Don’t call Obaro Ejimiwe a poet. Although it’s hard not to seeing his very moniker, Ghostpoet, contains the offending expression but it’s probably a name that is as removed from himself as the lost souls he eulogises in the contemplative post-grime mash of Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam. Among brilliantly warped rhythms and wonky musical combinations that are impossible to discern, it’s hard to distinguish autobiography from fiction in his words as ‘Finished I Ain’t’ and ‘Liiines’ contemplate the irrepressible drive to create (“I keep on writing, writing but them folk ain’t bitin’ bitin’”). But where said Mercury Prize-nominated record freely offers the innermost thoughts of a 44-year-old vagabond in ‘Survive It’ or the vulnerabilities of a struggling parent in ‘Longing For The Night (Yeah Pause)’, Ghostpoet the man is far less forthcoming about his own person in conversation.
Talking in anticipation of an upcoming performance with Austrian chanteuse Soap & Skin at this year’s Ether Festival at the Southbank Centre, October 6, one starts to think that perhaps it’s in distance that Ghostpoet’s strength lies. And while he chatters about the number of headphones he’s lost while hunting for a pair in a busy Dalston café, it becomes apparent that interviewer and interviewee are literally minutes away from each other, but with a phone line between them. As diplomatic as a politician –insomuch as addressing a question without actually answering it –Ejimiwe chuckles a lot and digresses often, while pre-empting anything referring to poetry or London grime with a long-argued defence against his association with it. There’s even an ambiguous conversation about a poet I can’t name, his book I can’t remember and how this elusive work compares to that of Ghostpoet.
Yet, it all rather makes sense that things should turn out that way. With an ebbing electronic sound hovering in a realm of displacement any London City transient would be familiar with and lyrics that follow the story of the afflicted Everyman, there’s a powerful element of the ephemeral that keeps the wraith by the name of Ghostpoet just out of reach. And while Obaro the man would probably be uncomfortable with the comparison to Walt Whitman, not least because he’s a poet, there’s something to be said for his affinity with that Great American bard and his vignettes of ordinary life felt within the fleeting milieu of pain and nostalgia.
aqnb: What do people call you? Do they call you Ghostpoet… or Obaro… or Obie?
Obaro Ejimiwe: [laughs] It depends really, everyone’s different. I’m not really fussed about it, to tell you the truth. ‘Obaro’, ‘Obie’, ‘Ghost’, ‘Ghostie’, whatever. I don’t really mind.
aqnb: I’m trying to figure out where you’re coming from as a person. With these thoughts that you put down on paper, or sing, would you say you’re more a depressive kind of person or positive?
OE: I guess I’m just a normal person, like everyone. I have my good days and bad days and I try to reflect that in my music. With me, even in bad moment, I try to put a positive spin on things when I can and I guess that comes through in my music. A lot of it is very subconscious; streams of thought. Putting down emotions on paper without really having an agenda or a plan, or strategy. It’s just about displaying emotions by music and… yeah, that’s me.
aqnb: You tend to write from other perspectives other than your own. It can be quite difficult to do if it’s something you haven’t experienced personally.
OE: Yeah. For me, I guess I’ve always enjoyed observing others just soaking up information, soaking up emotion and feelings from the people immediately around me; things that I read and see or taste, or experience myself and through others. I don’t want my music to be about ‘me, me, me, me,’ because that’s just boring for me. I want it to be about everyday people, as well as myself because I feel that I’m an everyday person. I’m living a life and I want it be about life and conversations and experiences that everyone goes through. That’s what I’ve tried to do anyway.
aqnb: Are you shifting focus from yourself to avoid self-induglence in your music?
OE: I don’t even think I’m conscious of it. I’m just not like that in general and it’s gone down that road. I’m not that ‘me, me, me’ kind of person and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. If you want to do that then that’s cool but I personally, for my own life and the things that I allow in my life, including music, I don’t want it to be only me and my feelings… It’s important for me to put those across but I’m more interested in more than my own viewpoint on things. So I try to put myself in other people’s shoes, to work out how they feel.
aqnb: Do you feel like you have a lot of empathy for other people? Is it hard for you to hate someone?
OE: As I grow older I feel my empathy increasing. I’ve never ever hated anybody in my life but I feel there’s always more to the story or situation than meets the eye. I think it’s more about not allowing myself to take something at face-value and try to look deeper, really work out what’s going on.
aqnb: I’ve often worried whether that ability to do that can prevent you from having an opinion.
OE: I haven’t felt that’s been a problem so far [laughs], so I couldn’t say that’s the case for me. I’m an opinionated person but I feel, as I get older, I try to allow that opinion to be a balanced one.
aqnb: Having gone through my late teens, I’ve felt that when you get to 19 or 20 that’s when you have a really unrealistic life view. Where you tend to have very strong opinions, without much life experience.
OE: You wouldn’t be a teenager if that [weren’t] the case, I guess. I felt like that as a kid and sometimes I still feel like that. I think it’s important to remember your inner youth and keep that alive.
aqnb: Because otherwise you’ll just become cynical?
OE: Again, ‘cynical’ is a matter of opinion [laughs]. I know a lot of cynical people and they’re lovely, you know, it’s what suits your personality.
aqnb: You’re not going to make this easy for me are you?
OE: I’m not making it hard. I’m just talking [laughs].
aqnb: Alright, well, musically, you’ve been affiliated with Grime earlier in your career, right?
OE: Not really. It’s kind of just been picked up on and I never really… I should have made it clear that I flirted with grime. I was not a grime general or into grime all day, every day for years. It was kind of like a brief period of time in university. I enjoy it, I love grime but again I digress, continue please…
aqnb: No, please, feel free to digress. It makes for good copy.
OE: [laughs] Yeah, grime is cool but it’s not the be all and end all of my career.
aqnb: What I was trying to get at was that you’ve said grime is not so much about the words but how they complement the sound…
OE: I remember saying something like that but I think it’s more along the lines that I feel …it’s not about the words, yes, but it’s also about the production and the way [grime musicians] take the existence that they have and the world that they may be living into it. And even though it’s called ‘grime’, it’s electronic music and that was my gateway into electronic and experimental music, generally.
aqnb: So do you think it’s been a natural progression for you?
OE: No. I just liked it for a period of time and then I didn’t. I’m like that with everything. I was just doing it and then I got to a point where I felt like, it wasn’t the vehicle for what I wanted to talk about or musically say, so I moved on from it and that’s it.
aqnb: Do you self-produce?
OE: I produced my first album and the live stuff was done by my then live band; the drums and guitar was by the guys I played with but other than that it was produced by myself.
aqnb: Do you find the more you perform live the more it’s influencing the way you produce?
OE: Kind of. But it’s annoying because I don’t want it to. On the one hand I feel that it’s important to be aware of how your music comes across live, for me anyway because I love playing live. I want to continue doing that for as long as I can in my life, so that plays a part in doing that. But at the same time, I don’t want to make a stadium rock album; I don’t want to make an album that is for the purposes of playing live. I want to make music for being listened to in any situation and not just in a live setting. For that reason I try and dismiss that element as much as possible and just make music. That’s what I did with my first album and that’s what I’m trying to continue doing.
It’s hard because I play a lot and it’s inevitable that things will soak into what you’re doing subconsciously. But I’m fighting a daily battle against it [chuckles].
aqnb: How are you going with the second album?
OE: Well, it’s kind of written, lyrically, and musically it’s about 60 per cent done. It’s coming along.
aqnb: Is there any change in themes? Any concept?
OE: I didn’t really think there were any themes in my first album, really. That’s from my point of view. I just wrote what I wrote and that’s what came out. And that’s what I’m doing with the second album, really.
aqnb: Are you familiar with… I can’t even remember his name, the American poet [Walt Whitman]…
OE: No. At anything about poetry, I’m going to say ‘no’ again. I don’t know anything about poetry. I shouldn’t call myself Ghostpoet. It’s not really me.
aqnb: It depends on how you define poetry.
OE: I just don’t know anything about it. The only poetry I know is from school and I can’t even remember what that was. It gets bandied about a lot. No, that’s the wrong way to put it, I don’t like ‘bandied about’… It says a lot about me to say ‘I’m a poet’. I don’t think I’m a poet I just think I’m a mumbling fool that just got lucky.
aqnb: Okay, regardless of whether this guy was a poet, what I wanted to say was, he would ride the tram up and down the road in New York listening to ordinary people talking and then he basically wrote this entire book [Leaves of Grass] that became emblematic of the American experience.
OE: Okay, that sounds interesting.
aqnb: It’s something I thought you could relate to, as a British musician writing about the Everyman.
OE: ‘You think? I enjoy catching snippets of conversation and continuing it on in my mind. It’s quite sad, really. I do stuff like that but I wouldn’t class myself anywhere near this guy, or anything like that, but it’s interesting. I may have to follow up on this particular guy…
aqnb: You could do some poetry as well, then.
OE: Don’t say that again please. I never have and I never will.
Ghostpoet performs with Soap & Skin at the Southbank Centre’s Ether Festival Saturday, October 6, 2012.