I am delighted and pleased to welcome Sampha to this program. The British-born musician with roots in Sierra Leone may prefer producing behind the scenes, but he’s getting a whole lot of love these days for his debut album. It’s called “Process”.
He joins us now to talk about the album and, later in this program, a special treat for you. He’s going to perform for us and you do not want to miss this, I promise you. I am honored to have you on this program, brother.
Sampha: Well, thanks for having me.
Tavis: Can I go right to this project, to the album? When I pulled — I love liner notes. I’m a fan of them. I pulled this thing out and, before I could get to the notes, I saw this photo of you and your precious mother.
Tavis: You dedicate the project to your mother. Tell me about your mama.
Sampha: My mum’s name is Binty Sisay. She’s like really — she’s someone who we kind of have a very similar nature. I’m quite quiet and she’s quite quiet and reserved woman, but very sort of elegant and thoughtful, really like a caring woman. I was lucky to have her as my mum.
Tavis: Did your mother have — your mother and your father, for that matter — I want to talk about both of them. Did your parents have any influence on your music?
Sampha: Yeah, they did. I mean, my dad bought a piano for the house when I was like three years old. And that, obviously, had like a huge effect on my life. And my dad used to buy lots of music. Like coming home from work, he would sort of like pick up anything from like HMV which is like a music store in the U.K., from like the Spice Girls, the Pavarottis, like African music.
Yeah, and they were very encouraging as well because they could see I had like a penchant for that music. So, yeah, they did have an influence.
Tavis: With so much eclectic sound around you when your father’s bringing home so many different types and genres of music, how did you find yourself in that? How’d you find your own musical way when you’re being exposed to so much stuff?
Sampha: I just naturally gravitated towards some things like, I don’t know, Stevie Wonder. Stevie Wonder and Tracy Chapman [laugh].
Tavis: I’ll tell you something funny. I’ve had a million guests on this show over the years. And whenever it’s a music guest and we talk about influences, the first name that comes out of everybody’s mouth — take a guess — Stevie Wonder. Why is that?
Sampha: It was just magical. It just completely like engrossed me. He’s like a magical man. I think it was just the harmonic language and the inventiveness and the production and the range of concepts. Yeah, it was just something about — yeah, “Songs in the Key of Life”.
I actually was just addicted to that from the age of seven and then like Tracy Chapman. So I think I just gravitated towards and that’s how I kind of carved out my own sort of taste, I think.
Tavis: It’s amazing. I think about Stevie and “Songs in the Key of Life”, to your point, it’s hard not to fall in love with that project. Stevie wrote that when he was just a year or two younger than you.
Sampha: I know. It was crazy, yeah.
Tavis: Isn’t that amazing? He was that young [laugh] and puts out an album like that, it’s unbelievable. Your stuff is pretty unbelievable, particularly the song that you’re gonna play for us in a few minutes here. I’ve heard so many love songs over the years, but never heard a love song that is so melodic to a piano. Tell me about this song.
Sampha: Well, it’s a song I kind of wrote when I was like basically my mum was diagnosed with cancer. I had moved out briefly to kind of make music and, when it was kind of diagnosed, I moved back at home.
Literally, I was just sitting on the sofa. We were watching TV and my mum was there. The line, “No one knows me like the piano”, in my mother’s home just kind of came to me from like thin air kind of thing. And it’s just something that stuck with me and I just like expanded on that.
I think it’s just like, obviously, is an ode to my piano, but it’s really an ode to my mother. The most important thing is the piano in my mother’s house and all the kind of how formative that period of time was for me and I could see it. It was something I could really — I never contemplated before that.
This isn’t gonna last forever, this is impermanent, something that I sort of took for granted, you know, coming back home, being at mum’s house and my mum being there. Yeah, my piano, obviously, was something that has been there. Sort of stayed the same since I was real young.
Tavis: You and I were talking before we came on the air. As Black men, I think our number one goal is to make our mamas proud. Everybody wants mama to be proud of them. Your mom didn’t live long enough to see this debut album, but she certainly saw enough of your success to know that you were going to be all right.
Sampha: Yeah. She was definitely proud. She wasn’t like a woman of many words, so she wouldn’t say out, but she stopped complaining. She was smiling a lot more, you know, when she could see like I was like supporting myself from, you know, making music, and it looked like things were going to be all right.
And that made me like so happy. It was like probably the happiest period of my life really when I kind of — we know, a week on really well [laugh].
Tavis: I mentioned at the top of the interview here, at the top of the conversation, that you seem most comfortable behind the scenes. I can tell you’re a little shy. How are you navigating or how do you think you’re going to navigate this process of being out front? Now it’s all on you now. The spotlight is on you, not on Drake anymore. It’s on you.
Sampha: It’s a bit of a strange thing. I mean, I guess I’m just like going with the flow a little bit and seeing how, you know, I kind of react to certain situations. I’m just learning as I go along, but I feel like I’ve sort of delayed this like process or this thing because I knew like in the past I wasn’t quite ready for any of it really, just as a person. Some people might be like…
Tavis: To be out front, you mean?
Sampha: Yeah, to be out front just because of all the things that kind of come along with that. I felt like I was a little bit naïve to it, like the industry. But now, I guess through the experiences I’ve had, I’m just more used to being able to let go of things and being able to fail a bit more and sort of explore and not be so kind of scared. Yeah, I’m just kind of seeing how things are going and taking in all this like stimulus in and analyzing it.
Tavis: I find that a lot of artists over time work their way into being transparent. They work their way into being authentic and to being open, but you started out that way. Your stuff is just out there.
Sampha: I mean, a lot of it, the honest stuff really just comes out, you know, when I’m sitting at the piano as much as it may be like a bit of a cliché thing or something. Because that is like a thought I get, you know, making this up, it really was a bit of an escape for me.
You know, I was going through a difficult time personally. Yeah, that’s where, you know, I would come out with things I didn’t even know I was thinking or feeling.
Just, you know, my brain — there’s something about the flow when you’re sitting there and improvising and singing. There’s this stuff that kind of came out of me really. That’s sort of like the beauty of like sitting at the piano and my singing.
Tavis: Sounds like “Process” to me [laugh]. “Process”, that’s the name of the album. It’s his debut and you do not want to miss picking it up and adding it to your collection. I promise you’ll hear this name time and time again. That is our show for tonight.
Closing us out is Sampha performing the track, “No One Knows Me Like the Piano”. You’re going to love this one. Goodnight from L.A. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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