An Interview with Ghostpoet
When Mercury-award-nominated UK rapper Ghostpoet picks up the phone for our weekday morning interview, he’s in the middle of eating breakfast. Throughout our conversation, discussions about the struggles and triumphs of everyday life, his stubbornness as an artist and his refusal to quit music in the face of early financial pressure are interspersed with the gnashing, crunching and chewing of food: punctuated by the clink of metal spoons on porcelain plates. It feels erroneous, almost invasive to be talking to one of the most talked about lyricists in the country at a time like this. But this is Ghostpoet – real name Obaro Ejimiwe – in his element: gritty, authentic, un-afraid to lay the reality of his situation out onto the (breakfast) table and let it spill into the tiles.
I’m one of many lining up to speak with Ejimiwe this morning and he’s eager for me to get started – he’s just come off the phone and has another call waiting in 20 minutes. The whirlwind of publicity slowly gathering around him marks the run up to the official release of his third album Shedding Skins – a hotly anticipated release already sparking praise from broadsheet journalists to underground tastemakers alike. He calmly accepts his place at the eye of this media storm, contentedly munching on Weetabix all the while.
Hailing from a working-class background in South London, Ejimiwe is no stranger to hardship. As a paragon for the depressed and down-beaten, much of the content from his previous two albums – Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam and Some Say I So I Say Light – was inspired by his own experience trying to support himself in service sector jobs in his early career – including time spent working phones in a Coventry call centre by day and filling in as security at the University by night.
Although Shedding Skins retains many of the themes of it’s predecessors, it’s a much more vivid, colourful and hopeful portrayal of the daily grime and grub, the struggle for money and the longing for sincere human connection. He barbs at my mention that he’s always talked about hardship: ‘It’s not always about hardship,’ he retorts ‘for me, it’s important to talk about everyday life. That’s what we’re all going through.
Ellipsis: So you see yourself as talking about everything in life, not just the hard times?
Ghostpoet: Yeah I guess so, it’s all ups and downs you know? I think it can be a bit more weighted on the downs at times. The way I look at it, life isn’t always great and unfortunately the bad times hang with you more than the good times.
A lot of the songs on Shedding Skin feel more universal in tone than previous records, as if you’re speaking for others rather than just about yourself
Yeah I agree. This record was definitely made with that in mind, trying to make an album that’s bigger and with more of mass appeal hopefully. I wouldn’t look at it as a political record – but I definitely am talking about social issues. It’s not something I really thought about; when I was writing it I just thought I want to write about what I’m seeing, what I’m feeling – not necessarily just within myself, but what I’m feeling in the air. I want to write of the moment; I’m not becoming some political, Billy Bragg type character – I wouldn’t want to be labeled with that tag. But I’m never going to sugar coat anything, I’m not going to write ‘everything is so great.’ Because for a lot of people it’s not – be it not having enough money to pay their bills, people being unemployed, university students coming out of uni and not being able to get jobs. All these kinds of thing are common knowledge now, and as an artist I think it’s important to document the times.
It’s interesting that you talk about documenting hard times, because actually it feels like there’s a lot more hope on this album. Would say that events in your life have changed the emotional content of the songs?
Yeah definitely. I’m a much happier person. When I played the record for the people at the label they all said ‘Oh, this is really dark’ and I was like ‘Really? this is the happiest I’ve been in a long time!’ I think even if things are tinged with darkness, there’s still always hope. There’s always an opportunity for a brighter day: I know that sounds like a cliche or a hippy-ism, but it’s true. This record was really about finding the balance between hope and no hope. If I allow myself to dwell and drown in the sorrows of life, I’m not going to be able to function. I’ve got to live for hope, I’ve got to try and make things better. That’s what I’m trying to do – as an artist and as a human being.
A lot has been made of the difficulties you had in your early career – working two jobs to support yourself whilst making your first album. Would you say those times have taught you anything that you’ve found particularly valuable, as an artist and as a person?
Yeah, I think going through those times makes you value life a bit more and value what comes your way. At the same time, it’s almost like the fire in my belly: it’s what pushes me on and keeps me going, because I don’t want to go back to that. I’m not putting it down because there’s people who do way more than that just to survive. But for me, I want to keep making music. I don’t want to go back to that existence I wasn’t happy with. I guess it’s an inspiration as well as a reminder that you can’t take things for granted. You never know what tomorrow holds.
“I wouldn’t look at it as a political record – but I definitely am talking about social issues.”
Do you have any advice for people who might be in the same position: people with aspirations of being an artist but who are struggling to make a living off of their work?
I wouldn’t call myself an expert, it’s different for everybody. For me, it was a serious hobby first. In the beginning I didn’t really have the confidence to make it – it was only when I was told ‘We’ll put a record out’ that I thought ‘Alright cool, I’ll give it a go.’ I don’t want to talk in cliches and say ‘Keep going and your time will come’. Your time may come, it just depends. If anything, it’s just being stubborn and continuing when you feel there’s no hope. And it’s important to keep it in your life, even if you can’t do it professionally. Be realistic about it as well, don’t put yourself in debt. Some people will hear that and think ‘Fuck it, I’ll just do what I want to do’ which is understandable. But I can only talk about my own journey to this point – I didn’t quit my job until 6 months into my album coming out because I was that afraid of not having some kind of safety net.
A lot of people who probably have gotten to that point and given up, what do you think it is about you that made you keep going?
I’m just stubborn, that’s it. I’m a stubborn mule; I don’t like hearing ‘No’ and I don’t like having the feeling that things aren’t going to work out. I did get that in the very early stages – when I used to put stuff up on myspace. And then I started to get to know people who were signed or about to be signed and hung around with them. It was networking I guess, to a certain extent. But I never looked at it like anyone would give me a chance. And I used to just think ‘It is me? It is the kind of stuff I’m doing?’ but then I thought ‘I like doing music like this, this is what I enjoy doing. I just have to pursue it and some will hook onto it at some point.’ If it happens it happens, if it don’t it don’t. I’ve always been a worker and even when I was at uni I was working part time because I’m not from a rich background or anything I just didn’t have any money. Anything I’m invested in I try and put 100% into it, and with this career I just think the same way.
You say that you’d keep music in your life even if you couldn’t do it professionally. For you, it’s more about the satisfaction you get from the process rather than the rewards you gain from doing it?
It’s different kind of feelings I guess. You have the feeling of being in the studio, making the record, making shitty demos at home – that’s a feeling – then when you’re producing the record – that’s another feeling – and then releasing it is another feeling as well. And then once it’s released it’s no longer mine. It’s out there – and I just have to let it go and start thinking about the next thing, the next project
Back onto Shedding Skins: The mystical, Japanese-sounding vocal sample that appears at the start of Off Peak Dreams, at the end of Yes I Helped You Pack and then at the end of Nothing in the Way feels like a mysterious departure from the rest of the album. What is it?
It’s basically a recording of my former keys player – who’s half-Japanese. I wanted to get her to say ‘The beginning of Shedding Skins, the middle of Shedding Skins and the end of Shedding Skins.’ That’s the basic translation. She recorded it on her iPhone, sent it over and we mixed it into the record. I’ve been thinking about putting it somewhere – I want to do a lyric book and put it in there with the proper translation and the Japanese characters. The Japanese typography is so beautiful.
Shedding Skins is available for download and is out in stores on March 17th. To find out more, visit Ghostpoet’s website.