LOYLE CARNER IN LONDON, APRIL 2017. PHOTOS: MATT HOLYOAK/KAYTE ELLIS AGENCY. STYLING: NIC JOTTKANDT. GROOMING: LIZ DAXAUER FOR CAREN AGENCY USING WELEDA SKIN FOOD. RETOUCHING: THE SHOEMAKER’S ELVES LONDON.
Loyle Carner, a 22-year-old from South London, is as earnest as they come. Without irony or cynicism he speaks of his love of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the cooking program he started with GOMA for young people with ADHD, and the origin of his stage name (it was his mother’s idea, a play on his full name Benjamin Coyle-Larner, with a swapping of letters to reference the dyslexia he’s contended with since childhood). His sincerity, and the way he cares for his family, friends, and community, would nearly be unbelievable—an attempt at building a brand, perhaps—if it weren’t for his music. His life is on full display on his debut album Yesterday’s Gone (AMF), which was released in January: Loyle Carner raps about youth and how reality intervenes with your intentions, recites spoken word, and incorporates recordings from his daily life.
This Friday Loyle Carner comes to the city that gave birth to Nas and Biggie—two of his favorite American hip-hop artists—to perform his first New York show at Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn, with a second the following evening at Berlin in Manhattan.
HALEY WEISS: Is that your family on the album cover of Yesterday’s Gone?
LOYLE CARNER: Yeah, it’s like an extended family photo, so everybody who’s made the album possible, and built me as the man I am now. There’s my manager there, a couple of my best friends, my little brother, the people who do my PR, my booking agent, everybody who’s helped further me to this part. It’s important, because there are a lot of things that happen behind the scenes that people don’t necessarily know about, or get the praise that they deserve for. For me, it was important to say thank you to all those people. I wouldn’t have been like this if I’d have done it on my own.
WEISS: When you’re making music, who do you go to bounce ideas off of or play it for first? Is it your manager or your family?
LOYLE CARNER: My mum, my brother. Those are my first point of call, because they are very honest and enjoy music.
WEISS: And that’s a sample of your mom on the song “Swear”?
LOYLE CARNER: Yeah, it’s a voice note. I was recording a rough version of a song I was working on my phone. I went to sit with her, and forgot it was on, and ended up talking to her for ages, but with the phone recording. It was ridiculous.
WEISS: There’s another sample later on “The Seamstress (Tooting Masala)” of you talking. What made you want to incorporate those conversations?
LOYLE CARNER: When I was putting the album together, it started to sound like home. I really wanted to push that as far as I could, and having my mom on it—my mom is such a prominent part of my life—made sense, and for her to be talking freely in the way that she does in my day to day, to get a real insight [into my life]. If you want to listen to the album, and really feel like you’re part of it, those are the things that help push you a little bit further into the story.
WEISS: “+44” is a spoken word track, and you started out interested in poetry. Do you still write poems?
LOYLE CARNER: Yes, whenever I can. I don’t get as much time to sit down and do it as I used to, because I’m always on the move the days, but I love to, because it’s a completely different exercise for me in terms of the way you have to work because it’s so much freer. There are no constrictions of instrumentals. Also it means that I can do it whenever I want. If there’s no music that I’m working on that I’m as into, then I can turn to poetry, and it takes the pressure off.
WEISS: When did writing poetry become making music?
LOYLE CARNER: When I was at school. It was quite an easy progression. I started writing rhymes, and my friends would be making beats and whatnot, and I’d go around to their house and we’d start messing around, having rap battles and stuff when we were super young. All of that was me beginning to put it to music.
WEISS: I assume grime was a big influence for you.
LOYLE CARNER: I listen to a lot grime, I was listening to a lot grime, but I was listening to a lot of hip-hop as well, U.K. hip-hop and American hip-hop. The two together, I think, influence me equally. As much as I listened to grime, I never really wanted to make it. I think that was because the beats my friends were making were hip-hop beats, so I preferred that tempo. It meant that the things I had to say were heard a little bit better, because I talk quite quickly anyways in my day-to-day life, and it was quite nice to not slow myself down, but to maintain a steady pace.
WEISS: You also write plays and short stories. I read that one particular play you’re working on that’s related to your grandfather is called Pension. Are you still working on it?
LOYLE CARNER: I’m still working on it. It was something I wrote a long time ago, so hopefully I can finish it. I won’t spoil it, but I started it at school, just as an idea, and then as I grew, I kept revisiting it. It was like I couldn’t quite let go of it. So every now and I again I dip back into it, and try and further it a little bit more. Right now it’s a short play, but I want to get it to the point that it’s a full-length piece of work.
WEISS: Who do you read and who would you cite as major influences?
LOYLE CARNER: I used to listen to a lot of Langston Hughes, who’s a poet I’m a big fan of, and there’s a guy called Benjamin Zephaniah, who’s a British poet who also wrote books, novels, that I used to read and buy when I was younger. Those two are quite heavy influences for me. When I was studying at school—I was studying at drama school—I spent a lot of time with Malcolm X’s speeches and Shakespearian text, so those two were also things that influenced me. Just the power of words, really.
WEISS: You’ve talked about how writing became a tool for you after your stepfather passed away. When you were writing at that time, did you think you’d be sharing that music at any point or was it just writing as a coping mechanism?
LOYLE CARNER: I was just writing for myself, really, before anyone else. There were a few songs I wrote, especially ones about my dad, that I didn’t want to put out at first. It was only through a conversation with my friends, and them saying, “You should put these out, because someone else might be going through the same thing, and this could be the thing that saves them from the edge,” and I hadn’t thought about it like that.
WEISS: I think it’s a kind thing to be that open in your music, and give people the opportunity to relate to you in that way.
LOYLE CARNER: Yeah. I used to think it was being weak, but the further I’ve gotten the more that I’ve realized it’s actually when you’re at your strongest.
WEISS: Are there particular autobiographical things that you don’t want to write about? Or do you feel like everything is fair game?
LOYLE CARNER: I think people’s names are something I try not to do that much, unless they’re close family, just because it’s not worth it for other people. It’s not my business making their business my business. It’s not up to me to decide if someone’s name is out there in the open.
WEISS: You were briefly at Drama Centre London, right?
LOYLE CARNER: Yes. I was studying acting. I was on a three-year course, but I was only there for a year. I dropped out shortly after my dad passed away because I had to get out of school and get a job and make some money.
WEISS: So is acting something you’re interested in returning to?
LOYLE CARNER: Oh, yeah, massively so. If I ever get a chance to. I was very, very interested in it when I younger, and I was all right at it—I got into drama school, so I wasn’t terrible. But I think that school… It didn’t suck all the fun out of it for me, but whenever you study something creative that you could do without studying in some form or another, you can lose your interest because you then start doing it for the wrong reasons, to meet deadlines, or to impress the teacher, and I never did anything to impress teachers of mine. It was all for myself, really. It’s such a strange thing, because you think it’s going to be good, “Oh, I can do this every day,” and then you realize you’re doing it every day, but everyone’s making you do it. You’re not doing it because you want to do it. That was the thing that was so cool about music; I never studied it, so it was something I used to do whenever I wanted, and if I didn’t want to do it then I didn’t do it.
WEISS: Were you also doing plays when you were younger? The first time you went on stage, was it for music or for acting?
LOYLE CARNER: For acting. For music, I never used to do much. My friends used to play gigs and I’d jump up and do one song, but it was acting [primarily]. I used to be in little shit plays at school and stuff, but nothing major.
WEISS: Is there a particular role you remember doing when you were young?
LOYLE CARNER: Yeah, Joseph from the nativity—the starring role. [laughs] I played loads of things. I did a lot of Shakespeare. I was Romeo, luckily enough. That was the one for me. I used to really love Romeo and Juliet—I still do. I don’t know what it is about it, because I’ve seen it murdered so many times. I went to see a play in the West End, which I don’t really go to that much, this big production of it—I can’t remember what theater it was, I think it might’ve been the Old Vic, a famous theater in London—and it was so shit. But still, I loved it. I still love Romeo and Juliet. It’s been butchered so many times and it’s still a classic.
WEISS: I’d love to hear a little bit about this cooking program that you started. You’ve said cooking is very peaceful for you, and now you’re sharing that with kids who have certain issues, like ADHD, right?
LOYLE CARNER: Exactly. I grew up with ADHD, and I found this unparalleled peace with cooking. It was the one thing where I could just be myself and not be distracted. It’s funny, I was chatting with a girl today who works in a kitchen—I was walking past this restaurant and she popped out and was like, “Hey, you’re Loyle Carner,” and I was like, “Yeah, what’s up?”—and she was saying that she had seen an article about the school in the newspaper and wanted to get in touch because she wanted us to use her space, and she was saying the same thing. I think it is that universal idea that if you can cook, and you’re capable at it, you don’t have to think about it, and therefore it turns your brain off, which is something that I can never do. I think the only time of the day that my brain is off is that, and when I watch football and have a beer.
WEISS: Does it feel like a big step to be coming over to the U.S. for a run of shows?
LOYLE CARNER: Yes. It’ll be the first time I played some proper shows. We played at South by Southwest, but that was a few years ago and was quite strange, because they’re not shows that are yours, and people don’t necessarily come there to see you, especially if you’re from the U.K. It was a learning curve for us, for sure, and it opened my eyes to it and made me want to do it properly. So I’m massively, massively excited about it, because the birth of hip-hop was out there, and I’ve grown up with all of these accents on these words in my head from listening to all of this music, but I’ve never been out there to experience it for myself. It’s played such a big part in my life but I’ve never really been around it or been able to put in my two cents.