In the summer of 2015, I asked my doctor to examine my throat. I felt that I had a bump on the side of my neck; it felt like an obstruction I was acutely aware of, and sometimes caused shooting pains. After prodding around for a minute, she took her hands away from my neck, and fixed me with a sympathetic stare. She asked if I had thought about anti-depressants. I was confused. How could she not feel what I was feeling? Was she telling me this was all in my head?
In his 2016 cover story for The FADER, British singer-songwriter Sampha told The FADER that he also had experience with globus pharyngis — a.k.a the psychological sensation of having a lump in your throat, thought to be caused by anxiety or stress. On the opening track of his debut studio album, Process, Sampha sings about it in his rough-hewn voice: “Sleeping with my worries, yeah/ I didn’t really know what that lump was.”
For me personally, dealing with anxiety is about making a constant effort to achieve some kind of balance. It’s about seeing thoughts and feelings come toward me like tennis balls, and actively figuring out which to catch, and which ones I have to let sail past. In Process, I’ve found an album that speaks to this ongoing flux; as Sampha sings about his grief and broken-hearted angst, he gives voice to that overwhelming push and pull. The sound of him working through his own struggles — the death of his parents, health scares, and crippling self-doubt — shows just how complex anxiety can be.
Process acts like a musical balm for anxious minds, ending with the message of how important it is to accept the things we can’t change about ourselves.
At times, that honesty feels uncomfortable. When the music is bright, the lyrics often reach their most intense point. “Plastic 100°,” with its floating strings, opens with the image of “magnetic lights” and a “magnifying glass” settling on Sampha’s face, his vocals layered softly on top of one another. As soothing as the song sounds, it speaks to the feeling of being exposed.
Following the unsettling imagery of “Plastic 100°” — which includes samples of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin tentatively preparing to take their first steps on the moon — Sampha plunges himself straight into a more extreme form of anxiety on “Blood On Me.” In a set of Genius annotations, he writes that the song’s lyrics (“I swear they smell the blood on me/ I hear them coming for me”) are not literal. He’s not sure what they’re about — only that he wanted to capture the feeling of being pursued, so badly that he ran around the vocal booth to make himself out of breath when he recorded the takes. The song feels familiar to me. When a panic attack runs up on you, it can feel like being chased by wild animals. There's no logical explanation as to why. “There’s something bleeding in me, something screaming in me,” Sampha sings.
Like the process of navigating any mental health issue, Sampha’s album is not linear or predictable. With its glittering synth melodies and lyrical imagery, it's flooded with sunlight — but this brightness doesn’t always offer comfort. (“It’s just me, myself, and my gun/ Just me, and the burning sun,” goes “Kora Sings.”) But in the end, Process acts like a musical balm for anxious minds, ending with the message of how important it is to accept the things we can't change about ourselves. On the reflective acoustic closer “What Shouldn’t I Be?” Sampha offers a moment of tranquility, daring to hope for calm after a storm. “Challenges come,” he sings in a whispery falsetto. “Challenges come, and they go.”