Sampha On Embracing Fear, Fatherhood and The Beauty of Life With 'Lahai'

Six years after ‘Process’, Sampha takes flight with his familial, full-circle follow-up.

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Sampha has always felt anxious about releasing and performing new music. “There are so many eyes on you all the time as an artist,” he tells Hypebeast, “you can feel fragile sometimes.” But following the release of his sophomore album, Lahai, the London-based singer-songwriter is in a celebratory mood.

Lahai has taken six years to surface, but since his breathtaking debut, Process, we’ve heard plenty from Sampha Sisay. Though we may have only heard him in small doses, they have been potent ones. He’s appeared on the biggest records in contemporary music, delivering beautiful features for the likes of Travis Scott, Kendrick Lamar and Solange. But Sampha cannot be reduced to just “a hook man”; he’s a truly singular artist, with Lahai the latest body of work stamping him as a true legend in his own right.

In taking six years since his last full-length project, Sampha has found the time to truly process all the things he opened up about in his previous album. He’s grown up, become a father – “my daughter here, she’s heaven sent”– and he’s contending with a new sense of direction and responsibility. When Hypebeast dials in with Sampha from his home, his daughter is firmly in the belief that it’s “Father Time”, craving attention from her dad in intervals while we speak. After the anxiety and grief heard throughout Sampha’s stunning debut, Process, seeing the connection he shares with his daughter and the genuine happiness in his voice while he speaks with her is a beautiful thing.

Family and fatherhood are central to Lahai; the album title is his middle name, and his grandfather’s first name, and those genetic bonds are key to understanding the much-anticipated project. But it’s also an album where Sampha is seeking new connections beyond the human realm. Sampha flutters with freedom on the record, and the album provides a bird’s-eye view of his existential worries about time and space, “just like Jonathan Livingston Seagull try to catch the clouds”. But by soaring above his internal struggles, Sampha sheds the anxiety he has felt throughout his career, wings unclipped.

With this in mind, check out Sampha’s conversation with Hypebeast on everything from his early influences growing up as the youngest of five brothers in Morden, how a MySpace link up with SBTRKT brought out his confidence to sing, creating a Glyph Composer with Nothing, fatherhood “humbling him” and how despite wanting to become a solo producer, he ended up becoming a masterful collaborator.

I was at your “Satellite Business” showcases earlier this year at St. John’s Church in Hackney, where you performed your music in a new way, in a live setting. What was your intention behind doing that?

The idea of playing live again filled me with anxiety. It’s been a while since I’ve played my music with a full band – and I had to find a completely new band, as well. I wanted to play in a venue that gave us this sense of freedom and safe space. There are so many eyes on you all the time as an artist, so you can feel fragile sometimes. I just wanted to create a space with “Satellite Business,” which is a song on my record, which is about creating and searching for connection. I felt that playing in the round circle represented that. On the record, I’m on my own spiritual journey, as well – so it was also tied into finding a venue that felt special and fitting to that. St. John’s is a beautiful space.

There is a multitude of different influences that are woven into your work. What sort of music was inspiring you – and shaping you – growing up in South London?

So I grew up with four older brothers and my parents. My dad used to buy loads of different types of music like classical music, and pop music… African music, Brazilian music. A lot of house and garage – Todd Edwards in particular was a mainstay coming from the bedrooms. Then, as I got into my teens, I was getting into Minnie Ripperton and Rotary Connection – and then I was getting into grime at the same time as Stevie Wonder… then Outkast and The Neptunes. There was a lot going on.

I feel fortunate to be the youngest of five boys; I had a very nutritious upbringing, musically speaking, in terms of what I was exposed to. It was a great hybrid blend of stuff. I spent years trying to incorporate those influences and get them to work for my own music. But I finally feel like I found a space where it works now.

“Singing was just so honest, it wasn’t something I was always overly confident about. I was more into production.”

I think a lot of people — including myself — were put on to your artistry for the first time via your work with SBTRKT. That music back then, much like your own, has aged really well. How did you guys originally link up?

Yeah, definitely. Even for me, before that, I had a few vocals tracks, but I was mainly producing. I think we linked up originally via MySpace. He was one of the first guys that made me think “This guy is making some proper music!” It was easy to connect and work together too; he was in Tooting, while I was in Morden. Initially, it was just instrumental stuff – then he would slowly influence me to use vocals. It just became this natural thing where I’d just be humming away, and he’d be like “Yeah, put that down.”

He was leading the ship then; a true visionary. It was a special time, because I learned a lot – and it was my first time getting played out on the radio. My first-ever live shows were with him, with no tour manager or anything. He was really encouraging for me, from the jump.

Did you not feel particularly confident in your own voice, then?

I knew I could sing, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was more into production. To the same degree, singing is a really, cathartic, natural thing, for me. But because it was just so honest, it wasn’t something I was always overly confident about. Even writing lyrics, I found it a struggle — even though they came naturally. Singing was never the direction I thought I was gonna go in.

You’ve become a father since you created Process – how has that shaped you as a man and as an artist?

It’s a life-changing experience, which is also very humbling. It takes you down a few pegs. It’s a lifetime of commitment. It’s beautiful watching someone develop into a person – and it forces you as a person to grow, too. It’s a constant evolution. It forces you to respect your upbringing, as well as question your upbringing, too.

“We’re all born undeveloped – it could take a lifetime to grow up! That’s why the family bond is so important.”

Lahai is the name of your album, as well as your middle name and your grandfather’s first name. How much does your family inform this album?

The record came about from intuition and then sort of recognizing what I’m preoccupied with right now. I’m not by any means trying to sanitize or devalue things by being scientific, but it’s in our nature to care for our young. It’s part of our DNA to care and nurture. We’re all born undeveloped – it could take a lifetime to grow up! That’s why the family bond is so important. Even though you’re thinking about yourself and the existential struggles you go through, sometimes looking past your body and mind and connecting with others and nature can put a perspective on your own woes. The hardest challenges always come from the inside.

It’s one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year. Was taking six years between the last album out of choice, or just something that felt right to you?

It was an amalgamation of things; the experience of the pandemic, becoming a father at that time, as well. That slowed things down. I endeavour to make music faster, but I just spend a lot of time trying to figure out that process and mind a new direction. Putting space and time away to reflect and come up with something meaningful is important for me.

Leading up to my first album, Process, I’d been through quite a lot, and I hadn’t, funnily enough, had that much time to process everything there. The actual making of this record was like, two and a half years – but getting there, mentally, in a new environment, with new life was another process, like the first.

You have worked with Nothing around the launch of the album, on the Glyph Composer. How did you first hear about Nothing, and what drew you to working with them?

I was put on by my management at first – and I was taken aback by Nothing. I was thinking about the design a lot… I was like, wow, these are really cool. I’m into my aesthetic stuff. I don’t know too much about smartphones – but they just look crazy, aesthetically to me. Then I had this opportunity to work with them and they knew I had a connection to production and engineering – so they gave me an opportunity to work with them in a way which was really unique. I like being useful to people – and I liked the idea of putting sounds out into the world, and letting others experiment with them.

Creating your own ringtone was something I always wanted to do as a kid when sending songs over Bluetooth, back in the day. What were the sort of songs you were sending on Bluetooth – or listening to as a kid/young adolescent growing up in South London?

The Glyph Composer concept brought me back to my production roots… it took me back to a simpler time, getting weird production kits out of cereal packets where you could make your own beats. It was more rudimentary, like that, and brought me back to a time where I was just a producer.

As for things I was sending on Bluetooth? A lot of silly stuff, of course… There were like a lot of YouTube links when it started popping off. Lord of the Mics, Risky Roadz, and so much grime. Then Clipse, Timbaland, and Pharrell in the studio… those videos were all so inspirational for me as an aspiring producer.

“That’s the beauty of music – you learn things along the way, but you’re never quite ready.”

You’re not only a natural collaborator on tech, either. You’ve developed a knack for being a master, or go-to guy, for hooks on some of hip-hop’s biggest records. Do you like playing that role?

A lot of the people I’ve worked with I’ve been a genuine fan of – so I just feel fortunate enough to be put into the same room as them. People and music are like a language for me – I haven’t really ever thought I’d make a catchy hook or try to make a hit. Usually, I’m just trying to express what the music is making me feel and listen to where it’s really coming from, you know. I enjoy creating and discovering and sometimes what people like about me is beyond me.

I don’t always know what people are connecting to, with my music, but at the same time, I’m not degrading myself or devaluing my own impact – I know I’ve got something. But I definitely feel like it’s something I enjoy, being in the room with these people and making music. It’s not something I take for granted – but I’ve been so fortunate people have gravitated towards me, and I’ve been able to make these records.

You’ve worked with Travis, Solange, Drake, Kendrick… there are so many different types of music there, and different personalities you’re in a room with. Is the process different each time you jump into a studio with these icons?

Yeah, I’d definitely say it’s different each time. I feel like if I were a judge, you can’t judge by this present one – sometimes, you have to reassess.

That’s the beauty of music – you learn things along the way, but you’re never quite ready – you have to think on your feet. So there’s not been one formulaic way of my collaborative process. Sometimes people might send something that they will need a vocal for, or sometimes we’ll get into a studio and start something from scratch. Or I might send something that someone might riff off.

The industry is changing so much as well, in terms of how people collaborate. But with me, generally speaking, I like to get into a space with someone to really get to know somebody and know the direction.

““I haven’t really ever thought I’d make a catchy hook or try to make a hit.”

You’ve got to feel it, viscerally?

Yeah. I’ve got to feel it – and I don’t just wanna go off and do something without the understanding of another artist, and why they want me on a particular piece of music.

What’s next for Sampha?

I just want to keep creating stuff. I want to venture into writing stories or directing films – I have a need to exercise those creative muscles, alongside continually making music. Those are the things I feel that I’m really excited about. Maybe a children’s book, too – who knows!

Stream Lahai in full below.

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