To Thine Own Self Be True
“It’s quite selfish really, because the reason I’m making all this stuff is just so when I’m older, I can look back, and I can see things,” explains Loyle Carner of his creative inspiration.
“Because life is so fast, and it’s so easy to go ‘fuck, I’m eighty’ all of a sudden. So I can look back on my life sonically, because that’s exactly what I’m going to. So as anything changes and happens, I can document it, and it’s a beautiful thing to have, and it’s something that my kids can have as well.”
In many ways, this notion completely makes sense. Carner released his debut album Yesterday’s Gone back in early 2017. Listening to that album is akin to walking into his living room; where each song signifies a different photo on the mantelpiece providing an intimate snapshot into his life where he elegantly solidifies a particular moment in time through his carefully-crafted wordplay. It is a message enhanced by the album’s artwork that sees him photographed amongst his closest family and friends and amplified by the intimate recorded skits from his everyday life that are littered across the recordings.
More importantly, it was an album that placed Carner on the map and saw him stand out amongst his contemporaries as he cemented a reputation for writing impressively poetic and, at times, heartbreakingly honest flows. It received rapturous critical acclaim, saw him tour extensively and even bagged him a Mercury award nomination whilst he also became the face of Yves St-Laurent. So, when the campaign eventually came to an end, the touring stopped, the cameras stopped flashing and Loyle Carner returned home to the reality that his mates were at their day jobs, he was faced with the age-old question that many musicians must come to terms with – how do you go back to the drawing board and do it all again?
“I think that’s why they say the second album is difficult,” Carner - whose real name is Ben Coyle-Larner and who adopted the spoonerism moniker as a reference to his ADHD and dyslexia - says as he reflects on the enormous task that lay ahead of him. “I think I really underestimated how hard it is to work on the second album, especially after you’ve had moderate success. I wasn’t a superstar afterwards or anything, but it did ok and people liked it, and you go from that and for people to like it, and then you’re left asking yourself ‘how do I show these people that I know what I’m doing the second time around?’”
The initial creation of Not Waving, But Drowning - released today - wasn’t an entirely smooth process, at least at the beginning anyway. It saw the artist having to completely re-evaluate everything he was doing: “I think, at first, I was trying to recreate my first album, and that was a dangerous place, and I had to stop, to scrap everything that I had thought about doing for that and begin afresh, and just creating just to create. I kind of wasn’t really thinking about it as much as I should have been.”
It became obvious that Carner was going to have to dig deeper if he was going to find the inspiration that he sought. After the mayhem of the promotional run and the routine structure that the touring life provides, he found himself catapulted into the reality of a world where there was just not that much was going on, and the first challenge was simply working out ways to keep his brain active. Describing the period as tough, he forced himself into new routines, ventured to new record stores and tried to find a sense of normality again. “I think it was good for self-betterment,” he explains "but it took a while to get used to, because it’s quite a weird cycle to go through where it’s really, really busy and everyone wants to talk to you all the time and then no one gives a fuck… And then back again, and suddenly everyone is all interested again. It’s kind of not very good for your brain if you get too locked into it.”
The next challenge was dealing with the new pressure of how the people closest to him reacted to his success. This was something that Carner thought that he was always ready for and accepts that it is just one of those unavoidable factors that comes with the job, but even though he recognises the changes that have taken place in himself, he also expresses that he has equally found comfort in the idea of growing up and growing into himself as an adult. He explains, with all the eloquence that you’d expect from the wordsmith, how he feels that it’s just one of those things you have to get used to: “You grow and you change… I guess the thing is, people said that I’d changed - and it’s just what happens, people are going to say that - but, you know, in the first instance, I wasn’t doing all this to just stay the same. I didn’t want to be that fourteen-year-old boy who can’t speak to girls my whole life, you know what I mean? I was kind of happy I’d changed a bit to be honest.”
That’s not to say that Carner has let it all go to his head – far from it. Throughout our conversation, he comes across as someone who is almost shamefully modest, and frequently downplaying his achievements: “I’m not really sure that I’m that good at it, to be honest,” being a perfect example. “I still doubt myself. A lot of people I listen to I think are better than me. In fact, everyone I listen to I think is better than me!” He is much more at ease outlining the talents of others around him, constantly championing his mother and his girlfriend in particular - “my mum works so hard, my girlfriend works so hard, I feel like I’m cheating!”
He also speaks highly of the numerous musicians such as that he has been able to work with, whether that be Jorja Smith or Tom Misch or Sampha. But despite this fact, he admits that the events of the past few years have made him more aware of how those around him behave and treat him, as he says: “I think people kind of assume that you have changed, then they change the way that they react to you, and then you change on the way they have reacted to you so actually, you’re the same, but they’re like ‘you’re a superstar now’ - I don’t think that, but they might have that in their heads. But, it is what it is, and it’s to be expected with something like this. It’s not really happened to me that much though.”
The reality of Carner’s life was quite different to what everyone was assuming. Carner was suddenly faced with a whole new set of responsibilities, so even though it seemed as though he had the world at his feet and things were going swimmingly for the 24-year-old, there was a stark reality that he was having to grapple with and an ever-growing amount of stresses that he initially thought he could handle on his own. It was very much a classic case of the people around him assuming that things were going a lot smoother than they actually were and not knowing exactly what was going on behind closed doors, as Carner explains “All this money that people think is mine would have been mine if I was eighteen and I’d had two parents and lived in a nuclear family where everything was great and I didn’t have any responsibilities, again it’s another thing to get stressed about. But no on sees that, they think “ah you must be living the dream!” And it’s like kind of, but also not.”
However, life often has a fascinating habit of working in surprising ways and, fortunately for Carner, things were about to take a much-needed turn for the better. “I could have gone on a different path when I started working on this album,” he explains, pondering on the monumental shift that was about to take place. “The luck of it was that I fell in love and moved out of my house and things started to get better for me.”
The first taster we got of the new material came last summer with the surprise release of “Ottolenghi”, a track that Career describes as being the one that he is most proud about and is named after the famous chef. Carner was nervous about whether the long wait between his first album and the new material, “I’m not like Frank Ocean, I can’t just go away for a few years and come back and still be popular!” But fortunately, he had little to worry about. The laid-back, twinkling jam only re-sparked the mass interest in Carner’s work, perfectly laying the groundwork for what is to come. Yet, Carner makes it explicitly clear that the whole process of the album campaign trail is not something he feels is fit for purpose and he’d much rather have brought out the whole album as a whole last year. He has frequently said on social media how he believes that releasing singles is like giving away one page of a book at a time. “I just think it’s bollocks, you know” he says with an air of frustration. “Because I don’t know what people want to hear! I work on x amount of music, and to me, I like all of these songs, to an extent. And to me, when they’re together, they work together, you know?”
Not Waving, But Drowning is titled after a poem he found in his late Grandad’s notebook, in turn inspired by the eponymous verse by Stevie Smith. The original speaks of a man who has spent so much time showing off that when he swims out to sea, the people ashore assume he is waving and simply showing off again, when really, he is drowning and screaming out for help.
The title is as much about paying tribute to his Grandad’s poem and legacy as it is about Carner finally reaching out for help, battling against the pressure of toxic masculinity and finding solace once he finally admitted that he needed someone to help him. “I put my hand out and my missus grabbed my hand and pulled me out of the water,” he tells me, “and I think it’s very easy to put on a front and act like everything is ok and not ask for help, and I did that for ages. But when I finally did ask for help, that’s when things got better.”
It’s a tale told time and time again, and one that seems particularly prominent at the moment with the increasing awareness of the pressures of toxic masculinity and the need to help young men speak out when they need help. Carner has long been vocal about his views on the matter and the importance and significance of breaking down the boundaries that prevent men from being honest about their emotions and reaching out for help when they need it most.
“I’d always chat about it,” he says with the open honesty that filters through into his lyricism, before illustrating how important it is that young men have role models and look up to men who are more open about what they are feeling. “There are guys that I really look up to, like Rio Ferdinand, and having chats with him, and the shit he’s done, and the way he’s spoken out about losing his wife and finding love again and how it’s difficult, and it’s like ‘fuck!’ Because he’s like the strongest guy in my head, you know, he’s literally hard as nails, and to see him crumble and then go 'well, he’s not weak! He’s actually stronger because of it. Oh fuck, crying is strong, being sad is strong, being open is strong! Oh my god!’ And that’s what you need as a kid.”
Carner was previously engaged in the Best Man Project, a campaign set up by CALM to encourage young men to open up and normalise conversations about how young men are feeling rather than keeping it all inside. “You know, people are asking what you can do as a man to help with this,” he says as he explains the way that he sees it getting better. “A lot of comes from treating women better and giving them the space to do what they rightfully should be doing. And, this is a much shorter way of saying it, but if you put women in a cage and you stop them doing all these things that they should be doing, you’re actually also putting yourself and all these other men in a cage. Because, if you’re saying ‘no, you can’t do all of these things’, then you’re also saying ‘I am going to do all of these things’, but you don’t have to do all of these things, because there’s these other human beings, who are arguably more intelligent that you, that can help you do this!”
He explains further how the real key to helping men lies with helping women: “Because that is literally the key to make things easier. Men think it’ll make life harder, or like they’ll be ostracised or treated as less of a man, but really everything will be better.” This theme of breaking down toxic masculinity is prevalent on the album and arguably most notable on the track “Krispy”, a track written for his long-term collaborator of the same name, “My best friend, kind of like by big brother also.” The pair had always worked closely, but as Carner’s profile rose and the money came into play, there was an added strain on their friendship. Carner found it difficult to open up directly to his friend about how he missed him, so instead he put his emotions into song format.
“It’s about masculinity and wanting to open up and I wanted to open up and be like ‘yo, I miss you, and I’m sorry I’m making money and you feel uncomfortable about it, but I’m trying to drag you with me but I need you to work harder.’” It’s just another refreshing reminder of how Carner is changing the playing field and re-writing what exactly it means to be a male rapper. It’s tender, and Carner even goes as far as to describe it “It’s more a love song and a plea” and it’s directness again highlights the artist’s ability to find strength in vulnerability.
This vulnerability is central to the new album, from beginning to end, and explored from another angle on “Looking Back”; a track that sees Carner really openly engage with his Guyanese heritage for the first time, as he wanders through a maze of questions in his head in a bid to understand who he is. For Carner, this song marked a significant moment in him coming to terms with his identity, “I hated it because I hated those kind of questions and these conversations happening in my head. I began to have this weird black consciousness that I’d never had before, because I’m mixed-race and my mum is white and my step-dad was white and little brother is white, so I grew up in this white house, so I didn’t grow up with Caribbean food, I never had an afro comb, I didn’t understand any of that stuff until I was older, and every time I approached it I felt like an outsider.”
It took a bit of encouragement from his friends around him to really engage with the thoughts that were whirling around his head, in many ways, he had to give himself the permission to look into this side of his identity. “And so, for a long time, it was really until I had some good conversations with my good friend Barney, and he just told me that I should be having these conversations and look into it. I then I started getting upset, and then I felt uncomfortable, and then I started feeling empowered.”
And in a similar way to when he finally reached out for help and was saved once he let himself be vulnerable, once he began exploring this side to his identity, it opened up a whole new world to him and freed him of a pressure he didn’t even realise he was feeling “It was just to really try and understand what it is to be mixed-race in this world, you know, I feel like equality personified… When you’re mixed-race, inevitably at times you don’t understand who you are. That’s quite a big thing. I only recently really thought about what it is to understand myself.”
Not Waving, But Drowning is as much about self-healing and forgiveness as it is about encouraging others to open up. It’s ultimately an intelligent, thoughtful wandering into Carner’s life that sees him grow as an artist and take off where he left off. “When things are going right, I feel like I can do anything. And I probably can do anything! When I face adversity, that’s when I can’t do it. But of course, things are easy when they’re going well. I can only function when things are going well.
"I really care what people think about me, it’s a curse really.”