The Big Read – Loyle Carner: “All the best things about me come from my ADHD”

Loyle Carner's debut album was much lauded by critics, but it was the south London boy's wholesome extra-curricular activities – running a cookery school for kids with ADHD – which helped him become somewhat of a national treasure. As he releases his follow-up record, 'Not Waving But Drowning', Nick Levine meets him for a chat about mental health, music and his good ol' mum.

Croydon-raised Loyle Carner is one of UK music’s most heartening success stories. His 2017 debut ‘Yesterday’s Gone’ deservedly earned a Mercury Prize Nomination for its superb blend of emotionally literate lyrics and soothingly subdued beats; it’s the sort of album that makes you feel a bit better about things every time play it. And Benjamin Coyle-Larner – his stage name is a Spoonerism – started giving back as soon as his profile grew, launching the Chilli Con Carner cookery school for kids growing up, as he had, with ADHD.

Now he’s back with an affecting second album, ‘Not Waving, But Drowning’, which features appearances from Jordan Rakei, Jorja Smith, Sampha and even his mum Jean. Its fifteen tracks find the 24-year-old exploring everything from ADHD to the pains of moving away from home, and his mixed race heritage to the death of his stepfather, via a couple of tracks named after his favourite chefs. It already sounds like an excellent soundtrack to breezy summer evenings.

When I meet Carner near his record label in Kings Cross, he doesn’t let a grotty-sounding cold dim his natural warmth and ability to engage; he’s happy to go just as deep during our interview as he does on his albums. But he’s also super-friendly and down-to-earth: when I tell him the only thing I can cook is scrambled eggs, he suggests that next time I try adding some sparkling water to the eggs to make them fluffier. Cooking breakfast a few days later, I find out he’s right. But first, we discuss music, mental health and his mum’s unexpected guest appearance on the album.

The album begins in such a personal way – with you telling your mum you’re moving out. How did this idea come about?

“Yeah, and it sounds super-sweet as well! The album was coming together when I wrote that song [‘Dear Jean’], but it was created in this kind of purgatory, almost. I never got chance to move out when I was younger ’cause my dad died and I had to become, you know, the man of the house. So I was still in the [family] house, but I built a little self-contained flat on the side so I could have a bit of a independence but still be there if they needed me. When I was making the album, I was beginning the process of moving out and moving in with my missus, and for a while it was always us with flatmates, or us with my mum, or us in hotels. There was nowhere I had that was just for me, where I could sit down and write and block the world out. Writing that song was something I just had to get out of me – it wasn’t meant for the album, it was just for mum. I was going to send it to her because she was quite cut up about me moving away and I was cut out about it too. So I was just gonna send the song to her to say ‘hope you’re OK’.”

And how did she react to the song when she heard it?

“It really meant something to her – it made her cry. She was like, ‘I’m gonna write one for you’, so I sent her the instrumental with no drums and she just wrote to it and recorded it. And you can hear it at the end of the track [‘Dear Ben’], because I was there at the end of the recording with my Voice Notes. How I respond [on the album] is how I responded in real life because that was my first time hearing the song.”

loyle carner

There are two songs on the album named after chefs – ‘Ottolenghi’ and ‘Carluccio’. What inspired those tracks?

“Well, ‘Ottolenghi’ is because I was on the train reading his book Jerusalem, which is one of my favourite cook books. And there’s tension in some areas of London around anti-Semitism and Palestine, and sometimes it’s easy to see this divide. Which is what happened on the train: this guy came up to me and said, ‘Why are you reading that bible on the train?’ I was like, ‘It’s not a bible, it’s a cook book, but I guess it’s a bible of sorts for me.’ And he was like, ‘You could get beaten up for having that round here’. He was coming at me – not physically, but he was threatening me. I was intimidated, but tried to diffuse the situation by saying, ‘I’m not Jewish but so what if I was? I’m not doing anything to you.’ So he got up and left the train in a huff, effing and blinding. I got into the studio and told Jordan [Rakei] the story and it became the song that’s on the album. The song isn’t really about Ottolenghi, but it wouldn’t exist without him, so it made sense to pay homage.”

And what about ‘Carluccio’?

“With ‘Carluccio’, I guess ever since my dad died I was looking for male role models. A lot of my friends were watching films like Scarface and The Godfather and Donnie Brasco, ’cause you wanna watch some sort of gangster teaching you the things you’re supposed to be taught – how to throw a punch, how to talk to a woman, all the things I wasn’t shown because my dad’s life was cut short. But it kind of got to the point where my norms and values didn’t match up with theirs. I’d be like ‘Yeah, what a great guy, he’s got such great philosophies.’ But then he’d kill someone, or steal something, or lie to his wife, and I’d be like, ‘Fuck. I can’t get down with this.’ It was around this time that I discovered Carluccio. I’m not saying he’s a gangster or Godfather figure, but he’s kind of the Godfather of Italian cooking. And in a way he’s a similar guy – big, Italian and self-assured – so I began to buy into his philosophies, which were all positive philosophies, and he really became a proper male model for me. One day me and my girlfriend had this row, and I was really cut up about it, and it happened to be the day that Carluccio died. I remember thinking I couldn’t lose her on the same day that I was losing this guy. So I made this song for her, and sent it to her that day… and it all worked out for us!”

A word that’s so often used to describe you and your music is “sensitive”. How do you feel about that?

“I think it’s having an emotional intelligence that freaks people out. And so they say, ‘he’s weak, he’s super-sensitive, he’s kind of soft’, or whatever. You know, I am quite sensitive. I am quite soft. And that comes across in my music, but I think the best way to describe that is ’emotionally mature’ or ’emotionally intelligent’. I think things are getting a lot better, but sadly as a man it’s still kind of impossible to talk about your feelings without feeling some sort of judgement. I feel like I’ve flown the flag for being emotionally open and understanding that when you’re being weak, you’re really being strong. But even I find it hard. The song ‘Krispy’ [on the album] is about one of my best friends of all time, and how we’d fallen out over money and music and things. You know, I couldn’t say to him: ‘We need to get rid of this elephant in the room and figure it out.’ Because my whole life, I’ve been shown that if me and another guy have a problem, it just goes further and further until we either fight, or just don’t talk any more. And so I wrote this song because I was like, ‘Fuck that!’. But I didn’t want to write the song; I wanted to stand in front of him and tell him how I felt, but I couldn’t do that.”

loyle carner

How do you think we can move the conversation around men’s mental health forward?

“It’s partly about shedding the stereotype. If you speak out about how you feel, you should have space to be supported, rather than feeling like you’re going to have everyone around you say ‘fuck you – you’re sensitive’. Look at football – I think it would be incredible for more footballers to come out as gay. If people love a footballer, and hear that footballer say, ‘I’m gay’, maybe it might change things a bit – it might make people realise that there’s no difference between them and that gay footballer. And look at Rio Ferdinand talking about losing his wife. He’s one of the strongest guys I know – on the pitch, he was a rock, he was the best defender of his time. Him talking about being weak and low and lost after his wife died is huge. Because it’s like: ‘If Rio Ferdinand can do it, I can do it.’ So that’s what I mean by ‘shedding the stereotype’, I guess.”

loyle carner

You also delve pretty deep into your heritage on the track ‘Looking Back’.

“I was actually gonna leave it off this album because that song is kind of where I’m heading. It’s a conversation I’ve only been having recently. I’ve got back in touch with my biological father and finally started asking questions about my heritage – about being from Guyana but thinking I was from Ghana, about being mixed race, black people thinking I’m white, white people thinking I’m black, realising that one of my grandfathers could have owned my other grandfather because they were both in America during the time of slavery. I’m kind of broaching it on this album, and [in the future] I might make another album that looks more at the sound and sonics of Guyana. You know, Benjamin Zephaniah said to me that on this album I’m finding my black consciousness, and that meant a lot to me, because I’ve never really been able to identify as black. That’s because all the kids at school told me I wasn’t black, and I grew up with my mum, my stepfather and my half-brother who are all white. So in a way, I felt like I didn’t fit it anywhere. But from [Zephaniah] saying it, it kind of gave me this permission to want to explore it more, and validated these ideas I was already having around what is it to be mixed race.”

On the track ‘Still’, you say that having ADHD is the “best and worst thing” about you. To what extent do you feel at peace with your ADHD now?

“It is the best and worst thing about me. You know, I love it but I hate it. But me being ADHD, it’s just who I am. All the best things about me come from it – being emotionally intelligent, being passionate, being inquisitive. But so do the things that people might see as negative – having a short temper, being impulsive, not thinking before I say things. But at the same time, if you just tweak the way you think about those negative things a little bit, they can maybe be seen as positive.”

loyle carner

How does the life of a musician, which is pretty full-on and hard to predict, affect your ADHD?

“The difficulty comes from having to fill my days. If I have nothing on that day, I can’t just sit and do nothing. I think ADHD is the one thing that’s stopped me from… not being a loser exactly, but from just sitting at home all day. You know, I’ve got friends who don’t have ADHD who kind of work in the same world as me. And if I’m like, ‘Yo, what are you up to today?’, quite happily they can just say ‘nothing’. I can’t do that, which is why I’ve got the cooking school and why I’m trying to shoot a film with my little brother. I need to have things going on for myself every day. So actually, I think the ADHD is the thing that saved me from just sitting on my sofa and thinking ‘maybe I’ll get a Deliveroo today’. Do you know what I mean?”

‘Not Waving, But Drowning’ by Loyle Carner is out now.