“It’s getting kinda complex these days.” Few lines capture the current world narrative quite so pertinently. It’s this bemused exasperation and social narration that has become the trademark sound of South London’s Obaro Ejimiwe, or Ghostpoet as he is better known. Taken from Breaking Cover, the title track of Ejimiwe’s fifth album, I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep which was released on 1 May, the line is a precursor to an album laced in surly and enchanting ambience.
The album has pushed twice-Mercury nominated Ejimiwe into unchartered production territory. Yet his do-it-yourself approach has again paid dividends. Moulding electronica and post-punk with a percussive charm, expect to hear Ejimiwe wrangle with his own psyche as he reflects on pertinent social issues such as mental health, the resurgence of the right wing and the poisonous side of social media. An honest soundtrack for modernity, I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep is Ejimiwe’s most direct album yet, his punky lyricism an intravenous drip for an increasingly dystopian world.
Given the quarantine, have you had a chance to play I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep to an audience yet?
Yeah, I got to play at the 6 Music Festival at the beginning of March just before quarantine measures came into force, so I was really lucky in that respect. You never know how a new album is going to go down but I’m proud of this album. I love playing live and I’m looking forward to just getting out there again; I’ve got a great band and I allow them to express themselves which often brings out the best results.
Five albums in and almost a decade in the music industry, did you ever see yourself going (and I quote), this far down the garden path?
No, not at all. I never planned to do one, so the fact that it’s got round to the fifth release is strange I suppose, it’s not something I really think about. It’s a weird number isn’t it, five? It feels like a solid career.
Has the album been a gradual process over the three years since Dark Days + Canapés?
I’ve done quite a few other projects since the last record, so I haven’t stopped making music entirely over that period. I actually moved to Margate and opened up a coffee shop/bar and in the heart of it was a radio station [Radio Margate]. It’s been nice to provide a space where people could come in and tune in whilst sipping on their teas or drinking a cocktail. This came from my need to soak up life and begin new experiences to influence my music. So from that, I started to get the hunger back for producing again and I began working on the record with ideas that had manifested over the three years, trying to think about which ideas would be most suitable for an album.
At what point did you know you had the album?
I didn’t feel fully in it until I’d finished recording the instruments and I was starting to work on the arrangements. I knew the idea I had and I knew what instruments I wanted to use, so I gave the musicians the idea and then from there they tried various themes based around it. I arranged the first track Breaking Cover and that was the catalyst that made me think, yeah okay I know the direction I want to go now, this can work. It was strange because I’d never solely arranged anything apart from the first album, where I just did it because I had no choice and didn’t really know what I was doing.
Certainly in terms of your production then, you feel as though you’ve come a long way since Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam?
Yes. For the first album, I just had a MIDI keyboard, an old Apple mac and a KP3 which I bought because I knew Radiohead used it and I saw it cheap in a local shop, and that was it. So for this record, over the course of the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with more musicians and my production process has naturally been more informed because of this. The whole production process felt more normal compared to previous albums where perhaps I didn’t feel I had the confidence to orchestrate it myself.
Your lyrics present an honest and frank picture of modern life, both personal and political – almost a conversation with your own psyche. When it comes to writing your lyrics, are they a true reflection of how you see life?
I’ve always tried to write lyrics and music that is a reflection of the times. I feel as though it’s important to make sure my music is steeped in the current state of affairs as much as possible, that’s always the backbone of my music. It’s always humbling to make people feel something through my music.
There is evident political frustration, anger, exasperation on tracks such as Rats in a Sack and in Concrete Pony social media takes a firm slap round the face. How is your relationship with social media?
You know, it’s like many things in today’s society, there are positives and negatives and I just like to explore both sides of the coin in my lyrics. It’s part and parcel of everyday life and the life of a musician, but I don’t like how it affects people’s psyches. Being a public figure to a certain extent, people can publicly comment on my work and say it’s shit, but luckily I’m quite thick skinned and don’t really care about the negative comments. But for a lot of people, the negativity does bother them. Many younger people, if they put up a picture and don’t get enough likes then it can really affect them and then there’s cyberbullying and that vicious path, so there’s a lot of elements to social media that I’m not a fan of. But at the same time, I’ve discovered so many amazing things and artists through social media. It’s a love-hate relationship.
Accompanying the sound is the striking album cover and quite a disturbing video for Concrete Pony. There certainly feels to be a strong visual identity for this album. What was the theory behind the visual elements and the nod to William Onyeabor?
I wanted the artwork and videos to really reflect the music’s richness and opulence. The album cover replicates a piece of artwork from a painting by Henry Fuseli called The Nightmare. I saw the title and it just felt fitting. For the video, the idea stood out to me because it was more direct and provocative, which I feel the album was too. I also hadn’t been in one of my own videos for a long time and I wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone and do that.
On William Onyeabor, I included a candle with his image on it that I actually had at home. I remember doing a sort of a tribute concert to Onyeabor a while back with the likes of Kele Okereke and one of the bits of merch was a candle, which I kept. Having it on the album cover was a personal thing for me because William Onyeabor was one of many artists who went against what was expected of an African or black musician, so yeah, it just felt right to include.
So what have you been listening to of late, what kinds of sounds do you feel have fed into the DNA of the album?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Talk Talk over the years and more recently, Brazilian music, artists like Caetano Veloso and Arthur Verocai. I’ve also been listening to a lot of post-punk stuff which you can feel in the album, groups like Gang of Four and Kraftwerk, so quite a varied range of influences.
Thank you, Obaro.
I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep is out now on Play it Again Sam.