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Sampha’s New Groove

The South London musician and producer discusses his striking new album ahead of his return to Australia and New Zealand


Jesse Crankson

Over the past few months, Sampha has been skilfully reimagining his latest songs for his live performances. Whether it’s the upbeat disco-funk of “Dancing Circles” or soaring through the interlude-like “Satellite Business” – both lifted from his arresting 2023 album, Lahai – he’s nailed the evolution of his sound on stage. It’s not just the tight groove with his spirited four-piece band, huddled in a rhythmic drum circle; it’s the inventive tweaks breaking free from his recorded music.

“Some songs feel more at home on stage than on the record,” Sampha reflects over Zoom, recalling his recent North American tour. “I could play them as recorded, but sometimes it doesn’t quite click. I need to recreate them for the context, changing chords or arrangements. It’s fun to keep finding new ways to play.”

Born Sampha Sisay, the South London musician and producer has long been guided by his instincts, both onstage and in the studio. His debut album, the emotionally charged [2017’s] Process, served as a cathartic unpacking of deep family pain and sorrow, earning him Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize. Seven years later, the September-released Lahai has swiftly gained acclaim over the past several months for introducing a more upbeat and expansive sonic palette while retaining the deep, personal tension of his debut. 

First linking up with SBTRKT in 2011, Sampha’s become a sought-after voice in rap and R&B, gracing tracks by heavyweights like Drake, Kanye West, and Solange, shining brightly on the latter’s “Don’t Touch My Hair”. Since Process, he’s made notable appearances, including on Kendrick Lamar’s “Father Time” from Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers.

Lahai propels Sampha into a dreamlike state, influenced by his experiences becoming a new father during the pandemic. Exploring themes of family, memory, and time, the album serves as a powerful narrative of self-discovery and connection, bridging generations for Sampha and his daughter.

“I’ve poured a lot of myself into the record, hoping it sheds a light on what I was going through at the time. As someone who lost their parents, I’ve imagined their thoughts, feelings, and outlook,” he shares. “This is a little document of some of those things from me. And, if anything, it might help her in her own self-discovery journey.

“It’s also a way for me to connect to a feeling. You know, sometimes my biggest fear is losing a feeling or a moment, even if it’s sad or the worst thing.” 

While Lahai has been in the making since 2019, Sampha took a break when his daughter was born, coinciding with the pandemic. This pause allowed him to reflect on his life and integrate grounding practices into his routine, influencing the album’s meditative undertones.

“Every day, 24 hours [would] just go by, and you wake up again,” he recalls about that period of his life. “It made me realise that I needed some grounding practice – something to lift me up and say, ‘This is where I am in my life.’ I spent time meditating, playing the piano, or even just writing down how my day is going in a book, attempting to integrate these practices into my everyday life.”

Looking for a fresh perspective, Sampha drew inspiration from flight and birds, giving the record a sonic sensation of soaring – a bird’s eye view. Lead single “Spirit 2.0” encapsulates this feeling, with suspended lyrics like, “Next thing I’m drifting into open sky / And I don’t feel so scared.” Another track, “Jonathan Livingston Seagull”, was born from childhood memories sparked by a bedtime story told by his brother about a diving bird

During the album’s creation, Sampha expanded his interests by reading science books and watching documentaries on things like time travel and Afrofuturism. Ciro Guerra’s 2015 film, Embrace of the Serpent, played silently in the background, influencing his songwriting. “I needed to sort of humble myself. There are people who’ve written on subjects very deeply. It’s special to recognise that others have gone through similar situations.”

Sonically, the album – named after his grandfather (Lahai is also Sampha’s middle name) – blends the old with the new. Sampha’s Sierra Leone roots come alive in the lively arrangments, fusing Wassoulou and West African folk with glitchy electro-soul layered atop robotic drum machines and synthesisers. Funk breaks and jungle influences from his childhood infuse his honeyed vocals. This infusion of dance and rhythm, Sampha asserts, is “such an integral part of my music, even if my views on dancing are more impressionistic – a nostalgic recollection of how dancing makes me feel.”

Lahai‘s cosmic universe came together with help from fellow London musicians like Yussef Dayes, Mansur Brown, and Laura Groves. Sampha says their contributions took the album to new levels.  “I needed that feeling of community and communality, being around people I’ve known for ages,” he says. “Everyone really coloured this record and put in the universe some things I wouldn’t have imagined doing with my ideas. It was really special.”

In February, Sampha hits the road again for shows in Australia and New Zealand, including headline performances at festivals like Splore. A special in-the-round show in Melbourne, similar to his innovative ‘Satellite Business’ performances in London, promises an immersive experience.

Accompanied by a fresh band – Ruthven on percussion, Elsas Hackett on keys, Rosetta Carr on bass, and Blake Cascoe on drums – he’s excited to return since his last visit in 2017. “It’s been such a long time. There’s so much I remember and also so much that I don’t,” he reflects. “I’m looking forward to codifying the experience, and really taking it all in.”

Embracing imperfections, Sampha recognises that letting his ideas flow freely shapes his next creative phase. “I’ve learned I don’t need to be an expert in everything to express myself, whether it’s in science or venturing into spirituality. I’m not a guru by any means, but maybe there are things beyond me that I can tap into.” He pauses, then adds, “It’s been a lot about getting out of my own way.”

Sampha’s Lahai is out now via Young. More information about his Australian and New Zealand 2024 can be found here.