To prepare for my interview with singer-songwriter and ‘North London cheeky chap’ Luke Carey, I check out his website where he talks about the humble beginnings of his musical odyssey. I learn he was “named after Luke Skywalker (no joke, my brother named me and to be fair to him, you can’t pass up that opportunity!)”, that he is self-taught on the guitar and that by braving an open mic gig one night it led to him catching the music bug.
His virtual persona is warm, funny and candid and en route to the meeting, I hoped his real life character would correlate. I’m not disappointed. Luke jumps up from the table with a smile, insists that he buys me a drink and off kicks an interview peppered with lots of laughter and covering a wide range of subjects from the short-sighted closure of London’s top live music venues, playing to drunk crowds and musical inspirations from Damien Rice to Dr Dre.
You might not have heard of Luke yet as you read this but, believe me, you soon will. His sophomore EP, Stencils, was released on 26 November and climbed to Number Two in the iTunes Singer/Songwriter Album chart in just a few days, surpassing Tom Odell and Jack Savoretti in the process. Not bad for a guy in his early twenties who hasn’t long picked up a guitar and whose interest in music was only piqued when he stumbled across a SBTV video of another singer-songwriter doing his thing. This propelled him to dabble in the open mic scene. That must take considerable courage, to perform in front of a crowd for the first time, I ask Luke? “I basically just bigged myself up in front of my mates to the point where I had to do it!” he says with a grin. “I loved it, I really did. I just haven’t been able to stop since then”.
His sound has been described as a mix of laid back guitar pop, sliced with rapid fire lyrics of his unique and uplifting street poetry. It’s acoustic and undeniably poetic, but with an urban twist. He delivers a blend of folk, beatboxing, rapping and singing with just his guitar and a loop pedal to frame his vocals. “I guess I’m just another acoustic singer-songwriter who’s got his own little personal little twist on things” he says thoughtfully.
Luke has been working hard since that first open mic gig and last year set himself the challenge of playing one hundred gigs in one hundred days, which contributed to the success of his debut EP, Sketches, smashing the iTunes Singer/Songwriter Album chart. It secured a Top Ten position and even beat Kanye West on the overall chart for a bit although Luke was surprised by its triumph. “I just released it, I didn’t expect it to do that well!”. As the interview progresses, it’s clear Luke is self-effacing about his success. “I don’t think it’s a talent. You just spend enough time at it and you end up making a catchy tune I guess. Like anything.” he says modestly before adding “my first song was terrible!” with a chuckle and brushes it off when I insist that not everyone can pick up a guitar, teach themselves and then write a successful record.
His current EP, Stencils has climbed to the Number Two spot on the iTunes Singer/Songwriter Album Chart in a matter of days. The five-track EP is nineteen minutes of clever lyrics and catchy hooks; his own interpretation of modern pop culture (even Luke admits it’s “something I’m kind of proud of”) and is a body of work that is almost a year in the making, with thirty tracks whittled down to five. The “rappy one”, Buckledownknucklehead is a personal pep talk about focus and dedication and was written over the space of one year as the lyrics and tune kept changing. The EP is relatable, honest and raw and Something I’ve Found charmed me with its simplicity (she looks a beauty in the morning and amazing at night. I hope she’s out tonight”.) I’m interested to know what track Luke is most proud of. “It really does change, it depends on my mood” he says. “That’s what I like about it, it kind of jumps around with different emotions. So when I wrote God Might Forgive in a Day – a sad one, I was really happy with it, because it was exactly how I was feeling”.
Does it take courage to write so honestly, pouring your heart out to your audience I wonder? “I do cringe when I think of myself as that clichéd guitar guy in his bedroom writing about being upset about girls” he admits with a grin. At this point, it’s prudent to discuss the inevitable comparisons he’s drawn with Ed Sheeran and their kindred style. It’s addressed with humour and cheekiness in Buckledownknucklehead. (Seriously, my name is not Ed Sheeran. See, I’m a man going about living my own dream and it might be more likely if I stop singing his songs then he stops singing just like me…) and I ask if it bothers him and if he finds it flattering or obstructive? “I started playing guitar after watching him sing so I kind of learnt by watching him” he says good-naturedly. The reference was “the most respectful way of just saying cheers” although some people wrongly assumed Luke was calling Sheeran out which he quickly quashes. “I’m saying that I used to sing his songs a lot. It’s better to just acknowledge than just pretend I’ve never heard of him at all. He’s cool, I just want to distant myself a little bit in terms of music association and do my own thing”.
Keen to move away from lazy comparisons, I steer the subject onto live performance. Luke has been described as ‘a new artist who stops entire audiences mid conversation and has them listening in stunned silence’ (“I didn’t write that”, he laughs) and has just completed his first UK tour to coincide with his EP release. At the time of our interview, he is about to play the first date in Edinburgh and was excited by the prospect. “If I go to a different city and just one person there wants to buy the EP, then that’s a success for me. That’s one more sale and it can go up the charts maybe a little bit more and they might tell their mates”.
When we talk about gigging he becomes particularly animated. “There’s been a few times when I’ve played really busy places and by the end they were just really quiet and it was just the best feeling, I didn’t even need a microphone at that point” he says proudly, before adding thoughtfully “that’s the kind of stuff that makes you want to keep going. Incredible”.
As standard, Luke documents his life via social media and on the day of the interview he’s been at home making tour T-shirts in the morning, followed by a photoshoot with RockShot photographer Rachel Lipsitz before meeting me. Is this a typical day in the life of Luke I ask with a smile? “The Life of Luke!” he laughs. “I prefer it when I have a bit of free time so I can start writing songs again. I find if you can just sit down with a guitar for an hour and just find one bit that sounds cool you might use it years later – it’s always worth just messing about even if i’m not in the most songwriting of moods”. I’m curious to know what artists inspire a songwriting mood? “Damien Rice and Dr Dre are quite close to each other on my iPod” he reveals.”I listen to loads of different stuff, it’s very diverse. Most of the people that I’m surrounded by – they’re probably the coolest people to get inspired by and to watch and learn from”.
I ask Luke who he’s listening to (I’m always keen to what who musicians themselves play) and we spend the next five minutes comparing playlists and nattering about our favourite artists. So what comprises a Luke Carey playlist? “Random stuff!” he says. Artists included Eminem, Mac Miller, Art Tatum, Kendrick Lamar, Harry Pane, Jamie T, Ray Charles, Nizlopi and Wretch 32 to name a few. “Every different tube stop I’ll change the album” he admits and I understand why Luke’s music is so multi-faceted
Our time is nearly up so I push my luck and throw in a few more questions, curious to know a bit more about what’s on the cards for Luke. Is there time to celebrate his recent chart success as he deserves? “I’m focusing now on getting the next one recorded. I’ve got a couple of demos sorted for the next one, I just want to get the ball rolling”. As for future ambitions, Luke shares with me three small dreams he had when he first started playing the guitar. “One was to play at Reading Festival as that was the first festival I went to. Two was to play at the Hammersmith Apollo as that was the first place I went to see a gig. Three was was to be an iTunes Top Ten Singer-Songwriter. So it’s one out of three so far!” he says cheerfully.
The titles of Luke’s EPs (Sketches and Stencils) suggest not only a creative side but of something in draft form, a blueprint if you like and I ask him if this was intentional? “Yes – the idea behind the titles is that it’s not the full picture, it’s not ready yet. I see EPs as signs of progression and showing development and growth – it’s something and I’m proud of it but it’s not the final article. I’ll happily admit that I’m not 100% there with my sound yet. I don’t think I’ve found it completely but I’m definitely looking for it and I feel like if I can keep putting out stuff then I feel like it’s improving. It’s only a good thing to share it with people even if they don’t like all of the songs they might like some of them. You can go with that and people can kind of watch it grow. I’d say it’s kind of an exciting time”. Number Two on the iTunes Chart and only just starting out? You could say that.
With that, the interview is over and he gives me a warm hug goodbye and heads out the door. He may be a cheeky chap and the interview was unquestionably full of laughs, but beneath the bravado and humour there’s substance and determination. Luke is an artist on the threshold of many things but humble enough to acknowledge that great music is an evolution, achieved with hard graft, personality and of course raw talent. Without that, you can’t silence a room.
Photography by Rachel Lipsitz. Interview by Nicola Greenbrook.
Stencils is out now on Laid Bare Records and available to buy on iTunes