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In conversation with Sampha

“Once you start flying, don’t shoot yourself down”

Sampha slowly choreographs his words with a deliberate precision yet an impenetrable dreaminess – over a Zoom call as much as in his lyrics. Having won the hearts of millions with his opiate voice and magnetic productions, Sampha returns to the world with his sophomore album, LAHAI. Titled after his grandfather, and Sampha’s own middle name, LAHAI time travels through circularities of human life, grappling with themes of spirituality – a word Sampha assures to not use often – beyond its pop-culture banality.

A lot has changed since his 2017 debut album, Process. Writing from a perspective of a son losing his mother back then, the creation of LAHAI now has been catalysed by a metaphysically opposite event – Sampha becoming a parent himself. This sacred connection with his daughter and a deep inspection of human experience is what colours LAHAI, a soul-stirring record spanning a playful fusion of spiritual jazz, West African folk, rap, and jungle.

As we float through our conversation, trailing off on tangents and making space for elongated pauses, his authenticity and layers of emotionality unfold in line with his artistic persona – albeit without the firm decisiveness that typically informs his musical tone. For one of the most sought-after artists on the scene (his friends and collaborators include FKA Twigs, Solange and Frank Ocean, to name a few), Sampha speaks with a tender, almost naïve pace. The sincerity of his words and gravitational powers of his music become apparent, as he shares himself fully – a human being navigating the duality of grief and joy, and an artist fully tuned into his inner rhythm.

Revisiting your interview with Glamcult in back 2017, it was interesting to read your perspective on the importance of spirituality and a caution of having a big ego. Since the tremendous success of Process, and now with the release of LAHAI, has the meaning of these concepts changed for you?
I’m forever on that journey of finding balance between different sides of me. I have this feeling that I want to express my visions and create – sometimes selfishly, considering the amount of time I spend on music. I still stand by those answers.

It’s funny you use the word selfish. Judging by the emotional connection and healing people find in your music, I would say it’s the complete opposite.
It definitely feels special. I process a lot in my music, but when it comes to expressing emotions outside of that, I sometimes struggle with it. It’s great to share something that people resonate with, even if I might feel self-conscious about sharing a particular softness or tenderness. It’s definitely something you need to work on constantly.

Tell me more about LAHAI came to life! Named after your grandfather, what significance lies within its intergenerational trope?
I come from a place of pain or existential crises, a lot of which arises from being yourself and thinking about yourself. I’ve been on this journey of trying to figure out what spirit means to me. Connecting to the people I have lost and feeling the energy of the people I have. Like my daughter – recognising what brings us together from a metaphysical perspective as well. When you’re going through something, it’s hard to see these things. You lose the ability to zoom out and recognise your small place in it, which can be comforting in a way. There is an idea of a continuum – if I take a picture of myself yesterday and tomorrow and then compare them, I might look very similar, but if I zoom out, I start to see the changes. It’s sometimes important to look back and look forward to find that sense of self.

How are these themes reflected sonically?
At times, I might feel very lost. I’m a second-generation Sierra Leonean but I was also born and raised in London. In certain aspects of life, my heritage is brought to surface. I have a very deep connection to West African music, like Wassoulou, but I also have a connection with London. So, the music I make is very hybridised.

But it also flows very organically, given the historical connection from West African folk to funk and eventually breakbeat. Within their intersections, I love the harmony between live, natural sounds and almost metallic electronic productions that make LAHAI so full-bodied. What is your relationship to all these elements?
For me, it’s an interesting marriage of how you associate yourself with particular sounds or the things you associate particular sounds to do. Having an acoustic piano feel more mechanical excites me when I hear that possibility of using MIDI-controlled acoustic instruments. I’d create loops for drum machines with Kwake Bass, and we’d send MIDI messages to the drums to get them to do inhuman things, like play at 500 bpm. It creates an interesting hybridity again of using sounds you associate with being played by humans played by a machine. But it’s also about playing over those, reacting to them as a new device, as someone might use a metronome to keep in rhythm. Changing the metronome yourself makes you have a deeper connection to these electronic elements that you’re surrounded by.

Intuition feels like a leading force in your creative process. How would you say your approach has evolved over the years?
It is, but it has also been about having a bit more experience to recognise what to do with that intuition and how to frame it. I also started asking questions as to why I’m so preoccupied with particular sounds. However, it still feels like I’m using the same creative device as I used on Process, which is coming from a more intuitive place rather than preconceived ideas. I’m still sticking to the same tradition of freestyling to jumpstart themes lyrically as well.

Coming back to the idea of zooming out, you connect many dots from distant places – from Afrofuturism to particle science. In what ways have these themes provided fuel for LAHAI?
These themes entered my work very naturally. I guess I just got to a point where I was more comfortable with expanding my lyrics. I’m not an expert at all though – I’m just going off a few science books and magazines I’ve read. It’s something that interests me a lot – it gets my synapses fired, just like music. There is a certain magic to thinking about time. For me, these topics hold so much potential for imagination. Recognising how our minds interact with time, say, through memory – it’s hazy, and sometimes your mind finishes the sentences in ways that are different from what might have actually happened. Without our memory, time probably would not exist.

I suppose there is also a sense of humility inherently attached to thinking about something so much more global and eternal than our every-day preoccupations.
Exactly. There is also something beautiful about going with what is already there and to keep on questioning it. I didn’t invent the fact that you have to go running or mediate to stay healthy. People are just increasingly finding these things out – they’re not inventing them. I’m recognising that as much as I’m creating new things, I’m also putting together a lot of what already exists. It makes me feel a bit more humble thinking about things like fate, because who am I to say that it isn’t the case. Thinking about, say, your own consciousness can give you an observational quality that can be so special.

Having started your career largely from a place of collaboration, you’ve now brought together such an impressive array of talent on your own record – like Yaeji, Yussef Dayes and Ibeyi’s Lisa-Kaindé Diaz. How do you create this perfect synergy between your vision and the input of such different artists?
It’s both a very scary place for me but also a really comforting place – just like a lot of social interactions. Sometimes, when you’re by yourself, just imagining a social situation is the worst thing in the world, ha-ha. But sometimes you also thrive in these situations. There is something precious about having another consciousness teach you things or improvise with you and move you to a different direction than you’d pursue by yourself. There’s something special about doing things alone, but as I’m growing up, I also want to connect with others on a human level. In some strange way, I can be very confident with other people and show another side of myself that I don’t show that much in my daily life. It means I can speak a bit more than I usually do, although right now to you it probably seems like I already talk a lot, ha-ha.

I’ll take it as a good sign! Within this whole project, what are some of the most special memories you’ve collected?
It’s all in the jams. There’s something special about jamming – doing something for a prolonged period of time, and the repetition of doing it and the places you find yourself in. I can jam for like four hours and it would feel like no time has passed. We wrote so much during those jams that I could probably have another record just from that material. It was this realisation of being in the moment and recognising how the hybrid was affecting us. Kind of like a kid riding a bike, going by themselves, taking the stabilisers off…

Surrendering to the momentum.

And what about lyrics?
Lyrics is always more of a personal endeavour, although I’m trying to let go of that as well. That’s where the ego can come in sometimes – not to say that there is anything wrong with wanting to share an experience. But in the process, you can sometimes concentrate on either writing a story or being an author wiring a story. I started writing things on paper more, going in front of the mic, picking out random words from my notebook, jumbling them up… For me, it becomes both an abstract and realistic process in creating this world from the lyrics.  You need to get yourself going, to get your brain working. It requires calmness and the ability to get out of your own way. Once you start flying, don’t shoot yourself down.

Sounds like a very grounding and inward-looking process. What have you learnt about yourself during the making of LAHAI?
Growing can make you more aware of things in life. You’ll feel your vision get wider, but also anxiety may grow – as you see more, you can see more dangers. There are just challenges you need to face. Certain mountains you need to climb. But there are also times when it’s okay to let it go and forgive yourself for the struggling, for finding life hard, because it is difficult. This duality is something I recognise a lot more now.

I imagine this forgiveness – towards yourself especially – is also something that grows with fatherhood.
Yes absolutely. There will be certain things that will inspire you to climb a mountain but there are also things that will make you more aware of those mountains. Trying to find the faith to jump and be helped is another thing. Which is difficult, because you have to make the jump. A lot of life is fighting against ourselves by nature. We’re literally fighting against the gravity. Of course, depends on how you see it as well. I’m still dealing with things, but I certainly feel like I’ve grown up and am more settled. I’ve learnt to express joy a bit better, I’m more confident in the things I’m preoccupied with and recognise the places I want to go more through the process of making this record.

And what do you hope your audience learn about themselves through your work?
It’s nice to see people connect to my work as they experience the world similarly, even if it’s through my lens. It’s intrinsically connected to the space and the time we’re in. If anything, I hope this album serves as an avenue for empathy and connection. I feel like there is room for me to be more conscious about how I’d like to help people. Because it’s such a personal and intuitive record, it’s hard to predict how it connects to others explicitly. But a connection that doesn’t always have to be understood through words has a place in life.

Which art is such a great testament to.
Exactly. It’s sometimes difficult to appreciate the mundane poetry of existence, even on the dark side of things. Recognising that we go through a lot, but sometimes it’s through the struggle that we learn to appreciate life a bit more.

Words by Evita Shrestha

Images courtesy of Sampha