Photographs by Rick Clifford.
Last fall, Sampha hit the road for his first major solo tour; a handful of dates with the promise of his debut album arriving soon. When he was at The Drake Hotel in Toronto, he humbly guided his audience through what existed of his catalogue then, and shared cuts of what ended up making the final body of work, Process. He was quiet and confined to his keyboard for the most part, but there was something undeniably peaceful about the entire experience.
As someone who wore the hat of producer, songwriter and feature artist for the likes of Drake, Kanye West, Beyonce, Frank Ocean, Solange and more, Sampha maintained a certain degree of privacy – present enough for you to know he’s tapped as a breakout artist and a highly in-demand collaborator, but for a time, mum on nearly everything else. Process, an album birthed out of grief, loss and loneliness, is now proving to be Sampha’s path to connecting his illusive profile with the world well beyond what his previous EPs Sundanza and Dual accomplished. That fact extends to his live shows, including two sold-out events at The MOD Club in Toronto this past week.
Save for a chuckle when an audience member requested Sampha to perform some of his collaborative work with SBTRKT, most of his dialogue centered around his gratitude for the support. The connection instead came through performances of Process, Sampha’s sonic confessions on self-doubt, love and primarily, the loss of his mother, who passed away from cancer in 2015. Revealing the depth of those experiences in songs like “Plastic 100°C”, “Take Me Inside” and “No One Knows Me Like the Piano” wasn’t just about a live unveiling of the album; it became a group therapy hour.
Amidst a blend of piano ballads, trap drums and synth percussions produced by him and his 3 piece support, Sampha’s eyes were often closed, seemingly lost in every staccato beat as his delicately rich voice punctuated the stories he carved. That focus proved to tie the audience’s consciousness to his, whether it be during Drake-throwback “Too Much” or the more invigorating album stand-outs “Under” and “Incomplete Kisses”. When he energetically embraced the fearful threats of “Blood On Me” and left his keyboard behind, you moved; as he mindfully contemplated a changing relationship on “Take Me Inside”, you too found yourself reflecting. “You’re free, you’re free, you’re free,” he sang, and within the space of such collective catharsis, you believed it.
Sampha’s movements in the months leading up to and after the release of Process, including frequent touring, more press interviews and feature work, are the building blocks to acceptance and indicate a readiness for a new chapter. As he told Billboard Magazine this month, “I think I’m becoming more content … I’ve moved on from that head space and emotional space. Still, there are lots of things that I need to deal with.”
While the audience took in the ambient percussions of Sampha’s “Without It” during the encore, the dual sense of sadness and hope settled down. In the late hour of that night, you realized that there is no true escape from the pain of loss; but there is always a chance to heal. And that’s exactly what Sampha and Process will do this year.