Sampha Searches For Divinity In The Material On ‘Lahai’
Written by Vocalo Radio on November 7, 2023
English singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sampha made his way to Chicago on Nov. 1, on tour in support of his new album Lahai.
Backstage at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago hours before his performance, Sampha sat down with Vocalo host Nudia Hernandez to talk returning to music, the themes behind Lahai and working with Drake and Kendrick Lamar.
Sampha’s highly-anticipated sophomore solo album Lahai, released six years after his first album Process, features 14 tracks blending R&B, pop, piano ballads, freestyles and poignant, layered lyricism. As Pitchfork describes in their review, “densely packed but light as a feather, [Lahai] explores life and the many leaps of faith required to truly live it.”
English artist Sampha glances at his name across the marquee of the Riviera Theatre, just hours before his performance at the venue in support of his new album Lahai. Morgan Ciocca/Vocalo Radio.
Standout track “Evidence” touches on Sampha’s spiritual journey and how he sees divinity in the metaphysical, and how he experiences the divine through moments with his daughter. A recurring motif of flight throughout the album is exemplified in “Jonathan L. Seagull,” referencing themes from the English fable about exploring other perspectives and observing his life from a bird’s eye view — which Sampha especially felt during the height of the pandemic.
“When … things slowed down a lot … I felt like I needed to have a bigger look at … my life, and go up and be able to look back and look forward,” he explained. “I feel like a bird’s eye view kind of represents that.”
When it comes to performing, Sampha values both intimate shows and larger festivals, appreciating each for its own essence. Whether performing at Coachella, NPR Music’s Tiny Desk or his Chicago show at the Riviera, Sampha admittedly always gets nervous before taking the stage. But once he’s warmed up, he’s a natural.
“I find when performing I get anxious, usually, and it’s not something I’m rearing to do,” Sampha remarked. “It’s usually when I find myself on stage, I’m at home on stage, but beforehand it’s like I’m pulling my hair.”
Throughout the six years between his debut and Lahai, Sampha’s fans have been a source of both pressure and motivation as they eagerly requested new music. With soft humility, Sampha expressed gratitude for his listeners’ patience.
“I don’t want to take anybody for granted by any means, and I really appreciate all the people who kept asking for music,” Sampha shared. “It’s been quite beautiful to see how people have taken to the record or how it’s touched people… I just want to say thank you to anyone who’s listening, and to the people who kept asking.”
Though the artist may not have released a solo album since 2017, he never stopped working on music entirely. In the past six years he’s collaborated with artists including Drake, Kendrick Lamar, Alicia Keys, Solange and Travis Scott, to name a few. In a year he describes as “disorienting,” Sampha earned a 2023 Grammy nomination as a featured artist and songwriter on Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, which was up for Album of the Year.
“It’s never really planned … but I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with people I really admire and see their creative processes up close,” Sampha noted.
As Sampha’s musical journey continues to unfold, his distinct sound and introspective lyrics continue to resonate deeply with his listeners. Lahai is available to stream on all platforms. More information on Sampha’s live shows can be found at sampha.com.
Nudia Hernandez: Hey it’s Nudia from Nudia in the Afternoons on Vocalo Radio 91.1 FM, Chicago’s only urban alternative and your only NPR Music station. We are backstage! I’m super excited, we’re in the greenroom, we’re backstage at the Riviera with Sampha. Hello!
Sampha: Hello, hello! How are you doing?
NH: I’m doing good! We’re back here because you have a show here tonight. Yep. Okay, are you the type of person? Do you have rituals before a show or are you always just ready to go?
S: Oh, no, definitely not just ready to go. I have to work up to it. Bit of exercise, I’ve got to get the blood flowing. I need to have a bit of quiet time as well, before I go on stage. Gotta stretch, just physically getting ready. It’s quite like… I feel like it’s a little bit of a sport, really. Trying to get ready for a show.
NH: Yeah, and I don’t think people know how long show days are for artists. You don’t just show up an hour before the show, you’re here the whole day, right?
S: Yeah, so especially with the setup that I’ve got, there’s a lot of soundchecking that needs to be done. Because there’s so many separate bits of audio that we need to figure out, and every venue is different. So it’s always a sort of constant reset. So yeah, we usually get here like a good five to six hours before doors open.
NH: And you’ve done so much on the festival circuit, not only in America. You’ve performed at Coachella and stuff. But also in Europe, you’ve done a lot of festivals there as well. Do you prefer a festival or a concert, one against the other?
S: I kind of appreciate things for what they are, really. I mean, when it comes to playing live, I’ve had incredible experiences, both playing intimate shows and playing festivals. It’s been great doing the shows, like these satellite business shows I’ve been doing. Playing in the round has been a new experience. And it’s been great because they’ve been really intimate, but then also, it’s incredible to walk out to a festival with loads of people in front of you. And also, it’s nice to play in front of people who might not necessarily know my music and connect with people, just on a pure kind of, on a new level. I mean, like, you’ve never heard of me and I’m just expressing myself to you, straight ahead. So there is something special about that, as well. But I find performing, I get anxious usually, and it’s not something I’m raring to do. Usually when I find myself on stage, I’m at home on stage, but beforehand… I’m pulling my hair out a little bit. Generally speaking!
NH: I love hearing that, because I know online a lot of people use words like “elusive” and “private” to describe you. Is that just your natural personality? Or do you like to just kind of keep things to yourself?
S: I think it’s my innate state, if I’m being perfectly honest. It’s not something I kind of overly think or try and plan to be, I just naturally am quite sort of, I don’t know, reclusive. I don’t even want to say “reclusive,” but yeah, I’m a bit of a hermit.
NH: And I have to say, your fans are probably the most politely demanding-slash-begging fans I’ve seen. Like on Twitter, asking for music. You just see your fans be like, “Please give us more music!” So was it a relief to release this last album, Lahai, after six years?
S: Yeah, I mean, I don’t want to take anybody for granted, by any means. And I really appreciate all the people who kept asking for music! And, yeah, no, it’s been really special sharing music and just seeing people’s reactions. Music is so subjective, and it’s funny to see how — not funny, but it’s been quite beautiful to see how people have kind of taken to the record. Or if it’s, how it’s touched people. And also people’s opinions, there’s some people like, “I could have done with this, I could’ve done with that.” I don’t know. But yeah, and I just want to say thank you to anyone who’s listening and to the people who kept asking, because I thought I might have lost a few fans. Maybe I have! But hopefully I’ll be releasing more music. I said that before, but I’m gonna try and mean it.
NH: I know a lot of fans said it was worth the wait. They’re like, “If we have to wait another six years for a project this good, we’ll wait.” But it just seems like there’s some artists I look at, and I’m like, “Wow, you’re having a great year.” You know, you’re nominated for a Grammy on Kendrick [Lamar]’s album, [Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers,] and then you released your music. Does it feel like you’re having a really good year?
S: You know, it’s quite disorientating, I think, sometimes… I feel it’s a blessing to be able to make music and for it to be my livelihood. I don’t take that for granted. And it’s special that people are kind of connecting to music that I’m putting out. I try not to get overly excited… It’s a balancing act, because it’s such a wavy space to be in. Like, my ego can be boosted up to the high heavens in my head, and also it can get knocked down. So it’s important that I still keep myself sort of balanced. But I give thanks. I definitely give thanks for being able to just do something that I love.
NH: Now, can we talk about the new album? I really… I loved hearing you on Kendrick’s track, because you guys both are fathers. Since you’ve released the last album, you have had a daughter now, and I love seeing how that affects music writers and singers because I always feel like music does change once people have children. They kind of have new perspectives on things. Do you feel like having your daughter kind of inspired you or changed your writing a little bit?
S: Oh yeah, most definitely. I feel like it’s always difficult to recognize how experience changes the way you act. It’s always easier to imagine something you haven’t done and dream of it. But once you’ve actually gone through it… I say it’s like, sometimes when you’re dreaming of doing something, the feeling becomes bigger than when you actually do it, if you know what I mean… Once I get on stage, I’m like, “Ah, what was so worried about?” But definitely being a father, I mean, it’s changed me fundamentally. And I think in terms of my approach to music, I feel that maybe my problem-solving abilities, my patience has increased because of becoming a father. And also just, obviously, it gives me inspiration sometimes to write about particular emotions that are maybe new to me, or that have surfaced now, becoming a father. But at the same time, it also feels very natural. So some things, it’s like, “Oh, I don’t really know how it’s affected the music, but I’m sure it has in a lot of ways.”
NH: And talking about the new album, Lahai, it was released a couple of weeks ago, and the song “Evidence,” I was listening to it, and it’s one of my favorites off the album. Is it about your daughter?
S: Yeah, I mean, like a lot of my songs, there’s about four different things going on. In terms of thematically, but yeah, it definitely touches on my daughter and my sort of search, my spiritual kind of journey, thinking about or interrogating what spirituality means. Divinity and on a metaphysical level. And I guess, with my daughter, I’m talking about on an imminent level, which is seeing divinity in material things, and that’s definitely the energy I got from her. I get from her.
NH: And also, another track I really love is “Jonathan L. Seagull.” And it’s funny, because I was doing research, I didn’t really know it. I was like, “I’ve never really heard that name.” But doing research, it is a book that’s kind of fundamental reading for school children, or like high schoolers or middle schoolers in the UK. But in America, I’ve never read that book. I really love that song. And I was looking at some blog columnist, and they were saying that, is it true that … you bring up references to that throughout the album?
S: Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of flying and I guess bird references throughout the record. And I do mention Jonathan Livingston Seagull in “Spirit 2.0.” And then I talk about “Inclination Compass,” and “Rose Tint,” which is also the name of another song, which is, I guess, the way in which birds or butterflies use a magnetic field to navigate their sort of migrations and stuff. So yeah, I mean, it’s quite … a theme throughout the record, and for me, a lot of the record is about memory. And it’s about looking forward, also, but it was also about … me feeling like I needed a bird’s eye view, as well. In the particular time of my life where each day would kind of go into each day, especially around COVID.
Sort of when … things slowed down a lot, me recognizing that I was just on this kind of treadmill, and I wasn’t questioning it. I felt like I needed to have a bigger look at sort of my life, and go up and be able to look back and look forward. And I feel like a bird’s eye view kind of represents that. And Jonathan Livingston Seagull, I guess, came into my mind whilst I was freestyling. And just kind of stuck and became a bit of the thematic identity of the record.
NH: That’s what I was reading. But that is one of my probably top three tracks that I loved from the album. Looking at your catalog of people you’ve worked with, I feel like people would die to really have this catalog. I mean, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye, Frank Ocean, Jesse Ware, Travis Scott, Solange. Is this just normal to you, to work with great people now? Has it felt like it’s been a lot of work, or has it felt like it’s all happened naturally?
S: It’s most definitely happened naturally. And I definitely, I give thanks, especially working with artists who I respect and whose music I admire. And the fact that they want to work with me, as well, has been a blessing, but it’s happened all very naturally. I could never tell you, I can’t tell you who I’m going to work with in the next year or who’s gonna pop out of the woodworks and when. It’s never really planned.
I guess it’s just the energy that’s kind of going around. But it’s been, I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with people who I really admire and see their creative processes up close. And also, through that, being able to recognize my own value, as well. Just because there’s times where I’ve felt impostor syndrome, like, “Why is this person wanting to work with me? Or why did he… why?” But then, I’m recognizing that I have something as well, and we’re all human, at the same time. Recognizing both the mundane poetry of us all, and also the extraordinariness of us all. I’m just making words up here, but I’m gonna use that one. Extraordinariness!
NH: And we’re in Chicago and you have kind of said that you have, in the past, looked up to artists like Common and Kanye, Chicago artists. I was looking back to try to trace this — do you ever feel like … there was a moment or a song that was kind of your big break? Like when you were like, “Okay, I feel like I made it, after this happened.”
S: As in a song that I’ve written, or like a…?
NH: Yeah! Or it could be a feature, but that you’re like, “This is it?”
S: I mean, I definitely felt a shift after working with Drake. As a lot of people probably would! And that being said, I even subtract the first time I sort of started making music, and then I was getting played on Radio One in the UK. And I was like, “Wow, this is real. People actually… you can actually make a song. And then it gets played on the radio and then…” I was like, “Wow.” That blew my mind. And also, yeah, I guess working with Drake definitely expanded the exposure and it was great. That was a great record to work on, because it’s probably one of my favorite Drake records as well, Nothing Was The Same. Yeah, those are definitely moments.
NH: Did the cell phone go crazy? Did the cell phone blow up with text messages?
S: Oh, definitely. Definitely. Like friends, family. Yeah, especially at that time. I guess … it wasn’t as commonplace, I guess, maybe for artists, especially artists like me, working with artists across the pond. And then, on a personal level, as well, Kendrick. Working with Kendrick, I’ve been a fan of fans for years, and so getting to be in the studio with him and get to talk to him and get to know him, it’s been a really special experience for me. Yeah.
NH: I’m looking at the moment you had an NPR — we are an NPR Music station — you did a Tiny Desk, and it’s so great to see, six years ago, you did a real Tiny Desk. Now people, I think it’s nice and fun that people bring in like eight-piece bands and choirs and stuff, but you did a Tiny Desk where it was literally just you. And I think you had a keyboard and a piano. And then that was it. And you did three songs, and I feel like that was the original format of Tiny Desk. Did you know that that has 3.7 million views?
S: I have checked it out once or twice! I must admit. I’m not gonna say, “I had no idea! Wow!” Yeah, no, I mean, it’s all relative, because I know that some people have got loads more and whatnot. But yeah, at the time, I actually didn’t really understand the scope of Tiny Desk and I was like, “Oh, this is just like an office I’m playing in.” I mean, I was still pretty, I was a little bit nervous. I warmed up, I warmed up the good old vocals. But yeah, it was a cool gig, it was special. And I definitely got lots of beautiful reactions from it. Yeah, it’s a great show.
NH: I was looking in the comments. Again, there’s some places on the internet where it’s just nice. And your comments section from this Tiny Desk is one of those places. So I just thought I’d read you some. One of them, it says, “Ay Sampha, you’re 2,000% not gonna see this. But as a single father, I want to thank you so much for coming out with this, because my one-year-old daughter is able to fall asleep to this Tiny Desk.”
S: My pleasure. My pleasure. That’s a great compliment. I know putting children to sleep is a thing. And if I can do anything to help, it is my absolute pleasure. I’ll take that as a compliment.
NH: This other person said, “You know the feeling when you mix sugar and cream perfectly in a cup of coffee and it tastes amazing? That’s his voice, the perfect blend.”
S: Wow, appreciate you. Yeah, I mean, as I said, it’s subjective. There’s some people who are like, “I don’t get the hype about this guy’s voice.” And there’s times in the day, like, I never really… I never saw myself as, I call it like, “a sanger.” I can’t really do and hit particularly notes, but I sing from the heart, and I appreciate that that hopefully transmits. So any, I’ll take it, basically. I’ll take that compliment. Thank you.
NH: And the last one we have, someone says, “I’ve watched this performance over and over again, and it’s brought me out of the deepest and darkest moments of my life. Thank you Sampha.”
S: As I said, it’s a blessing. Music is a powerful thing. And this definitely helped me in difficult moments in my life. And it’s just the energy we share around, and life is tough. We need to have our hands held by things. I’m usually just sharing my own sort of insecurities and wondering, “Why is anyone, why would you want to hear… about my pain?” But hearing something like that definitely makes me feel … that there’s value in expressing your darker moments alongside the happy moments. So, yeah, I appreciate that comment, too.
NH: I was gonna say, there was this video, I think, is it Wallo? Where he met you and he started crying? Is that hard for you, that this is your reality? That some people just meet you, and you bring all these emotions out of them?
S: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I’m one of those people, it’s hard for me to access emotions or be — especially in the moment — be, not empathetic, but… really, like, because you have to be really open hearted when someone is particularly emotional. Everyone probably had that when, out of the blue, someone gets really emotional are you’re like, “How do I react to this?” How do I really embrace?” Because it’s quite a sensitive place, you’re touching on a sensitive nerve. So you’ve got to react to it in different ways. And sometimes it’s awkward. I’m just like, “I don’t quite know, actually, I can’t quite even sympathize right now with what you’re going through.”
But it’s something … you kind of have to mature into, I guess, and sort of really zone into what’s going on for people and that’s a the beautiful thing about music, is you really can connect you to your emotion and to being alive and to bookmarking moments in your life. I’m trying to grow up and really sort of empathize with how people are feeling, or how my music makes people feel, because, especially after making music, sometimes I might even forget the initial emotion of a song, after a certain amount of time. And so when people kind of meet me with the emotion, I’m like, “Oh, yes! I make emotional music. Oh, yeah.”
NH: And we have to wrap this up, but tonight you’re playing at the Riviera Theater. What could fans expect? Can they expect a little bit of the first album and second, are you going to focus more on Lahai?
S: It’s a mixture, definitely leaning towards more Lahai songs. But yeah, a mixture of my kind of huge discography! [Laughs]
NH: Well, thank you so much for sitting with us.
S: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.
NH: And we can’t wait to see more.
S: Yes, most def!
Interview by Nudia Hernandez
Audio editing and production by Morgan Ciocca
Written introduction by Blake Hall
Photography by Morgan Ciocca
Transcription and editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca
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