Sampha's Creative Wisdom: "Sometimes you have something that’s difficult for you to see, but just know it’s there”

Sampha's Creative Wisdom: "Sometimes you have something that’s difficult for you to see, but just know it’s there”

With his long-awaited and already acclaimed second album ‘Lahai’ out now and ahead of his appearance at Perth Festival, we catch up with Sampha Lahai Sisay

Image credit: Jesse Crankston

From the deep depths of grief after the passing of a parent to the indescribable joy of becoming a parent, the two studio albums released by English singer, songwriter, musician and record producer Sampha are inspired by some of the most emotional experiences a person can have.

It’s been quite the journey to get to Sampha’s second album Lahai, released in October 2023 and taking a more optimistic outlook that his first following the birth of his daughter a few years earlier. Released on the influential Young label (whose current roster includes the likes of FKA twigs, The xx including each member’s solo work, Kamasi Washington, John Talabot and more), Sampha’s relationship with the imprint dates back to before he’d released a single track, with him interning at their offices in 2009.

It was during this internship that Sampha met some pretty early collaborators including the likes of Jessie Ware, Bullion, Lil Silva and most impactfully back then, SBTRKT. In 2011 Sampha would famously go on to be featured on four songs on SBTRKT’s now iconic self-titled album, including smash single Hold On. This led to a string of big collaborations, including teaming up with Drake and Kanye, before Sampha finally released his debut full-length Process in 2017, with the wait for an album proving more than worth it.

Receiving critical acclaim across the board including winning the prestigious Mercury Prize, Process cemented Sampha as one of modern alternative music’s most interesting artists, crafting an emotional and infectious blend of r&b, neo-soul and a myriad of electronic influences. More high profile collaborations came next, including teaming up with Loyle Carner, Alicia Keys and Kendrick Lamar, while taking his time to develop a more than worthy follow-up album, last year’s Lahai. Shaking off the sophomore slump, Lahai saw Sampha expand on the sounds from his first album, incorporating some more jazz and jungle influences, while feeling more uplifting and euphoric than Process.

Hitting the road soon after the record’s release, Sampha finds himself making his way back down to Australia for the first time since 2017 - not long before he took five years off playing live at all. With his Australian tour wrapping up with a show at Perth Festival (alongside Nai Palm of Hiatus Kaiyote) on Sunday, March 3, we jumped on the line with Sampha to chat all about it.

Given that Lahai had now been out for over three months, Sampha was feeling the love regarding it’s reception so far. “It’s been lovely, especially after already having been playing songs from the album before the album’s coming out, and then being received beautifully and then the change in people’s reactions to the songs after the album’s come out” he explains. “You know, actually meeting people and talking about it, talking to people face to cae about how the record sort of affected them. It’s been beautiful. It’s reaching people or whoever it’s meant to reach and I still feel good about the album three months on”.

While he may have been playing cuts from Lahai live before it was released, the record was already mastered and ready for release, but that didn’t stop the live stage having an impact on the compositions. “They’d been locked in, but then what happened was that some of the songs on the album found a bit of new life when I was playing them live, so I’ve re-recorded some songs which I might release into the world at some point” he divulges. “So that was kind of a cool new experience, you know, the songs had been finished but then playing them live allowed me to sort of recognise that there was a bit more space for them, there’s different versions of them".

Playing these new songs live was special in more ways than one, with Sampha being conspicuously absent from the live stage for five years, ending in 2023 with his self-produced, boutique Satellite Business shows in June in both London and New York. “That was kind of the reason behind those first batch of shows I played, Satellite Business, which was about creating this kind of idea of safety and togetherness, almost like linking hands in a circle. It was a space for us to try out these new songs, and it was also playing with a completely new band and they were all singing, so it was quite new and a bit scary coming back into this world” he recalls. His singing voice in particular was a point of consideration as Sampha details “I’ve never thought I’m a singer who’s got this crazy voice, you know, I sing bum notes, my voice cracks, it’s slightly out of tune, but I put my feeling behind it, so it was nice to create that safe space”.

That nervous excitement was probably similar to how he was feeling on his first solo tour of Australia back in 2017 in support of Process, as Sampha recollects “I was really wide-eyed at that point. I had been to Australia before with SBTRKT. My memories are mainly that the food was good and going to some record stores which I can’t remember, but just meeting people, going to some great club nights. I felt very understood and well received by the music world over there which was nice”. So what does Sampha look for when he’s crate digging down under? “Mostly checking out what’s the vibe kind of thing, cos certain areas have certain eclectic tastes and a slightly different energy. People will be really, really into what they’re into, and you’ve got this kind of cross between electronic and soul music, some places had a real sort of focus on that."

After recommending a couple of spots that sounds like they’d cater to that (shout out to Northside Records in Melbourne and Safari’s Record Shack in Perth!), I was curious to hear about his Perth show in particular, and how he’d be approaching it as part of Perth Festival.I feel like it’s definitely a space for me to try something different, hopefully. When we’re playing festivals, generally speaking, we think about the fact that not everyone knows who you are so you’re trying to be as engaging as possible, but there’s only so much you can do”, he muses.

Someone who Sampha definitely knows who they are is Nai Palm, the inimitable frontwoman of future-jazz neo-soul legends Hiatus Kaiyote and a phenomenal solo artist in her own right. “I mean, her work’s incredible, it’s ridiculous… it feels wrong” he laughs, continuing “yeah, obviously her solo work and her work with Hiatus… she’s just a lovely person with an incredible voice and taste”. On a potential collaboration with Nai, Sampha simply smiles “That would be awesome”.

While the question regarding a collab was predominately a wishful jest, it was also inspired by the fact that Sampha has collaborated with some of the biggest artists in the contemporary music world, as previously established, and his new album featuring the likes of Yaeji, Yussef Dayes, Ibeyi and some other extremely talented peeps. When it comes to artistic collaboration, Sampha explains the most important element “I just connect with the music and then try to connect with them as a person. That’s really it. That being said, the first bit is the hardest and most important thing - you don’t always connect with people’s music. So once that happens, hopefully you can get on with them, and if possible, make something together”.

On how to potentially facilitate a productive collaboration, Sampha advises “I think just being open and honest and trying to get to know people is great. Also, being confident in yourself and your own abilities as well, keeping open ears and really listening to the other person. It’s definitely not by any means a simple thing, there’s no one size fits all kind of thing, you’ve got to be flexible”.

With young artists often struggling with the perceived line between being confident and proud and being arrogant and braggadocious (shout out to tall poppy syndrome in Australia), I noted that the confidence issue may be something particularly hard for new artists collaborating. Sampha related to this, detailing “that’s one thing I’ve learned, especially collaborating with some of the people I’ve collaborated with where I could easily be like ‘what am I doing here?!’, but it’s about recognising that I have a light as well as them. It’s an ego thing - you don’t have to be better than someone else, it’s not about being better. Sometimes you have something that’s difficult for you to see, but just know it’s there”.

Sampha plays Supreme Court Gardens for Perth Festival on Sunday, March 3, supported by Nai Palm

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