“Round and round we go, when’s it gonna stop? I ain’t been paid and I ain’t got a lot. It’s us against whatever babe” is running through my head as I walk the length of Poland Street in Soho on one of those nights when winter feels never-ending. Teeming with hard-learnt wisdom, Ghostpoet’s album serves up a philosophy for the everyman. The song Us Against Whatever offers a refuge: a little reminder that we all suffer at the mercy of life’s shifting landscape every now and then. Chin up love!
Stepping into the warm glow of Phonica, I spot the 27-year-old behind the track in the far corner, chatting away while Dummy’s photographer Megan snaps. Ghostpoet, or Obaro Ejimiwe to his nearest, made ripples late last year with his Sound of Strangers EP, but this month he dropped his debut album on Gilles Peterson’s label Brownswood Recordings. Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jams is a mix of gritty, cobbled-together, lo-fi beats and intoxicatingly drawled, unconformist rhymes.
Standing by the sale table, Obaro is turning Bilal’s album ‘Airtight’s Revenge’ in his fingers. “I like this album – especially its weird name. It’s refreshing to have all this music laid out non-genre specific. It’s kinda representative of what music is like today. Different genres all in one place, everyone taking bits and pieces from each other and making their own genre.”
His sound falls in between the cracks of various styles. As an MC, hip hop is the obvious one, but there’s a bluesy lilt too and the production ferries between beaten-up electronics and live drums. With so many artists fighting against being labelled, do you mind what part of the shop your album is filed in? “For me, I know what I am. Basic enough, it’s just sound. But whatever makes it easier for people to digest my sounds, to grasp on to it, that’s cool. Whatever I feel is needed to make a track work I’ll pull it in, be it indie, electro, hip hop, dubstep or whatever. I’m not genre-ist.”
Our daily lives are saturated with music, do you let your surroundings affect your sound? “Subconsciously always. What comes out is always a product of what’s already in here,” he says, motioning at his head and heart. But where’s the starting point, I ask? Is it the beat (motioning at my heart) or the lyrics running round your head? “Generally it’s more of a beat thing, I make a skeleton of a beat, vibe off that. Then you get a chorus or a hook. I don’t have loads of beats just lying about. I do, however, have lots of ideas floating about, but in terms of fully-fledged ideas… that only comes when I sit down to make something fresh, of the moment. I try to capture the moment as much as possible.”
Although he was born and raised in London, Obaro pinpoints Coventry as his second home and the place of Ghostpoet’s birth, “It was where I became a man, so to speak. It was the first time I ever left home and it was a case of having to make a lot of big decisions for the first time, both life-wise and music-wise. Entering into uni I was writing lyrics, I wasn’t making music. I just got instrumentals and wrote songs. I don’t know why, it just made sense. I was in a grime collective for a while and one of the guys in it had Reason, and he taught me the basics of computer production. Because I don’t play an instrument I was just drawn to it because I didn’t need to play guitar or learn drums – I could just work things out on a screen, you know?”
Lyricism came to him instinctively, but like his song I Ain’t Finished suggests, production is an ever-arching learning curve. “At the time I knew what I was making was different from the people around me. I was trying to make things that used different kinds of sounds. So [they start as] basic grime tracks or the basic hip hop tracks, but instead of using a snare I’d try out the sound of a door shutting instead. It just made sense to me to do that rather than using the standard snare, drums, etcetera. I don’t want to use all those stock sounds that everyone has access too. Even now I don’t think my beats are perfect. They are only perfect for that moment in time. I feel like there is always more to learn… That’s what’s life is about, constantly pushing yourself onto a higher plain.”
“I kind of fell out of love with grime. The structure was too limiting. Trying to say something in 8 or 16-bar style just didn’t work. I wanted to say something more thoughtful. About life I guess. But when you play out these lyrics in a rave situation, no-one is listening. Your forced into a situation where you are creating… what’s the word… anthem-type lyrics, where people can easily sing them or shout them back to you and they just compliment the beat rather than be seen as a body of work themselves. I knew that I always wanted to take my time with words, to play with word structure and the standard melody of lyrics. I wanted to say more and I couldn’t do it in grime. I needed more space.”
Although myspace might be withering, a few years ago, for Obaro it was a place of inspiration. “When I was starting up on myspace the first people I came across was Mica Levi [ of Micachu and the Shapes fame, who produced a track from his EP, Morning], Dels [Obaro featured on his song Trumpalump], Kwes [read our interview here), Sampha [listen to his mix here]. I found these people who were breaking the rules, making music I had never heard before. And I was like ‘Wow, if those guys can do it, maybe I can do it too?’”
Despite finally finding his groove production-wise, the next challenge was to do it all live. “I never used to enjoy it. I used to find it soul-destroying being up on stage and letting somebody judge your creations. But I realised it’s such an important aspect of being a musician that you can’t avoid it. If you want to be established or successful you have to do it. But now I love it. It’s amazing, that live connection between you and the people who are intrigued by what you created from essentially nothing.”
The day we meet is the day after his birthday – he celebrated with family and cake, like one does – and like me, he’s a Capricorn. According to the stars we are fiercely private people (perhaps explaining his initial dislike of the stage), yet at times listening to his lyrics of late night escapades (“gripped whiskey bottles like a child”, “smashed up phones” and “headaches spawned by the devil himself”) or hopes and fears of the future (“have a nice house, wife, a few friends of my own” or “I don’t want to get old and be a wasteman”) or everyday struggles (“run away, be a real man and fight another day”) there’s a sense of bearing witnessing to something incredibly private, like taking a peak in his diary. “I don’t think it’s a biography. There are definitely snapshots of my life but I don’t want to be too personal. My mission statement, if you will, is that people can embrace it and connect it to their own lives in one way or another. I hope people will listen to it and think that makes sense to me, or that happened to me, or I know somebody who has been through that…”
The common theme that resounds throughout the album is the universal task of getting through life. We don’t just live life, we survive it. “Life isn’t easy, it’s not all roses and that’s what I wanted to get across. I wouldn’t say it’s a universal message, because some people swim through life. Everyone’s life is different – but a large majority can connect to that. And I thought to myself if I ever want to be serious about music I need to relate.”
We can pick and choose which pearls of wisdom resonate with us as listeners, but which one resonates with him? “Right now? At this moment in time I’d say its Liines. It’s a song I wrote when I was frustrated. I felt like I had all this music, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. That frustration of seeing the next level, but not knowing how to get there.” A song that opens with “I keep on scribbling, in this spare room that I’m living in…. I keep on writing, writing but those folk ain’t biting, biting”, it’s not only a neat documentation of how far he’s come, but a simple testimony of how simply “getting on with it” gets you somewhere, eventually. “Now I listen to it and things are slowly developing and it’s like ‘Woah’. Not so long ago that place seemed unreachable, and now I’m almost there.”
Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jams is out on Brownswood now. BUY IT