Ghostpoet Interview: ‘I’m a glass-half-full guy’
Fed up of feeling “over-qualified and underpaid”, Ghostpoet left music after his last album to run a coffee shop in Margate. Life as a barista didn’t go to plan either, and he returned to music to pour his frustrations into his fifth album. As he tells John Earls: “I’m a glass-half-full guy…”
There’s the possibility if you were on the Kent coast in the last couple of years, your morning latte might have been served to you by one of the most forward-thinking musicians Britain produced in the 2010s. Annoyed at the under-performance of his 2017 album Dark Days And Canapes, Ghostpoet sought refuge by opening his own coffee shop and bar, Radio Margate, moving to the artistic hub after spending nearly all of his life in South London.
Ghostpoet mucked in, serving coffees by day and drinks at night. “I had to deal with blocked toilets, floods and fights,” he notes. “Getting up stupid-early to serve coffee was nuts.” But it was better for his soul than simply trying to make another album after years of being a commercial nearly man, failing to make a mainstream breakthrough despite two Mercury Prize nominations. “I was sick of music after the last record,” Ghostpoet admits. “Dark Days And Canapes just didn’t work out. I didn’t get to gig as much as I’d have liked, the campaign didn’t last as long as I’d have liked. I felt I was at a point where I was over-qualified and underpaid. Getting out of the city and moving to Margate, trying new things, was to reinvigorate myself.”
Naturally, some of Radio Margate’s customers recognised their new barista, much to Ghostpoet’s amusement. “Some dudes would come over like, ‘Wait, are you…?’ and others would give me this half-squinting look I’ve come to know,” he smiles. “I’d realise at that moment, ‘I’ve got to walk away and get busy somewhere else’, as I know they’d be Googling me on their phone and clocking me. It was hilarious, but I’d never thought about being a public figure before. I’m just somebody who makes music, being recognised has never been my thing. Some people I know were, ‘What, you work in a coffee shop?’. I wanted to open the shop to have more immediacy between graft and reward: getting just desserts for a hard day’s work. I wanted that after seven years in music, where you put in a lot of work with no guarantee of anything.”
Sat in the café of boutique Hackney hotel Mama Shelter, Ghostpoet is sanguine about his status in music. It’s now 10 years since the release of his debut EP, The Sound Of Strangers. He’s fought against being pigeonholed as a hip-hop artist since day one, his music encompassing jazz, dub, rock and anything Ghostpoet pleases in between. The new album, I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep, continues this spirit of adventure, as Ghostpoet talks enthusiastically of using a Brazilian percussionist on all 10 songs, as well as the toy synths made by Critter And Guitari which help form the BBC Radiophonic Workshop-style unsettling whooshes underpinning Black Dog Got Silver Eyes.
It’s a brilliant state-of-the-nation record, perfect for hunkering down with in self-isolation. But the musician, who recently moved back to South London, isn’t sure it’ll be his breakout album. “I’m at the point where people are sick of fighting to push me into a box,” he laughs. “People now go, ‘Ghostpoet? He’s… over there’,” flapping an arm into the middle distance. “People’s attitude is, ‘He does stuff that sometimes I think is alright, but it’s definitely… over there. We’ll let him do that’.” He’s aware that his determination hasn’t made it easy for the mainstream to keep up, explaining: “I’ve always felt misunderstood as an artist. But part of that is it’s only the last couple of records that have been concentrated in a recognisable direction. Evolving as an artist can confuse people. If you listen to this record and my first one, there is a thread, but it’s very different worlds.”
‘I wanted to open the coffee shop to have more immediacy between graft and reward’
That Ghostpoet is calm over his status is partially down to his experience running gig nights at Radio Margate. He learned how to run the mixing desk and help roadie for visiting artists, most of whom were less successful than Ghostpoet. “The music I like is mainly experimental and avant-garde jazz,” he says. “I saw artists who will never reach a certain level commercially, yet they still have so much desire. That was really inspiring and made me readdress where I am, to realise life could be so much worse. I’ve been very lucky in my career so far.” It’s that enthusiasm which seems more typical of Ghostpoet than the stories of toxic relationships and beatdowns writ large on his new album. He admits it wasn’t until he began finalising the 10 songs for the album from 25 contenders that he realised how lyrically dark it is, which helped inform choosing the swinging Breaking Cover as the opening song. Its chorus is a neat summation of where Britain is at, as he muses: “Things are kind-of complex these days/ hard hats at the ready,” but Ghostpoet reasons: “That song starts, ‘I’m alive’, and I wanted those to be the first words heard on this record, before you get into all these songs about death!”
The album took four months, with Ghostpoet commuting from Margate to a studio in Hackney, working from 10am-7pm and listening to the day’s mixes on the train home. “I wanted this record to be a reflection of the times we’re living in,” he says. “So it’s inevitable it turned out how it has. But, when I make a record, I was taking in the news subconsciously, putting down lyrics on instinct that made sense. I’m a glass-half-full person and, although it’s quite a dark record, away from music, I’m relatively jovial.” LLV can confirm this: Ghostpoet bustles in for our interview full of apologies despite only being five minutes late and says sorry again immediately when he shakes hands with Long Live Vinyl and his publicist. “I’ve got to stop doing that!” he laughs, getting out a bottle of Carex. In black leather jacket and jeans, with neat stubble and smart chunky glasses, he looks like a successful tech entrepreneur as much as an accomplished leftfield innovator. Over a sparkling water, Obaro Ejimiwe laughs a lot in 75 minutes discussing the joy and frustration of life as Ghostpoet.
Going It Alone
Although Ghostpoet produced his 2011 Mercury-nominated debut Peanut Butter Blues And Melancholy Jam himself, his next three records were co-productions with Richard Formby, John Calvert and Leo Abrahams. I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep is wholly self-produced again. “I didn’t really know what I was doing on Peanut Butter… I just did it,” he admits. “This one was more about garnering the experience I’ve gained, going in completely alone and making sure all the decisions were down to me. It’s made me realise I can do anything. It’s like a veil has been removed from my eyes, where I know now that being a producer isn’t that complicated. Learning the logistics was the most brain-taxing side. I needed a spreadsheet, so I could know, ‘Have I recorded that yet? What happened on that take?’. The record would have been an absolute shambles without it….”
Such a practical approach is typical of Ghostpoet’s approach to his career. He was 27 before releasing The Sound Of Strangers. Having worked in a call centre, he carried on working in the customer service department of University College London until nine months after the release of Peanut Butter And Melancholy Jam. He’s been a grafter since helping his parents as a kid in Tooting, South London, first in their independent estate agency, then running a taxi firm. “I was brought up that, if you’ve got bills to pay, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” he shrugs. “I’ve taken that into music. I’ve got to do as much as I can to make sure I’m heard, and to create the music I want to make with a level of quality to it. I was the only musician in the house, but it’s weird how what you learn from your upbringing can be made to work for you in different circumstances.”
Ghostpoet’s father died just as Obaro was beginning to make music, but his mother has slowly got used to her son’s job. “She didn’t understand it,” he admits. “Unless you were a superstar, mum was ‘What do you mean, you’re a musician?’. It took her a while to get her head around it. I think my first TV appearances helped, and so did my gigs, realising people were coming to see my show was much more tangible than me saying, ‘I’m a musician, mum’.” He shared his mother’s doubts, hence the delay to go full-time as a musician. “I had to trust I’d be alright financially,” he reasons. “There’s no guarantees in this game but, to do well, you’ve got to give it a go. It was a mental struggle to let go of the security of working at UCL – you know you can make it work, you just don’t know how. I’ve been used to it for a while and now, if anything, it’s about trusting myself more and knowing my own self-worth.”
Given Ghostpoet’s determination to do what’s necessary to pay the bills, has he ever tried to make it easier for himself by seeking to write a hit single? There’s another big, easy laugh as he admits: “A couple of times, and it didn’t work! In moments when there was no money in the account and it felt like the last chance saloon, yeah, I tried to make something a little catchier. But all it taught me was that I can’t force myself into it. You’ve either got that talent or it happens by chance, and I’ll never do it again.”
Instead, there’s the rich, rewarding world of I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep to explore. Ghostpoet will make perfectionists like Spiritualized and The La’s sick as he casually reveals many of the songs are first vocal or instrumental takes, while the running order took only “about half-an-hour” to decide. The album’s centrepiece is the extraordinary This Trainwreck Of A Life, the rumbling assault that opens Side Two, wherein a couple care more about their hatred for each other than societal collapse. Inspired by Serge Gainsbourg, it starts with fellow Margate singer SaraSara reciting a poem Ghostpoet wrote, which SaraSara translated into French.
“There’s not enough songs about hating somebody,” he reasons. “It’s about loving and hating someone equally, the weird power struggle you need to survive, where two people are caught up in needing that hatred for each other to feel alive. It felt the right time to write about that.” Is it drawn from Ghostpoet’s own relationships? “Not that song, no. But I know of relationships that are like that, and I find them so interesting.” It follows the first side’s slow-build climax Rats In A Sack, the album’s most openly political song, in which Ghostpoet wonders whether to “jump first and maybe later fret” in despair at the rise of the far right. “When I sequence an album, I think about what song needs to end Side A,” he explains. “What song will make you get up and turn the record over, so that you go, ‘Oh shit, that’s a moment to end Side A on!’. And then Side B has to open with a ‘Wow, that’s interesting!’ song.”
Although Ghostpoet admits his music has been hard to keep up with at times, one consistent thread has been his visual, widescreen lyricism. It’s there throughout I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep, not least the title track, which starts with him sighing, “Count me out, I’m heading to Ecuador” – though he admits that, while Ecuador scanned better lyrically, his real dream escape destination is the Galapagos Islands: “I’ve always wanted to go there one day. It’s the fantasy of just ripping everything up and packing a suitcase.”
The visual side comes out in Ghostpoet’s other big passion, photography. He loves street photography, which comes out in his own pictures – he wants to make a book combining words and photos, though he’s not sure exactly how yet. Nor has he had time to curate the theme for a photo exhibition he’d love to display. Hopefully, that’ll be some way off, as it’d mean the campaign for Ghostpoet’s sixth album has kept him too busy. Having realised he can be a deft producer, he wants to produce other artists, too. There’s nothing Ghostpoet can’t do – on the way out, he even remembers to bump elbows, rather than shake hands.