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“I wanted a taste of something new”: Otis Mensah on move to Berlin and ‘Winterskin’ release

When making my way through town, typically at weekends, I’d occasionally spot Sheffield’s first Poet Laureate, Otis Mensah, on a solo stroll through the city centre – though seemingly taking in their surroundings in a more pensive manner than my hurried trudge from A to B allowed. They’d sometimes be manoeuvring down Division Street, with a pair of headphones wedged on and a characteristic bounce to their step; a distinct sway that becomes more pronounced if you watch them perform live, delivering trademark rapid-fire rap verses and emotive poetic prose.

Artists like Mensah actively seek out inspiration in their immediate environments, immersing themselves in the roots, culture and experience of a place until, like osmosis, it seeps into their creative bloodstream. Since moving to Berlin earlier this year, they’ve enjoyed a fresh vein of inspiration to draw from, and the notoriously tough, grey winters of the German capital and its evergreen creative scene converge in their latest EP, Winterskin.

“I’d been wanting to expose myself to a new set of artistic influences and a new environment shift for a while,” says Otis. “I love Sheffield, I’ve lived there all of my life, but I wanted a taste of something new, and the creative scene here in Berlin is amazing.”

Naturally, swapping the surrounds of Kelham for Kreuzberg has clear benefits in terms of a fresh bounty of influences to feed on. However, amidst the inspiring experimentation taking place in the cafes, bars and studios of the city, there is also a parallel journey of processing the feelings of discomfort and loneliness in adjusting to a new home – and a notably unforgiving one at that.

From the other end of a Zoom call, they speak about the impact of brutal German winters finding their way into the sonics and poetry of Winterskin, also explaining how being a long way from home created a raw vulnerability to explore. “There’s such a stark contrast between the seasons here, so there was an element of trying to deal with that, the seasonal affective side of things, and finding ways to get daylight and invigoration through creativity.”

“Not having that sense of home comfort really allowed me to be at my most vulnerable, my most tender,” they continue. “But with that softness, there’s a harshness too, an abrasiveness that comes with being at your most protective and feeling estranged. That’s the sort of juxtaposition you’ll find with this EP.”

It’s easy to forget that Otis was only 23 years old when announced as the Steel City’s first Poet Laureate, a proud bestowment that opened many doors and opportunities for a developing artist, but one which must not have come without a sense of pressure on young shoulders. Reflecting on those early experiences, they share how their perspective as an artist has evolved.

There’s such a stark contrast between the seasons here, so there was an element of trying to deal with that, the seasonal affective side of things, and finding ways to get daylight and invigoration through creativity.

“I was quite fixated with the idea of reaching some sort of end goal, the idea that the shows and accolades might lead to some sort of grand finale. I think I’m less consumed by the pursuit of becoming ‘known’ in the way I was in the past. For a long time, I’d put so much weight and pressure on making my endeavours widely heard, but now I’m comfortable with being part of the ecosystem here.

“I was given a lot of beautiful opportunities in Sheffield, and the Poet Laureate tenure will be part of my artistic legacy forever. But it’s refreshing now to think of new ways I can build a relationship with my creativity that aren’t so intrinsically linked to that period of time. It’s good to expose myself to a new set of artistic experiences, but also to new life experiences in general.”

For artists, familiarity can be stifling. When discussing their time spent moving through the city, getting under the skin of a new environment, it’s clear that Berlin provides a welcome fresh canvas for Otis. “I can project myself onto it more, without seeing myself reflected back in it, without seeing my memories and old depictions of myself in there. I can now think more clearly on the reasons I first started to create, finding new ways to champion joy and resilience in my practice. My relationship to the past is one of appreciation and nostalgia, but I also think there’s a sense of naivety there.”

Otis Mensah

“Not having that sense of home comfort really allowed me to be at my most vulnerable, my most tender…”

Speaking about specific influences on the EP itself, which numbers seven tracks or “mini-stories” as they call them, Mensah is keen to credit the likes of Yves Tumor, Toro y Moi and noname (“people that were a catalayst to the idea in its rawest form”). There are several collaborations on there, including an inevitable linkup with Sheffield-based producer Jackie Moonbather, whom Mensah has frequently worked with in the past. For their track ‘Sound of Sleep’, Mensah sings throughout the whole recording, another big step for the artist.

“It was nice to push myself out of the comfort zone on that track, finding new ways to play with my voice and change my relationship with my vocals. Jackie provided a beautiful backdrop for that. When I perform the tracks from Winterskin in live settings, I’m continuing to experiment with pushing boundaries in terms of cadence and vocal delivery, giving the music a different life on stage. With this record, I’m trying to balance the line between something that’s both extremely tender and chaotic. That’s the place I’m trying to sit in – tender chaos.”

Winterskin is available to buy/stream online now. Follow @otismensah for the latest tour and release dates.




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