“I just make what feels right for me” Obaro Ejimiwe, the London-based, Ghanaian- born musician better known as Ghostpoet, tells me. People make assumptions about Ghostpoet’s music all the time, myself included: my tentative question of whether he’s interested in spoken word is met with a laugh. He may look like the archetypal, sharply dressed superstar rapper and have once been part of a Grime act, but he’s not a rapper, he’s not a hip-hop artist, he’s not an MC, and he’s not a spoken word poet. What he is, generically, is not a question that interests him. His music is subversive, belying the expectations of first time listeners and fans alike, as his sound has metamorphosed across records. He’s shed the blooping beats and trip-hop angling of his 2011 debut Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam and on his third offering, 2015’s Shedding Skin, his distinctive half-mumbled vocals are set against a brooding backdrop of sparse alt-rock.
This transition was totally organic, purely a product of the current time in Obaro’s life.“It’s me being more confident in my artistry, as well as as a person. It’s just the right timing. Everything is time.” Shedding Skin as a record “feels true to [him] now.” It’s a cathartic discarding of the past, as the title suggests, “a message to myself and others to let the past be the past. Don’t allow it to stop you doing what you want to in the present and future.” Lyrically, the songs are highly self-reflexive monologues which sound like those of a man mumbling to himself in his darkened, claustrophobic bedroom by night, attempting to make sense of life. ‘And I tread the path that reeks of deja vu/ And I rumble on, what’s going on?/ And I seek to find what I’m running from’ laments Obaro on ‘Be Right Back, Moving House’. ‘Yes I Helped You Pack’ and ‘That Ring Down the Drain Kind of Feeling’ both mourn the breakdown of a relationship, though elsewhere on the album the theme is more expansive- engaging with issues of homelessness and our everyday struggles. “It’s always been important to me to chronicle my own life as well as lives that I see around me.”
Shedding Skin is also expansive in terms of the multiplicity of voices which haunt the record; Lucy Rose, Nadine Shah, Etta Bond, Paul Smith and Melanie De Biasio all lend theirs. Obaro tells me that the album “is partly a stripping away of [his] old musical selves” though at the same time, he claims not to see a difference musically between the new record and his past two. Evidently he has a very holistic perception of his music’s natural evolution, unrestrained by genre, probably because of the vast breadth of his musical interests: he draws inspiration from garage, post-punk as well as songwriters such as Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Bob Dylan (to reference just a few influences.) His admiration for musicians in possession of such strong storytelling gifts no doubt informs his own ability to tell tales which are at once deeply personal but in which we can also see a part of ourselves reflected.
Always highly supportive of other artists, Obaro stresses the importance of making good use of his social media presence in order to share others’ music. I ask him for what he believes to be the most valuable piece of advice he could give to a struggling musician. “We’re all struggling musicians really to varying degrees. Just be yourself.” Simple, honest, authentic: authenticity is an artistic and personal quality that Obaro prizes. “That’s what got me to my position. Just do what [you] want to do musically, don’t put on a character in interviews or in the music you make”, though he adds with a laugh “if that’s your thing, then fair enough.” “I’m interested in your truth and what you have to say about the world you live in. Just be yourself and make your art as honest as possible.”
The brilliance of Shedding Skin landed Ghostpoet with his second Mercury Prize nomination for album of the year last month. He’s humbled and says it was “out of the blue.”Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam was also nominated in 2011 and Obaro was a judge himself last year. “I think it’s a great institution” he says of the awards, “It’s really important that it’s there, because people like me, we’re not superstars. We get a chance to be exposed to a public that may not have been aware of us. Obviously it’s not all about awards but I think it’s nice to be recognised. It’s good to be part of the conversation.”
Currently, Obaro is preparing for his UK tour throughout November and following that up with a support slot for alt-J on their arena tour: a huge landmark for him, as it is the first time he will have played to such huge crowds. Aside, he stresses the need just to live his “normal life” which feeds his imagination, building up the sediment with which he can create a new rock. “This record has definitely put a marker down for me. It feels like the right direction.” Filled with positivity, for the foreseeable future, it’s a case of working out in his mind “how to make something new that isn’t a carbon copy of [Shedding Skin]”, something which is progressive. I look forward to hearing Ghostpoet shed more skin: for now we can be left to wonder at what fascinating new beast will lie beneath.
Ghostpoet plays Band on the Wall in Manchester on 26th November and Manchester Central in support of alt-J on the 29th. Shedding Skin is out now on Play It Again Sam.By Sophie Brear