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Interview: Ghostpoet

14 August 2017

Obaro Ejimiwe's aka Ghostpoet's debut album "Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam" was released in 2011. It caused quite a ripple in the UK with its unusual blend of electronica and darkly sonorous vocals and earned its creator the first of two - so far - Mercury nominations. His latest album "Dark Days and Canapés", recorded with co-producer Leo Abrahams, brings a further shift from computer to organic instrumentation. On a beautifully blue August day I took the train to Margate to talk to Obaro outside a tiny pub on the pier.

What made you move to Margate?

I’d been living in London for around – well, I was born in London and lived in London until I was about 18. Then I went to Coventry for university. And then I basically came back to London for music and stuff. SoI was there for a long time and me and my partner were of the mind that we wanted a bit more space. We were looking for somewhere but we just couldn’t afford to live in London. So we started to look on the outskirts. We came down here when we were already fatigued from looking at places. And the first place we saw we thought, wow, this could be a home! It was in our price range. We thought, let’s just give it a go! We came here in October time and we moved in in December. It was still winter. Quite grey. Quite empty. And we still loved it. Now summer’s come round and it feels like we’re on holidays every day. It's very strange. Especially for someone like me who always dresses in black. Having to actually think about maybe changing my wardrobe is an uncomfortable scenario.

It’s so surreally English, it must be a bit like living in a Martin Parr book.

It’s a very interesting and unique town. It's been through its ups and downs. It's really interesting being here now because it’s going through a transition. It was on its knees in the nineties once the cheap flights abroad came about. It had been a holiday destination before that. Now it’s starting to become something new again with a lot of influx from London and farther afield. Interesting to see how it’s gonna develop and still hopefully keep the spirit of the town alive. A lot of musicians live down here. There’sa need for people to have room to breathe and think.

Have you made a lot friends, musicians you collaborate with here?

Not collaborators so much. But a lot of friends. It's the London thing to stay in your own bubble. Having a chitchat with anyone is quite strange. But here, that’s just the norm. That's just Margate people.

To the music - it was a considerable risk for you to move away from beats to a more organickind of music, wasn’t it?

You’re not the first person to say that. I find that quite interesting. Cause I don’t see anything as a risk, really. It’s just me being creative. But yeah, it’s been mentioned. For me going from a more computer-based beat-driven type of sound to an acoustic sound was seen as a risk by some. But I never looked at it like that at the time. It just felt like a natural progression. I’d always dabbled. Both my first two records have acoustic elements. I was just in a better position to execute a guitar sound, for example, over the course of this record, than I was when I made my first record. I just see it as evolvement. As a continuous pursuit of something new. I get bored really easily.

A similar question from a slightly different angle. We all know that the music business loves a box. It is very marketing-orientated. And your kind of “experimental hip-hop”early on (Ghostpoet’s own term) fitted those categories as badly as what you do now. Have you created your own freedom in that respect? People expect you to do something that doesn’t fit?

I don’t know. With this latest record I think it fits a bit better. It’s a bit more palatable, I’d say, in a weird way. In the beginning I was just working with what I knew and I was very much developing as an artist. It wasn’t a fully-formed thing. I wouldn’t say it’s a fully-formed thing now, but in the beginning it was very much just about the joy of making music. That was enough. And as you go on you start thinking about things like boxes and genres and stuff. But the way I look at it is – I’ll make my music as listenable as possible but still be myself. And then, if people want to put it in a particular box, cool. People have asked: what is this record? Well,it’s a guitar record, I guess. Other than that, I leave people to choose what they want really. I’ve vowed to myself not to talk about the hip-hop thing any more. It’s partly cause it’s not relevant to me now. It wasn’t really relevant for me then, but you just went with it because you don’t yet realise that what you say can be used by the media for a long time.

You compose on the guitar?

To compose - ha! - is to make out that I’m better than I am! I can just about do a one/two finger strum on the guitar. And I deal with what I need very slowly and very painfully. I can do the same on the piano. I’m getting to the point now where I just wanna make demos that have a clear kind of direction. Or a clear kind of feeling. And then I’ll work with a producer to make better sense of these songs. I’m a composer, I guess, but not like someone who’s had proper musical training.

I’m intrigued by your method. Songs like "Trouble Me", and "Freak Show", "Dopamine if I do", have a very strong atmosphere that comes very much from the instrumental arrangements. How do you go from your basic arrangement to the complete thing?

I've never worked with someone like Leo Abrahams before. With some of the songs, he wanted to keep elements from the demos because he felt they caught the feeling of what I wanted best. So, on this album it was an element of keeping the demo guitars and then just building on that in the studio, adding layers and developing them further that way. He thought that the songs that I brought to the table as demos were pretty much fully formed. It wasn’t a case of starting from scratch. Which is the way I like to work. Push it as far as I can at home and make sure I get enough music in it so it has its own identity. So it’s not a case of going into a studio and starting from scratch. I never wanna do that.

You have one big advantage. As soon as you open your mouth, it’s your voice and no one else’s.

I guess. I guess that’s the thread that continues. That’s kind of my thing.

How did you hook up with Leo Abrahams?

When I said to my label I wanted to make my next record, they suggested some potential producers. I explained what I wanted to do and the way I wanted to do it. This time I was more willing to submit to a producer rather than keeping a tight leash. This time I wanted to try and allow a producer to be a producer in the traditional guitar world. One of the people mentioned was Leo. I’d heard some of the work he’d done with Jon Hopkins and Brian Eno. We met up and we had a day in the studio just to try some stuff with some demos.We got on really well really quickly. He just got my way of talking about music, my musical language as I don’t know the rules. It went from there, really.

It would have been entirely different from working with Mica Levi, I’d imagine.

Yeah. Mica’s a friend of mine, and, yeah, she’s a very unique producer. It’s like, with Leo, he said on more than one conversation, “I’m just here to facilitate you, facilitate the artist. It’s not so much me stamping my identity on an album.” With Mica – I’m not saying this in any negative sense - she has a distinct sound. I think anyone who works with her, she definitely leaves her stamp on it.

Her approach in anything she has done has always been highly experimental. Was that the reason you worked with her? You were starting out, and everything felt like an experiment anyway?

For sure. With me, I like the idea of showing both side. The experimental side but also the accessible side. That’s what I’ve always been trying to work out, trying to find the right balance between the two, where I can still be experimental and open musically, but make it accessible to anyone.

How did you hit on the idea of calling yourself Ghostpoet?

In the very beginning I decided that I wanted a name that you couldn't read anything about the music from. I saw it as a door to a house. If you chose to open the door and go through you could explore the house and its rooms. Back then, I didn’t think I’d ever have to explain the name to anybody. I didn’t think about it too deeply. Now, I wish I didn’t put the poet-part in it because people instantly – rightfully so, from reading the name - think I must be a poet or something. And I’m not really! With hindsight, I’d change it. But it’s too late now.

Whether you see yourself as a poet or not, coincidentally, or not, since your first album various other people have come up with various forms of spoken-word/ music…

Yeah. But I’m not that either!

To my mind you come from a more Jamaican form of musical poetry, people like Linton Kwesi Johnson or Michael Smith.

No. I disagree! I just make music. I class myself as a singer/songwriter. That’s it. I don’t see myself any different as – obviously not on the level of these characters – but the Bob Dylans, Nick Caves, PJ Harveys, the Anna Calvis and Nadine Shahs of this world. I don’t see myself as any different from them, really.

Your style of declamation, though, is nearly spoken – you don’t go up and down the scales like these singers!

No. That's because I’m a shit singer. That’s why! People wouldn’t class Joe Strummer as a great singer. But he’s still seen as a singer. I feel like I’m just a singer/songwriter. A shit singer/songwriter. A shit-singer-stroke-songwriter. That’s how I feel about it. And everyone’s entitled to have their opinion. The moment you put out music professionally you have to be ready for that. And I am. But I feel as I grow as an artist, I just see myself as an artist. I’m not spoken-word. I’m not a poet. I have nothing to do with urban music. I just write music. In this particular form it’s just guitar music. And that’s it, really.

At 15, what sort of music were you listening to?

At 15 – I was really into Sepultura. I really liked them.


Oh, and Korn, too. I went to a boys’ school. The school was halfway up this hill and this guy lived on top of the hill. It was quite a nice area. At lunchtime he’d just walk home. We went to his house one day and he started playing stuff and I just kept going what’s that? What’s that? What’s that? He kept playing Sepultura, Korn, things along those lines. Before that I was listening to Badly Drawn Boy. His first record.It was the first record I bought. I Still love that record. It still sounds so fresh, so current. And that must be almost 20 years ago. Music was always a good way to embrace my emotions or display my emotions.

When did you start getting interested in electronica?

That was when I got to uni. Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. Things like that.

You arrived at your early sound from the electronic side, not from hip-hop?

Yeah! I got introduced to Reason, which was a computer music program. And because I didn’t play anything it was great. You could program in beats and sample whatever you wanted. I was just messing about with that, experimenting. Back then I think I was listening to William Basinski a lot, a New York soundscape composer. He used everyday sounds, he used old tapes and he’d record the city, everyday sounds. I guess from that, and from people like Mica who I met through MySpace, I realised you could make sound from anything. So I was going round opening and closing doors and shaking cutlery and stuff, using that for sound. It felt right. Everything is always a feeling. It felt right to do. When I got an opportunity to make a record and started gigging I wanted to have a band from the beginning. I had a guitarist and a drummer – the first band I had. It was always in my mind to do more with acoustic instruments but I wasn’t able to at the time. My entry point was the electronic world and I guess I just developed it over time.

Did the cultural background of your mum and dad play any role in what you do musically?

Not really, no. My dad was from Nigeria, and my mum was from Dominica but she was born here. My dad came over when he was in his twenties. I really loved Fela Kuti from an early age. I guess what I took from that was – well, Tony Allen’s drumming, more than anything. And the idea of different time signatures, I guess. I like doing that a lot.I have big respect for African and West Indian music. What I love about Fela or anyone I really respect, musically, is that it goes beyond music. It becomes a spiritual thing. Music is something to be cherished and respected. That’s quoting Fela. Something along these lines he used to say. If you’ve been given the gift of making music or having a career in music you can’t take it for granted, you can’t disrespect it. That’s something I’ve always tried to keep with me. Everyone I love, be it the Nick Caves, the PJ Harveys, the Leonard Cohens, the Dr. Johns – they all have that kind of unexplainable spirit and that unexplainable connection with music that goes beyond the right chords to play or the right lyrics. It’s like a conduit type of thing. That’s what I’m trying to reach for. I don’t know. It may take longer than I’m on this earth for. We’ll see. It's interesting to talk about Fela. I’m a massive fan of his music but I’m more interested in his philosophy, his ideology on music. His deep respect for it. And the fact that he’d rather be poor – cause he ended up being poor – and still make the music he wanted to make, than to take a record deal just to have money.

Who is (guest vocalist) Eera?

She’s a Norwegian singer/songwriter, experimental-leaning, but indie, I’d say. Dark indie. I discovered her about a year ago. She’s only got an EP out but I love what she does. Funny, it so happens that we now have the same management. So when I was looking for a singer for that song she was one of the first people I thought that could really work. She’s really particular. That's great, to have that confidence in yourself. She’s only about 18, 19 but confident enough to say "I’m only gonna work on stuff that works for me". I really respect that.

I haven’t quite got to grips with the lyrics yet. In your mind, in what direction have they developed?

Compared to the last record they’re a bit more direct, I guess. Sharper. I’m talking about the current world we’re living in now. It felt like it’d be foolish to want to beat about the bush or be abstract about it. I wanted talk about what’s going on, be it immigration, be it mental health, be it mortality. It felt like the right thing to do. And I guess it’s partly where I am in terms of my artistry, my development. I understand what I wanna do a bit more.

Do you think the feeling that you wanted to allow yourself to be a bit more direct came from the Zeitgeist? Brexit and all that?

Yeah, it is tapping into the Zeitgeist - as much as possible. I think it was partly frustration and anger about the more commercial-style artists seemingly giving us this false sense of security. The idea that everything’s ok when it’s not. It could be me – I’m very aware I’m a very pessimistic individual. I’m a very dark individual by nature. A lot of these things have been going on for generations. But things like Brexit, world politics, immigration, global warming, poverty, war – it’s in your face. That kind of uncertainty of what the future holds. I felt, how can I not write more directly? I’ve always tried to do that anyway, write in the moment, write of the time. And the moment is this.

You say these things have happened forgenerations – but what’s really different now, it’s never been so glaringlyobvious how cooperations have replaced governments.

It's tricky for me. I don’t feel I’ve made a political record. I feel it’s a socially aware record. And I’m loathe to pick sides when it comes to politics. It is something that’s dear to my heart, but I’m trying to keep it away from the music world. I just rant at home to my wife instead. And she loves that, of course! I kind of feel I’m trying to, well, not to ignore it in terms of these conversations, but I’d rather not talk about it in a cute way.

As an artist who - long ago, admittedly - described his music as "experimental hip-hop", did you ever run up against the expectation, the demand, even, that you write angry lyrics and politicallyrics?

No. No one’s ever told me what to write, ever. The moment someone dictates to me what I should write, and I agree, I quit. I make music. I’m very lucky that I can make a living from music as a career. But it’s fun. It’s a passion. And the moment it feels like a chore or it feels like I’m being dictated to, I won’t do it.

Haven’t the media approached you with that kind of expectation?

No one ever does. The way the media work is, they paint a picture, and they assume you are this way or that, andt hen it’s down to you to either say: “OK, if I go with that, maybe I’ll get some more column inches or reviews or whatever”. Or you don’t agree and you do what you do – and I’ve gone with the latter. Yeah, I’m not rich from my music. I’m never gonna be a commercial chart-topping artist. But I’ve done alright so far. And I'm creatively free. I’ve been very lucky in terms of the record labels that I’ve been part of, I’ve never had someone coming to me saying: we really like this particular song, can you make more like that? I’ll just ignore it. And they knew that from the beginning. I explained that to them in as kindly a way as possible. I was gonna make what I make. If you like it, cool. If not, then – why would you sign me? I just don’t see the point of making music if you’re told what to make.

Dozens of bands used to be dropped because they refused to supply a single.

Of course. But I’m not a singles artist – I ain’t that! I’m not that at all. My label are really kind. They’re picking out singles from what they’ve got. But I’ve always been an album person. The stuff I listen to – I love albums. So when I got the chance to make albums I was always gonna make a body of work, not just a series of singles. I don’t even know how to do it, to be honest. I don’t know how to make singles.

What did the Mercury nominations do for you?

The first one did more in the sense of putting my music in front of people who may never hear you otherwise. I had little interviews with tabloid papers. Stuff that pop stars would have. It was the last couple of years when the tabloids still wanted to know about it and the winner went on BBC Good Morning, and stuff like that. That first time I really saw a difference in the public awareness of what I was doing. And it helped to push things on in terms of getting more gigs. People really respect the Mercury, especially outside the UK. People thought of you a bit differently because you’d been nominated for the Mercury Prize. It was like a musical knighthood. The second time round I was a bit more established by then. I didn’t feel it as much as with the first, when it was brand new and off my first record. The second time round it was just nice to be heard. The award ceremony was great, a celebration of music, and I got to meet some people I hadn’t seen for a while because they’d been out on tour. You just enjoy it for what it is.

What are you listening to at the moment?

Let me think! The first that springs to mind is Benjamin Clementine. I heard a couple of singles and I really like him. A very interesting character, he really is an original. It’s not like he’s been developed for years under a label. He just came from nowhere. And I love how playful he is with his lyrics. And I love the fact that he knows the rules but he doesn’t know the rules. He taught himself how to play and does his own thing.

What else?

Captain Beefheart. I don’t know why but I’ve been going back to him a lot. An album called “Bluejeans and Moonbeams”. My introduction to him was "Trout Mask Replica". I loved that record. And then a friend told me that was the most difficult one to get into! I never knew about his funky stuff. I was really shocked when I discovered the funk stuff. I've also been listening to Kelly Lee Owens, an electronica soundscape singer. JaneWeaver. This is the Kit. Richard Hell, "Blank Generation". I do a lot of Shazzamming. I hear something and check out what it is and then go to the back catalogue. And then there's the jazz. Lots of old stuff. Pharaoh Sanders. Mal Waldron, Yusef Lateef, Bobby Hutcherson.