South London rapper Loyle Carner has woven music by his late stepfather into his debut album – and it might just have you in tears, says Leonie Cooper
‘Sun Of Jean’, the final track on Loyle Carner’s stunning debut album, features the 22-year-old MC’s mum reading a poem about her son (“He was and is a complete joy / The world is his, that scribble of a boy”) over a heartstring-tugging piano sample played by his late stepfather. A stirring expression of a mother’s love and moving tribute to his dad, it might just have you weeping like a baby. That, I tell Loyle, in a pub in London’s Maida Vale, is what happened to me. “I’ll tell my mum that,” he says. “She’ll just say, ‘I’m so sorry!’”
It’s just one of many gorgeous, emotive moments that make up ‘Yesterday’s Gone’, itself named after a track on a secret album the rapper’s dad recorded before his death in 2014. “He recorded it in the basement; he was a brilliant musician but it never happened for him,” explains Ben Coyle-Larner – who gets his stage name from his habit of mixing up his surname due to dyslexia (“I used to get taken the p**s out of me for it a lot, so I flipped it on its head”). After his mum found the secret album, Carner put it on his laptop but couldn’t bring himself to listen to it until months later. When he finally did, he was on the lookout for fatherly pearls of wisdom and quickly found them in the song ‘Yesterday’s Gone’.
“It was almost like he was talking to me now, after everything that happened. Him going, ‘Pick yourself up and get on with it.’” The original song now appears as a secret track on Carner’s own album, but with one change – his mum singing along with the track. “I got to immortalise my mum and my dad together,” says Carner with a smile. “It was the idea of bringing them back together one last time.”
Carner still lives with his mum and younger brother in Croydon, having moved there from West Norwood so that, as a 14-year-old, he could study at the BRIT School, which Amy Winehouse, Adele and his buddy King Krule all attended. Although he was unaware of his dad’s creative ambitions, when he was growing up there was always something excellent on the stereo, be it Bob Dylan and Patti Smith or David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. “It was all storytelling – anyone who told a story,” explains Carner of the soundtrack to his youth. “So when I started listening to hip-hop I was looking for the same thing, something that was real and tangible.”
Carner’s early rap icons were Nas and Common, artists who told moving, sometimes troubled tales based on their own personal experience. Add their inspiration to his childhood fondness for writing poetry and the seeds were sewn for a future career as an MC.
“I used to struggle with English at school but I found poetry really interesting,” he explains. “I think it’s because I was dyslexic. Mistakes weren’t mistakes in poetry. It wasn’t about form or structure or spelling, it was just about words, and I understood words – I just couldn’t spell them or put them in the right place.”
When, at the age of seven, his best friend died, he wrote a poem to help him work through his feelings. Although he was asked to perform it in assembly, he wasn’t writing for anyone else but himself. “Because my poetry was so personal I used to be embarrassed by it, but I’d enjoy reciting it to myself in the shower, in the bath… It was mine.”
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Like all of his mates, in his early teens Carner started rapping. Unlike his friends, he stuck with it. Like he’d done with his poetry, he was pouring his emotions into music. “When I first started I felt it could be a hindrance. I used to write songs and think, ‘I can’t use this,’ because it was too open.” His mum and his collaborator, beatmaker Rebel Kleff, convinced him otherwise and soon he was making a stand against “the weird social expectations of being a young man and having to say everything’s OK when it’s not OK”.
As such, none of his tunes are what you’d call uplifting; ‘Mrs C’ is about his friend’s mum being diagnosed with cancer; the epic ‘The Isle Of Arran’ is about his frustration at not having a male role model (his biological father is estranged); and the soulful ‘Damselfly’ is about losing the ability to form meaningful relationships. “I’ve never been able to write positive tunes,” he says. “I guess when I’m happy I don’t want to write – I want enjoy being happy.”
Now, his emotional openness resonates deeply with the fans he speaks to after each and every show at his merch table. “It’s a beautiful thing,” says Loyle. “People come up to me and open up like we’ve been friends for years. Some people have been through tough times and it’s difficult, but it reminds you that you’re not alone.” If it’s emotional catharsis you’re after, then Loyle Carner doesn’t just understand – he gets it.