Ghostpoet – Spotlight

When challenged, in 2018, by a fan via Twitter with the question “WHAT are you?”, Ghostpoet responded: “So Interesting. Why is it so important for me to be part of a predetermined genre with its parameters and rules? I’m just an artist who experiments with sounds and loves guitars. It’s ok to be confused, not everything in life needs explanation, sometimes we just have to go with it”.

And that’s Obaro Ejimiwe in a nutshell. He’s the metaphorical offspring of Massive Attack, but more valium than dope. He’s the antithesis of karaoke pop, an uncompromising artist, whose signature awake/asleep languid vocal and bleak outlook has infused his four albums to date. He was one of the most important and arresting artists to have emerged in the last decade. As we enter the 20s, and as he surveys the social and political landscape of his own psyche, as well as of the nation, is Ghostpoet still up for the fight? Are his thoughts and thinking still relevant in the Covid-19 age?

From the album title alone, it’s clear that Ghostpoets’s fifth album, I Grow Tired But I Dare Not Fall Asleep, is a record that speaks of the turbulent times we are living in, and not just pre-Covid-19. Ever since his startling debut album Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam, this two-time Mercury Award-nominated artist, has always musically and lyrically tapped into the more chaotic and uneasy states of his psyche. But this time around, and rather presciently, he has branched out. “It’s stuff on a micro level, but also a major level – politics, immigration, anxiety, mental health, sexuality”, he explains. “Friends and family in the wider world, observing them going through things. Men in general don’t talk about their feelings – I don’t talk about mine as much as I should – but at least with my music I have an avenue.”

As we speak, in early March, the virus is on most people’s minds, and is becoming a major talking point. Although we aren’t yet at the point of lockdown, some of us know what’s around the corner, and my Facebook feed is littered with anxiety and foreboding. I feel that his music, whilst not at all about the virus and its implications, speaks indirectly about it. “I’m not sure,” he responds. “But, yeah, there’s a lot of that going on. I don’t know. Is it the world getting older, or me getting older?” he ponders philosophically. “There are big questions. what should we do, and how should we react?”

I tell him I have recently revisited the video for ‘Freakshow’, a track off his previous album, the bleak, anxiety-ridden, but mesmerising Dark Days + Canapes, and which features mostly actors wearing full PPE. Although the song is primarily about mental health, it is also rather prophetic, in its video form. “Yeah, that’s quite funny, actually. I saw that the other day. I thought it would be wrong for me to self-promote by putting that out there again,” he laughs.

Inspiration, it seems, was initially in short supply for I Grow Tired But I Dare Not Fall Asleep. But, a break from the hubbub of London, to the small coastal resort of Margate, a major attraction these days for emerging artists and creatives, helped to recharge his batteries. “I was in a kind of No Man’s Land after I finished touring the last record,” he says, “There was nothing I wanted to write about and I was kind of getting sick of music. I needed to do something else for a bit, and then see if that helped bring back the love for it.” Upon his return, he started work on what would become I Grow Tired… but which saw him take the helm for sole control. And with the influences of artists such as David Bowie, Serge Gainsbourg, and in particular Talk Talk informing his thoughts, he began work.

“Even saying ‘I could do it myself’ out loud filled me with fear, and so I felt like it was what I should do,” says Obaro. “I’ve always had control, but I think the decision to go down the co-production route on the previous albums was about not having the confidence in my own self to just do it. This time around, I wanted to do something that would challenge me. I felt that if I went down the same route again, would it really be a challenge? Would I be able to push musically? I thought that this time every decision would be down to me, and let’s see what comes off the back of it. That was my thinking.”

How does he make his music? “Sometimes it’s memo ideas, some kind of melody. Sometimes it comes from an acoustic instrument. And from there I get my friends involved to develop them further, and put them into a structure so that I can start writing. With this record, because I don’t know theory that much, it was a case of ‘OK, I’ll get players in’, and I’ll get them to jam. It was inspired by the last Talk Talk record (Laughing Stock), and the book I read (Are We Still Rolling?) by the engineer of the last few Talk Talk records, Phill Brown. It was basically hours of jams, where back in those days they would splice the tapes, and use those to create the songs. That was inspiring to me. It felt like a way I could do it. I was more kind of director and conductor, directing it in a particular way, around themes and patterns, and getting them to play for hours. Off the back of that I cut up the songs, and worked out the bits that I wanted. There are a lot of layers, a lot of nuances. I wanted it to sound more cinematic, more sonically rich, and experiment with it at the same time.”

I Grow Tired But I Dare Not Fall Asleep continues Obar’s growing penchant for collaboration. He’s previously roped in the likes of Lucy Rose, Daddy G and Nadine Shah, while this time there’s guest vocals from Art School Girlfriend, Skinny Girl Diet’s Delilah Holiday, SaraSara and Katie Dove Dixon. He’s always felt it particularly important to feature women on his records. “I will never understand what it is to be a woman, but I’ve always been inspired by them. As someone who is marginalised, too, we are all stamped on and dismissed. But also we didn’t need my fucking dirge of a voice for the whole record.”

From the Trickyesque, dope-cabaret tones of Concrete Pony to the bleak ””’ the album is unmistakably Ghostpoet. Yes, it’s dark, but it’s also more defiant than before. And, it’s also infused with an upgraded musicality that is a long way from the almost solely produced and performed electronica-infused debut album. Why did he name the album I Grow Tired But I Dare Not Fall Asleep? “It’s a statement, I guess,” he tries to explain. “We as a society are tired of the status quo. People are very confused about what the future holds, or what the future entails, and we are all continuously going through the same trials and tribulations. We have to stay awake. We can’t afford to switch off and let things happen. It’s important to be awake and alert as much as possible, I feel. It’s rooted in the fact I just want to talk about things that we can all relate to, because it’s real, and I was always want to make sure that my music is based in reality.”

With his parents from Nigeria and Dominica, Ghostpoet’s lyrics subtly address immigrant identity and racism in the present day too – “Wind rushed and chilled me to the bone”, he says over the gliding strings of ‘Rats In A Sack’, a none-to-subtle reference to the Windrush generation. On ‘Concrete Pony’ he interrogates how we seek value from internet likes (“there is nothing”, he refrains), while opening song ‘Breaking Cover’ has the chorus – “It’s getting kinda complex these days, we better get our hard hats ready.”

“That was the first track I had arranged (‘Breaking Cover’) and it felt like when I did that one, it was ‘OK, I can do this shit’. I’d arranged before, but not really all on my own, my vision, since the first album. So, when I arranged that one, I thought, ‘OK, this is me putting my flag in the ground now. This will be the springboard for the rest of the record.” It also sounds more layered than before, the influence of Laughing Stock shining through. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. A lot of layers, a lot of nuances. I wanted it to sound more cinematic, more sonically rich, and experiment with it at the same time.”

The album’s striking artwork subtly nods to womanhood, too. Based on an 18th century painting by Anglo-Swiss artist Henry Fuselli, ‘The Nightmare’, in which a woman reclines, as if in a deep sleep, while a small demon (or incubus) sits on her chest and a frowning white-eyed horse stares. For I Grow Tired But I Dare Not Fall Asleep, the image has been reimagined with Obaro in place of the woman. “Actually, it was my manager who came up with the idea. He said, ‘I’ve been checking out this artwork out a lot since listening to the record, and I think this could work’. And the moment I saw it, I wanted to re-create that. It really spoke to me. I can’t explain it. I guess it plays with the title, the idea of somebody in an awake/sleep state, and I think it reflects the music, the richness and opulence of the music. The original painting looked like how the album sounded.

“For the time, that painting was seen as completely controversial,” he says, “Because the incubus was seen to have sexual undertones.” There’s no incubus on the album artwork, though the horse remains – and the floor is strewn with fruit (representing “the fragility and beauty of life”) and other references to other parts of Obaro’s influences and identity. For example, there’s a copy of a book, Safe – a nod to last year’s seminal book of essays about Black British men reclaiming space (“I could relate to every story”). Elsewhere, there’s a prayer candle with cult Nigerian musician William Onyeabor’s image – “It’s a nod to my Nigerian roots and Onyeabor, an artist who naturally broke the rules and flew in the face of what was expected from an African artist at the time.”

Subsequent to the interview taking place, the nation – along with most of the rest of the world – went into lockdown. The album is still coming out, but alas, there will be no live dates for the time being, impacting substantially on his and many musicians careers and livelihoods. Including, sadly, his much anticipated appearance at this year’s The Great Escape Festival. Just prior to publication, Ghostpoet issued the following statement, a strong statement of positivity, resilience, and yet anxiety, as musicians in particular, and performers in general, struggle to make sense of this extraordinary world and time we live in world, as well as struggling to make ends meet. “This is the best album I’ve made thus far in my career and I don’t say such things lightly. I’ve stubbornly tread my own path for over a decade now and this album feels like the most concentrated version of what I’ve been trying to achieve since day one. I’m humble but I’m honest and I can’t stop raving about this body of work.

Please support in any which way you can, the current situation for artists is dire and I know that my woes are the least of your worries but I really do need your help to keep the wheels on the track so to speak. I’m very lucky to be an artist, I love what I do for a living and just want to keep making my art and sharing it with you all.

Despite all this madness lurking in the shadows, I’m really looking forward to you hearing this record in its entirety. It’s a monster.

Stay safe, stay well, speak soon

Jeff Hemmmings