MERCURY Award-nominee Ghostpoet steers his first major UK tour to Sheffield this weekend. We caught up.
INVENTIVE muso Obaro Ejimiwe is multi-tasking again when we track him down to a clothes store shopping for a special event.
Nominated for a Mercury Music Prize in his better-known guise of Ghostpoet, the 28-year-old Londoner wants to look the part.
“I don’t know about the odds, but I’m just happy to be part of it,” he says modestly 24 hours before the result, “Whatever happens I’ve achieved something.”
Sadly while he didn’t pick up the accolade for his debut album Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam, the midas touch of the awards certainly pointed a lot more people in the direction of an artist with an amalgam of styles.
An often mumbled style of vocal belies the well-spoken daytime Obaro – bound for The Harley on Saturday – who was something of a late starter, having previously mixed hobby with uni and customer service jobs.
“It’s definitely pleasing and encouraging that I can really do something with my career,” he says, swiftly quipping: “I’ve heard my track in Subway, so I’ve made it, man.
“It’s been a serious hobby for a long time, though. It’s only recently, the past couple of years, that I’ve looked to make a career out of it. I’ve loved music for a very long time and the idea of creating it. But making it a career was always to be difficult.”
On top of that he’s also absorbed some life experience – “just a little bit, I would say” – as well as honing DIY musical skills.
What arrived was an almost intuitive style that harks back a little to the trip-hop days of early Massive Attack and Tricky, but with a fresh edge flavoured by urban styles that have matured since.
He says the 1990s Bristol scene wasn’t part of his listening diet, however.
“Not really. It’s strange because people say it a lot, but it’s not really something I listened to at all until it was mentioned to me.
“Obviously I know of Tricky and Massive Attack but I would never say I was a massive fan. I listened to anything with an interesting melody, pirate radio, jungle and hip to folk and indie, electronica.”
And once through the ‘Ghostpoet filter’ the sounds nurtured in Obaro’s head became the likes of Cash & Carry Me Home, the debut single that exemplified a raw approach to beat-making alongside rambled musings on modern life that could be set in any town centre.
This blend of unhurried delivery spun around home-cooked electronics marked Obara as one of the UK’s most original MCs, drawing respect from the likes of Roots Manuva and Mike Skinner of The Streets.
“It’s like a stream of consciousness type of thing, allowing my brain to make sound and not really think about the end result, see where it takes me,” he says of his pun-hugging, near leisurely vocal style.
“It’s very much a case of making the music first and seeing lyrically where the music takes me, whatever emotion I pick up subconsciously from the music.”
With a background that takes in London, Coventry, Nigeria and Dominica, Obaro cherishes his heritage but dismisses the idea it has consciously affected his output.
“My parents enjoyed listening to music around the house but never really encouraged it as a career. I kind of pursued listening to various sounds late into the night when the house was asleep.”
Cocking an ear to his album you might be surprised to learn Badly Drawn Boy’s The Hour Of The Bewilderbeast was the first CD Obaro ever bought in a list that embraces the UK grime scene via Iggy Pop, Fela Kuti, Radiohead, MF Doom and Squarepusher.
When at university he became part of a grime collective and learned the basics of constructing beats and “kind of stumbled, bumbled and fumbled my way to the present”.
But when that lazy baritone caught the ears of Radio 1 taste-maker Gilles Peterson, Obaro landed a deal with the DJ’s Brownswood Recordings. A free digital EP entitled The Sound Of Strangers entered the public domain in June 2010 and raised anticipation nicely.
What followed was an album of casual invention and unplanned detail, a scratchy 8-bit mic check here, off-kilter drums there and hooky choruses holding their own against blankets of white noise.
It’s no surprise there’s much talk of potential collaborations, but Obaro is cautious: “I’ve done this album on my own – I’m still very much of that mentality,” he says. “I’d like to work with other people, as long as it’s the right kind of collaboration.”
His workforce does expand for live duties, however, where the full potential of tracks such as Finished I Ain’t and Liiines is realised, DIY becoming three dimensional when laptop drum loops and MIDI synths are traded for a clattering live kit and crunchy guitars. It’s a blend that has earned Ghostpoet tour support slots with the likes of Metronomy and Jamie Woon.
“I’ve always worked with a band from the moment I started gigging properly. It’s a lively experience, experimentation and all the elements I love I try to put into the live show.
“I didn’t want to just recreate the album. I wanted to challenge myself as much as possible. It was important to try to add to the show with elements you wouldn’t get on the album so it’s a different experience. It boils down to you as a person and what you want to portray to the audience and I definitely want to be seen as a performer as well as a recording artist. I want to try and master as many musical disciplines as possible.”
And Obaro has Sheffield in his sights as somewhere he’s always wanted to play in light of the city’s reputation with Arctic Monkeys and Warp.
Before then, however, he’s got more urgent matters to attend to. “I need some socks,” he adds.