Back in 2011, Obaro Ejimiwe aka Ghostpoet was suddenly catapulted into the limelight when his debut offering Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. Glitchy, moody and like no other record out there, it not surprisingly lost out to the red-hot favourite, PJ Harvey and her Let England Shake album. “Looking back on it, it was like where do you go from there!” says Obaro from his London home. “But it was great way to open some doors and allow me to be taken seriously as an artist. It kind of follows you around, it’s like a musical knighthood.” Being nominated is certainly good enough for most people, and can even be better than having to deal with the unexpected pressures of actually winning the damn thing. In any event, people stood up and took notice of this unusual talent, as Gilles Peterson had done a couple of years earlier…
“It was a hobby for a long time, he says. “I started exploring making music when I was 18,19. I was introduced to a computer programme which enabled me to produce my own music, developing and experimenting, putting stuff on Myspace, which was then just a small community of people putting up music. It was easy to find people with similar influences and interests. One of them, she had a connection with someone at Brownswood, and via what they heard on Myspace they wanted to meet me and hear some more demos. I came down to London and met Gilles Peterson (who set up Brownswood), and he said, ‘let’s put a record out’! What I liked about him was that he said to me he didn’t just like one particular song or this kind of sound, he just let me do it. And now, I wouldn’t be who I am if I wasn’t allowed to make the kind of music I wanted to make. ‘We like what you do, just make what you want’. It has to be from the heart, especially these days where this isn’t that much money from sales; if you can’t at least make the music that you want to make, what are you getting out of it?”
Dubbing himself “a lad with a lisp with some stories to tell”, Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam’s uber-drowsy semi-stream of conscious narrations married a disconcerting grime meets trip hop soundscape. Primarily it featured his highly distinctive vocal delivery, a strange spoken word/rap singing hybrid. It didn’t exactly rip the charts apart, but nor did it sink without trace, reaching the lower reaches of the album charts. On the track Liiines he intoned: ‘I keep on writing, writing/But them folk ain’t biting, biting.” Well some did then, and even more did so after the release of 2013’s Some Say I So I Say Light, an album that featured colourful neon-lit titles on the cover (as opposed to the blurred, monochrome, nay ghostly imagery of the debut album cover) and whose musical palette had expanded. Able to melt and fuse many disparate styles into one cogent whole, it’s overall late-night urban aesthetic included hip hop beats, chilled electronica, strings, R&B, doctored keys and synths, and the sparse use of guitars.
The new album, Shedding Skin, is a marked departure. Recorded with a traditional live set up with what has become his touring band – Joe Newman on guitar, bass player, John Calvert and John Blease on drums – the self-produced album (co-produced in fact with John Calvert) again features several guest vocals; Nadine Shah, Etta Bond, Melanie De Biasio, Lucy Rose (who also sang on Some Say I So I Say Light) and Maxïmo Park’s Paul Smith.
Based in South London, and having some unexpected time off due to the last minute cancellation of the TV on the Radio tour, whom Ghostpoet was billed as supporting, Ejimiwe explains how he approached making Shedding Skin, an album that is his most sonically coherent yet “It’s a live set-up; guitar, bass and drums, a bit of piano lurking in there and some synths. That’s the direction I wanted to go. I had always played in a band, and I was working with great musicians live. Playing live, you’re consciously soaking up what you are hearing in terms of other bands you are seeing on the road. I’ve always been a massive guitar music fan. For once I decided to allow those influences to affect my music making. I was listening to a lot of The National, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, TV on the Radio, Joy Division… here’s the result.”
From the dark psychedelic trip hop soul of Off Peak Dreams to the minimalist driving rhythm of Be Right Back, Moving House, which also features Maximo Park’s Paul Smith on backing vocals, and from the distorted pulp-noir guitar meets Portishead sound of That Ring Down The Drain Kind of Feeling to the relatively jaunty beats of Sorry My Love, It’s You Not Me, the bleak catharsis of his previous two albums has given way ever-so-slightly to a more questioning outlook: ‘And I am sitting over here, looking for the answers, working it out one day at a time’, as he sings on Be Right Back, Moving House. “I just soak things up,” explains Ejimiwe, about his instinctive, and detailed approach to writing. “I don’t take down any notes. Sometimes if I hear something that’s interesting, like a line from a passing conversation, or something I have read or watched, and it strikes me, I’ll write that down, and just leave it there. And then when I’m looking to write a song I might go back to those ‘one-line’ notes. And photography, which I’m really into (he’s a big Instagram user). I take a lot of images over the course of however many months, and I take my mind back to a particular time in those photos, which can influence the song. Stuff like that really.”
Lead single from the album, Off Peak Dreams, has an accompanying video that was made with a budget that intentionally matched the average monthly wage in the UK. “”We came up with the concept ourselves, me and my partner. Initially, I wanted to make the video on the budget of an average weekly wage, but that was too small to make anything decent. So, we decided to make it on the basis of an average monthly wage. I just wanted it to reflect the world I created in the song, the idea of the isolation that exists in a city, and the 9-5 existence that many people have. I wanted it to connect to the lyrics but not to be about me, that’s why I am only in there for literally a couple of seconds. As much as I like to talk about things that people can relate to, it would be a lie for me to say that I live a 9 to 5 existence. I did once upon a time…”
The rhythms within Shedding Skin are more driving – thanks to backbone of Joe Blease’s drumming, and John Calvert’s bass – the overall sound generally pointing towards a sparse, yet dramatic post-punk aesthetic. It’s perhaps his most accessible work to date, and likely to win him new converts. His voice, whilst still drowsy in tone, is a little more upbeat than before, a little more alert, and less like a man who has drained a few before hitting the mic… How did he develop that vocal delivery, a style which at times sounds a little unnatural, but yet, like say Kate Tempest or Speech Debelle, imparts a knowing gravitas that draws the listener in. “I guess it came from putting the words around the production, the music I was making. I was always making my own music and I was experimenting with the music, but was also experimenting with the vocal delivery. It’s bit marmite, some people like it, some people don’t. That’s fine. I felt comfortable doing it that way…”
Shedding Skin was also made relatively quickly, something that the live set up has helped to facilitate. “Three months in total.” he says. “I’m not on my own, procrastinating over ideas. It was a much better process and it made it much more fun.” Brian Eno was helpful it seems in suggesting that short can indeed be sweet: “It was just like a passing conversation we had, one of many we had when we were in Mali participating in the Africa Express project. It stuck with me, and when I was going through this record, it resonated with me and I wanted to try and do that as an experiment. I’m really pleased with that kind of thinking.”
Also, as a musician, he freely admits he is very limited, and having a band helped to bring his ideas into fruition, whereas before they might have been a little lacking here and there. “For the demos, I play one string guitar, two finger piano, one handed drum patterns… I’m not enough of a musician to play live, but I needed to make the demos. I’m very much a solo artist, but in terms of the creativity, after the written lyrics and the demos, it’s a band record. I co-produced it with my bass player, and we fleshed out the demos with the band, and shaped it in the direction I wanted it to go to.” It was his ongoing desire to primarily use a computer as ‘a tape machine’ that has led him to his more organic and natural approach, where creativity becomes of-the-moment and were you can control the sounds physically. As he has said: “It’s about working it out and not being afraid to use a particular setting and the idea that once you turn it off it’s gone and you can start again, whereas computers save everything. For me, that is pushing the creativity further.”
With more backing vocalists than before, the record is given more texture than his previous releases. “They were the voices I was thinking of when I was writing the songs initially but I didn’t know if any of them would want to be involved. I feel lucky that they did. They enhanced the record.”
As for the album’s artwork, which features a highly magnified skin cell taken from Obaro himself, This idea of skin – skin deep, shedding skin, fragile skin – is a theme throughout the album… not literally of course, but alluded to via changing relationships, outlooks and life choices, and deconstructed to our constituent parts; our bones, blood, skin; our souls. It was a starting point for the album, and ultimately led to the idea for the cover artwork, which features his own, highly magnified skin cell… “Initially, when I was coming up with a concept for the artwork, because I’d done the song Shedding Skin, I wanted to make a connection, without it being obvious like skin being peeled, or a snake skin… I was interested in the idea of skin, but I didn’t want to take a photo of my own skin. So, I did some research on the internet, and I came across these skin cell biopsy’s. I thought they looked amazing, really arty, like paintings. I thought I would do that with my own skin cell. Basically, as it comes under the microscope, they coloured it – the Institute of Neurology were the people who helped me put it together – they literally stained it so I could see it better. That’s the artwork.
Where did the name, Ghostpoet come from? “I just wanted a name that didn’t reflect any particular genre, an unmarked door so to speak. If I was able to go back I might not use the poet part because it links me to a scene I don’t feel a part of, in terms of poetry or being a poet. But, it’s worked so far, I can’t complain.”