Loyle Carner: ‘I wanted to seek the truth, find the truth, speak the truth’
The Croydon rapper shunned weed, instead reading the poetry of Benjamin Zephaniah and studying acting. It’s all paid off with his fine debut album Yesterday’s Gone
Here’s Loyle Carner’s take on what life is like at the moment for him as more and more people dig his music: “It’s like getting fat,” he says with a grin. “Every day, you get a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger and a little bit bigger and you don’t notice until someone goes ‘you’re massive’ and you go ‘when did this happen?’ Actually, we were taking some photos earlier by the tour bus and I went, ‘hmm, I am getting a bit fat.’”
For the record, there’s not a pick on the young Londoner who probably doesn’t have the time to put on weight. It’s a few hours before he plays a sold-out show at Dublin’s Workman’s Club (he played his first-ever show as a rapper in Dublin back in 2012 supporting MF Doom down the road in the Button Factory) and Carner is taking time to unpick some of the threads around his debut album Yesterday’s Gone.
It’s a gorgeously warm-hearted record, where detail and nuance take the place of the swagger and show which many hip-hop releases lean on and where tender and honest rhymes come decked out with lovely blasts of jazz and soul. In the manner of Nas watching over Queensbridge or Common keeping sketch on the South Side of Chicago, Carner takes his pen to the world around him in his native Croydon to underline the small victories, good humour and everyday buzz of kith and kin which keep everyone going.
Given his gift for words, it’s no surprise that poetry turned his head when he initially started writing. He mentions Benjamin Zephaniah as an early influence.
When you’re a teenager, everything is so difficult and weird – and having ADHD adds another dimension of stress to it – so I’d loads to write about
“His stuff was very simple and clear to understand. There were obvious patterns to how he was writing, if not what he was rhyming about, so it was very accessible. He was black and had dreads and was from Birmingham and was into rap culture and wrote a book called Gangsta Rap which I picked up on.”
Then, there was Langston Hughes. “I read Pauline Black’s biography and she mentioned one of his poems, The Negro Speaks of Rivers, and I googled him to find out more. I found a recording of his poetry on Spotify where he was talking over jazz which I really liked and I really connected with him. Poetry has to heard to be experienced, so him telling it to me, with his pace and his intonations, really drew me to him, especially being dyslexic.”
He wasn’t the only kid penning lines and spitting bars around Croydon.“Everyone I was around in school or at home in south London was a rapper or wanted to be a rapper because it’s what everyone did, so it’s what I did,” Carner says. “It was no big deal. It didn’t feel like anything special for a long time until people started doing other stuff and I was still interested in what I was creating and finding out. I would go home and keep writing and come back and say, ‘I’ve recorded this, check it out.’ It was a very slow progression towards finding that self-worth.”
Carner wasn’t swayed by those other activities which tempted his friends. “Smoking too much weed – that’s a big reason why they stopped. It wasn’t like that for me because I don’t smoke at all. My father smoked, my stepfather smokes, all the men I’ve known really, so for me, being a rebel was not to smoke.
Acting was what I wanted to do. Music and becoming a rapper was seen as impossible, but acting felt strangely possible
“For them, partying was more important, but my fun came from writing and making tunes. When you’re a teenager, everything is so difficult and weird – and having ADHD adds another dimension of stress to it – so I’d loads to write about. It all aligned.”
His style was always about stories. “It was people like Nas and Mos Def and Common who attracted me to hip-hop, though I was a Ludacris fan for a while. When I’d watch videos on YouTube or MTV Base or Channel U, it was the stories which got me.
“My inspiration was to look at how they told their stories and see if I could do the same with mine, as opposed to trying to live their lives. I wanted to seek the truth, find the truth, speak the truth. You have to be honest about things and honest about yourself.”
Hip-hop also led him into deep jazz and soul. “Nas introduced me to sampling. I was too young when Illmatic came out, so the first thing on my radar was God’s Son and that samples The Boss by James Brown and I didn’t know that.
“A year later, I’m in the car with my mum and The Boss comes on and I’m ‘wow’, and from that I’m into a world of music which expands what you know as you find out more. Hip-hop takes you down endless routes. I found so many different jazz players, like Sun Ra and Pharaoh Sanders, from hip-hop samples and it gave what I was thinking and hearing a whole new lease of life.”
When he wasn’t rhyming, Carner was getting into acting. He was good at it too, attending the Brit School and Drama Centre London.
“Acting was what I wanted to do. Music and becoming a rapper was seen as impossible, but acting felt strangely possible. I got praise for my acting when I was growing up. I loved it and latched onto it because it had no written work or less written work than other things.
“At the Brit School, I found my feet more and like the idea of being set up to fail and getting things wrong. I was 14 or 15 and trying things out and realising ‘oh no, that doesn’t work’ and then figuring out why it didn’t work. I starting getting treated as an adult.”
When he talks about what he digs about theatre, you can see the connection with his lyrics.
“When I go to see a play, I don’t want big car chases, I want the subtle stuff. What excites me most is an argument between two people in a kitchen or what happens when a man walks into a house and talks to his children.”
Hit the heights
For now, Carner is becoming accustomed to more people finding out about him and the world he’s created around his life in Croydon.
“Everything is heightened for me right now and I have to deal with it. It’s never been an issue in terms of saying too much or too little, because we’ve all underestimated how far it would go. When you see a video of yours has had a million views, it’s time to stop worrying.”
But there’ll come a time when Carner can lean back, take stock and take a decision about what comes next. And yes, he has a list.
“I want to write a play, I’d love to direct more, I’d love to do a film, obviously more music. I watched Ill Manors by Plan B the other day which he narrates and it was so different that it excited me. That’s what I want to do more of, stuff that excites me. Trying to do stuff and failing and working out why and then doing it right. Writing in every way possible – and become the next James Bond too.”
- Yesterday’s Gone is out now. Read the review here