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Loyle Carner’s Magnum Opus

Loyle Carner’s ‘hugo’ is a dive into uncomfortable territory, but with an indestructible life vest to keep you afloat. The tales of ‘hugo’ are told with bravery, deep conviction, and sincere integrity, easily stamping Carner as a lyrical and artistic phenomenon. Before taking to Sydney’s Enmore Theatre for its second night, we spoke to the artist backstage, plunging into all that encompasses the album.

Loyle Carner is an honest writer in every sense of the word. Known already for his introspective lyrics and endearingly soft tone, the pictures he is able to paint through his wordplay, powerful delivery and lyrical visualisation, is what makes his latest album hugo, an unmissable listen. In its softer moments, you’re left clutching at your chest, and in its tougher moments, you’re left sitting in endless thought. The music lifts you up and shakes you around, before laying you down on a sea of dreamy, somber piano chords, and honeyed vocals that cause an imminent head bop. With the help of names like Madlib, Alfa Mist, and Jordan Rakei, we see Carner come into his rawest form as a storyteller. Through hugo, he ponders on entering his mid-20s as a father, detailing his simultaneous journey of yearning to understand his own relationship with his father. While he tackles issues and observations around his identity, knife violence, the importance of healing, and closing chapters from the past, it’s his earnest present, and promising future, that allows Carner to see another day through.

Having just announced the album’s nomination for Album Of The Year at the Mercury Prize Awards for 2023, Carner aims to continuously keep spreading the word of hugo, one day hoping to elevate his artistic expression through other artforms outside of music.

The hugo live experience is Carner’s first brush with performing with a band, and as we’re seated backstage of Sydney’s Enmore Theatre, we talk about how he found family through music, the creative process behind the album, and how he wishes to tell his story next.

I know you’ve got a pretty hectic schedule here in Australia. You just played your first night at the Enmore Theatre last night. How was that?
It was crazy, man. So loud. Such a difference to other places we play. I think the crowd in Australia just seemed to be so much more inclined to want to rap the verses than just the choruses as well. It’s like a small detail, but it feels like they just know all the music. For me, it was a dream come true.

Is that like a unique experience to Australia or do you feel like you come across that kind of everywhere?
Nah, not everywhere. We play a lot of shows in Europe. If we’re in Germany or France or whatever, everyone’s English is amazing. It’s not their first language, so the chorus, the slower bits, are obviously easier to pick up. So this is unique. Even further than the UK, I think, to be honest.

That’s cool. I feel like; because Australia is so far from everyone, whenever we get an international artist here, we show out in the best way that we can.
It feels like that, man. A girl came on the stage at the end of the show last night. Some stage invader. The most chill one ever. That stuff doesn’t happen to me. But she came up, and I was like, “What the fuck?”. But she was like, “Hey, can I just speak on behalf of Sydney?” I was like, “For sure.”. So she took the mic and addressed the crowd. And then she disappeared. But it was cool. It goes to show that it’s not negative, you know, even things that would be negative somewhere else are kind of positive.

That’s awesome. I wonder how the crowd is going to top that tonight.
Yeah, we’ll see. [laughs]

Congratulations on such an incredibly written album, hugo is amazing. Has bringing it to a live performance setting been a bit different to what you’re used to?
Yeah, it’s cool. It’s the first time we played with a band, which has been like a dream come true for me. I wanted to do it for a long time, but it was just hard to find a way to bring the old music up to speed, kind of making old stuff sound like the new stuff and making it all coherent. So it was a lot of work. But to me, it’s been awesome man. For the first time, I feel like I’m playing an actual show, as opposed to just me coming and doing some raps. There’s a lot more happening than just me, and I much prefer to be part of something. A smaller part of something bigger than to be a big part of something smaller.

Do you feel like it kind of opened up artistic avenues that you hadn’t yet explored?
Yeah, for sure. I guess it’s, like, kind of made me appreciate a lot more of the off-space. I used to always try and fill all the gaps, fill all the silence myself. It’s quite nice to be able to take time away and not feel so much pressure with making music itself and not going “It’s all about me”. Not in an egotistical way, but just in a way of,  if I don’t do anything, then there’s nothing happening. Being able to step back and know that everyone else is able to catch me, it’s very liberating.

That’s your people.
Yeah, exactly. It’s like having a family on stage.

Speaking of family, you mentioned off the record that you got the chance to talk to your partner and see your son over Facetime. Has it been difficult to be away from home and family while touring overseas, knowing that things are still so early with being a father?
Yeah, man. I think my son’s just starting to understand what I do for a job as well, so he’s cool with it. I was like, “I’m going away”. He was like, “Oh, playing a festival?”. I was like, “Yeah, playing some shows.”. But yeah, I think he’s also old enough to kind of miss me for real and understand that I’m not coming back straight away. It’s hard. It’s like a homesickness that I haven’t felt since I was a kid, you know. That kind of feeling of missing your son or missing your daughter is like missing your mum. If you’re lucky enough to be close to them when you grow up, it’s that same thing. It’s like being at a sleepover and your mum’s not there and you’re like, I wish my mum was here. It’s a trip. It’s quite nice, in a way. How lucky am I to have that, to have someone to miss? As a kid, I was very lucky to miss my mum. And now I’m very lucky to miss my son. And my girl. And my whole family, but my son, it’s like a different thing. Before, it was cool. My girl could go do her thing. She gets a couple of weeks’ peace from me, but now it’s like an extra layer of real missing.

Has it uncovered a bit of separation anxiety?
Yeah, maybe. I guess for us, it kind of goes to show that we have quite a positive, strong relationship. Much stronger than it was with me and my father at my son’s age. So I think yeah, but no, at the same time. It’s kind of shown that we’re pretty strong but still figuring it out.

On that note, what has been the most rewarding or fulfilling thing about being a dad?
It’s weird, like, you become a lot more selfless because you’re not at the center. I’m not the main character in my movie anymore. I’m just a supporting role. But because of that, you end up being a lot braver. I’ve done a lot of stuff for myself that I wouldn’t have done because I wasn’t doing it for myself before. But man, his speech. I think the most incredible thing is just being able to now hold a conversation with my son, knowing that he learned those words from me and his mum.

Being a parent is a whole new skill, especially when the only brush with parenthood you know and have is from your own parents. It’s a challenge in itself to kind of turn that into your own responsibility. It’s nice to hear that you’re a proud dad.
I am a very proud dad. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s crazy to reflect on your parents, even if they’re good. My mum was such a brilliant parent, but still you end up looking for the cracks and being like, why do I feel like this? Why did this happen? But you’re always going to make some mistakes, and I think that’s fine.


Going back to the album, the title hugo, was based on your dad’s car, which he taught you to drive in. Putting that into perspective, and reflecting on the fact that you didn’t really have the strongest relationship with your dad when you were younger, did that experience of being taught something that is kind of pinnacle to your growth, feel like an unreal experience?
To be honest, I felt very lucky to have it because I got a lot of my friends who want to connect with their father, too. Where I grew up, and my generation, everyone grew up without their father. But a lot of them want to reconnect, but they don’t know how. But also, on top of all that, even if they get through that, does their father even want to be in their life? Are they even willing to work at that relationship? So I felt very lucky that my dad was up for it. It was my girlfriend who really put it all together. I’d introduced them to each other a little, and they kind of began to understand each other. It felt like my girlfriend kind of understood my father in a way that I didn’t. And she was like, you really need to take some time to try and understand him. And I was like, okay. Learning to drive was crazy because it was really one of the first things he’d ever taught me. Taught me to swim a bit as well, alongside my mum, which is something else that I hold very close. And he taught me to roller skate. And to drive now.

Who introduced the idea of teaching you to drive? Was that something that he put forward? Did you ask for it?
I think he knew that I needed to do it. I was becoming a father. My goal was to be able to pass my test so that I can pick up my girlfriend from the hospital. But because of COVID, there was just no way of getting a test or whatever, but I was ready to do it. That was the plan. And so after my son was born, then I was like, let’s take this seriously. I think the idea was from me and him together. He wanted to offer me something. It just kind of fell into place. It was a really beautiful time. Quite a complicated time. And heavy. But I’m absolutely glad I’ve done it. Glad I don’t have to do it again. Because it wasn’t easy.

How would you best describe your relationship with him now?
Ongoing, but rewarding, man. As much as I put in, I get out. Which is what you want from a good relationship, right?

Yeah, definitely.
But, still complicated. I still am finding out stuff about him that I didn’t know. And I think he’s finding out stuff about me which is kind of more nuts, I guess, because there’s so many parts of my life that he doesn’t know about, that he has to fill in. It’s nuts because it’s the kind of stuff that a parent is just supposed to know, like your favorite food. He doesn’t know that stuff. Also, it’s crazy because we have a lot of things in common, which has kind of helped me see the whole argument of nature versus nurture. But there’s things about me that my dad knows nothing about, that we share. It’s quite nice to know that we are definitely kin.

The writing and storytelling on hugo is very introspective and I feel like it would have required a lot of intropsection. Was that process of self-reflection something you had to teach yourself or did you learn from the people around you to do that?
I think I’ve always been kind of good at understanding my emotions in some ways, for various reasons. Like, I’m good at talking or articulating how I feel. For me this was kind of like my magnum opus in some ways, and in other ways, not. But it was something that I did with the kind of hope that I wouldn’t have to do it again. It was like I was building up to this point of really figuring some shit out, whilst being able to express that with the people who’ve been following my music. But now that it was done, it was almost like having to work through this final boss of this era of music. It was never like I had to teach myself. It was just kind of how I’ve always created. And to be honest, I’ve always found it kind of frustrating. I’ve always wanted to be able to make music or art, in general, that’s more abstract. I am heavily inspired by a lot of people, all the obvious people too, like Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, etc. But I really love when I hear something that I know is personal, but I don’t know why. Whereas with my shit, everyone knows it’s personal and they know why. So that was a challenge for me on this album. I was starting to play with that. How do I tell you my story without you knowing it’s my story? That’s kind of my next challenge, how to code it a little bit better.

So that’s what comes after the final boss?
I guess it’s like you just pick up a new game, right? You start from ground zero again. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do now. A lot of my music is about so much beautiful stuff happening in my life. First and foremost, my son. And there’s no words that I can find, really, that describe him. It feels like, if I want to describe my son, it has to be abstract because it’s more of a feeling. I can’t sum him up in words. Those words don’t exist.

The roster of artists that you worked with to bring this album together is obviously incredible –  Madlib, Rocco Palladino, Alfa Mist. How’d it feel to be part of that cohort and bring the vision of hugo to life?
Honestly, it took a long time to not feel like an imposter man. Especially around musicians. All of my friends rap, everyone I grew up around does. It’s just like what we did for fun to pass time and it’s very easy to not feel like a musician. Also if you kind of bring in class and race and systematic oppression, what you’re told you are and what you’re told you’re not. I know I touched on it on this album, but, yeah, it was very weird to kind of be in these rooms and have to keep reminding myself, like, this is legit. I’m bringing something to the room. And it was very powerful for me, this process, because I was reminded time and time again of that, by the people I was with. I would do something, and they’d be like, “Yo, no way, how’d you do that?”. And I’m very used to asking my friends questions like that. So, yeah, it was a trip to kind of feel like they were seeing me as an equal. That was maybe the first time I’d seen myself as an equal within that, it was formative for me.

I kind of want to talk about bringing the album to completion, because I feel like it would’ve been a very emotionally draining process to put such an album together. How’d it feel to kind of enter the final stages of it?
Good but also exhausting. When you’re pushing yourself with anything, the horizon keeps getting further away because you kind of get to the top of the mountain and then someone’s like, wow, well done, but you could probably climb that mountain over there now. So there was a lot of stop-and-start where I’d finish it, and know I’ve worked harder than ever, and I’m so out of my comfort zone. And someone will go, great. Now you’re out of your comfort zone, look over there. And I’d be like, okay, and then go that way. I think at the end of it, I was just so relieved because I knew there was no stone left unturned. We made so much music for it, like 100 tracks or something crazy. And only ten of them got used. I just felt proud of myself. And it was the first time I’d made something and honestly felt like it doesn’t matter what people think. Everyone always says that. And I always used to say that I didn’t care what people think, but I really did. If they had a criticism before, I would have been annoyed with myself because I probably would have thought, oh yeah, shit, I was gonna do that but I didn’t get to it. Whereas with this one, I knew if there was any criticism, I just wouldn’t give a fuck because I had such a magnifying glass on everything that there was no possibility to be like, yeah, shit, I probably shouldn’t have bothered with that. Or I should have tried harder. I couldn’t have tried harder. I feel like where I grew up and the people I’m around, the whole thing you’re taught if you’re young and you look like me, is that it’s cool to not try. And it’s kind of a self-preservation thing because as soon as you admit you’ve tried, if people cut it down, then you kind of have nothing to fall back on. Whereas before, I could be like, yeah, I didn’t even try, man, so I’ll try next time and it’ll be better. Whereas this time I was like, fuck, okay. I’ve really tried. So if people don’t like this, that’s it. It’s kind of liberating because then you’re like, well, I tried. If it didn’t work, that’s it.

Then I guess would you say you’ve reached a point of contentment with music?
Yeah, I think so. Like, contentment and discontentment at the same time. Because as soon as you fall into that place, it’s dangerous. So it kind of made me feel, not like I’ve completed rap, but I feel like music is so much wider. Art expression is so much wider than that now. I don’t look at it in the same way, I kind of feel like I’m excited to follow the footsteps of, like, I don’t know, Donald Glover, and allow music to be a part of a much bigger expression.

Follow Loyle Carner here for more and stream hugo now.

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