Entertainment & Arts

Ghostpoet: Mercury nominee, judge and back again

Ghostpoet Image copyright PIAS
Image caption Ghostpoet: ."I think there's more to come with this record"

"I can't think about winning," laughs Ghostpoet. "I've never won an award in my life!"

The London-born artist is speaking three days before the Mercury Music Prize - where his third album, Shedding Skin, is among the 12 nominees.

A moody, insomniac record, it finds the musician musing on poverty, homelessness and mental illness, without ever losing hope in the human spirit.

Recorded live with a four-piece band, it has won the artist, whose real name is Obara Ejimiwe, the best reviews of his career.

He's been here before, though. Ejimiwe's debut album, Peanut Butter Blues and Melancholy Jam, was up for the Mercury prize in 2011.

It was eventually beaten by PJ Harvey's Let England Shake - but the musician didn't hold a grudge - returning to judge the prize last year.

Ahead of Friday's prize-giving ceremony, the 32-year-old tells the BBC about the stories behind his album, the experience of judging the Mercury, and his feelings towards PJ Harvey.

What do you remember of your first Mercury Prize nomination? Did you get a boost in sales?

I was told there was some kind of increase, but I'm not really that fussed about it, really. What I did notice was more people, via stuff like Twitter, saying, 'I've checked out your music'.

You must be pleased PJ Harvey isn't up for it this year

You're not the first person to say that! At the end of the day, it was a great record that she won with.

I've been a great fan of the Mercury Prize for years. My opinion is very much that it's a celebration of the records coming out of the UK. If you win, it's great. If you don't, the exposure alone - if you work hard off the back of it - can be as good as a win.

You're in good company. Adele has lost the prize twice, and she seems to be doing alright.

Very true. And there are many other examples. So it's nice to be part of it. And I'm sure PJ Harvey will be in there again. She constantly makes good records, so you never know.

Image copyright Press Association
Image caption The MC begins his UK tour on Thursday

The jury make the final decision on the night of the ceremony. How close to the wire does it get?

Pretty close, because it's a constant discussion, back and forth between various acts, with people arguing for and against.

It did remind me of 12 Angry Man a bit - "you're not leaving here until we get to a decision!" In fact, I almost wore a white suit in homage to 12 Angry Men, but I chickened out at the last minute. There's always some wine that'll get on it. That's always the risk with white suits.

Is it true that your album cover is a picture of your own skin cells?

Yeah - I did a skin biopsy.

Once I had the title, Shedding Skin, I wanted to have something connected to that. Brainstorming with my creative partner, we came across skin biopsies and they looked amazing. They looked like paintings.

We could have paid for stock photos but I thought it'd be quite interesting to use my own skin. Everyone was a bit weirded out by it in the medical world. They were up for helping - but they were like, "why do you want to do this?"

I think it's quite a powerful thing because, if you don't know what it is, it looks like an alien planet.

And with advances in science, future generations will be able to clone you from the album sleeve.

I don't know if the world is ready for that. One is just about enough.

Image copyright PIAS
Image caption The album sleeve was created by a skin biopsy

It's a quietly political record. Not by campaigning or sloganeering, but by portraying the hardships of modern life.

I'm always wary when people describe it as political. I definitely wanted to write lyrics that were socially aware - about the world I was looking at through my window. I think it's important to document the times in your own way. That's what I think an album should be.

Lots of the lyrics talk about scraping to make a living - "counting the pennies, counting the pounds".

Well, I've been there. I've been doing music professionally for four or five years, and I was working nine-to-five jobs way longer than that.

I still remember those days - the times I didn't have much money and I was scraping to pay the bills and keep the lights on. And a lot of my friends aren't in the music industry, so I still see that first hand: People just about getting by.

But at the same time there's hope. They're not down and out. They still try to find positives in their lives. It's important to reflect that.

The title track is sung from the point of view of a homeless man. What was the inspiration for that song?

Just observing homelessness on the streets. I have no first-hand experience but I've noticed it being more of an issue in this city over the past few years.

I'd observed how people react around the homeless and they're ignored. It's almost like they're not part of society. But every single one of them has their own story. They're all sons or daughters. They might be parents themselves. It's interesting to hear their stories. It was important to write that song because I wanted to give a little bit of a voice to people who can't speak for themselves.

Would you describe yourself as a people watcher?

There's a certain degree of people watching in my life. I'm a human and I like my fellow humans! I'm intrigued by our quirks.

Image copyright PIAS
Image caption The singer says he wants to "shine a light" on issues like mental illness and homelessness, "which are starting to affect more and more people in this country"

The album ends on an optimistic note: "We all fall down, but when we get up nothing in the world can stop us."

I truly believe that. If you think about the horrible situation in Paris last week, it's all we can do. As much as the natural instinct is to hide and restrict yourself, we have to keep going and hope for a better day.

But I also think it's important that, if you've gone through the slog of listening to my depressing music over the course of the record, I need to leave you with something to pick you up again.

You go on tour this week, as well. How are rehearsals going?

It's sounding good. We haven't played a gig for a while, so it's nice just to to see my band again. The way we work is a constant stop and start. We play a bit and then we discuss and play it again and play it again and play it again. There's a lot of tea involved.

Finally, what will you do if you win the Mercury Prize on Friday?

Hahaha! I don't know! It's really weird. I'll probably have some sort of beverage, alcoholic in nature. Probably quite a few of those alcoholic drinks, actually.

But, win or lose, we've got a little after party because I'm on the same label as Roisin Murphy, who's nominated as well. So we'll just get together and celebrate being part of the Mercury Prize.

That's going to be an awkward party if one of you wins and the other loses...

Nah! I don't think about these things! If I don't win, it's no big deal. I'll still be making music and there's always next time.

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