Sampha (Digital Cover Story)

Words by Erika Ramirez. Art by D’ana Nuñez.

Sampha speaks as if he’s let go, as if the heaviness of love no longer weighs on him. And I find myself jealous.

“Sometimes to love is to let go,” he reasons, in almost a whisper. “I challenge myself to dig, but also feel comfortable in other emotions.” Sampha’s debut album Process finds the singer-songwriter unraveling, and when I talk to him before its February release, I try to find relief in his answers–as many do with his music.

Across his discography, whether his own or as a featured guest (most recently “4422” on Drake’s More Life), Sampha allows himself to be swallowed and held under tow by heartbreak, till there’s no other choice but to detach.

“I’ve got a habit of enjoying what I perceive as good, [then] following it up quickly with negative thoughts like, This is great, but it’s not gonna last,” he explains. “I quite like the juxtaposition of pain and beauty, joy and happiness.”

Sampha’s soundscapes haunt; they revive the ghosts of lovers you claimed forsaken. As he unfolds vulnerably on wax, he peels off every layer of tape you’ve been using to hopelessly hold yourself together. From a falsetto fueled by desperation to a faint cry to surrender, inflection leads his voice.

Process is Sampha re-discovering himself through vulnerability and by allowing himself to grieve the death of his mother, Binty Sisay, who passed in September 2015 of cancer–after fighting the disease for five years.

Her passing shaped Process “quite a lot,” he says. “Someone close to me who’s father passed away asked me, ‘How did you feel? How did you get through this?’ I realized I don’t have the answers. It’s very difficult. I thought I was doing better, but because I hadn’t talked about her, I hadn’t really processed. The album is me documenting this ongoing process of grief and the process of caring.”

Loss doesn’t stay in the past. Tension doesn’t necessarily subside with time or tense. “Sometimes it can become quite numbing ’cause you can’t necessarily deal with processing all of that emotion,” he shares. “Sometimes I felt numb and then I’d go to the studio and it’d be real…It’d be a way of connecting to my feelings or connecting to emotions that I cut myself off from feeling to try and be functional. It’s where I’d go to express how I was feeling about things, whether it felt like plastic melting or being under the pressure of life…no one knows.”

For ILY’s latest digital cover story, Sampha guides us through lessons he’s learned about love and loss.


ERIKA RAMIREZ: There’s underlying themes throughout Process of fighting to love and surrendering to loss. How do you surrender to loss?
SAMPHA: You first have to recognize loss. For a long time, I couldn’t really articulate what loss was, even though I knew what it was. Loss is like losing a limb; it’s gone. It’s a very strange feeling if you haven’t felt it too much in your life, where it’s almost like an abstraction. You can’t really compete with it. It’s hard to define, especially in this day and age where you don’t have to be around people. You know there’s someone across the world you can contact or people can walk through the door at any moment, so it’s difficult to even admit it’s loss. Loss is a disorientating feeling that sometimes you can’t get used to.

“Kora Sings” seems to be dedicated to your late mother…
It’s from the perspective of my mother. Essentially, she’s talking to her sons, saying, ‘don’t forgot about me.’ It’s one thing I had to bow to…my mom was widowed. My father passed when I was younger. She wanted people around…You don’t even have to say anything. You can just be there and if you go, don’t disappear. Make sure you come back.

How do you surrender to love?
It’s like jumping into a pool. Like anything in the moment, just do it. In that moment, you can forgive someone. If you’ve had an argument, you have all those chemicals and emotions flowing through you. Go with it. It’s a connection. A split second thing. Make that decision, jump off the pool, and say something. It’s that difficult switch. It’s the switching from a state of mind. I think it’s one of those things you have to practice as well. Surrendering is something that’s really fruitful if you practice it, practice like being forgiving.

You’re very honest about vulnerability, especially on this album, with “Plastic 100 C” and “Under.”
Yeah, “Plastic” was a lot about being vulnerable, and also someone being so vulnerable, and their light shining so brightly, that I become silhouetted in the fear of being vulnerable.

I wrote “Under” [while] constantly watching a projection of waves crashing down onto these rocks. I [also] watched ghost anime. The production was kind of married to those visuals. It started out with piano and I moved onto the keyboard. It was the first organ stamp. I built off this metaphor of going under the waves, under the weight of someone’s aura, as a kind of fixation. Gravitation. Being attracted to things, maybe for reasons, but then knowing there’s nothing like it.

Meanwhile, “Reverse Faults” is more about looking inwards?
“Reverse Faults” is about letting go, or changing your perspective of someone’s fault. It’s a metaphor, using geographical faults and plates, of reversing the fault–thinking things are someone else’s fault and it actually being you, in your own internal world, as opposed to external. Sometimes you blame the whole world as opposed to looking at yourself and realizing it’s you.

It’s also about anger and dealing with a lot of emotions, all at once. There might be deeper reasons as to why someone gets angry, but there’s a realization that that anger may not always be necessary—I can be quite stubborn. I don’t take enough time to let something sink in and really try and understand someone else’s perspective. Instead, it’s a split second reaction. I have to give it time.

You’re about honesty and communication…how important is that to you?
It’s incredibly important, but it’s really difficult. Not everything is black and white, so being honest isn’t either necessarily. You might be honest about how you’re feeling, but it’s how you are feeling. It’s difficult. Take relationships–what is that you honestly feel? Is it lust or love? To be honest, sometimes, is to go with your heart. Be thoughtful and cognitive about the way you feel. I think a part of love is being thoughtful, being mindful, and being able to share that feeling of awareness.

What’s love to you?
Love is a moment–the beauty of it seem to be the craziness. Love is spirituality. Love is thought and time. Love is understanding.

Love is caring, and caring is difficult because humans can cognitively be. It’s a balance of  thought and feeling. You may not go through all the pain and suffering, but you can cognitively associate as a human. You can connect to the pain of other beings.

How do you balance the weight and the momentum of emotions?
It’s difficult really. The balancing act is something you strive for, but it’s difficult. Other people help balance things for me, and it’s discipline at times. Don’t go too far into that kind of realm, because there’s consequences. As I grow older…as my body gets older and my mind gets to be more disciplined, I can’t stay up for days and not sleep…

Is it because you’re an over-thinker or you want to go to the next thing?
I do. I have a tendency of once I’m locked into something, I focus intensely on it. I get a lot from that. I feel very connected and I enjoy details and creating.

What’s one important thing you took away from a collaboration that you now live by when creating your own music?
Be confident in how you’re feeling. I try. To be a bit more confident is something I took away, and as an artist, needing to take more risks sometimes.

Also actually, one of the important things I really learned was no one does anything by themselves. Your authenticity as an artist isn’t necessarily solely attached to you doing things independently. You can still express something and ask for help. You don’t have to do everything by yourself and you can still put across an authentic message.

The message is still you.
Yeah, it’s still you.