“Bringing the south back, without trap,” says Loyle Carner’s Twitter bio. While it’s a cheeky nod to a subgenre of US southern hip-hop, UK hip-hop’s most unique break through in a long time – already known for a sort of laid-back vulnerability, a confidently pared-down, soulful sound – is south London and proud. As such his debut LP, Yesterday’s Gone, is rooted right there, and is inhabited by all the people and places that he calls home.
“South London is unlike other spots in London,” Carner says, reflecting on how his home has become central to the record. ”Maybe I’m biased because I’m from there but it has a bit of everything unlike some places. I live on the outskirts as well, as far south as you can go before you end up out of London, so I get to ‘come home’ on a half hour train – I always have time to reflect on what I’ve experienced.”
“There’s a lot of people in south London that have made their way into the words and sentences.”
It was down south, out towards Croydon, that a young Carner developed a love for grime – a burgeoning, creative and resolutely British scene – and US hip-hop. He talks fondly about Channel U (an early noughties cult channel, taking pirate radio favourites to a broader audience, like Tinchy Stryder and Chipmunk) and cites Skinnyman, Skepta, Mos Def, Common, Roots Manuva and Jehst as all being important to him from a young age. “For me they were all in the same bracket as rappers,” he says. ”And so I kind of picked up writing rhymes.”
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My parents listened to soul, funk, jazz, rock, psych – but it was all story-telling
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Listening to the album – made with best mate and producer, Rebel Kleff – this love of music can be found as much in its lyrics as in the sound: “We spent all our money on some old CDs/ We got some old Jay Zs, couple ODBs / Place 'em up in perfect order cause my OCD,” Carner says on ‘NO CD’. “Sitting with my bro Kleff / Listening to Mos Def,” on ‘Mean It In The Morning’.
A devourer of musical genres – evident in the variety on 'Yesterday’s Gone', with its soul, the piano pieces, the jazzy guitars undercut with US-style boom bap beats – Carner developed a love for story telling: “My parents listened to soul, funk, jazz, rock, psych – but it was all story-telling, whether it was David Bowie or Bob Dylan. Just people who had something to say, you know?”
This respect for the craft of story-telling is as much a personal coping mechanism as it is a means to creating a song. “It’s something that captures me,” Carner says. “It’s a way to make sense of things in my head, it gets a bit blurred.” ‘Florence’ is a beautiful example of this: written for an imaginary little sister, full of a sweet nostalgia for something that was never there. “I’d been blue for a long time, I was struggling to find my smile really,” he says. “The idea of having a little sister was something that filled me with a bit of hope. It was literally to cheer myself up, that’s why I wrote that song. And I felt a ridiculous happiness that I hadn’t felt in ages.”
“She could be my little freckled-face fidgeter / Me but miniature / Sleeping on the sofa 'till she tackles and I tickle her / The whisperer,” raps Carner, demonstrating the detail of his imagination. ‘Damselfly’ is another delicate sketch of what it’s like to be young and yearning – “Ay, and then you say you ain't about guys / Ay, especially brothers from the south side” – complete with the instantly recognisable sound of a text. “Yo she texted you. Swear?” his mate asks, “Nah it’s Tomen. Ah for fuck's sake.” Every teenager in the country has been there, right?
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Stories and the act of writing are also a way of coping with his ADHD – “I’ve become an ambassador for it by accident” – as Carner says that it can make talking face-to-face a bit muddled. “I’m very impulsive, and a bit hot headed, and sometimes say things I don’t mean,” he explains. “With writing I get to sit down and let how I feel out, and then make it a bit more ‘me’ – make it actually what I want to say. It helps me make sense of the outbursts.”
And he’s got stories worth telling. Carner was raised by his mum and beloved step-dad, who died a few years ago. Much of his music is infused with a sort of grief, the memory of a loved one lost, but his dad is literally there on the record in musical form. “My dad made an album but no one found it until after he died,” says Carner. “I had it on my iPod for months, I couldn’t bring myself to play it.”
He finally did – “I told myself come on, this is important” – and a lot of it spoke to him (which kind of goes without saying) but there was one tune in particular that stuck out, called ‘Yesterday’s Gone’ – hence the album title. “It was kind of like he was chatting to me from beyond. It resonated with me,” Carner says. “So that’s the tune you hear at the very end, but we sampled lots of the other tracks.”
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I was trying to keep my family afloat and also trying to create art...
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For example, the piano on ‘Sun of Jean’, behind an incredibly moving piece of verse written and read by Carner’s mum, is his dad’s music: “Its kind of like I wanted to put them there together forever, that can never be taken away.” He says it in such a straightforward way, but it’s hard to get away from how heartbreaking and touching that sentiment is.
‘Isle of Arran’ spins a yarn about modern masculinity and its challenges, inspired by the feeling of needing to step up as man of the house after his dad passed away. “I took a lot of my role models from stupid things, say anything that Robert De Niro or Denzel Washington was in, that’s where the trouble comes from,” Carner says. “And this song is trying to tackle that, it comes out of frustration. I was trying to keep my family afloat and also trying to create art, with people telling me they do like it or they don’t like it, or expecting more.”
But it’s not all melancholy reflection for Loyle Carner, far from it: he’s experienced some pretty amazing things for such a young man and artist. Musical hero Jehst worked on the album with him, for starters. “It’s ridiculous, mind blowing. Things like that don’t really sink in,” he laughs. “I think I might be one of his biggest fans. I genuinely think he’s the best rapper in the UK of all time, hands down, and I think Rebel Kleff would agree.
“I always said, when we spoke about people we wanted to work with I was always ‘Jehst, Jehst, Jehst’, thinking it was a million miles away. And now we’re mates.”
He’s also performed with Nas, at a sold-out September show at Camden’s Koko. “I bought my little brother his records – it’s who got him into rap,” he says. “We watched the sound check up close. That’s the sort of thing my dad would have wanted to do, to give him the opportunity to see things like that.”
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Carner speaks really fondly of his younger brother, calling him his “idol”, saying he’s “cool, level-headed, basically everything I’m not”. It’s refreshing to hear a young man be so open about his feelings, and so eloquent. I ask about the often emotional, really honest feel to his voice, using a laid back flow to give the words room to breathe, and he cites his theater background (Carner was at the Brit School before leaving to pursue music) as helping him shape songs this way.
“I was classically trained, almost, in the English language. I’ve got a love of Shakespeare and how he writes,” he says, telling me it was only through getting up on stage and acting out the Bard’s words himself – rather than reading plays in a classroom – that an appreciation of the verses developed.
“Because that’s how it’s meant to be heard. It’s so generous to the listener or the viewer,” he says. “I loved the English accent and its power. If I try to rationalise it [his rapping style] I guess that’s where it comes from – a love for British culture and of performance.”
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I was classically trained, almost, in the English language.
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Which brings us back to home. The cover of the album features Carner’s extended family, there are recordings of conversations at home, he speaks candidly about things his family have gone through…does he ever feel like he might be over-sharing? “There’s a way to go about it,” he says. “If you’re up to no good and your intentions are wrong then that’s not right, but this is just honest.
“And I never thought about it until it was too late. I never thought this was going to happen, so I just went ‘Yeah, I’ll put my mum on the record because only 100 people will hear it.’ I was really only making tunes for fun, and then it all started popping off. But I think that’s what music’s about – it’s for myself.”
We talk about the great hip-hop tradition of using albums to create whole worlds– Wu Tang’s '36 Chambers' an its dark, sci-fi landscape, 'The Chronic' transporting listeners to LA’s gangsta underbelly – and how Carner’s done something similar with 'Yesterday’s Gone', just smaller and more personal. “I didn’t want to do a concept album, but there’s definitely a story in there,” he says. “It became a concept without being linear. It’s a snapshot of my life, being 21/22. The first EP was a snapshot of being 16/17, and this is a step on from that but the core is still the same.”
“It’s my first full body of work, EPs are cool but there’s not enough time to push a whole story. I’ve never liked the idea of singles because they don’t tell the whole thing, it’s like being given page 65 of a 300 page book or one chapter out of context. With this it’s the first time I’ve been able to paint the picture myself, where everything I want to say is there.”
“I wanted the album to feel like home.”
And 'Yesterday’s Gone' is what home is for Loyle Carner right now: bad freestyling with his mates on a tour bus, talking about eating bad food and partying; all the sounds he grew up with, from boom bap to Dylan and Bowie; wanting to fall in love and get his own place, but needing a hug from his mum at the end of the day; texts, tweets and time with his brother; and always close by, his dad.
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Loyle Carner's debut album 'Yesterday's Gone' is out now.
Words: Emma Finamore