He’s the new piano man with the husky voice whose stark confessionals have made him the go-to balladeer for hip hoppers and dubsteppers.
Hometown: Morden, South London.
The lineup: Sampha Sisay (music, production).
The background: Sampha first made a cameo in this column in 2010 in an article on rapper Dels, the year he released his first EP, Sundanza. Since then, the pianist, producer and electronic music singer-songwriter has worked with SBTRKT and Solange Knowles, Koreless and Lil Silva, Jessie Ware — on her 2011 track Valentine — and Drake, producing and singing on two tracks from the Nothing Was the Same album: the Motion and Too Much. And now the 24-year-old Londoner is preparing to step out of the collaborative shadows, into the solo limelight, with his latest single, an iteration of Too Much b/w Happens, and we say b/w because it’s being issued as a 7″ vinyl single in January.
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«Electronic music singer-songwriter»? That’s how he’s been pitched and that’s the world he operates in. But in a way he’s more Elton John than James Blake. Or at least, an Elton John under the sway of Malian singer Oumou Sangaré, whose idiosyncratic melodies and scales had such an impact on the young musician. In a way he sounds like an unelectronic James Blake, where the dubstep influence is implied rather than pervasive. The music is very spartan — often just piano (not synth) and voice. The spaciousness suggests loneliness and the crepuscular atmosphere evokes the feelings of sorrow and pain that informed it: his father passed away when he was nine and that loss — his absence — is a kind of leitmotif in his songs. On last year’s Dual EP and the new single Sampha seems to be exploring the dark terrain between attachment and emotional distance (there’s even a track entitled Can’t Get Close, and another called Demons), and if that sounds heavy and portentous, so is Sampha’s music, in a good way.
He’s not exactly — or even remotely — one of those post-Weeknd types where the voice and music are integrated skilfully. No, with Sampha the vocal is starkly separated from the spare accompaniment, to the extent that it either sounds utterly new, or weirdly old-fashioned and pre-postmodern. Happens features a voice and some piano trills, and that’s it. Too Much is equally heartfelt and unadorned — one wonders how exposed he felt singing it on US TV show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon recently. Indecision — written around the time of Amy Winehouse’s death, apparently — is typical Sampha in its lack of melodic obviousness. «It’s slightly about myself but more about someone who has problems; fundamental issues,» he told Pitchfork. But the real issue is whether Sampha can make his bleak confessionals and anguished character studies relatable to the wider public.
The buzz: «Sampha Sisay has a quiet way about him. It’s what makes the raw emotion that spills out of him all the more startling» — Pitchfork.
The truth: He’s more Elton John than James Blake.
Most likely to: Happen.
Least likely to: Be too much.
What to buy: Too Much / Happens is out now on Young Turks. The 7″ vinyl follows on January 6.
File next to: James Blake, Jamie Woon, Elton John, Oumou Sangaré.
Wednesday’s new band: Rainer.