It’s not long after 11AM on a Wednesday in late March, and rapper Loyle Carner’s just taken a tentative sip of a rum cocktail. Immediately, I regret having a slurp of mine. But we’re in it now. And, in a way, we’re both to blame. In Loyle’s video for January single “You Don’t Know,” he goes from home, to a job behind a fancy-looking bar, while his mum (a legend, by the way) runs through a few dates in said bar. Foolishly, I thought we could recreate that, attending a cocktail-making class at east London’s TT Liquor. But it’s actually a competition, where we’ll be making a drink each, after being coached through two recipes. In the end, they’ll be judged by our smiley Italian tutor, Leo. Loyle’s eyes light up.
“I get really competitive,” he says, laughing while bandaging up a finger he sliced before he got here. “I don’t like how I come across.” He goes onto say he had to stop playing football as a kid, “cos it was just turning me into a bit of an animal. I was about seven and was like, ‘look, mum: I’m too much.’ It’s just intense! I couldn’t lose; I hate losing. So” – and now he fully looks over to me – “good luck.” I like this spicy Loyle Carner. His public image so far has been more of what you might call ‘lovely,’ ‘sweet’ or ‘just a very good lad.’ Since debuting with 2014’s A Little Late EP, he coupled a take on UK boombap with personal, heartfelt lyrics and campaigns on mental health, de-stigmatising ADHD (he was diagnosed after being initially misunderstood as a child) and cookery. As far as rappers go, he’s always seemed like one who both you and your aunty could easily love.
That’s not to downplay his skill, or imply he’s ‘soft’ (as if being mature enough to be vulnerable were somehow a weakness – in reality, the opposite is true). Rather, Loyle is like so many people in their mid-twenties: up for a laugh, sincere about things that matter, navigating the flutter and security of romantic love. He taps into his own personal narrative – as a mixed-race Londoner who lost his beloved father and now helps support his brilliant family; as a rapper who refuses to compromise his sound to chase UK trends; as a young person who wants to vouch for the next generation – to pull out music that resonates with listeners, regardless of their background. I mean, Ottolenghi loves him (he named a song after the chef, in fairness). He has that ability to connect with people.
You hear that slathered on beautifully throughout his second album Not Waving, But Drowning, out this Friday 19 April. On it, Loyle opens with a song addressed to his mum Jean, before taking you through stories about his ties to his estranged biological father and trying to reconnect with his close friend and past collaborator Rebel Kleff. But today, as we stand across from each other, behind personal wooden bar stations, we focus on the task at hand first: making a delicious South Side. Leo demonstrates how one is made first, then hands over to us. “I’m not feeling any pressure; I’m feeling chilled like my martini glass,” Loyle says, smacking a handful of mint in his hands to release the oils. In the end, his cocktail wins. But first, we talk.
Noisey: What’s your usual plan for a real first date? Something activity-based like this?
Loyle Carner: I like to go out for food. I don’t like to go to the cinema cos you can’t chat. When me and the missus first met, we went out to eat; that’s what we did for the first, like, 100 dates. It’s the easiest thing to do. You sit, eat nice food and chat – you can’t be stressed.
What was your first ever date like?
Against my better judgment I went to see Twilight – I thought that was the flex, you know? Someone was like, ‘if you go to see it, the girl will like you.’ And so I went to see it. It was shit.
Did you stay for the whole thing?
No. There was a lot of kissing happening in the cinema as well.
How long did you end up seeing the person you saw Twilight with?
Not long, understandably. I was, like, 16. Still those early days. But when I learned how to cook, that’s when I started mastering dates. That’s why I have a girlfriend, finally [laughs].
What did you make for her the first time she came round?
I think it was homemade pasta actually, which was a flex.
I notice that you’re cool talking about your girl, with journalists. How did you get to that stage?
There’s no photos of her online or anything, so she’s very much… mine. And it’s cool, because she’s a teacher anyway, so she can’t be seen – the kids would freak out at school. So it’s a necessity but it’s also kind of the perfect thing: for her, she has to be a complete secret and for me, it’s also good. When I was growing up, you’d look at rappers, musicians and stuff and you wouldn’t necessarily see them talking about one woman, being in love with a single woman. In a relationship, all you need is each other; you don’t necessarily need a million women, or a million men. It was important for me to say that. I wasn’t talking about it for ages and everyone was like, ‘you may as well say it. Let the young boys know it’s cool to have a girlfriend, and not just go out and look for a different girl every night.’
How boozy would you get on a first date?
Being drunk on a date is a good move, I think. Me and a friend were just talking about how, sometimes you’ve got to be that little bit drunk so you can lean in for the kiss. You’ve got to get the balance, though; you’re not going to be sick on them.
Like a two-drink rule?
When I was younger I used to have a beer before a date. Just the one. That was my flex. It’s like what I’ll do before a show: just have a shot [he motions knocking a drink back, and kisses teeth]. Bit of Dutch courage. Before a football match, too. Everything.
What about festival time? You gonna stick to the two-drink rule when you play Glasto this summer?
Oh yeah, two-drink rule is actually a great strategy. Cos I can’t drink over a whole day, in the lead-up to the show. I can drink right before, then have one drink before the set and one drink after. Then bed. Well, maybe one more. Two more… maybe then more… but after the show it doesn’t matter what you have to do, but before the show…
How are you feeling about gearing up into album and tour mode again?
It’s good, it’s good… it’s a nice thing to do. It’s kind of how I imagine people describe… You know when people talk about those bullshit package holidays, where you go to Magaluf, Ayia Napa and all that? It’s kind of like if 80-year-old men were going somewhere nice to be like, ‘ooh nice beer; nice curry,’ then we play a show and we go to bed. It’s cool.
Where did you actually holiday when were younger?
School trips weren’t really saying much. I went skiing with school for free, which was crazy.
Were you good?
Yeah, I was alright, but I wouldn’t go again.
I was quite terrible, when I lived in Switzerland as a kid and was about five years behind everyone else in skiing skill.
Yeah, that’s the issue: when you’re from there, you just be skiing all the time. As soon as you can walk, you can ski. It’s like trying to be a skateboarder, late – if you’re trying and everyone already can, you’re gonna flop. It’s about perseverance, I guess. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, actually. I’ve been getting fractionally into beat-making, producing, since I put it off for so long cos I was like, ‘well, other people can do it better than me.’ That was always my main thing – why would I even bother? But you have to be shit at something for ages before you can even get good. I’m still not even that good at rapping – I’m trying – but I used to be shit. I’m half-decent now because I’ve put in work.
Like the Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours theory, right?
Yeah, 10,000 hours of practise; I completely agree with that. You think 10,000 hours is not much, but it’s a crazy amount of time. Especially when you think about it in days and how you’ll have to spending two or three days on whatever it is, if you’re lucky. It’s hard work. To really master your craft, you’ve got to be so active.
I’ve noticed that with the people I interview. How so many younger musicians, when you dig deeper, all started performing super-young.
Musicianship, for actual instrumentalists, means you’ll have to have been playing since you were young, really, to get to any sort of high-quality level. All my friends who play instruments say, ‘yeah, I used to play when I was seven, and just kept playing and kept playing and kept playing.’ You have to be rubbish. Because I think it’s OK to be rubbish when you’re seven, there’s no pressure on you. You don’t need to do anything yet. But as soon as you grow up a bit, you kinda have to get good quickly. And I feel like that’s why people start to feel limited. You can’t be like, ‘yeah I’m 25, I’ve been playing piano for a bit and I’m still shit at it.’ It’s like, ‘mate, grow up – get a real job,’ even if you’re just trying a new thing. You see old guys in the skate park and you’re like, ‘what are you doing?’ but those are actually the people we should be praising the most. Cos they’re giving it a go.
What did you start then give up?
Everything. Not cos I wasn’t getting good enough but… There’s a guy called Yvon Chouinard, who owns Patagonia, and I was reading his book. He describes himself as an ‘80 percenter,’ which means that when he gets to 80 percent proficiency at anything, he goes, ‘you know what, I’m bored of this, and moves on to do something else. That’s kind of what I think I end doing. It’s all boring once you’ve done something for six months. I don’t think I could ever master anything, cos I don’t have the patience to really stay with it for long enough.
I’m similar. Sometimes it feels as though I’ve gone through so many of the skills I’d want to pick up already. Like, ‘you’re 30 now, you’re on a path.’
But 30 is young. You shouldn’t be scared to pick up new things – it’s like the beginning of life. You’ve been able to build yourself up into a position to do what you want to be doing. You’re respected enough in your job to take risks. That’s when you can really start enjoying stuff.
How are you feeling about your mid-twenties, then?
I’m feeling cool about it… I wanna go to where I’m from, to Guyana. Understanding the music there. I’ve been really heavily inspired by some stuff that Earl Sweatshirt’s done after going back to South Africa, and for me it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I dabbled for a little bit, but haven’t had a chance to really push it. But now I wanna get to the country I’m from, and into those sounds – the Portuguese influence, Afro-Guyanese influence. Everything to do with the black side of myself.
Cos I know everything about the white side of myself but not the black side. For a long time, I didn’t really feel like I had a voice for it. My dad (my stepdad) was white, my brother is white as well, my mum’s white. I grew up in this white house, and in a way it’s like, if you’re raised by white people, then you’re white, in your head, until you step outside. Then people are hitting you with ‘why are you like this?’
I didn’t even see colour when I was younger. As I grew, I realised other people didn’t see life like that, so I got stuck with getting treated as too black for the white people and too white for the black people. So what’s next for me is trying to figure out where I fit in, and to understand the parts of myself that haven’t been as readily available to me here. That’s what’s next.
As someone who’s technically South African but didn’t grow up there, I get a bit of what you mean.
But it’s cool that you at least have that attachment because you’ve been to South Africa, even if you’ve not lived there. You’ve got that – I’ve never even been there, it’s like there’s no connection to being on that soil. So it’s going to be wicked. It’ll be nice to feel like I have a voice to talk about this part of who I am. It’s the next step for me. I’ll have just put out this album, so I’ll need to level up and do something else. It would’ve been too soon if I’d done it before this album, and too late after the next one. So it’s time.
Cool, well I think we’re out of time, so let’s finish these drinks.
Easy… let’s get more drunk [we clink glasses]. Cheers.