“I guess it feels necessary,” says Loyle Carner. “I would hope that if someone else was in a similar situation to myself… that someone in my position would help out, because I think it’s just what you’re supposed to do.”
The 25-year-old rapper from south London is sitting upstairs in a coffee shop outside Thornton Heath station, across the road from a new “urban greening” community project he has helped set up to regenerate a disused area not far from where he grew up.
Music hits you as soon as you step off the train, and dozens of people have gathered to attend workshops, eat local food and see plans to improve the area, ahead of Carner performing there later in the evening.
How does he feel about being able to use his success to help others? It seems obvious that for Carner, it’s not a question of why put yourself out, but why wouldn’t you.
“I care about this area,” he says. “I was raised here. My mum still lives around here and I spent my formative years here.”
Loyle Carner is Ben Coyle-Larner, his stage name a spoonerism in a nod to having dyslexia. In a fickle industry, his is an uplifting success story of recent years, having become known and loved for his sensitivity, emotional intelligence and honesty in the often macho world of hip-hop. Languid beats are combined not with braggadocio but with intimate, heartfelt lyrics expressing everything from his love for his mum, Jean – who features on his albums – to bereavement and living with ADHD.
His debut album Yesterday’s Gone was nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2017 and the follow-up, Not Waving, But Drowning, charted at number three following its release in April.
Today he is in Thornton Heath as the face of Timberland’s Nature Needs Heroes project, collaborating with the brand to lead the regeneration alongside London National Park City, a movement to make the capital “greener, healthier and wilder”.
“It’s about taking a place that’s run down and doesn’t have that much love, and putting a little bit more time and effort into it to help give people in the community something to be proud of and to want to rally around,” he says. “It’s just one of many spots around my local area that needs something. It’s to raise awareness and show that cool things do happen in Croydon!”
It is a regeneration project in essence, he says, but Carner doesn’t like to call it that. “It’s urban greening, which is turning a space that’s concrete, slab, forgotten about, into something that’s covered with greenery and has herb gardens and orchards and things for the kids around here – and the grown-ups around here, even – just to feel a little bit calmer.
“I have no illusions that this going to end knife crime or give loads of people loads more jobs, but I think if you can give a community, this BMI community, a space they can feel proud of, then it might just help spark something and maybe have a domino effect.”
For Carner, it is a chance to help the neighbourhood that shaped him. A lot of his best qualities “have been given to me from this area,” he says, before stopping mid-sentence to clarify – “if there are any good qualities about me”.
It’s clear Carner has many good qualities. As well as this project in Thornton Heath, he has also set up a cookery school, Chilli Con Carner, to help children who have ADHD like him.
“I just felt like this is me trying to make the most of whatever situation I have,” he says. “So it was like I would maybe start the conversation to help get the next generation in a position where the community is rallying around them and people want to invest in this area, because nice things happen in it.”
Carner also hopes the urban greening project can raise awareness about environmental issues.
“We only have one planet. I think it’s important to… a big part of it is, is education, right? Say, children in prison, which is a big crisis; when you put so many young kids in prison but you don’t rehabilitate them. You just put them in as a criminal and you make them leave a criminal.
“So I think it’s important to help with this next generation, to help educate them on what is a positive change and what can be done and what effect their actions can have. Because I think if you don’t educate children in the right way and don’t let them know what’s going on – or even ignorant older people – then you can’t be angry at them when they don’t do the right thing, because they don’t know that it’s the wrong thing.
“The hope is just to be able to express to them that this is this how you should be treating your community. And this is a step forward to having a greener, healthier planet.
“Climate change is everywhere. And it’s scary that a lot of people don’t think that’s happening.”
For Carner, rapping about his feelings, and discussing them openly, has always come naturally, but it is this thoughtfulness that seems to have taken people by surprise.
I start to ask if he was surprised himself by the reaction to his heartfelt music, but Carner interrupts. “Surprised that people liked it?” He laughs. “Yeah, it did surprise me, but go on.”
So was it a surprise to find people hailing his honesty? He says his should not be a unique voice.
“I didn’t think [the honesty] was necessarily normal but I didn’t think it was abnormal,” he says. “I think it’s quite a sad thing [that it isn’t normal]. It shows the time that we’re living through where, you know, it’s like a big deal when a young man talks about how they feel, when it shouldn’t be.
“It shouldn’t be anything special. I shouldn’t be getting paid to play shows… I just talk about how I feel, but everyone goes, ‘wow, no one ever does that. This is so great’.
“I think a lot of [other] people are. But sadly, it doesn’t make its way into the mainstream consciousness of – not the average listener, because no listener is average – but the people who music gets pumped to first.
“It saddens me that people go, ‘wow, I can’t believe you talk about how you feel’, because I would love every young man to talk about how they feel. If we did, we would prevent more young men taking their own lives, for example. So yeah. I was surprised and saddened by it.”
The idea of burying feelings in front of others, of “being fine”, is something he addresses through Not Waving, But Drowning.
The title is based on a poem by Stevie Smith, published in 1957, “about a boy who always acts like he’s fine when he’s not fine,” says Carner. “And then one day he’s out at sea and everyone thinks he’s acting like he’s fine when he’s waving to them but he’s actually drowning, he’s saying, ‘please help’.
“I think it’s true of society because a lot of people don’t ask for help until it’s too late. So I felt like it truly summed up what was going on at the moment.”
It also seems like a good metaphor for the different versions of ourselves presented on social media.
It can be a great tool, he says, but he’s well aware of the pitfalls.
“Social media can have an effect, just because it makes you look at other people and go, wow, everyone has this and I don’t have this. It’s human nature to be jealous of other people because you want what you don’t have.
“But what’s annoying about social media is you don’t see all the bad parts of someone’s life. You only see the good parts. So when you look at other people, you go, oh wow, how lucky is that person to have this perfect life? But you don’t get to see all the things that are not photographed or posted.
“I think social media can be a great tool to help push small businesses and help people who are from places that are not as well connected make a name for themselves. So I don’t hate it, but I do think that it can affect you negatively.”
Carner, who has had counselling since the death of his stepfather in 2014, says he also finds “a catharsis” in getting some of his thoughts out through his music.
“But I also seek counsel when… There’s such a stigma around having a counsellor, just in the sense of talking to someone about how you feel. But it really halved the problem for me and it helps you gain perspective on yourself. So as much as music has helped me, I think it’s also helped me just move forward in all avenues of mental health improvement.”
While he doesn’t go for sessions regularly anymore, Carner still sees a counsellor when he needs to: “For sure. Why not? I see it as like it’s the same as going to the gym. There’s nothing weird or abnormal about it. And I think that every young man in the UK would benefit from seeking counsel from time to time.”
He makes music not for others, but “to make myself feel better, I like the feeling of expressing myself”.
But knowing his words might help fans who are struggling, “gives me a sense of responsibility,” he says. “That moves me.”
Loyle Carner is an ambassador for Timberland’s Nature Needs Heroes campaign, part of a commitment by the brand to plant 50 million trees in the next five years. His second album, Not Waving, But Drowning, is out now