Entertainment & Arts

BBC Sound of 2014: Sampha

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Media captionSampha gives a tour of the London flat where he writes and records some of his music (video by Alex Stanger and John Galliver)

Introspective electronic producer and singer-songwriter Sampha has come fourth in the BBC's Sound of 2014 new music list, which showcases emerging artists for the coming 12 months.

The list was compiled using tips from more than 170 music critics, DJs and bloggers. We are revealing one artist from the top five in reverse order every day until Friday, when the winner will be announced.

Sampha's sparse beats and mournful piano chords have seen him compared to former Sound Of nominee and Mercury prize-winner James Blake.

But it is his soul-wrenching vocals - which have already featured on tracks by Jessie Ware, SBTRKT and Canadian rap superstar Drake - that set Sampha apart from other artists working in the same field of pared-back electronica.

How does it feel being part of the Sound of 2014?

I'm definitely honoured to be part of the list and be amongst musicians that I really like and respect - and the fact that so many people thought to put me on the list is a really nice thing. For anyone to want to support your music, I can only give thanks really.

You have yet to release your debut album, do you feel a weight of expectation now?

Not from this list, I don't. I guess because it's the sound of 2014 and the year hasn't happened yet.

It's almost like something I'm going to take positively and use to fire myself up and just be a bit more confident in my output. Because as long as I just try and put my heart in my music and try and put in some effort. I'm trying to not to see it psychologically as a pressure.

You're from south-London, did you have a normal upbringing?

Yeah, whatever normal means. I grew up in Morden, an ordinary suburb where people get up, go to work, come back and sleep. A quiet place and nice to grow up. I have four brothers who are a bit older than me but I grew up in a house full of music and I started playing the piano at a young age.

How young?

I was three and my dad bought a piano from our neighbours, who were moving, for about £300. I can't remember him buying it but it's always been there in my living room and I used to bang on the black keys.

I started trying to learn a couple of songs, I don't really want to say the first one - it was something by Celine Dion 'cause my mum used to love it - but then it went from that to Al Green Let's Stay Together and that's when I started to get a feel for chords and harmonic progressions and stuff like that.

I played a few things intuitively, my brother had a guitar and I used to strum and play that.

So were you a musical kid at school? Did you know this was what you wanted to go into?

I was in the jazz band and there were quite a few talented musicians at my school who I learned a lot from, but I never decided that this is what I wanted to do. It was in my blood from a young age, dancing to Michael Jackson or whatever and the first time I heard Tracy Chapman and Stevie Wonder, it blew me away.

What about the singing? Were you a naturally extroverted performer or an introverted child?

I'd say I was an introverted kid but I always had this performing aspect ingrained in me, I guess, as the youngest of five boys, growing up and entertaining the family. But socially I was quite quiet.

I've been singing from a young age in the choir and in school, but I never saw it as a path as much as I enjoyed it. A couple of people told me I had a good voice, it was something I did sitting at the piano.

What comes more naturally to you, playing or singing?

Image caption The singer and producer has played live with the likes of Sbtrkt

Singing does come most naturally to me in terms of I can do it anywhere, anytime. I think your brain-to-mouth is the fastest interface you have in terms of communication, and learning how to use my hands on piano is second.

When did you start producing?

I remember those CDs you got in cornflake packets. They had a whole beat section and different melodies and that's when I got into being able to mix and match and create things.

But when I was about 14 and used to go to my brother's flat and he had [music software] KeyBass on his computer and I used to spend an unhealthy number of hours in there, using all his CDRs to burn the same track over and over again.

They're all really scratched now because I can be quite disorganised. I found one the other day and it was interesting to see what's changed, not much, but maybe my production has improved.

Which gives you more satisfaction?

Probably producing at the moment. l love the craftsmanship of trying to make something whole. Singing and playing piano is something I do less often - but when I do, it's for hours for myself with no intention of documenting it.

It's almost like a place that I revisit just to see where I am or get a bit of perspective on things I'm going through, it's like a self-taught therapy in a sense. There's an honesty and truth that bubbles up to the surface which is quite nice and quite cathartic.

Image caption Sampha sings on Drake's new track Too Much

You've collaborated with some amazing names, SBTRKT, Jessie Ware and now Drake, is that a process you enjoy?

I just enjoy the fact what when you work with another energy, your focus is there. I just feed off it and I like the fact that you can create something that would be different to anything I would do by myself.

When I get into a space with someone, I just want to make something. If I'm in a space with someone and a keyboard and computer and piano, it's hard for me to hold back.

Drake is one of the biggest rappers in the world right now and you're on his new album, how did it come about?

He was in contact with Young Turks (Sampha's record label) and they sent him some music and he reached out and said he liked it. Eventually, he invited me out to work with him for a couple of days in the studio in Toronto. It was exciting, getting there and listening to the quality of their production. Seeing how prolific he is, in terms of writing songs. You forget how much effort people have to put into it. You'd just think he was born like that. They were really hospitable and nice to me.

Are you hoping it leads to more opportunities there?

The US is so rich with musical influence and history like blues, hip hop and jazz and artists that influenced me personally and they are so receptive there, particularly when I played gigs at festivals with SBTRKT. But I don't have the ambition of taking over the whole world, I just want to be able to express myself the best way I can.

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