Loyle Carner is a figure of contentment. Relaxing on a couch, his broad smile belongs to someone with complete confidence in his artistry, someone who is relishing each passing day. But then, wouldn’t you be? Debut album Yesterday’s Gone was an overwhelming success, garnering BRIT and Mercury nominations alongside universal critical praise. Except sometime in 2017 he found himself with a pretty serious problem: crafting a sequel.
“I’m sorting things out,” he explains. “I’ve sorted my mum’s mortgage out, got a place of my own, fell in love. All these things are cool. But then… I’m still not completely happy. So, why? What else is happening?”
It’s this question that forms the crux of his exceptional new album Not Waving, But Drowning. From the Stevie Smith reference in the title, to the final notes, it’s a nuanced, complex, charismatic record, one that answers to deeply held convictions about art and the way it should be made.
“I’m sorted. Once I’ve got some kids and a dog… bruv, I’ve done it all!”
“Rap is the most important thing in my life,” he says, the smile stretching ever further. “It goes hip-hop, my mum and my missus – they’re all floating up there together! It’s everything to me.”
“This is the purest form of rap,” Loyle continues. “I read this interview with Earl Sweatshirt who said rap is black expression – and it was but now I think it’s a colourless expression, a colour-full expression, it’s for everyone and everything. But it’s rhythm and poetry. So whatever rhythm I’m given, I can put poetry to it and then that is rap to me.”
Locking himself away in the studio, Loyle Carner gathered a close-knit batch of collaborators. Kwes, Tom Misch, and Jordan Rakei helped refine his palette, with the process developing deep, trusting friendships. As he freely admits, Loyle is a little hungover today – he was actually at Jordan Rakei’s wedding reception the night before.
“It was just making music for the sake of music,” he insists. “I wasn’t thinking about putting an album together. And then I just kind of fell into a pocket of this… atmosphere, that was present on a lot of the tunes. It wasn’t necessarily the sound, but they all follow the same pattern. It’s just the sense of getting a snapshot of time.”
But snapshots can change. Yesterday’s Gone was adorned with a photo featuring Loyle surrounded by the people closest to him, people who helped that record exist; if taken today, though, a few faces would be added, and a few removed. Rebel Kleff is largely absent from the new album, with the pair’s friendship evaporating amid the pressures of fame, and the responsibilities it brings.
“It’s a long story but, like they say, you shouldn’t work with your friends,” he says with a sigh so heavy the floor seems to shake under him. “Before you know it: it sucks. Animosity.”
The lack of one central production voice, though, allows Not Waving, But Drowning to veer into some remarkable places. Jorja Smith’s vocal on ‘Loose Ends’ is sublime, while a last-minute session with Charlotte Day Wilson produces a moment of beautiful clarity. Each voice is chosen carefully, adding something vital to the project as a whole.
“Maybe I just have a bit of an ear for what fits together,” he says. “It’s about trust. Some people look at it and go: oh here’s Loyle Carner with his second album using his feature cards. But they’re all friends of mine. And these songs would have been made either way.”
“I got beats from some of my favourite producers of all time but they weren’t right,” he reveals. “It’s difficult to explain that. Maybe I’m in my head too much. But I’m not going to do it for the sake of it. Those tunes are there because I believe in them, because they mean something to me.”
At every point, Loyle Carner was working quickly, removing the barriers between his emotions and his art. “Getting in, writing it, and recording it. And hating it, then listening to it a few times and thinking, actually, this is how I felt,” he explains. “Like, me and my missus had an argument and I went in and recorded my lines without a pop shield. You can hear in my voice that Kwes was looking at me like, are you OK? And I was like, nah, not really… but I had to finish the verse.”
“It was about the importance of the first take, the importance of getting stuff out when it’s fresh,” he says. “That was a big deal for me. Things are not perfect, the world isn’t perfect, music is not perfect. All the best things that come out are mistakes, I think.”
Amid these mistakes comes a renewed sense of focus, however, something Loyle Carner attributes to his partner, and the love referenced so passionately on the new album. “She knows everything there is to know about me,” he laughs. “Genuinely everything!”
“I’m famous for not finishing a verse before I record it,” he continues. “But she told me: you’re a wordsmith, you have to care about your words. She was integral, the only reason I went back through it with a fine tooth-comb. Are there any words here that I need to change or make more of? And once I did that I had this attitude of: every word there, has to be there. No other word can fit its place.”
“Rap is the most important thing in my life…It goes hip-hop, my mum and my missus – they’re all floating up there together!”
Words are his currency and Loyle Carner spends them well. Not Waving, But Drowning delves even deeper than his debut, exploring identity, fatherhood, mental health and so much more. The difficulty, he admits, is finding where to draw the line.
“I guess I try not to say too many names, that’s the only thing,” he insists. “I get paid a stupid amount of money sometimes to make music about myself and how I feel and my release is my wage. There has to be a catch. And the catch is that people get to hear some shit about me. It is what it is, I guess. It’s like being a superhero. There has to be something wrong. It can’t just be perfect.”
That’s the thing: if his life is perfect, Loyle Carner can’t create. “I used to get really upset with writer’s block but I realised that writer’s block is the nicest thing – for me – because it means that things are content, at the time.”
“That’s the interesting thing: if nothing is happening then I don’t exist. I’m writing in response. It’s like being a fisherman with no fish!”
And things are pretty content right now. Loyle is able to meet his heroes – from discussing the power of words with Benjamin Zephaniah through to shooting a video with Yotam Ottolenghi. “It’s meeting people that I love,” he gushes with that ever-present smile. “I’m sorted. Once I’ve got some kids and a dog… bruv, I’ve done it all!”