know the word he’s searching for. He continues: “It’s weird. I guess it feels kind of fake – not least of all because you’re very aware of it being a TV set while you’re actually on it.
“They’re made to look a lot more grandiose than they actually are. It certainly doesn’t feel as though you’re standing in Wembley Stadium or anything like that. It takes a bit of the edge off when you see it up close – it feels a lot less spectacular, if that makes any sense. It’s a bit more of a mind-fuck, if I’m honest. It’s like it’s playing tricks on you, y’know what I mean?”
With Process finally set for release this week, Sisay has also booked in a national tour in support. In late May, Sisay and his five-piece band will be playing some hotly anticipated headlining shows – his first in Australia. Of particular interest is the Sydney Opera House, where he will take to the stage of the venue’s iconic Drama Theatre for two very special – and, naturally, very sold-out – performances.
“I haven’t had a chance to properly go down there and take a look at it for myself,” he says of the world-famous landmark. “I do remember being here with SBTRKT in about 2012, and I saw it from where we were staying. So I’ve had a glimpse from afar, but I can’t wait to get down there and have a proper look around.
“I remember when the dates were being booked, I saw it on the itinerary and I couldn’t believe it – I mean, the Sydney Opera House? ‘That can’t be right,’ I was saying. We’ll be in one of the smaller rooms there, but it’s still mind-blowing to say I’m playing there.”