Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
The day I meet Ghostpoet at his label’s office by London Bridge could be one of the many described on his debut album ‘Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam’ [Brownswood Recordings, 2011]. It’s a Wednesday in the coldest March since 1962 and the sunshine is intermittent between bouts of hail and sleet. The album is a trudge flecked with hope and seen through the lives of heartbroken recluses, bleary-eyed parents and reluctant nine-to-fivers; loose in genre, but a cousin to contemporary UK rap and grime with proclamations to “see clearer like the Eskiboy” or “spit whatever the weather like Chip”.
It was popular with fans and shortlisted for a Mercury Music Award but – after doing well with something so intimate and local – what next?. Keep trawling the old stores? Abandon it all and take a left turn? Ghostpoet does both, in a way, and avoids the stresses of responding to the big question by simply doing what he’s always done well. That’s not to say ‘Some Say I So I Say Light’ [PIAS UK] is narrow or constricted, however – he reels off the impressive list of guest features: “Tony Allen’s on there, Charles Hayward’s on there, Gwilym Gold’s on there, Dave Okumu’s on there, Lucy Rose is on there, Woodpecker Wooliyams.” It’s more refined musically, but talking to Ghostpoet shows that the thought behind it is clear too (or, at least, clear for someone with a natural appreciation of sprawl) and he hasn’t let the pressure compromise his second album.
Making another chronicle about the same problems would be difficult at best and disingenuous at worst but his love for sympathetic storytelling is about more than just local colour. As he explains throughout the interview, the “everyday” is pretty remarkable in itself and “everyman” doesn’t necessarily have to mean simplified. Openness, of both expression and interpretation, are the key for Ghostpoet.
I wanted to start by asking about the general transition from the first album to the second?
“It’s almost like a glossy record that’s been thrown down a ravine and scratched and roughed up a bit.” – Ghostpoet
Ghostpoet: Well, it’s an evolution from the first record in a sense. It’s definitely in a direction I wanted to go musically, which was more experimentation, more musical – just bigger. With the first one it was shitty home production.
Do you see it as a move from a home-made style to something bigger and studio led?
Ghostpoet: Yeah, it sounds rough and gritty, which is important to me – it’s not a glossy record. It’s almost like a glossy record that’s been thrown down a ravine and scratched and roughed up a bit. It was great to work with [Richard] Formby, who co-produced it, and get people on it I admire and let trends evolve. It was good fun.
Ghostpoet – Meltdown (feat. Woodpecker Wooliams)
This one has more featured guests on it too
Ghostpoet: Yeah, It’s the same as the first though. Because those people, it’s not like a standard kind of commercial “I’m just gonna get big hitters” or people who would take away from what I want to do. It’s still my record, I wanted to get musical people involved – people renowned for making music, rather than a feature.
So you handpicked everyone for their specific contribution?
Ghostpoet: Definitely, everyone on there is who I wanted. The only person who wasn’t, who it was me and Formby that came to the decision with Tony Allen. Even though I’m obsessed with Afrobeat and Fela Kuti, it just didn’t come to my mind. On the demo, he [Formby] just said “You know who would sound good on this drumming? Tony Allen” and I was like “Come on!” [laughs]. But he said “Give it a go” so we made enquiries and it happened and, yeah, it worked. Everyone else I either knew, or just felt right to me to be on the record.
The first one was quite experimental but this one has strange guitars coming in and even violins at the end. It’s a lot more developed, musically.
Ghostpoet: Yeah, it’s the fact that since the last one I’ve had the opportunity, blessing really, to be able to make music all the time and being able to do that has opened my mind up a bit more, and made me realise what I want to do with music. It’s an opportunity to see how far I’ve come: my personal development and how far I can push my creativity. Yeah, I’m just happy to be making another record.
“It’s not a complex thing for me, it’s getting music and my voice, putting the two together and getting people to like it. It’s a chance for me to mumble over quirky sounds. That’s me in a nutshell.” – Ghostpoet
Do you feel that you’ve developed your lyrics and storytelling too – that you’re clearer about what you want to say?
Ghostpoet: Not really. Not that I know what I want to say, I just say what I want. I guess for the first one I decided how I wanted to sound to record and, for me, it’s just a continuation of that journey lyrically: of talking about everyday things that affect me and the people around me.
Every track is a bit of a collage of different things. It’s never about talking about one particular person or one particular thing from point zero to whenever the track ends. It’s all about jumping from place to place. It’s how my mind works in a way, I can’t concentrate on stuff for too long, I jump from one thing to another, so it’s how I end up writing: talking about one thing then a word triggers off something else, all along the same lines but from a different angle or perspective.
So you actually switch perspectives within the songs?
Ghostpoet: Yeah, it’s all very much real – it’s never made up. It’s either from my perspective or someone else’s, something I’ve observed or something I’ve been told that’s kind of mashed up.
When I hear that I think: it is self effacement and trying to remove yourself from the songs or are you trying to introduce multi perspectives?
Ghostpoet: For me it’s just an opportunity for me to talk shit over music [laughs]. It’s not a complex thing for me, it’s getting music and my voice, putting the two together and getting people to like it. It’s a chance for me to mumble over quirky sounds. That’s me in a nutshell.
That’s the basis of it?
Ghostpoet: That’s the basis of my life. [laughs]
Well, if it’s not about being clearer about what you say – your priorities have definitely shifted. Do you think this album tackles new themes?
“It would be stupid to talk about the same things I did on the first record or try and talk about my current state of affairs from the perspective of being in the music industry because not everyone can relate to that. One of the things I wanna put in my music is the ability for everyone to be able to latch onto something” – Ghostpoet
Ghostpoet: Definitely, it’s life isn’t it. It develops from day to day. Since the last record I’ve gone through ups and downs, more ups than downs, but I have. It would be personally stupid to talk about the same things I did on the first record or try and talk about my current state of affairs from the perspective of being in the music industry because not everyone can relate to that. One of the things I wanna put in my music is the ability for everyone to be able to latch onto something and the only way I can make music people will relate to, be it in sound, a particular lyric or theme or whatever. I wouldn’t say it’s like a diary but this record is another chapter in my life – it’s a natural urge to put it across.
I wouldn’t personally say you make rap or anything [he grimaces a bit] but part of the first album was about trying to make music that people will like, and for a lot of other MCs in this country, the next move is an album that’s like “shit, I’ve made it”. Did you consciously try to avoid that?
Ghostpoet: I didn’t purposefully do that, I just tried to do what felt natural when I was making it. Just talking about my existence and the existence of people around me, but it’s more about the emotion of my existence than saying I’m flying to a particular gig or something. That’s important to me but I know the man doing a nine-to-five, because I was that guy doing a nine-to-five, and struggling to pay bills and the worries they have to go through, they’re not gonna relate to that. I want people to relate to it because, for me, the music I like is universal. It’s not about me being in a Bentley or partying all night. I’m living a normal life and I want to be normal ‘cause I’m not special: I’m just one human being amongst billions and, when I think of it like it, I just do normal shit.
So it’s less purposefully trying to appeal to the average person and more about just talking about what you feel as honestly as possible?
Ghostpoet: Yeah, I don’t have an agenda like that. For me, it’s easier for me to be normal because if I try put on a facade or an alter-ego – I’ve got to keep that up for five, ten years I don’t want to do that! I just wanna do me, warts and all. I’ve rather just be myself and you either like it or don’t – that’s all I can say or ask.
Listening to both albums side by side, on the first one has low moments and it’s about struggling and working hard but you end on a really positive note on Lines, whereas on this one you have Comatose – which is like a cliffhanger.
[He bursts out laughing]
A string section starts up and you think the big crescendo is going to come in and it just doesn’t.
Ghostpoet: That’s interesting. I think, for me, I go through ups and downs everyday – and I have to get that out on the record. It’s weird because Comatose wasn’t always going to be the end song, and what could’ve been the last track would probably be more definitive. With Comatose it’s a case of “I feel crap at that point, but, there’s always hope for the future.”
I think it’s positive but I could see some people not being satisfied by that.
Ghostpoet: Yeah, I like to keep interpretation as open as possible. Where I’m not leading the listener down a particular road, or steering a particular thing. It’s more about leaving it open and creating discussion, making people think about my stuff. Everything comes from how I feel about other people’s music that I love, and I love to be able to discuss with friends about music or say I like this or that. I never want to make music that’s, like: it’s this genre, it’s about this and that – next one. I just feel that with Comatose and a lot of the tracks – they can go this way or that.
“I know what I am, and I’m no rapper.” – Ghostpoet
Back to the rap thing, you said you didn’t want to be described as rap.
Ghostpoet: No. Never. In my entire life.
But is that because of rap specifically or because you don’t want to be pigeon-holed generally?
Ghostpoet: Yeah. Rap is rap, it’s a genre. If someone called me an indie guy I wouldn’t like it. At the end of the day if people want to have their opinions that’s great, and I think whether it’s good or bad people should always have an opinion. I know what I am, and I’m no rapper.
Ghostpoet – Us Against Whatever
I read you started in a grime collective.
Ghostpoet: I did, so some people could call me an MC. [laughs]
Were you on Grimepedia though?
Ghostpoet: No, no – we were a little thing and we never got that big. I just see myself as an artist – and in the least cliché way possible I just want to make art – I’m not interested in genre or he did this, or he did that. I never have when I listen to music so why should I think about that with myself. I just try to be creative, that’s what’s important to me. What people want to call me, cool, but if I’m not happy about it, I’ll say something. I’m 30 years old, I have to stick what I believe.
That’s cool, I wouldn’t call what you do rap or grime myself but do you still take things from that background? There were a few nods on the first album.
Ghostpoet: Yeah, but bits – they don’t make up the whole album. One of many things. I listen to grime all the time, I listen to hip-hop a lot of the time, I listen to indie, dance, folk, trance. I listen to lots of shit. I don’t feel the need to listen to one style of music and I hope that comes out in my music.
“The title of the first record gave the game away a little bit in the fact that I used certain words like “melancholy” and “blues”. This time I wanted to have something that was almost like a front door – and you don’t know what’s behind the door without opening it.” – Ghostpoet
Were there particular artists you listened to a lot over the course of making the album?
Ghostpoet: No, I try not to at all. Formby introduced me to a lot of jazz stuff, like John Coltrane, people like Eric Dolphy and Art Blaky. Also bit and bobs of experimental stuff I’d never really come across before. Krautrock stuff like Neu!, Kraftwerk, I love Can. So bits and bobs but never one thing directly to influence a track. On the first one I didn’t listen to anything whilst making it, but now I have a radio show on NTS and I play in clubs sometimes so I take in a lot of music and it would be difficult not to take anything in.
A broad mix then?
Ghostpoet: That’s all I know.
Like keeping it your own personal document of what you hear and how you hear it?
Ghostpoet: Yeah, I’d say so. I just love music and it would be weird not to listen to anything. It’s never been a case of listening to something in particular and thinking I want to say like that, I just like making music and however my music comes out, so be it.
It sounds like you see yourself and the way you make music as like a filtering process.
[He ums and ahhs]
Maybe not a filter actually, that sounds too much like diluting something.
Ghostpoet: It’s like, I can only talk about this experience because I made these records but I just took in a lot of music and life experiences and stored it up in my head. Titles and little bits of lyrics here and there, it’s almost like I stored it up to a certain point and said, right, I’m ready to make a record and it comes out in different ways – not that I’m always totally aware of it. Not like I’m in a dream or a superhuman trance or anything [laughs] but more like, I just let whatever is on my mind, be it creatively, musically or lyrically, just flow.
One last thing.
It’s a bit strange.
I had to read it a few times before I got it properly. Is it meant to be a tricky phrase to get your head around?
Ghostpoet: Yeah, it’s partly that. The title of the first record gave the game away a little bit in the fact that I used certain words like “melancholy” and “blues”. Not that it was a blues record but it helped the listener a little bit. This time I wanted to have something that was almost like a front door – and you don’t know what’s behind the door without opening it. It’s kind of like a dream thing that I saw somewhere and wrote down and over time you realise it’s got lots of levels to it.
You’ve got the visual aspect of it, you’ve got the “I”‘s in the middle with words on either side of them, it’s almost like “Some say” is the beginning of something then it goes through some kind of transformation in the middle and becomes something else at the end. Then it’s almost like someone people wanna do something one way and I want to do it another: “I’m not gonna say I, I’m gonna say light” [Laughs]
When I saw it I thought you were saying some want to talk about petty things but I want to talk about something bigger.
Ghostpoet: It could be. I wanted something that would cause debate, and it’s a title that will develop for me in my mind. It could be more than I’ve already thought about. Yeah, talk to me in a year’s time and it might change. It’s like I kind of know what it means in my mind but I almost don’t want to say.
You want to keep it open.
Ghostpoet: Right, like, I wanted to just have a piece of mirror as the album cover and that’s it.
There’s something down at the Tate Modern (Untitled Painting by Michael Baldwin of the conceptual group Art & Language) like that. A portrait that’s just a mirror on canvas.
Ghostpoet: Yeah, that’s partly why I didn’t do it in the end but I like the idea of that. Saying this album’s yours, I made it but you can do what you want with it.