FEBRUARY: Sampha – Process

I first heard Sampha’s “who IS this?!” talents on this very blog, back in 2014, on “Wonder Where We Land?”. It wasn’t an album I really thought was my thing, and even on fifth listen, let alone first, it felt too odd, too patchwork, to take hold. But it did, and it was the incredible “Gon Stay” that pulled me in. But that, despite coming back to the album over the next two years, was all I encountered of the South Londoner until now. Having encountered “Process”, I feel a little foolish for this now.

But if it’s a debut album that’s taken a while to land, then it’s every bit the reward for being teased out. And while it’s a cliche, it’s more than just about the music here, as mesmerising as it is. These days we crave ‘story’, but the tale behind a work for an artist that’s worked with the likes of Drake, Solange, Frank Ocean and Kanye is one worth touching on, because it frames the album like an unseen assistant, a shadow over the lyrics and music that can’t be ignored. The Morden resident was a nascent musician as a child, but his adult life has been pockmarked by tragedy, his existence moving from single parent – his father Joe died of lung cancer in 1998 – to orphaned son, as his mother passed away from the same disease in 2015 in between his second EP and the album’s release.

It’s easy to talk of emotion and candour in music, such is the ubiquity of artists on social media, baring their souls (in 140 characters at a time) but Process feels exactly as that single word befits: a young man coming to terms with his place in the world as he comes to terms with love, life and loss in modern, isolating city life. His own health scares also sit behind the words of the record, and time and again the emotions are front and centre, with that incredible voice not slotting into others’ productions, but acting as another instrument in itself, and sounding the most powerful and piercing that it has yet. “Blood On Me” is a beautiful record, its staccato beats echoing modern hip-hop, but the piano’s chords carry punch, and the words speak of a man spinning close to the edge of control.

In fact, the feeling is one of boundary-free music, with Sampha’s soul pouring out unrestrained, even as the clever time signatures of “Kora Sings” or the simple arrangements of “Take Me Inside” cascade into multi-tracked synth and vox like a burst of of colour, despite the darkness of many of the lyrics. The pace may often be slow, but the energy and heft is always there, and even at first listen it’s a beguiling proposition. And for all the tales of suffering and anguish, the truth is that beneath all of it is a hugely talented musician.

The reviews are stellar, because the album has all the makings of a modern classic. A man whose career has been stop-start, halted by tragic episodes that may be the making of him. From all the heartache often comes the best music, and this is a stunning piece of work from a new British artist we should cherish.

Live: St Paul and the Broken Bones at Leeds Irish Centre, 31 January 2017

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For my November album of the month review it was a toss-up between Jagwar Ma’s Every Now and Then and the second album from Birmingham, Alabama’s eight piece soul outfit, St Paul and the Broken Bones.  The reason this lot were even on my radar was due to an outstanding Worthy Farm Other Stage afternoon slot last June which was a performance of the highest quality and they were so sock-knocking-off brilliant that I simply had to catch them again if they played near me.  When tickets went on sale a few months ago I jumped at the chance, doubly so as they were booked for the excellent Brudenell Social Club in Leeds.  That soon sold out and so the gig was moved to the Leeds Irish Centre, a working men’s club straight out of Life On Mars, complete with the decor – it’s exactly what you’d imagine it to be and I’d been there once before.  One of Damon Albarn’s many side projects played, The Good, The Bad and The Queen rocked up there in January 2007 complete with with The Clash’s Paul Simenon armed with his machine gun guitar.

Back again then, and down the front a couple of nights back.  Where this band have it above so many I’ve seen in recent times is the charismatic Paul Janeway, who has the moves, the poses and the energy but above all, possesses The. Voice.  Man, this guy has pipes.  The performance is pure James Brown theatrics (he turns up in a leopard print suit and star-spangled diamond shoes) and he’s there to take us with him on his tour of pleadings to the woman who done him wrong, the heartfelt apologies for fucking things up… and a trip through the audience where he climbs the walls using the passion of the blues, railing against his broken bones and pocket change.  This was an hour and half which went by in a fraction of the time, driven by horns and a lead singer of boundless energy and love for his craft and audience and it was time very much well spent.

A mention as well has to go to a fine selection of supporting band.  Rarely do you seem to get a decent warm up (we’ve all seen bewildering choices over the years I’m sure) but the splendidly named The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer were really something else. Check this out – Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To.  This is awesome.  A singer with a harmonica and soundbox, guitarist playing drums with his feet and a gorgeous diva thrown in to boot.  Simply joyous.