The process of songwriting is something that artists don’t always share right away, but when they do it’s usually something like “it just came to me.” Paul McCartney famously wrote “Yesterday” in a dream and played it for everyone in the studio over and over again because he couldn’t believe it wasn’t already a song. On his debut record however, aptly titled Process, British-signer Sampha dives into a little more than the average case of writer’s block. Lost love, anxiety, and his mother’s losing battle with cancer are just for starters.
Sampha Sisay is one of the few artists I’ve actually actively followed since the beginning of his musical career. Usually now I only hear about new emerging artists once they get big and are written about a ton, but back in 2011, a weird electronic EP called Sundanza that Young Turks released on “very limited hand sprayed CD-R’s” got him some features on label-mate and fellow British electronic producer SBTRKT’s self-titled debut record.
That record, in which Sampha sang on or helped produce 8 of the 13 tracks, held massive critical appeal. From there he would release some songs of his own from time to time, which were compiled on Dual, an EP released in 2013, but he spent the majority of his musical career from there on out building his network and providing vocals and production for Drake, FKA twigs, SBTRKT, Kanye West, and both Beyoncé and Solange.
His long awaited debut Process begins to explain why he had been so reclusive and yet so present at the same time. Following the release of Dual in 2013, which featured one of my favorite Sampha songs “Indecision,” Sampha moved back home to care of his ailing mother, who passed away just last September due to cancer. During his stay, he spent a lot of time at his childhood piano where he would write the lead single from Process, “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano,” a beautifully, gut-wrenching song dedicated to his mother about the healing properties of music.
Process also deals with his own anxieties, such as the doctor-puzzling mystery lump in his throat, which he mentions on “Plastic 100°C,” or the paranoia he deals with on “Blood on Me.” “I did go for a little run in the booth,” Sampha notated on Genius, “I was genuinely running out of breath while I was singing those lyrics.” He built the song after watching Ghost in the Shell, one of the more famous anime’s about robot police that would later inspire the Wachowski sisters. The idea of running and the line “I swear they smell the blood on me” just stuck over this 20-30 minute piano loop he had been working on with producer Rodaidh McDonald. The film is also mentioned in “Under,” where he tells a girl whom he can’t get out of his mind that she’s “the ghost in [his] machine.”
The record is a beautiful yet haunting peak into Sampha’s psyche, and one of the better debuts I’ve heard in a long time. It’s not just about Sampha processing some deep and emotional events to recently strike his life, but about processing emotions in of itself, and how one deals with hardships or hard to define concepts like anxiety, death, and love. On the last track, Sampha asks “what shouldn’t I be?” and embraces the future and all its endless possibilities. The whole recording process for Sampha is finding catharsis through music, and its in his soothing melodies and mesmerizing production that he finally has his proper debut—his home.