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Ghostpoet: ‘When we are finally let out, it’s going to be the Sixties all over again’

Ahead of his dystopian new album, the musician talks to Ben Olsen about finding himself in Margate, making music for the current moment and how he’s weathering the crisis as a DIY artist

Thursday 30 April 2020 19:02 BST
Finding his voice: ‘With age, it’s harder to ignore world affairs and it’s important to accept that I have a platform to question things’
Finding his voice: ‘With age, it’s harder to ignore world affairs and it’s important to accept that I have a platform to question things’ (Emma Dudlyke)

Freaking out is never healthy,” says Obaro Ejimiwe, better known as Ghostpoet, who is currently holed up in his south London flat bingeing online fitness classes, rewatching Luther and debating the virtues of biscuit varieties on Twitter. “My initial reaction was to create as much as possible and make the most of all this ‘free time’,” he says, “but now I’m of the mindset that I need to process this situation – there’s so much to unpack. If it wasn’t such a devastating time it’d be a fascinating case study of human existence.”

Confinement is an all too familiar setting for the 37-year-old, who spent the back end of last year in the studio putting the finishing touches on new album I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep, which is out on 1 May. He has described his fifth record as “the most fully formed version of Ghostpoet to date,” yet with the coronavirus outbreak paralysing the creative industries, his usual pre-release circus was put on ice. “It’s impossible to have envisioned putting out an album with all this going on,” he says, “but I’m proud of this record and wanted people to hear it so I’m glad we didn’t push back its release. And maybe music is a good thing to put out into the world right now. People have time to digest all those things they didn’t have time for before.”

In the nine years since his breakthrough album, Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam, Ejimiwe has never conformed to one sound or scene, his efforts in brooding electronica, trip hop and angular post-punk defying easy categorisation. His trademark low-register social commentary that shines light on some of society’s darkest corners. Recent years have supplied more than sufficient source material and the two-time Mercury Prize nominee’s masterful fifth album explores the rise of the far right, mental health and the insidious effects of technology – themes that seem particularly prescient at the moment.

“The record means something very different to me now,” he says. “It’s weird – when I listen back to some of these lyrics they seem to be talking about our current situation.” The album’s opening track, after all, advises us “to get our hard hats ready”, warning of complex times ahead. Elsewhere, the languid lead single “Concrete Pony” rails against the vapidity of living our lives online – an inescapable reality for many of us right now – while the title track describes a search for peace in an unstable world. “I always try to make music that’s of the moment, but this is one time I wish I wasn’t tapping into some sort of zeitgeist,” he says in disbelief.

For Ejimiwe, documenting the times is an artistic necessity he’s increasingly come to terms with. “With age, it’s harder to ignore world affairs and it’s important to accept that I have a platform to question things,” he says. “On top of this, I’m trying to understand my place in the world and what I’m supposed to have achieved by this stage of my life. I’m lucky that I have a way to express myself; it’s a form of relief and a way – especially important as a man – to convey emotions that I find hard to convey in everyday life.” Ejimiwe concedes that men aren’t great at talking about their feelings and, whether addressing the use of happy pills (“Humana Second Hand”) or fraying relationships (“Black Dog Got Silver Eyes”), male vulnerability forms a recurring narrative across I Grow Tired....

A tendency for introspection has led Ejimiwe to considering quitting music in the past – moments he describes as among his lowest. After recording his last album, 2017’s Dark Days + Canapes, he quit London and moved to Margate in search of space and inspiration. “To get to the point when I didn’t want to do music any more was devastating,” he says, adding that he’d felt unable to be “totally myself” on previous records. By swapping a one-bed flat in south London for sea views, he was able to test a theory that it was possible to exist outside the capital while still making music. “There was more time to think and I took more time with my music,” he says. “There was something about the expansive nature of the sea that meant I wanted to be more wild and unruly with my creative pursuits.”

Ejimiwe likens his early days in Margate to freshers’ week, as he joined a new wave of artists and musicians who were establishing themselves on the Kent coast. “A common denominator at the time was that many people had just moved from London, which usually gets a bad rep for not being friendly,” he says, so “it was fascinating to find people wanting to converse.” He launched Radio Margate, a community internet radio station and bar, and several of the friends he made there collaborated on his new record, including Art School Girlfriend’s Polly Mackey and French singer Sarasara, whose contribution to the Serge Gainsbourg-inspired “This Trainwreck of a Life” includes a seductive performance one of Ejimiwe’s poems.

After three years, Ejimiwe reluctantly moved back to London last December, citing family issues. Yet his experiment by the sea seemed to have been successful. “After the last record I needed to think about how I push things forward musically and living on the coast definitely helped me do that,” he says. “My relationship with music will always be up and down, but off the back of this record I feel I’ve got the fire in my belly again.”

With nods to artists as diverse as pared-back post-punk band Gang of Four, 1980s art-pop auteurs Talk Talk and Brazilian tropicalismo pioneer Caetano Veloso, I Grow Tired... is an assured study in texture, shaped by prominent basslines and deft arrangements of synths and strings. It also marks a step change for Ejimiwe, who took on production duties for the first time. How did he take to having to be so self-reliant? “It was liberating but I knew if I wasn’t organised it would be an impossible task,” he says, outlining a process that saw him maintain books full of notes, meticulously update spreadsheets and spend weeks finessing specific percussion elements. “Creatively I’ve always let myself be free but I had to be disciplined to not lose sight of the end result. Yet I was probably more indulgent than I have been in the past.”

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For the present, an empty summer calendar has left Ejimiwe and thousands of others struggling to make ends meet – something he says begs questions of the industry at large. “Once the ability to play live is taken away then artists can’t afford to pay the bills,” he says – a bitter pill to swallow for an established artist. “In any other industry, hard graft is rewarded. Musicians work as hard as anyone and it’s important that we’re able to be able to live based on the work we put in – that’s not outrageous to ask for.”

Once the coronavirus fog lifts, Ejimiwe says the prospect of returning to stage on tour in September is keeping him upbeat, as is the promise of a summer like no other. “Happiness to me is enjoying the little things and not taking anything for granted,” he considers. “Whenever we are finally let out, it’s going to be just like the Sixties all over again.”

I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep is out on Friday 1 May via Play It Again Sam

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