We braved the rain to chat with the London musician about his Mercury Prize nomination, collaborating with scientists and Instagramming the everyday.
|WORDS: LAURA SNOAD|
“Of all the places I could have brought you, it ends up being filled with kids from my old primary school,” laughs Obaro Ejimiwe, aka Ghostpoet, warmly shaking his head. I’m hiding from the thick November drizzle with the twice Mercury Prize-nominated artist – most recently for his third record Shedding Skin – in a bar in his local area of Balham in South London, which has inexplicably just been overrun with ten-year-olds, wide-eyed and noisy with excitement.
While their sheer volume halts the interview, Ejimiwe narrates the scene, absent-mindedly fiddling with his hand of silver rings and adjusting his trademark thick specs. “It’s difficult to convey just how surreal this is,” he laughs, clearly engrossed in the juxtaposition between swanky brasserie and the underage rabble. Several huge plates of sandwiches follow the gaggle of children into a function room upstairs. “Oh look the balloons have arrived! Now it’s a rave!”
This fascination with everyday existence, its joys and peculiarities, is one of the threads you can trace through Ejimiwe's genre-resistant trajectory, from first EP The Sound of Strangers (released on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label ) right through to his third album Shedding Skin, which is up for the Mercury Prize this Friday. His first nomination was in 2011 for debut LP Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam, which charmed critics by marrying raps name-checking Weetabix and KFC with a down-to-earth electronic aesthetic befitting of the spare bedroom studio in which it was made. Very different in sound, “guitar album” Shedding Skin is the first Ejimiwe has recorded with a full band, but the day-to-day (the rat race, heartbreak, and bacon sarnies) is still very much present.
“I’ve always wanted to write about everyday stuff, real things,” he explains. “I had a DIY ethic in the early days because I had to but I think it’s something still strong in my work today. I’ve realised it’s best to do as much as you can yourself before getting others involved.” Ejimiwe’s early records were crafted using Reason, a music programme the artist picked up while a student at Coventry University, which allowed him to drop offbeat sound recordings (such as door creaks) into his productions – a drive for experimentation that quickly earned him ‘left-field’ and ‘outsider’ labels.
SAYING YES TO EVERYTHING
Music was Ejimiwe’s bedroom hobby alongside his nine-to-five job in insurance until chatting to like-minded souls online fortuitously hooked him up with the Brownswood team. A period of saying yes to everything that came his way – no matter how much it terrified him – meant that one of his first live gigs was to a huge crowd at Peterson’s Worldwide Awards. “I’d never performed for more than 15 people before,” Ejimiwe explains. “I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t eat, but we did the gig and went back up the motorway the same night buzzing.”
Back in Coventry he worked away on Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam on a old iMac and midi controller, never expecting the scale of its success. “To be nominated for a Mercury Prize for a record where no-one was telling me what to make was really pleasing,” says Ejimiwe. “It’s like a musical knighthood – it instantly opened doors for me that would have taken years to open. It gave me a confidence, or at least the nucleus of confidence.” Although he sees Friday’s awards a lot more pragmatically this time around, the recognition for Shedding Skin feels especially affirming after his second album, 2013’s Some Say I So I Say Light, didn’t meet the same commercial success as his debut. “It feels good because I made a record that I wanted to make. People keep telling me Second Skin’s such a departure from the last record, in my head it’s not, but I guess the ‘gamble’ (in inverted commas) has paid off.”
INSTAGRAMMING THE EVERYDAY
A self-professed over-analyser, Shedding Skin’s bigger sound stems from unpicking performances Ejimiwe witnessed on the festival circuit and wanting to make music that was more immediate for audiences. Although he enlisted a band comprising of friend and “super-nerd” bassist John Calvert (who also co-produced the record), guitarist Joe Newman, and drummer John Blease, Ejimiwe painstaking laid down demos for each track himself at home, using a guitar and very basic keyboard skills, before fleshing them out with the band. “The tracks needed to have my identity,” he explains of this laborious process.
Although Ejimiwe’s trademark lyrical flit between visual commonplaces and emotional affairs is still palpable, the vocals came later in the process than in previous records. Jarvis Cocker, Patty Smith and PJ Harvey were the songwriters on repeat during Shedding Skin’s development. “They’re very good at ‘Instagramming’ the everyday,” explains Ejimiwe.
“I watched a documentary on Pulp the other day and Jarvis Cocker was talking about how you can focus on a coffee stain on a table and that can just open up a world. It hit the nail on the head of what I’ve been thinking about for years.”
the working life
Ejimiwe himself is a keen photographer and there’s clear parallels with his minutiae-focused songwriting style. “That still moment – trying to work out the before and after – is just so interesting. I’ve got rolls and rolls of film,” he laughs. The confidence of being three albums in, and a certain freedom afforded by signing to a larger independent label, has meant that Ejimiwe is starting to grow the visual side of his practice, visible in the artwork for Shedding Skin.
Through working on Body of Songs, a body organ-inspired compilation album featuring Goldie and Bat For Lashes due out on 27 November, Ejimiwe was opened to the idea of collaborating with scientists in his work, and ended up having a skin biopsy to create the album artwork. “My missus is a creative genius and while we were brainstorming at home we came across these skin biopsies on Google. I just projected some on to a plain black vinyl cover I had lying about and we just knew that was it. I didn’t want to use a stock image, so I had a biopsy and the results were just beautiful.”
Ejimiwe’s partner was also a big influence on the record’s other significant visual venture, the video for single Off Peak Dreams. A depiction of the ups, downs and mundane repetitiveness of working life, it was shot on a Handycam on a budget parallel to average monthly wage in the UK. “When you’re with a label you learn pretty quickly that the best thing to do is to save as much money as you can. But we wanted to make something ‘headline-worthy’, we often think about that me and my missus,” explains Ejimiwe. “The song is about the 9-5 shuffle, the hamster wheel. I’ve been there. I worked longer in a 9-5 job than I’ve been making music full-time.”
the good, the bad and the ugly
Quizzed about the political message behind the self-enforced budget, Ejimiwe is quick to dispel any wider agenda. “I’m not a political character. I’m definitely a social commentator though. I feel the need to talk about things everyone goes through, the good, the bad and the ugly. I loathe to go down the political route because it divides people, you have to pick a side. When I do a gig everyone that you can think of will be there, male, female, black, white, young, old, all religions.
I stay neutral.” It’s perhaps a well-thought out position considering he’s just off the tracks for a winter of touring, first headlining his own dates, then supporting UK indie pop band alt-J at stadium-scale shows. “I’ve never done arenas before but I think I’m now ready for that size. I’ll look at it as practice for potential future stardom,” he laughs cheekily. Perhaps after Friday’s Mercury Prize, it might just be that.
Current City London
Occupation Vocalist and Musician