The English singer Sampha keeps impressive company. You’ll find his vocals gracing tracks from a Mount Rushmore–like conglomerate of modern pop’s biggest stars, including Beyoncé, Kanye West, Drake and Frank Ocean. Ask the 28-year-old why artists of this caliber come calling, though, and he’s contentedly clueless: “I have no idea,” Sampha tells Rolling Stone, speaking over the phone from England during a break from rehearsing for a February tour in support of his upcoming solo debut, Process. “It’s hard for me to know what it is that people are connecting to.”
Producer Rodaidh McDonald – who helped make Process, and who has been in the studio with Adele, Gil Scott-Heron and Bobby Womack, among others – also admits he can’t quite place what makes Sampha’s voice singular. “It’s a really difficult thing to put your finger on,” he says. Jessie Ware, an English soul singer who collaborated with Sampha on the candied duet “Valentine” from 2011, has a different theory about his ineffable sound. “He kind of beams you up somewhere,” she says. “Always our songs ended up like they were going into some cosmic zone.”
The effect likely came from Sampha’s idiosyncratic tone: almost operatic at times, but with a faltering, fragile quality. Though the initial impression is demure, his voice stealthily asserts its authority.
Sampha writes incisive lyrics, but he talks in loops, doubling back on thoughts to add caveats and clarifications. Discussing his decision to put together a solo album, his first project since the 2013 EP Dual, the singer seems conflicted: “I felt like I didn’t want to be selling myself short in terms of giving away – I wouldn’t say giving away, but since I’m not spending energy on other people’s projects, maybe I need to … Having a solo career, there’s a bit of ego in it – not to say that ego is a bad thing. It has negative connotations. But there was a point where I felt like I want people to see my vision.”
That point came in 2014, after Sampha wrapped up a series of high-profile collaborations that surfaced last year. In addition to appearing on songs by West (“He was really nice — quite calm and [a] different persona from what I was maybe expecting”), and Ocean (“an interesting character … really down to earth, but intensely thoughtful”) in 2016, the singer contributed vocals and production to Solange’s A Seat at the Table. One key lesson from those sessions: “It’s OK to be confident in yourself, to stick to your guns, without necessarily feeling guilt to people you might have let down or going against other people’s suggestions.”
Around this time, he played McDonald an early set of demos. “I liked some of them, but I also said what I’d love to do is book a nice studio somewhere and start making things from scratch,” McDonald recalls. Only one of those demos, “Incomplete Kisses,” appears on Process.
The two settled on an improvisational technique for generating new material. “What I would do is project movies and things Sampha liked [Manga films, Stevie Wonder’s The Secret Life of Plants, Koyaanisqatsi] while he was playing a piano and have a mic set up,” McDonald explains. “We’d record like an hour and a half of stream of consciousness songwriting. The whole time I would just be making notes, like, ’40 minutes, that was a great line,’ ’15 minutes, that chord was really nice.'” McDonald and Sampha extracted the “best bits” from the jams, and these served as the foundation for Process.
The projections also helped inspire some of Sampha’s lyrics. “On the song ‘Under,’ where he’s talking about ‘waves come crashing,’ I was watching him record that and there were waves on the screen,” McDonald remembers. “These things would help him form the ideas in the early stages.” In addition, Sampha took inspiration from personal turmoil in his life, especially the grief caused by his mother’s death.
Compared to the desolate sound of Dual, Process has all the signifiers of trendy modern pop: programmed drums, slick synths, songs that shapeshift after a couple minutes, and on “Reverse Faults,” even the clout of modern hip-hop. “One thing I was quite keen to do is present new pieces of equipment for [Sampha] that he would react to in an interesting way,” McDonald says. “To marry worlds a bit: piano Sampha and electronic Sampha. To open up that sound palette more, and also join things together.”
But the production, even at its most aggressive, never obscures the fragile voice. Sampha cautions listeners against reading too much into his inflections. “I definitely hear some of my songs back and think, ‘I want to give myself a pat on the back,'” he says. “But I’m not necessarily like that in my day to day. I’m not quite that vulnerable. It’s a little bit of – I wouldn’t say exaggeration, but it’s an amplification of something.” And it’s also a means to an end: “I want to leave music that some kid is going to find and put on some headphones and [it will] just transport them, like I was when I was into records.”