Sampha knows there’s sadness associated with his music. “Process,” his Mercury Prize-winning 2017 debut, was filled with down-tempo ballads made in the aftermath of his mother’s death from cancer. But six years have passed, and now the British singer, pianist and producer born Sampha Sisay is a father. So for his new album, “Lahai,” he wanted to explore different points of the life cycle.
“I think through looking at my daughter, I had a very strong vision of my mom,” Sampha, now 34, said in a video interview from his North London home, where he was surrounded by big windows and an array of production equipment. “You end up recognizing that suddenly they’re gone, but I’ll be gone too in time — potentially it won’t matter however long. It’s like everyone’s kind of slowly or fastly moving towards that cliff, and it’s just how you decide to embrace it.”
After several years of lending his supple vocals to stars like Drake and Beyoncé, Sampha broke out with a star turn on Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair,” from her 2016 album “A Seat at the Table.” Calling his voice “an instrument in itself,” Solange said that working with Sampha on “Time (Is),” from her 2019 follow-up, helped her unlock the song’s sound.
“I kept getting stuck on it, feeling like something was missing,” she wrote in an email. “I tried 10 different synth lines. But the texture of his voice is better and richer and fuller and more spirited than any synth sound I could add,” she explained, calling it a “blessing” to have him as a collaborator.
Sampha grew up in Morden, England, the youngest of five born to parents from Sierra Leone. When he was 3, his father brought a piano into the house as an alternative to the TV, and Sampha took to the instrument. Later, as a teenager, he discovered music production at his brother Sanie’s house, where he’d play keyboards and listen to the Strokes and Brian Eno late into the night. By 2007, Sampha was making a vast blend of bouncy electronic music and Wassoulou — West African traditional folk — with odd time signatures.
He eventually landed on his own sound — bright yet meditative R&B with lush keys and chest-thumping bass — and after he uploaded his tunes to Myspace, he met other producers working with similar aesthetics. In 2009, the experimental producer Kwes introduced him to the label Young Turks (now just called Young). Sampha released his first EP, “Dual,” in 2013, and then rereleased “Sundanza,” a collection of lo-fi tracks that first arrived in 2010.
“I first heard him when he was making instrumental music under the name Kid Nova,” Kwes wrote in an email. “I was blown away by it — futuristic, soulful, super musical. So when he sent me an early song demo with him singing on the piano, I thought, ‘It’s only a matter of time before he explodes,’ and here we are!”
For “Process,” Sampha said had he wanted to unpack the anguish of his mother’s death. “I found it important to speak out loud just to sometimes create a bit of a discourse or a bit of a dialogue,” he said, speaking gently. “I don’t have all the answers and there’s times where I feel like I need to just figure out where I’m at. I just speak what’s on my heart, the truth. I get into things.”
Since that album, he has appeared as a guest on a few other artists’ tracks — most notably on Kendrick Lamar’s “Father Time” from “Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers” — and spent time “doing life things — going for walks, reading, thinking, just taking things in.” He started working on new music in 2019, but didn’t get far before his daughter was born in 2020. Then the pandemic hit, and his creativity paused.
“Audio is a bit of a communal process, like jamming with musicians I really like, and instrumentalists,” he said. “But that had to halt, and I had to figure out what to do.” Even as he finished the new album last year, he wondered if now was the time for it.
“I remember listening to ‘Voodoo’ just after I finished my album,” Sampha said with a smile, referring to D’Angelo’s acclaimed 2000 LP. “And I listened to my album again and I was like, ‘My album sucks.’”
When he had doubts, Sampha turned to his family for strength. “Lahai” is his middle name, which he shares with his paternal grandfather, “an elegant man” whom he’d never met but knew from photographs. He wanted the music on the new album, due Oct. 20, to embody the kind of stateliness and verve that he imagined his grandfather had. While “Process” moved at a slower pace, “Lahai” is brighter and more expansive, from the airy percussive stomp of “Stereo Colour Cloud (Shaman’s Dream)” and “Dancing Circles” to the gospel-centered “Jonathan L. Seagull” and the broken-beat sound of “What If You Hypnotise Me?”
While he developed these new songs, Sampha said he carefully curated what he allowed himself to take in. He started reading science books, had a few therapy sessions and made sure he stayed away from readings about grief. When he was almost done with “Lahai,” he watched the 2021 TV special “Dark Matter: A History of the Afrofuture,” which he said “reflected to me this idea of feeling alien or venturing into the unknown and using the imagination, looking forward, or even that kind of mental time travel as a kind of protection.”
Another television series, the BBC’s “Wonders of the Universe” from 2011, provided a spark for Sampha to wrestle with the notion of organized chaos and going back in time. “Brian Cox was talking about entropy and chaos and order and disorder, and how things naturally become more chaotic,” he said, referring to the English physicist. “It’s easier to create chaos, to throw a bunch of glitter into the air.”
Sometimes leaning into chaos can be the key to a new level of creativity. “I felt this kind of joy, maybe a joy that was influenced by the kind of this cosmic openness that maybe I feel in Alice Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders,” Sampha said, “this kind of calling or acceptance or connection.”
Though he knows he’ll continue to be associated with sadness, Sampha understands why and hopes people can find solace in it.
“My own music, it was actually aiding me because I was empathizing with myself through it,” he said. “There’s so much going on for a lot of people that they can’t even think, can’t even hold on to stuff,” he added. But “the struggle has value.”