The affinity between the city of Liverpool and LOYLE CARNER is one that has coexisted for some time, but quietly. At least not with broad recognition.
Initially, football was the vehicle drawing the 24-year-old’s attention to the far reaches of the North West. However, the parallels between the portside community and the South Londoner’s lyrical confessions reflect in lives beyond the terraces of L4. Long after his football obsession set in, he finds himself a regular frequenter of the postcode, now home to a studio where he’s fronting the Levi’s Music Project, a music development programme for young artists in the city. It’s a role, he tells me, that provides him with unmatched inspiration. “Being around younger people that are making music is an incredible atmosphere; they’re hungry for it. When you’re doing this kind of thing for the right reasons, you’re not thinking about money.” Taking on the role of a teacher is something Carner has openly embraced. “I’m just lucky to be able to share some knowledge of my own experience, my mistakes in the music world”, he says humbly.
Carner, just like Liverpool, has taken ownership of his quirks and character, rolling them into a warming cultural export which encapsulates both the strength of community and the darkest shadows that line experience. Liverpool’s jostle to define itself isn’t merely an emotive struggle scripted by Sky Sports. In the same way, Carner’s experiences aren’t dreamt up solely to place on record. There’s reality behind the studio lights and pitch-side drama, the stage presence and classic hip hop sensibilities. Liverpool is a city that faces polarised interpretations of its well documented idiosyncrasies and struggles. Perceptions swing between ‘those endearing, loveable Scousers’ and caricatures who warrant nation-wide ridicule. Resting on the former archetype, Liverpool positions itself as a city where borderless affinities can grow, with the football clubs being just a couple of entry points into an open-armed landscape of community aspiration and acceptance. For Carner, it’s a place that defines itself on acceptance. “You know, I feel like no matter where you come from, or what you do, that you’re welcome in Liverpool,” he asserts, reflecting on his recent visits to the city. “Not everywhere feels like this in the UK. In the wake of Brexit, Liverpool feels like a left-leaning capital.” It’s a locally familiar theme that’s manifested in the music of the UK’s leading hip hop talent, and the lives of budding musicians everywhere.
Listening to the collection of characters present on 2017’s Yesterday’s Gone and you quickly find Liverpool is a city in line with the social narration of Ben Coyle-Larner. The spoonerism in his rap name is a nod to how he’s turned childhood challenges with ADHD and dyslexia into a musical asset. Family, community and vulnerability perforate his rhymes without a superficial front; it’s honesty from the outset, and Liverpool’s attitude has chimed with him. “I’ve had an affinity with Liverpool for a long time,” Ben tells me of his growing relationship with the city. “My stepdad was a Manchester United fan, so I saw the city in football terms, almost living in Manchester’s shadow. It really fit with me, because a lot of my life, it always felt like I was in the shadow of other people at times, you know?” It’s a seemingly contrarian decision to live in shadows, but these cities are illuminated by the same sunrise each morning. It’s a truth often overlooked by the North West neighbours. Yet, breaking through parental influences and choosing to support Liverpool as a boy was one step in the effort to define his character in the mould of a city with frayed provincial ties. “With Liverpool, it really personified how I saw myself.” There exists a subconscious connection to the city which is now in the spotlights of his fast-rising stardom.
Loyle Carner brings a composed antidote to a fractious political climate. He’s reflective in his interpretations of the future, thought-provoking and calculated. His senses form the centre of a continual stream of consciousness that’s chopped and changed into musical output. I ask him whether he’s consciously fixed on delivering a positive message through music, but he underlines, clearly, that he’s conjured his outlook from a set process of thought, rather than simply plucking a positive narrative to build on. “It’s more of an optimistic outlook,” he professes. “You have to remain optimistic, otherwise, what’s the point? You know what I mean? I think optimism is the right outlook. You can’t always be happy all of the time. But you know, you can always think, ‘My chance might come tomorrow, we’ll get there tomorrow’. It’s just something to keep you going.”
Talking to Ben only for a short while, you pick up on his collected demeanour and personability, yet it’s drawn from a fast-paced and urgent cerebral core. There’s a busyness to his character, but you don’t link this to a trait of his ADHD. It’s no different to the frantic schedule of any other soaring musician.
Currently, he’s hard at work in rehearsals for his upcoming tour. In between he’s reeling out unrehearsed lines to a long line of journalists queuing to place a fresh cut of his character onto their pages. When he finds time, he notes down lyrics “when they come to me”, which, he adds, “doesn’t make it a forcible process”. Though he does admit he will only write when he feels he can, a trait that doesn’t marry well with record deal deadlines and a high-pressure industry. Nonetheless, he’s staying afloat. You can sense there’s no dilution or front, even when he is picking up the phone late into the afternoon for another interview. There’s a palpable sincerity that, when transferred to lyricism, has left him with a clear snapshot of his thoughts and feelings, timestamped by an underlay of vocal arrangements and hip hop production. Looking back, his first album still bears resonance for Ben – like opening the middle pages of a diary and instantly discovering the mindset of the original author at the time of writing. “I still rate the thoughts I was having back then,” he jokes, referring to his lyrics on Yesterday’s Gone. “Sometimes I listen to it and think, ‘Man, I don’t think I’ll ever be that good again,’ you know? It does feel a little bit like, ‘Jeez, that was sick, how can I top that?’ So, I quite enjoy listening back to the record, feeling what I was feeling at the time. It’s good.”
Carner’s debut album was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2017. Its intimate nature and sentimentality carries over to his freshly released second effort, Not Waving, But Drowning. However, the sophomore effort isn’t without new perspectives, confessions and observations. He put this down to “growing up a little bit” and seeing things in a new light. But he argues it doesn’t symbolise a greater maturity, just a “change in approach… The same core is there,” he reassures, “the same meat and potatoes. It’s just there’s a new story, a few new characters.”
The change in perspective is noticeable even before you’ve finished hearing even one song on the album. The title alone grapples with the confusing signals of honesty and sincerity, something which is such a central force in Carner’s music. “The name comes from a poem by Stevie Smith,” he informs, when I ask if there are undertones of a shadowed side to his character signposted by the title. “It pulls from the idea that by putting on a front, the main person that suffers is yourself.” It’s quite a stark assertion from an artist that carries himself so calmly, but a familiar reality in a society growing ever more aware of the damage of appearing calm and simply carrying on – confining worries to the mind.
The poem follows the narrative of a man who wades out into the sea and becomes consumed by the waves, finishing with the lines, “I was much too far out all my life/And not waving but drowning.” It’s a theme that can be located in the record’s confessional lyrics; his willingness to place himself so close to the narrative. But it’s one that also asks the question of whether Carner is simply waving towards his listener, or something much more. I wonder whether carving a musical identity around honesty can inadvertently mask any real cathartic release; do listeners receive it simply as a narrative technique, overlooking the expression that truly aches from the artist? Could this be a trap?
“It’s a tiny bit of a burden,” he responds, “not being able to be so explicit as to whether I’m waving or drowning. But that’s the price you have to pay for telling my story and hoping that it rhymes. The real side can’t always shine through.” The conflict in Ben’s mind, however, is not overbearing – he sees the external positives his pedestal as a musician offers. “It’s a lovely thing to be able to do this, to talk about these feelings and help other young men, you know, if they’re feeling low, or feeling like they can’t get through it – living anymore. It’s a big deal.”
For Ben, recounting memories and experience of such a sentimental nature is all a part of the business. It has both positive and negative effects, though he asserts the former is in higher abundance. He trades in an honest prose and verse that leaves little to inference, a confession that brings a weightlessness and occasional doubt. “It’s quite a release being so honest in my music. It was, and it still is,” he explains. “Some days when I sit down to write, it’s a little bit weird. Like, once you’ve started making money from bad things, bad experiences, that have happened to you, there’s no clear way of looking at it. Bad things becoming the centre-point of your creativity?”
Ultimately, his lyricism faces the task of continuing to be brazenly open in every sense of his experience and mindset, even when the negative aspects translate onto records and prove a widespread success. “That’s an unhealthy way of looking at it, you know, ‘Should I write about these things? Knowing I’m going to get paid for it?’ You have to get that out of your head.” Ben doesn’t overlook the power of resonating with an in-tune audience who find themselves in his music. It’s a challenging process to undertake in the shoes of a young, sincere and in-demand musician, but it’s a process that grants him the satisfaction of self-education through his own talent, and something he remains thankful for. “It’s cathartic, sure, rereading the words put down on the page. It’s sort of like explaining to yourself how you feel.”
Loyle Carner headlines Sound City on Sunday 5th May. Not Waving, But Drowning is out now via AMF.