Hip-hop star is no longer haunted by the past

Ghostpoet went from working in insurance to the Mercury Prize shortlist. Now he's on his second album
  • @Elisabray

Back in 2009, by day, Obaro Ejimiwe, known as Ghostpoet, was working for an insurance company. By night he was writing songs in his Coventry bedroom. His downbeat songs melding electronica, hip-hop, grime and indie, were a way of releasing the ennui of the everyday; an interior monologue to what was going on around him. Little did he know that they would catch the attention of Radio 1 DJ Gilles Peterson, who, in his own words, "took a risk on a random maverick" in 2010 when he signed him to his Brownswood imprint, and earned him a Mercury Prize nomination the following year with his debut album, Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam.

Today, we meet to discuss its follow-up, Some Say I So I Say Light at a private members' club for trendy east London creatives – a world away from his Tooting, south London, upbringing and former life in Coventry, where he studied media production. Ejimiwe is in reflective mode.

"It was very heavy in my heart that I couldn't make music full time," the 30-year-old says, in a chilled-out voice that immediately calls to mind the half-mumbled vocals of his albums. "All those emotions and situations I was facing influenced what I was doing; not really being happy, doing something I didn't really want to do and living an existence that I wasn't completely comfortable with. It was going around in a circle: waking up, working, going home, making music and watching telly, having fish and chips for dinner, going to bed, and doing the same thing every day. Life was in slow motion."

His new album has seen him start afresh, signing to record label PIAS, and moving to an east London flat that had an upright piano on which he laid the foundations for his new sound. Whereas Peanut Butter Blues was produced entirely from his bedroom, Some Say I was created in the studio with co-producer Richard Formby (Wild Beasts), and a raft of collaborators including Tony Allen (the Afro-beat star drums on "Plastic Bag Brain"), Lucy Rose and Gwilym Gold, and sees him push his experimental side.

"I did want to make sure it was in the studio to kick me out of my comfort zone, but the experimental side of things was always going to come because being in music 100 per cent as opposed to a hobby, I soaked up much more music", he explains. "I wanted to marry the two worlds of acoustic instruments and electronica sounds, and I wanted to get involved with strings, brass and more guitars and drums. Working in music full time, I could be freer creatively."

Feeling freer creatively was also aided by his new-found hobby – running. He has completed half-marathons in Paris, London and Amsterdam this past year. Does he run through lyrics in his head as he goes? "No," he sighs. "That was my romantic view of running at the beginning: that I would be taking in the world, and lyrics would just come to me. But what I do love about running is I get time to listen to music. And it did definitely help with the album-making process. I was healthier and more mentally focused than I have been in the past."

Like his debut, the album crosses genres, partly due to his eclectic music tastes. He grew up with his Nigerian father and Dominican mother's collection of highlife, Afrobreat, reggae and Soca, before discovering a new world of music on pirate radio.

These days, he listens to everything from free jazz (Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus) to psychedelic and experimental rock (Gentle Giant, Sister Iodine) and experimental genre-melding artists including John Zorn. "There's not much I don't listen to. If I go down only one genre route, it would just limit my listening experience and my creativity."

That would explain how his album opener, "Cold Win", originally intended as a homage to old-school garage, ended up as something completely different, with a cacophonous brass conclusion.

"That always happens," he says. "I don't normally try to do music in a particular vein because it never turns out how it's supposed to. I'm a massive old-school garage fan, but "Cold Win" ended up being like running through a paint factory with all-black clothing. My music always ends up having more elements that are subconsciously soaked into the fabric of the song; tunes always get dragged from one place to another. All I wanted to do was write songs that would reflect my many moods. It's very of the moment and as abstract and experimental as I can make it."

With a summer filled with tour dates across Europe, life is no longer in slow motion for Ejimiwe.

"If continuing enables me to be creative for many years, then I'll be happy," he states. "That's it, really. I'm quite a low-maintenance person."

The album 'Some Say I So I Say Light' is out now. Ghostpoet tours until 14 June