In collaboration with
- Words Cleo Webster
- Words Tom Connick
- Photography Balint Barna
- Fashion Nathan Henry
- Grooming Lucy Thomas
- Set Design Malena McQuarrie Gonzalez
- Movement Director Anders Hayward
- Photography Assistant Cheng-Yen Yu
- Fashion Assistant Jasmine Miller-Sauchella
- Set Design Ailbhe Mac Mahon
- Location Cre8 Studio
Hailed as the ‘nice guy’ of UK rap since his 2016 breakthrough, Loyle Carner’s new album Not Waving, But Drowning sees his vulnerability take centre stage.
Despite embracing a new loved-up state, his Loyle Highness is still keeping his head above water and his feet firmly on solid ground.
Something seismic happened recently in Loyle Carner’s life. It wasn’t the sold-out Brixton Academy show he played on his 23rd birthday, nor the Mercury and BRIT Awards nominations his debut album Yesterday’s Gone garnered. As with all things Ben Coyle-Larner marks out as life-changing, that big moment was decidedly more modest to any outsider. He moved out of his mum’s place.
Leaving the Croydon digs that he shared with his mother and brother was a big move for Loyle—a man whose well-documented mummy’s boy status sees him almost constantly glued to her side. Indeed, over the last few years, Mum went everywhere Ben’s debut album saw him tread—not content with cropping up as a guest poet on album track “Son Of Jean”, she followed him from the Brixton Academy stage, to the BRITs red carpet, and far beyond. Now, though, that’s changed.
In a location he won’t disclose (he’s clearly overjoyed by the privacy), he’s shacked up at his very own castle Carner with his girlfriend—whose name, appearance and, indeed, any identifiable detail, he’s also looking to keep under wraps. “I’m hiding, a little bit,” he smiles. “I’m still at my mum’s loads—I’m still Southside most of the time. But my missus is a teacher. So, we moved close to where she’s gotta be.”
Loyle’s girlfriend’s job means things stay “pretty chill and calm”, he admits. Apart from anything else, as a teacher, her job necessitates a level of anonymity. “It’s fucking sick,” he continues, “Because I don’t want anyone to know what she looks like, or to see her, or whatever. So, because she’s not a superstar—she’s a teacher—it’s like a covert operation. A lot of the kids at her school reckon she’s my girlfriend, but no one knows. Because there’s no proof! But it’s nice, man. It’s nice for me.”
It’s rare that he’s afforded such privacy these days, he admits. “My music is so personal, everything about my life is out in the world. It’s nice to have something that is just for us. Have a house in a place that no-one knows and have a girlfriend that no-one knows. I go back to that spot, and as long as I’m in my house, none of this shit exists. I get nagged, take the bins out, cook a little dinner… get nagged some more!” He breaks off with a laugh: “That’s about it.”
A couple of days before we meet, though, there was a moment where that tranquil bubble nearly burst. Followed down his road by two young men he didn’t recognise, he was the victim of a case of mistaken identity. One of the aforementioned was carrying a knife. “I’m so used to people coming up to me and breaking my personal space, I don’t think I was as scared as I should’ve been, or they were expecting me to be,” he explains. “I was like, ‘Yo, what’s up?!’, expecting them to go, ‘You’re Loyle Carner!’ But they went, ‘Oh, you’re not who we thought you are. We’ve just got beef with someone on this road…’ and then they ran off.” Loyle’s fame, reluctant though it may be, likely saved him.
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Yesterday’s Gone, Mercury nom and all, presented Loyle Carner as a refreshing UK rapper often affiliated with South-east London music contingent alongside his mate Tom Misch.. An antidote to the bravado of the mid-decade grime explosion, Loyle quickly became a poster-boy for something different—a musician you could take home to your mum (as long as you didn’t mind his coming along too). Jazzy, soulful, and with the timeless crackle and warmth of some of his old-school hip hop idols, Ben Coyle-Larner used his on-record moniker to share awkward and endearing tales of his stepfather’s then-recent death, his struggles with ADHD, a love of cooking, and a letter from his mum about how he really needs to stop swearing.
Critical and commercial acclaim soon flocked to that diary-like record. Today, he’s rather reluctant to admit as much. He’s “not Stormzy”, he tells me more than once, though he does admit his mum ended up being doorstepped by fans and press alike. “I can’t imagine what it’s like with the people who are really big. But it makes it way easier for me, to keep it a bit more under wraps.”
‘Under wraps’ best describes Loyle’s lyrical style, too—on his second album, Not Waving, But Drowning, that awkward intimacy is centre stage once more. This time, it’s his newfound appreciation for romantic love, and his ability to express it, that takes Loyle’s sound to new strata. He struggled to find his flow for some time, he admits, the pressures of following Yesterday’s Gone’s unexpected success leading him to second, third and fourth guess himself. His girlfriend became a soundboard for his ideas.
“It was nice,” he admits, of having someone to get him out of his head. “She knows more about hip-hop than me—,” he stops himself quickly, “Okay, not more, but equal amounts! All her favourite records are my favourite records, so the pressure that it added was new—a new pressure to better myself. I was like, ‘Okay, well she listens to Common, so it’s gotta be as good as a Common tune!’ That was the test—these are things that I’ll never be able to do, but it was a fresh challenge.”
When did that ’eureka’ moment come with album two?
“I dunno, man. I suppose I met my missus a while ago, but that was the first time I’d ever been able to talk optimistically in my music, and create without it having to be a response to something negative. I’ve never been able to create in response to anything other than proper… shit. [laughs] Proper horrible stuff. This had to be different. Obviously, it will be kinda the same, because I’m the same guy. But I’m older, and hopefully a bit wiser. The difference is what I’ve learnt.”
It’s that classic second album syndrome…
“It’s just a clusterfuck, man—it’s a mindfuck. All of it is! I’ve got no idea. I wrote a letter to myself. Such a weird thing to do, but my mum told me to do it. I called her, and was like, ‘Mum, I think the album might be sick!’ I hadn’t felt like that before but I was really happy with it—I thought I was done with it. She was like, ‘Write that down’. I wrote down, ‘Yo, it’s December 2nd—you did it, mate.’ I keep it on my desk in the studio, and it’s really fucking sick to have, because every now and then I go, ‘Ah, it’s probably shit’. But I know it wasn’t shit on this date—it might be shit to me now, but it wasn’t at one point! Which is important to remember.”
You touched on it, but writing a love song—or a love album—can be just as tough as writing about things that are ‘shit’.
“I realised that when it came to it, the reason that I really write music, or lyrics, or raps, or poetry, is to get out of my head. When I put it down on record, it’s for people. I usually have a person in mind for a song, who I want to hear it. If I fall out with my missus, I’ll write a song and give it to her like, ‘Uh, here’s a song I made—I’m sorry’. I fell out with my friend and I wrote a song about how we’d fallen out and what I wanted to say to him. A lot of these songs weren’t meant for my album—they were just meant for the people I’d made them for. It’s my thing that I do—some people will go for a jog, or play football twice a week, or go rock climbing, or paint. It’s just my thing.”
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Not Waving, But Drowning is undoubtedly a record dedicated to Loyle’s mystery ‘missus’. It opens with a letter written to his mum (“Dear Jean”), detailing how he’s found the girl of his dreams, and is moving out. That’s swiftly followed by “Angel”, a track which sees him direct his affections straight to his new love—“you’re my angel”, goes the chorus hook. There’s more documents of his innermost affections—lead single “Ottolenghi” and penultimate song “Carluccio” are dedications to two of his favourite chefs, while “Krispy” is a track detailing his falling-out with old friend and producer Rebel Kleff, complete with a lyrical gap left for Kleff to offer up a response. When he sent the track to Kleff by way of an olive branch, he didn’t get a reply, so the verse stays unadorned.
Loyle trips over his words when I ask how that newfound ability to write more positively affected album two. “I’ve never been able to do it before, because I’ve never actually… I guess I’ve never really understood it,” he says vaguely, adding: “If I’ve tried to write about a girl before, I’ve only ever been able to write about a girl negatively…” He stumbles over himself once more, before it finally falls out of him: “I guess I’ve never really been in love before, is what I’m trying to say.” He cringes. “It’s a dead thing to say! It’s not a very ‘rapper’ thing to say. But it’s true.”
Admitting those feelings meant, “for the first time ever, I was able to write those songs,” he says. “Because I’ve never been able to write those songs before. And I’ve tried! I’ve been like, ‘Oh, yeah girl, I’ll write a song for you!’, y’know? But it’s always negative. It’s always like, ‘Yeah, I don’t rate you’, or, ‘I wish I did, but I don’t’. Because I’ve been treated badly by other people, that’s what I write about. I’ve never been able to write about positive feelings—I’ve only been able to write derogatively. It’s not like I write aggressively about women, or disrespectfully about women, but I’ve never been able to write about a woman other than my mum in a space that’s… vulnerable. It’s scary shit, man.”
That image of vulnerability is something Loyle’s battled with, to some extent. A 2016 Guardian review dubbed him ‘the sentimental face of grime’, something he distanced himself from via social media. “It’s embarrassing to read that kinda shit, because I love grime, I grew up on grime, but I don’t make grime! And people who make grime think I’m a wasteman!” he laughs.
“I’m not trying to be out here like ‘The World’s Most Vulnerable Guy’, but it’s really important,” he says of that open-hearted approach. “A friend from back home, her and her husband broke up, and two days later he killed himself. It’s mad, because it’s something crazy like 70% of all suicides are male. And that’s something that I’ve learnt from working with CALM [Campaign Against Living Miserably]. But even from that, they’re saying that 70% of the people who are getting in touch are female! Men aren’t even calling the hotline to say, ‘I’m suicidal’, their girlfriends, or mums, or sisters, or colleagues are calling to say, ‘We think this guy is suicidal’. As much as these guys are at risk, they’re not even aware that they are. So, I think it’s important.”
He thinks back to a few minutes previous. “I don’t know why, but it was embarrassing for me to say that I’m actually in love. And why?! Why is it embarrassing? It’s a great thing—I get nagged a lot, that’s not good—but it’s just a thing that’s ingrained. And someone like me, I’m a wimp! I’m very open about my feelings, I know the importance of it. And even for me, it’s hard. I grew up in a bad place. But people who grew up in a bad place who weren’t saved, or rescued, or sucked out of it? Given an outlet, or a creative space to be? You’re conditioned by society, or your failings at school or whatever. How do you expect them to be like, ‘Yeah—I love you’? Or, ‘I’m scared’? Or, ‘I’m gay’? None of these things are possible and I think it’s important for them to become possible.”
“There are a million other factors,” he says of crises facing British youth—everything from knife crime to the mental illness debate coming into his crosshairs. “The failings of school, of society, not enough youth clubs, not enough male mentors, not enough black teachers—all these things are having an effect. I do think there is a responsibility in music. I can only talk about the things I’m responsible for, though. In some ways I can help, but in other ways I don’t have the answers and I don’t have the experience. I’ve never carried a knife, so I can’t say to kids carrying at school, ‘Don’t carry a knife’, ‘cause they’ll say I don’t understand. UK rap is a broad spectrum and there are people who have lived this life.”
While he might not feel able to speak out on such things, Loyle’s extracurricular activity is evidence that he’s willing to pass on everything he can with what life experience he does have.
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As part of a The Levi’s® Music Project—a global initiative providing access to music and a safe space to create in local communities—Loyle helped set up an open access music studio up in his spiritual home of Liverpool (he’s a Liverpool supporter). The idea was to combat the aforementioned lack of local youth clubs and government cuts to arts funding, by working with and mentoring a group of young local musicians over a six month period, helping them develop their own material to play with Loyle at 2019’s Sound City Festival.
“Liverpool’s like my second home and growing up I’d of done anything to have a free space to
create music in,” says Loyle. “Working with young people keeps me inspired—to be honest it’s
as much for me as it is for them. Probably more.”
A budding chef since he was a teen, Loyle’s first move when fame came a-knocking was to also open a summer school for kids with ADHD, to help them channel their agitations into food. The brilliantly-named Chili Con Carner cooking school was born.
“When it started, it was just this space for these kids to do something kinetic—a physical activity that would distract their brain, like meditation,” Loyle explains. “But as it went on, it became a skill that takes them away from everything else. People in prison, it’s the same kind of statistics as male suicide. In prison, like 70% of all prisoners have ADHD. And of that, 70% of them are undiagnosed—they don’t even know, they’ve just been told their whole life that they’re angry, talk too much, energetic, can be quick tempered. Everything that I am. But also, you’re deeply emotionally connected, and you think outside the box.”
The Loyle who’s spoken of his ADHD as a ‘superpower’ in the press comes to the fore. “MI5 look for people with ADHD because they think outside the box!” he enthuses, “That brain that someone in prison has, hasn’t been honed correctly. In different circumstances, they could be James Bond. They have the skill-set to be James Bond!”
Away from the life of a super-spy, Loyle wants to open a full-time solution that’s “kinda like the Brit School, but for food—half the time we’re cooking, half the time it’s the rest of academia. My missus is a teacher, my mum’s a teacher—there’s no other reasonable thing for me to do than be a teacher!”
Before the world of education gets to snap up Mr Coyle-Larner, though, there’s that all-important second album. The question moves back to what’s changed—better still, what might continue to change, given Not Waving, But Drowning’s impending release. In typical Loyle fashion, he’s modest to a tee: “It’s all relative. So, to me? Nothing’s changed.”
When pressed for a measure of success, he simply cites his longtime desires to be able to put his younger brother through university and to pay off his mum’s mortgage as his sole motivators. Those less-than-grandiose targets, he says, keep him grounded; they also light a fire under his arse, leaving him unable to rest on his laurels for fear of his family losing the comfort he’s built them.
Does he feel a change? Loyle’s long-documented love of food seems to shape his answers. “It’s like getting fat,” he offers. “If you look in the mirror every day, you don’t notice the difference, because you’re just a tiny bit fatter than before. But people that you see every six months, it’s like, ‘You’re so big now!’ I was like, ‘Uh… I’m not?’ But people who don’t see you every day, they’re like, ‘Jeez, you’ve got fat!’,” Loyle laughs, clearly aware of the comic turn of his metaphor.
“So yeah, I dunno. To me, I don’t feel like much has. I don’t live with my mum anymore, which is quite a big deal. But other than that—still get by, still have to pay my mum’s mortgage and stuff. That’s stuff that was happening before, so not much has changed.” He flashes that winning smile one final time: “I’m just getting nagged by two women now, instead of one!”