By Nick Buckley
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While freestyling in the studio in 2019, a freefalling bird dived into Sampha Sisay’s imagination. It sparked childhood memories of his older brother reading to him from Disney picture books. But one evening, his brother opened something stranger: Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull – an allegorical fable about a bird whose obsession with flight carries him to new planes of existence.
“[As a child] I didn’t really have a good idea of the parallels to spirituality that Jonathan was going through, of self discovery and in some way, self mastery,” says the London-born musician. That freestyle became Spirit 2.0, the first track to make it onto Sisay’s new album Lahai.
Sampha, now 34, has followed up his Mercury Prize-winning debut Process (2017) with the remarkable Lahai.Credit: Jesse Crankston
Arriving six years after Process (his acclaimed Mercury Prize-winning debut), Lahai syphons Sisay’s spiritual yearning as he grieves his mother’s death, becomes a father and contemplates a metaphysical, intergenerational timeline. Lahai is a soul-affirming landmark of contemporary R&B.
While composing Spirit 2.0, Sisay wandered London’s heaths with the track’s bones playing in his headphones, then just a few chords and modular synth lines. His attention was drawn to the unusually clear skies overhead, where he imagined viewing the world from above. Thematic currents of flight, weightlessness, elevation, non-linearity and transcendence flow out across Lahai.
“Sometimes I need a bird’s eye view… as opposed to looking left and right. I can be a bit claustrophobic and lose my sense of space and time, maybe get a bit numb because I don’t know how I’ve arrived [at a destination],” says Sisay. “Flying, seeing that view, can reconnect you to where you are.”
Sisay’s parents migrated to the UK from Sierra Leone and he describes how navigating his own cultural hybridity through today’s social, legal, financial and technological systems can overwhelm him.
“Sometimes you can get caught up in the pattern, become detached – especially in this day and age. We have these bodies that are millions of years old in terms of technology but we’re in a new software of time and space,” says Sisay, one of several elliptical answers in our conversation.
On Suspended, his urgent, anxious vocals are fragmented into a digital stutter, as though technology is tearing his soul asunder. He’s interested in interrogating the assumption that the march of technological progress requires disregarding older ways of living.
Lahai builds on a lineage of psychedelic soul and UK electronic music.
“Respecting people who might live in the forest, for instance, how complicated that [life] must be. I look out at nature and that tree might have some crazy medicinal properties that I’m surrounded by and don’t even question. What am I putting into my body? Is this really progress? Maybe I need to look back…” says Sisay, trailing off wistfully.
Faced with alienating technology and Western historical narratives, Sisay has found cultural connection through the West African Wassoulou folk music practised in Sierra Leone and its neighbouring countries. Finding a CD in his dad’s collection by the Grammy Award-winning Malian musician Oumou Sangaré sent Sisay down a rabbit hole of research challenging Western hierarchies that place orchestras at the apex of compositional complexity.
“Some people say the further you go back in particular types of music the more complexity you can see and, in that case, the more futuristic it gets. Some genres of music don’t move in a linear fashion. In some African music there’s polyphony that just keeps getting built upon and goes up, as opposed to going from side to side,” says Sisay. He says that deepening his knowledge of Wassoulou traditions helped kickstart the album’s writing process and can be felt most strongly in the modular synth patterns on Spirit 2.0.
Lahai comfortably sits in the canon of pop music, but it does so mercurially, blurring the delineations between verse, chorus, bridge and refrain. Its tracks build on an evolutionary lineage of psychedelic soul music and UK electronic music.
Evidence plays like a big-hearted Stevie Wonder love-up and the trippiness of Alice Coltrane’s astral jazz is woven across the album. Only shares a sweeping opening note with MJ Cole’s UK garage classic Sincere and complex jazz-meets-drum-and-bass breakbeats skitter on Can’t Go Back. His beloved piano is never far from reach.
Sisay’s own lineage is right there in the title: Lahai is Sisay’s middle name and his paternal grandfather’s name before him. Sisay says he struggles to maintain cultural bonds at times, but since the album’s announcement, relatives have reconnected to share stories about his grandfather.
‘I feel like I’m living with things my mother went through. My mum was shy and maybe scared of things, a little gentle and sensitive.’
Both Process and Lahai examine deep familial bonds. After rising to prominence at age 24 on SBTRKT’s 2012 single Hold On, Sisay’s strikingly vulnerable voice was in hot demand by megastars including Beyoncé, Solange, Drake and Kanye West. But in late 2014 he was called back to his South London hometown of Morden to care for his mother, who would die of cancer the following year, a decade after his father died of the same disease.
His 2017 album Process was written in part to process that loss. But grief doesn’t end with the conclusion of an album cycle. The inherited trauma left Sisay emotionally paralysed and pathologising illness.
“It’s not just passing away, but also the thought of how someone passes away, the pain they go through and the unfairness of it all… it’s such a physical feeling. Fears that you might have associated with death, or having a personal health problem… are in some ways stored in my body now, in my memory,” says Sisay who, as an adult orphan, has found himself considering how he embodies his parents.
“I feel like I’m living with things my mother went through. My mum was shy and maybe scared of things, a little gentle and sensitive. Dad had a bit more oomph to him. There’s times where you’re wondering ‘where did I get this from?‘. You’re trying to relocate the genesis of certain personality traits,” says Sisay, whose curiosity about epigenetics now extends to the next generation.
In 2020, Sisay became a father when his daughter was born during the making of Lahai. The album places multiple generations of Sisay’s family in a time continuum in which their stories, memories and lives overlap.
“Without memory time doesn’t really exist, but also you can look into the past, reimagine it or find a different story… time changes in conjunction with mass and speed. There are different nows, we live in a pool of now, but the same now doesn’t exist across the whole universe. Time works differently somewhere else,” says Sisay.
He ruminates on the idea on the brief, crystalline track Satellite Business. “Through the eyes of my child I can see an inner vision/ through the eyes of my child I can see you in my vision/ Thinking maybe there’s no ends, maybe just infinity/ maybe no beginnings, maybe just bridges,” he sings.
“That lyric came from looking at my child and then feeling my mum’s energy,” says Sisay. “Not having access to a long family history line, not meeting my grandparents, there’s this filling in of the lines or imagination that comes into things and I dream up ideas.”
Sisay’s imagination blooms, takes shape and dissolves mid-sentence. Trying to follow his thoughts can feel like grasping at clouds – voluminous concepts dissolve into one another before you can fully comprehend their shape. He hopes some of his recorded thoughts or creations will help his daughter embark on her own time-travelling adventure when she’s ready.
“[It’s nice] thinking about the future, when she’s on her path of self-discovery, that my music, or these interviews, will give her a little bit of something. There’s quite a lot of information – I don’t have this about my parents. There’s a lot about yourself that you really want to know and want to know about your parents when they’re gone,” says Sisay.
Once tasked with the responsibility of easing a parent into death, Sisay is now learning to be a different kind of carer, one who guides a child into life. Like Jonathan the seagull, Sisay’s obsession with his craft has seen his artistry soar into a new realm on Lahai And through his daughter he has found a connection to the family members he thought were gone forever.
“The thing about gaining something is it naturally makes you feel what you’ve lost,” says Sisay. “Having a child and feeling my mother’s energy or elegance, or just the way [my daughter] looks and then recognising myself – that was quite a powerful thing, seeing myself in this continuum. Through my daughter, I felt a glimpse into a wider connection.”
Sampha’s Lahai is out on October 20.
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