Tramlines 2017: Loyle Carner Interview
It was in the playground of a South London primary school that Loyle Carner – known then as Ben Coyle-Larner – came up with his first lyrics. “A girl in my class told me that she liked rap, and I think I fancied her a bit so made something up to impress her,” he recalls over a phone interview with Exposed Magazine. “It went like this: ‘I’m not racist, I love all colours. Black, white, mixed race – they should all be brothers.’”
Such a mature, considered world view coming from the lips of a seven-year-old was an early indicator of the precocious talent that has today seen him become one of the youngest Mercury Prize-nominated artists in history. From posturing in primary school playgrounds to receiving 22-year-old hip-hop prodigy status, the kid from Croydon has often displayed a knack for channelling innermost thoughts and beliefs into poignant rhymes.
With the likes of Roots Manuva, Skepta and Kano serving up a diet of grime and hip-hop throughout childhood to adolescence, along with the storytelling influences of Bob Dylan and David Bowie lifted from his parent’s record collection, Carner’s early music years were formative in moulding his style today. And it’s the resulting flow and wit – distinctly British with deeply introspective lyrics and stories of love, life and loss – which has made debut album Yesterday’s Gone probably the most refreshing UK hip-hop album of the last decade.
“I can remember, even as a proper young kid, really being into the likes of Roots Manuva and Goldie Lookin’ Chain. I have no idea what happened to that group. All killed by rappers, probably. (Fully rate this joke – Ed.) But yeah, Channel U was my favourite music channel and early UK rap and grime was a huge thing for me.”
From primary school through to secondary, buoyed by the wave of British rappers increasingly dominating the airwaves, he would clash with peers and older students in the concrete arena of the playground, doing battle to the sound of grime instrumentals playing from tinny Sony Ericsson speakers. Only a few years later Loyle Carner would be making a Fire in the Booth debut with Charlie Sloth, a popular freestyle session which has welcomed some of the world’s biggest grime and hip-hop stars to perform live over the years. It’s often a setting which sees artists muster up all their bravado and rap about familiar tropes in British urban music – violence, shotting drugs, postcode rivalry – but, as ever, Carner went for the honest approach, playing down the perceived glamour of such lifestyles and promoting positivity.
‘Because in them interviews they’re saying shit they don’t mean. And now my little brother’s talking about that codeine. It’s unsurprising I ain’t rising to the smokescreen, but I ain’t got the time to be glamourising them coke fiends.’
– Loyle Carner, Fire in the Booth (Feb 2017)
“Wicked, thanks,” is the response when I say it was one of the most honest instalments of the feature I’d ever seen. “The Charlie Sloth session was mad and a massive thing for me. Obviously, I’m not really a big part of the grime world and it’s not like I’m trying to fit in; it’s just music I grew up listening to which influenced me a lot. That’s why I’m glad I did it over a Kano beat, because that guy was like a hero to me growing up.”
Sincerity and an overriding concern for family being one of his most obvious traits, it is also the recurring theme in Yesterday’s Gone, an album which regularly deals with the loss of a beloved stepfather and the resulting impact on himself and loved ones. The intimacy of the record, at times broken up by warm skits of light-hearted conversations with his mum or close friends, is what makes it such a special piece of work – but I couldn’t help wonder if he was worried that people might feel uncomfortable with the grief so starkly portrayed at times.
Straight-to-the-point lyrics in tracks like 2014’s ‘Cantona’ – ‘Everyone says I’m fucking sad. Of course I’m sad, I miss my fucking dad.’ – stand out fiercely amongst hazy, mellow rhythms. “I was making this album for myself really,” he reflects. “I was never really concerned about people feeling uncomfortable or oversharing. It was a cathartic thing for me to do, you know? Just the process of taking things that I’d been through and stuff that was in my head at the time then putting it down on paper was massively helpful. I’d recommend it to anyone going through shit.”
Suffice to say, the gamble taken in dropping out of university to be there for his family and focus on music paid off. Despite claiming that he tries not to pay much attention to press reviews or any hype in favour of “just moving on and doing my thing”, Loyle Carner is today a highly sought-after performer at venues and festivals across the UK. Last year he was in Sheffield for Outlines Festival – “That was fucking sick. I was fully gassed because I got see Roots Manuva play!” – and in testament to his progression since, this year will see him stepping onto the Ponderosa Main Stage at Tramlines, it’s bigger sister event. “Yeah, it’s awesome. I remember when I was in Sheffield for Outlines Festival, Roots kept calling it Tramlines. He kept being like, “Come on Tramlines, let’s do this! But I suppose he could get away with it.”
Away from the stages and bedroom studios, another important passion is the Chilli Con Carner Project, an initiative set up to help teach cooking skills to teenagers with ADHD and anxiety. As a kid he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia (note the deliberate misspelling of Coyle-Larner for his stage title) and found cooking a therapeutic exercise. “For me, it parallels meditation a bit – you can just completely lose yourself into it.” And it would appear that it’s a philosophy many share, with classes regularly booked up and plans to expand the programme already being dicussed. “It’s going really good, man. We hope to getting a second place opened up soon and let it all move on from there. Maybe in the future we can look at rolling it out across the UK a bit more. It helped me and obviously if it helps any other kids, then it’s great.”
Refusing to get drawn in on a signature dish (“There’s just too many! Honestly, it changes all of the time.”), we close the conversation by looking at the year ahead. Naturally, there is more music to come at some point and various gigs and festivals around the corner, but now that he’s firmly cemented his place as one of the UK’s most exciting young artists, it’s time to slow down and let it all soak in. Signing off in truly chilled Carner style, he politely thanks me for the kind words about the album and laughs: “It’s now time to relax for a bit and fucking enjoy it!”
Loyle Carner plays the Ponderosa Main Stage at Tramlines Festival on Sunday 23rd July. Get your tickets here.