While Ghostpoet mumbles his way through tales of British life, everyone else shouts over him to say how good they are
To get a rough idea of Obaro Ejimiwe’s career trajectory thus far, it may be worth casting a glance across his blog. Despite being a seemingly short-lived venture, the content is incredibly telling. Opening in August 2010, it begins as man excitedly bigging up some of his favourite artists, from Flying Lotus to Katy B. Then at the end of that month comes a pivotal moment, as he’s fired from his regular job and signed to Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings label on the very same day.
From that point on there come sporadic, and ecstatic, updates on releases, including single Cash and Carry Me Home and album Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam, before the reviews begin to flood in, clippings waxing lyrical about the album appearing thick and fast. The final update, dated April 10th 2011, is promoting a headlining set for the following week at XOYO – presumably the point at which the hype overtook everything. This simple document traces a remarkable rise in the stock of the young Midlander, and watching him power through his set on Friday night at Sonar festival in Barcelona to a large and jubilant crowd, it’s hard to believe that less than a year ago some pillock was giving him the sack. What’s more, at the time of our meeting he is blissfully unaware that he would seen be given that undeniable nod of approval from the industry – a Mercury Music Prize nomination. It’s a surge to prominence which he refers to as ‘a blessing.’
But rewind 24 hours to Thursday night. Ghostpoet has just completed a short acoustic set to a small but rapt gathering, and immediately comes over and shakes our hand. It’s difficult not to use the words ‘softly spoken’ when referring to him, because that’s precisely what he is. The drawl of his onstage delivery is heightened to a livelier tone, and he seems to emanate genuine enthusiasm. He almost acts as if he’s indebted to everyone and everything for the success which has befallen him – perhaps a symptom of the sudden, out-of-nowhere nature of it all. But there’s no doubt about it – there’s a reason the reviewers can’t say enough good things about his record, there’s a reason a certain Mike Skinner calls him the best young MC in the country, and there’s a reason that he’s now effectively headlining this stage at possibly the most prestigious electronic music festival in the world. It’s because his music truly speaks to people.
So what have you made of Sonar so far?
It’s amazing man, the whole concept of it. What I love about it is that it’s a homage to electronic music, and that’s what I see myself as – if I had to place myself in a genre, I would use that more than anything else, so to come to a festival and be allowed to play somewhere like this is just amazing. And there are just so many different acts – my friend Dels is playing at the moment, and you’ve got people from Ninja Tune, you’ve got the big guys like the M.I.As and the Dizzee Rascals, and the up-and-comers …
Lots of UK names there, are there any other UK artists you’re excited about at the moment?
Oh yeah, you’ve got SBTRKT, Floating Points, James Blake, Jamie xx, Ramadanman. There’s a lot of people doing seriously interesting things right now.
So, the acoustic set you’ve just played – is that something you’ve done before, is it something you’re comfortable with?
Well I’ve done it a few times, but it’s not a regular thing because I do electronic, bass music, so to strip it down to acoustic isn’t quite how I want it to be. But sometimes you’ve just got to do it, and it’s cool. It’s good to have it in your repertoire, especially for radio, acoustic is the easiest thing to do and to set up. It’s something that we don’t get asked to do very often, but it’s definitely in there if needs be.
It’s interesting to hear your tunes stripped down to their bare bones like that though, is that in any way related to how you put your tunes together?
Yeah, you could say it’s quite a traditional way of doing things. Everyone’s different, but I make a skeleton of a tune, I’ll put that together myself musically, and then lyrically. I don’t have pads and pads of lyrics, I write to the tune and try to capture the emotion of it. Put some snatches of lyrics on top, build, build, build until we get to a final tune.
So the record has been given a pretty amazing reception, how has that been?
Man, I was just surprised, I didn’t expect any of it. I thought maybe people would think ‘OK, it’s a decent start, let’s see what he does in the future.’ But it’s just a blessing y’know, it’s really so unexpected and so encouraging for me to keep going and I know now, at least, that the stuff that I’m making, people are liking – I don’t need to go back to square one and change the formula. I can just be me, which is the most important thing.
So you were in no way conscious of this being a potential breakthrough record?
No way – I was just making music, that’s what it’s all about, the philosophy has always just been to make music, be as creative as possible.
The record definitely feels like a very complete ‘album’, there’s a flow throughout it – was that something you thought about a lot?
Definitely. I got involved with the label and it was straight away ‘right, let’s make an album.’ It was a case of wanting to make a body of work that can sit together in one listen, not a series of singles y’know, which is a big step up from what I’d been doing before. But other than that, I just want to make music – I don’t think too hard about genre or direction, I just want to be creative.
Some of the words you hear used to describe your style of delivery are ‘natural’ and ‘effortless.’ Is it as natural as it sounds, or have you developed and worked on it?
I’d say it’s naturally progressed to that point. I guess in the beginning I was a straight-up hip-hop or grime MC, but through a series of experimentations with vocals to try and work out my own style, how I wanted my voice to fit alongside the music I was making, it’s naturally evolved to where I am now.
One of the icons of British rap, The Streets, is coming to the end of his journey. You’ve worked with him in the past – how did this relationship come about, and how does it stand now?
Well he partly put me where I am now, without any pushing or anything, he just felt like he liked my stuff and decided to tell people about it. It literally just came about from a mutual connection who was helping him put a mixtape together before his album, he contacted me and said ‘I’m working with The Streets on this mixtape, he’d really like you on a track, what d’you think? Here’s the track, if you think you could write to it then cool.’ Literally just from that, and we’ve just been chatting and working on little things here and there. But he’s a really great guy, y’know.
I think it’s clear to see that, while you’re completely different musicians, The Streets has paved the way for what you do now.
Definitely, if it wasn’t for people like him, it would be far harder for people like me. Just like when he started out, it was very difficult for some people to get what he was doing cause he was the first of his kind, y’know. So I wouldn’t say I’m anywhere near as good as him, or like him, but no doubt – him doing what he did helped me do what I’m doing now, and not only for me, but for a lot of people, he’s been a big, big inspiration because of all that he’s achieved.
Would you say that it’s part of a London thing? Neither of you started out there, but both ended up moving there.
I wouldn’t say it’s a London thing. First of all I would say it’s a UK thing for me, I wanna appeal to the UK, not just a city, but at the same time now, especially with travelling and getting out to play in other places, I just wanna make music – I know it sounds hippy – but for the world, for everyone, because we all listen to music; we all feel emotion, y’know, so why shouldn’t I just be able to connect with people, not just people from certain places. Music for everyone, wherever you are.
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Tune: Cash and Carry Me Home
Words: Geraint Davies