By Devon Armstrong
Going to a Loyle Carner show is a totally different experience to listening to his music privately. This might seem like an obvious observation – but when listening on your own, headphones in, it feels like every word of his crystal-clear lyrics are addressed directly to you. The quiet humming that introduces Damselfly is almost voyeuristic, as if you’ve stumbled across Carner singing quietly to himself in a supermarket queue. When this quiet humming is instead sung by an audience that packed out the O2 Academy, there’s a strange clash between its intimacy and delivery, and the fact that even as you are drawn in by Carner’s totally fixating stage presence, a crowd of a thousand people are singing along. Although he is an artist with a relatively small repertoire, the audience knows his songs back to front and each initial chord, note, or beat bursts a tense anticipation that precedes each song.
What becomes even more obvious from Carner’s introductions to his songs, disarmingly quiet comments and moments of calm that manage to maintain, even raise, the room’s excitement and energy, is that his entire musical career and catalogue is a guided journey through his inner circle of family and friends. He speaks about his friendship with MC and producer Rebel Kleff (who joins him onstage briefly) and with producer Tom Misch, as he introduces Damselfly. He laughs over his mother’s frustration with never having had a daughter, and reveals how he wrote Florence as a tribute to the daughter and sister they never had. He also speaks of possibly his most significant influence, his stepfather’s death when introducing to BFG, although it is only later, that I find out that the red t-shirt that spent the concert draped over his shoulders was his stepfather’s Eric Cantona Manchester United football shirt that accompanies him to every concert (despite Carner himself being a Liverpool fan). It’s all too easy to let his lyricism and the atmosphere wash over you, forgetting about their significance. “Of course I’m fucking sad, I miss my fucking dad” – gruffly emotional poetry, but when he brandishes his dad’s shirt, his voice cracking with emotion, witnessing a stranger’s loss in this way feels strangely invasive. It’s a rare privilege for an artist to open their heart this much to their audience, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly.
A review of Loyle Carner in The Guardian described his music as “awkwardly confessional hiphop”; it’s easy to understand that perception of his work, but it’s certainly not one that comes across in concert. Carner is confessional, always, but never awkward. There is no shame in his love for his family and friends, and there is grief for the passing of his step-dad. Sharing his emotions with the audience brings him closer to us, bound together in our common experiences, rather than his sincerity in any way driving a wedge between him and his audience.
Some aspects of the performance are incongruous with what feels like a rap gig with a rap crowd. The gospel choir that begins Isle of Arran ought to be out of place, as should the smooth Saxophone solo at the beginning of Ain’t Nothing Changed, but they aren’t. Just as the intimacy of his words in between songs feels unrehearsed, it is difficult not to be humbly blown away by this public engagement in music that almost feels like private therapy for Carner. And since his mother and younger brother starring in music videos filmed in his own home, nothing feels out of place. Carner’s skill and presence as a musician, poet and performer are astonishing. Walking out of the O2 into the rain on Cowley Road to catch a bus back to central Oxford, Carner seems to follow me, and perhaps naively I feel closer than I did before to the man on stage. Benjamin Coyle-Larner (his real name) and the artist Loyle Carner feel one and the same, and it strikes me as an honour to have been allowed into his world.