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A cathartic Process: Reflections on Sampha’s debut album

The piano on which Sampha plays “Plastic 100°C” in his video, on the roof of his label, Young Turks, in North-East London, is a perfect metaphor for his new record, Process. The video is a simple live performance, without the ethereal twangs of the taut strings that begin the album version, or the throbbing synths that sway between bass and treble. It was the first footage we saw of the new Sampha, and it was Sampha as any long-term fan had known him: a man at a piano. Having followed the London-based musician’s whole career, I was desperate for this video to work. I knew the song would be beautiful when I realized it was to be five minutes of Sampha and his piano, but—as we do with all our favorites—I was watching the video in desperate search of some sign or symbol that his next project (his first project, his first studio album) was going to be successful. Of course, this was one of those moments in which the unquestioning hope of the fanatic is rewarded

But back to the piano. It’s walnut. No one plays walnut pianos anymore. It’s an old upright with an archaic folding music stand, and nobbled in the way that only old wooden objects can be. During my internship, I saw it become a monstrously alive thing: it would groan begrudgingly as it was moved around. It would snap its key cover shut with a grumpy bark, paying no mind to nearby fingers. It would change hues as the rings it collected from hot mugs of tea and coffee gave it new skins, some impermanent, but some buried into the wood forever. It would smell: sometimes of Korean prawn cracker-type snacks, sometimes of ginger tea, sometimes of chicken and peas and rice left to linger on it for far too long. But in the video, on the roof, how faithful it still was. How lovingly it still acknowledged its other half, its player. How willingly, how easily did the notes come out. It was a being which, regardless of previous history and prior actions, asked no questions and loved unconditionally. It was family.

In the third video to come from the album, “(No One Knows Me) Like The Piano,” he sits and plays on another walnut piano—not in fact the same piano, this time a clunky English Challen, but still walnut—while model Adwoa Aboah dances into dust around him. Aboah is a clear analogy for the memory of Sampha’s mother, who died of cancer in 2015, around the same time his brother was hospitalized with a stroke. He lost his father to the same disease when he was ten, and had a scare himself in 2012. At the end of the video, Aboah comes to sit next to him on the piano stool, and it’s as if the whole record is manifested in this moment: Sampha, the piano player, the singer, and his memories, embodied both in Aboah and the physical object before him. The piano that “knows” him as Aboah does, when she gazes at him, arms folded over the other side of the piano, with an astounding warmth and intimacy. Exactly as a mother would, watching her son practice piano at home, watching him fail, improve, grow.

By now we know this is what Sampha does. He seduced Drake with just a zip file of music—incidentally, Drake was more interested at first by his production than his voice—and worked with Kanye on The Life of Pablo to make “Saint Pablo”, a track that stood out for its poised composition and softer beat on a sprawling and maximalist record. Like Joan Armatrading or Tracy Chapman, Sampha belongs to the coterie of musicians whose intimacy feels most real when it’s just them and their instrument: we hope they don’t get any more famous so we can achieve our romantic dream of seeing them live on a barstool in a small venue.

I still can’t get that piano out of my head. In the video with Aboah, the piano is clean. It reflects some light, which the office piano certainly did not under its dust. And I wonder about Aboah herself. I wonder if it’s just me who thinks she was a serendipitous choice to play the ghost of a mother, since her shaved head gravely but touchingly may connect to the hair loss that cancer induces, and therein Sampha’s mother. But she of course does not look sickly; she wears scarcely any makeup, but she glows. Everything, then, has been healed.

The piano that “knows” Sampha, that his father bought for the house when Sampha was three, now cooperates—it sings with him. And the memory of his mother comes back, this time without pain but elegance and calm. Here, I feel the record in its entirety once more: pain, memory and the sheer time that mourning always requires are made real and made bearable by music. So many of the tracks feel expressionistic: desperate communications of personal feelings that hope to be heard and felt lovingly by the listeners. The racy, tormented anxiety of “Blood On Me”; the torture of letting a lover go in “Take Me Inside”; the doubt and guilt of the closer, “What Shouldn’t I Be,” whose lyrics on the page look like Frank O’Hara to me: “I should visit my brother / But I haven’t been there in months / I’ve lost connection, signal / To how we were.”

The lyrics on Process are so strong that I could just quote them, and that would be a rhapsodic review in itself. It was a relief to find that “No One Knows Me…” was one of the singles, because it is so immediately gorgeous and excellent that I don’t feel the need to qualify or explain the song to friends, I just let them hear the lyrics. Just the chorus: “You know I left, I flew the nest / And you know I won’t be long / And in my chest you know me best / And you know I’ll be back home”. But such lyrics, sincere and vulnerable as flesh without skin, can only reach their height on the wings of a voice like Sampha Sisay’s. On Process, his voice is the best it’s ever been, not only apparent in the time-stopping falsetto that begins “Take Me Inside,” but apparent in the confident steady force with which he sings the lyrics quoted above. For a few seconds he’s the Otis Redding that England never had.

It’s almost an embarrassing sentiment to express, because it sounds like an awful platitude, but Process is what catharsis means to me. It’s a record that took seven years of loss, of anxiety, of the artist wondering whether his path was worth walking. And it truly took all those things; it used them, and it made them into music. The stakes of expression are high: Alisha Acquaye wrote in OkayAfrica about Sampha and the importance of voices dealing with anxiety and vulnerability in black music, and his voice, though impeccably gentle, rings so clear and loud in such a significant musical discussion. The record feels in conversation with A Seat at the Table—Sampha of course features on “Don’t Touch My Hair”—and even Blonde. Could there be a better trinity of records in recent memory? I would struggle to find one. To put it simply, I haven’t been this happy to have a record in so long. I owe Sampha so much. One trivial example: Valentine’s Day was earlier this week, a categorically miserable day to spend by oneself, which I did. Yes, I would have got through it whatever the circumstances, but I am so, so happy I had Process, and real songs about real feelings, to help me along.

 

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  1. […] This article originally appeared in The Yale Herald. […]

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