On a warm evening last August, a few dozen people crowded into the back dining room at Greenpoint’s Manhattan Inn around a white baby grand piano. At the bench was Sampha Sisay, a 27-year-old Londoner. As the first few chords rang out, the buzz in the room turned to a heavy silence, the minimal arrangement leaving room for Sisay’s voice.
Earlier that day, he’d taped his first solo U.S. television performance, for the September 1 edition of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert; the intimate Brooklyn gig was a treat for the small crowd who had gathered to celebrate the upcoming premiere. While Sisay, who performs under his first name, is soft-spoken and reserved, both performances communicated an enormous talent, begging the question of why he’s not already a superstar.
Mostly, it’s been by choice. His debut EP, Sundanza, was mostly instrumental, packed with glitchy electronic tracks suited for the dancefloor. The record’s intricate, layered production did not go unnoticed, attracting the attention of Jessie Ware (with whom he collaborated on her 2011 single “Valentine”) and the enigmatic producer SBTRKT, who recruited Sisay to co-produce a pair of tracks on his self-titled LP and contribute most of the record’s lyrics and vocals. Famed culture vulture Drake also took note, incorporating original Sampha composition “Too Much” into his 2013 LP, Nothing Was the Same.
But it wasn’t until 2013’s Dual EP that we got to hear full, unadulterated Sampha — his voice paired with his music. That got enough attention that he decided it was time to make a full-length statement. “I was going to release an [EP] in the beginning of 2014,” Sisay tells the Voice. “I just felt like if I’m gonna make an album, it might as well be now. I didn’t really want to release music for the sake of keeping things bubbling.”
But soon after he started writing, his mother’s cancer — which had been in remission after a five-year battle — re-emerged. Doctors said that this time, it was terminal. Sisay moved back home to care for her. “That fed into the music I was making,” he says. “I guess that’s what this music is, especially being vocal and lyrical…the two things just sort of crossed over like DNA strands.”
The strands became Process, which arrives February 3 on Young Turks, almost two years after his mother’s passing. Where some of his early production skewed electronic and danceable, and Dual minimalist, Process splits the difference: The stark emotion and restrained arrangement of piano ballad “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” contrasts well with the high-energy syncopated percussion on “Reverse Faults” and early single “Blood on Me.” Sisay seamlessly edits traditional instruments like the kora (a 21-string West African lute/harp) with piano, electronic drums, and oddball samples. The album’s ten tracks were culled from dozens he’d written, and the finished product is both a musical and a personal triumph.
That it came at the price of such devastating loss underscores just how intimately personal it is; many of the songs detail Sisay’s struggle to accept his mother’s death and the journey that followed it. Lately, he’s been working his way through a copy of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, which has helped. “The best thing you can find is probably peace and letting go of things, or even contemplating, as the book says, death,” he says. “Sometimes you just have to let go of the pain, to let things be.”
While he’d been close to his mother since childhood, his musical upbringing fell to his father and brothers and the eclectic mix (Brian Eno, L.L. Cool J, Joni Mitchell, Prince) they exposed him to. At home, Sisay would play piano and dance for his whole family, to their delight. “[It’s like] I’m at the bottom of the soil, [with] all the nutrients that pass through everything, and I’ve been well nourished from a young age,” he says. “Having a piano and all the music around me opened up my mind harmonically.”
Still, he struggled for years to pair his output to words, unsure it was a good idea to write what he wanted to: about his identity as an Englishman of African descent (his family hails from Sierra Leone); about his realizing that the toughness expected of him because of his dark skin was a weakness instead of a strength. “I heard some songs…this guy called Kwes, he’s sort of a big brother to me,” Sisay recalls. He specifically remembers a song about crying and wiping tears that clashed with his own embedded preconceptions of black masculinity. “He had a song about tissues, and it made me feel sick. That vulnerability, you realize things about the perception of your race. That informed the way I write, the way I actually play, and production.”
Sisay wrote and produced the entirety of Process and played nearly every instrument on the album, too. “I didn’t write the music with the intention of playing it live,” Sisay explains. “So much of it is feeling — it’s like a painter trying to paint the exact same thing, to figure out what colors you mixed, what materials you used.”
That became not quite a problem, but certainly a hurdle, as he started fielding performance requests. Bryndon Cook, who collaborated with Sisay on Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair,” remembers catching up with the artist just as he was first considering how to translate his new material for a live setting. “We were throwing all these ideas around, like how many more people would you need to do a thing? He had no idea.” Cook calls the band Sisay ultimately put together — Jonathan Geyevi (keyboards), Moses Boyd (drums), and Kelsey Lu (cello, sampler, vocals) — “a real soulful electronic quartet.”
The same band performed alongside Sisay on Colbert, faithfully reproducing the complex arrangement of “Blood on Me” with just a touch of additional swagger. The stripped-down, percussion-free set at Manhattan Inn was more delicate, occasionally featuring Lu and Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek. But in both cases, it was hard to focus on anyone but Sisay. That much talent, developed over so many years, can’t help but hold the room.