Ghostpoet, in his zip-laden black leather jacket, sunglasses and heavy silver rings, looks like a swaggering rock star on a day off – albeit one walking a fluffy cockapoo down a south London street. What he doesn’t look like is someone who would suffer from stage fright.
But once we are seated in a restaurant with his dog Oscar at his feet, he laughs, remembering his first “proper” gig: a slot at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide awards in 2010. “We were supposed to play at about 10pm, but we ended up playing at something like 2am. And I was so nervous: I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t do anything. Gilles’ idea was for us to play as late as possible to get as many people into the room, but I just wanted to get it over and done with. I was petrified.”
A few years down the line, he has learned to set that fear aside. With three albums under his belt, the most recent of which has seen him take a decidedly alt-rock turn away from the eclectic trip-hop that peppered his debut Sound of Strangers EP in 2010, he’s come into his own as a performer. The drawling vocal delivery and introspective subject matter remain intact on his album Shedding Skin, released in March, but now Ghostpoet has widened his scope beyond the hazy, gin-lubricated musings on confusion and big-city drudgery that marked his early work.
Why the change of direction? Why not, he says. “With every musician, you’re only limited by your own imagination and how far you’re brave enough to go. I’ve always loved guitar music – it just wasn’t the right time.” Those familiar with 2011 single Liiines, and tracks such as Plastic Bag Brain and Sloth Trot from 2013’s album Some Say I So I Say Light will already know Ghostpoet is open to slinging guitar lines into the odd euphoric dynamic build. Rather than stick to one genre, he subscribes to the idea of writing music that fits his mood. If that means squalling post-rock electric guitars rather than bleep-blooping synths and moody drum machine pads, so be it.
A new lyrical focus accompanies this change in signature sound after Ghostpoet realised his music was being defined solely as the sorrowful confessions of a young whinger. Hold on, he thought, that wasn’t his aim.
“I’d been through some stuff – a breakup, a change of area – and I was just a bit down for a while, so it made sense to make the record I made,” he says, of writing his debut album Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam. “For Shedding Skin, I was in a happier place. I was able to just look at the world and see the beauty in it. And also pick up on the ugliness, but not just look inwards at what was going on with me.”
So he sought inspiration from homelessness, on the title track, or the mundanity of the nine-to-five graft on opener Off Peak Dreams. There’s still plenty of relationship-based material, from the calm closure of severing ties with a violent ex-lover on Yes, I Helped You Pack to the morning-after awkwardness of Sorry My Love, It’s You Not Me. Revisiting music made by Nick Cave and Jarvis Cocker helped Ghostpoet seek song storylines in the everyday, he says, and from there the lyrics flowed.
Born Obaro Ejimiwe, Ghostpoet started out as a bedroom producer, experimenting with music software program Reason while at university in Coventry. He’d grown up in south London, attended a Catholic boys’ school and was on the verge of losing his way (“I’d messed up on my A-levels”) when his interest in music picked up.
“I remember having albums on cassette that I was listening to, taking bus rides to this night school to try and catch up over the course of a summer,” he says. He’d split his days between working at his parents’ customer service company and shuttling to evening classes. But that would all change after a chance encounter with an old school friend in Tooting convinced him to apply to university: his friend reminded him that they both knew a few people in Coventry, and Ghostpoet figured his family would be delighted to see him take the initiative (and, of course, fly the nest).
“Going to Coventry really opened my eyes, because I was put in a position where I met so many different types of people. It’s like cycling with – what do you call those things?” Training wheels? “Yeah, with training wheels. You get to dabble in life and you get to mess up, but you’re all right, you’ll be OK. It got me on the road to making my own music. I don’t know if that would have happened in London.”
Now Ghostpoet is happily back on home turf. Since his return he’s found it hard to shake the label of MC or hip-hop artist, perhaps because he’s not only a black man from south London, but one whose languid vocals drag and drop in a manner that can sound like rap. And, by turning the lens of his early songs so squarely on himself, he also picked up billings as a poet or spoken word artist. As I mention this, he cringes.
“When people asked what kind of music I make, I never saw it as a big deal to say ‘kind of experimental hip-hop’. I didn’t really see how that sticks with you,” he says, laughing. “It can stick with you for a lifetime! But I had a guitarist and a drummer from my first gig, and I knew what I wanted to do wasn’t ‘mic in hand with DJ’ hip-hop.” He talks about singer-songwriter Jamie T, who also employs a talk-singing style, and was similarly pigeonholed as a ‘part-rapper, part-singer’ at the start of his career.
In fact, Ghostpoet ends up speaking a lot about other musicians. Every so often on Twitter he rattles through a list of recommended albums, recently name-checking noise-drone act Hookworms, art-rock guitarist and singer Nadine Shah (who provides backing vocals on Shedding Skin) and 2014 Mercury prize-winners Young Fathers. (He was nominated himself in 2011.) He calls himself a fan of music several times during our conversation and thinks it’s only natural to share the music he loves.
“I feel like people are a bit afraid to mention other artists too much because it’ll detract from what they’re doing,” he says. “And I can understand that. But I feel that it’s not a competition. We’re all in it together. Unless you’re a Mumford & Sons and selling millions, we’re all just getting by. And we should support each other.”
Ah, but what about Ghostpoet’s no-holds-barred and critical tweets about the Brit awards and artists who perform during the televised ceremony? In what has become an annual trend, he raucously live tweets the industry’s celebration of mainstream commercial success. “I watch it just to feed that hunger for live music, but I’m disgusted by a lot of it. And usually I just end up getting drunk and talking crap,” he says, laughing heartily before tutting himself. He qualifies his position about the big-name artists he’s mentioned – some in less than favourable terms – in the past.
“Even if I don’t like your music, if you’re out there and you’re gigging and a professional musician, I’ve got to respect that. My schedule is tough but it’s not nearly as tough as the One Directions or Ed Sheerans. They’re doing serious press, a serious amount of gigs all over the place – and they’ve still got to be smiling and happy every single day at the same time. So hats off to them. But I think it’s a bit boring, the Brits. It could be so much better than it is.”
For now, Ghostpoet can’t linger to think about an awards show. Interrupted mid-sentence by a phone call – “What? You’re there now?” – he’s got to attend to a merchandise delivery that’s landed an hour early on his doorstep. Leather on, and puppy leashed, he lopes off – an off-duty artist with work to do.
- Ghostpoet’s album Shedding Skin is out now, and single Sorry My Love, It’s You Not Me is due on 31 July via Play It Again Sam