“I’ve Been Making Songs for Myself Forever”: An Interview With looms.

Greg Stanley speaks to the UK rapper about anonymity, the power of hand-written letters, processing trauma through music and more.
By    April 18, 2023

Image via Greg Stanley

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Greg Stanley‘s new personality type is bringing cards to the function.

looms. used to make music knowing that it could never be released under his own name.

“I knew I was carrying other people’s hearts with it,” he says. His voice cracks on this phone call much less than it does in his music, even though he’s speaking to me after a day spent traveling nearly the full length of the British Isles. The nomadic rapper hails from a nondescript town somewhere in the south of England, but just as his cadence stretches on beats from YUNGMORPHEUS (LA), dylantheinfamous (Birmingham, UK) and Argov (Tel Aviv), looms.’ faceless presence spans places far and wide.

looms. has kept more than an arm’s length away from the “UK Hip-Hop” tag. Rather than setting off on boom-bap, his hushed, oddly specific and sometimes uncomfortably graphic lyrics have been delivered over instrumentals more similar to those at the back end of the LA Beat scene era. See 2015-2017, a scrapbook/compilation tape where he largely writes in the third person. Often, he hides or at least obscures truths about his own life.

More recently his words have been refined with first-person accounts of a tumultuous relationship with an ex-girlfriend, informed by the dominant theme of growing up with an abusive father whose actions made police visits to his childhood home a regular occurrence (with stories about them appearing in local newspapers.) On March’s Saints Are Hard To Live With, the production picked is languorous and more minimal, similar to that of MIKE or Earl Sweatshirt before it fizzles out with one final outpour on the solitary acoustic guitar-led track, “The Hound.”

The project starts with a trigger warning that in itself might be triggering, as he addresses his experience of child abuse in the opening lyrics – “Mom-raised son, Dad used to beat us. Wouldn’t know the man’s face, his hands never leave us.” Faceless or not, this brave start sets the precedent that this is not just going to be another 25 minutes of crunchy lo-fi beats with a technically-skilled rapper cleverly telling you how good they are.

You’ll find that stuff in looms.’ discography too. He’ll find squelchy pockets between the stomp of drums and eerie vocal samples, and yet that above description would still undersell the Blah Records-released languid.oceans with Bahamian rapper Obijuan that he dropped in 2020.

After a three-year hiatus that saw him provide the occasional guest verse but largely just travel, write, record and hoard, looms. doesn’t just peel back the mask on the new EP, he knocks on your door, walks into your living room, asks for something stiff to drink and tells you his life story. He told me that it’s one that he’s “spent his whole life wanting to tell,” feeling as if he owed it to the many boys and girls who have had a similar experience to his.

“The more I cower away from it, the more I let it define me, the more my Dad has won,” he says, our call flowing well past 10:30pm on a midweek evening. The subject matter goes from the deep to the delirious, dabbling into the absurd reality of wanting to be an artist in a town where roundabouts outweigh rappers by a hundred to one. He speaks with as much sincerity about his childhood trauma as he does about the fond memories of hearing Grandmaster Flash in his Mom’s CD player.

Since emerging sonically in the UK’s London-centric Soundcloud heyday of the mid-2010s, looms. has only really existed as hand-drawn faces, sketches on walls, vocals on tracks, and more recently, signatures on letters. At the start of 2023, the artist began selling and sending handwritten messages to the many dedicated listeners he has accumulated via his mailing list and private social media accounts since first releasing music in 2015.

Each letter is different, but all of them include a handwritten URL link to a private page where this once-secret EP sat waiting to be downloaded. The letters showed up in The Gambia, Los Angeles, New York City, Berlin, London and on top of my own doormat in Brighton on England’s south coast.

This cryptic release method is in keeping with the nature of the man who put ink on them. Images of looms. are few and far between and the decision to hide his own identity has many layers to it – a desire to be judged on his art alone is only one of them.

“I don’t have people looking at me just because I can do a dance or look greazy,” he tells me before adding a first disclaimer. “Although obviously, I do look greazy, the real core of it is retaining my own sense of self and being able to go out and not worry about being identified, or my family being identified for that matter.”

Despite the fact that no one can see him, looms. seems to have a clear vision of why he makes music. He admits that it is solely catharsis that pushes him into writing and as a result, there are “literally thousands” of songs he’s made that will never leave his laptop. But Saints Are Hard To Live With is a collection of songs that did make it off of his hard drive, originally via the UK’s Royal Mail service and now via streaming ones.

Its stories which were once only available to those only with written permission are now out in the open where anyone can hear them, but no one will know who they are about.

Introduce yourself to someone who is new to looms. off the back of this project.

looms.: I’d say I’m a rapper. But that never seems to be the whole picture. Some people call me a poet but I feel like that is a whole different entity.

It’s not up to me how other people hear it or define it either. Some people have called me a singer even in the past, is that just because they don’t listen to Hip-Hop or are they just hearing melodies instead? Some people don’t even listen to lyrics anyway and if so, I don’t know why you’d listen to me. I’d say I’m a rapper but I feel like a writer.

Growing up outside of a major city, what were your first memories of hearing rap music? Often there are two answers here, one is always mad cheesy and the other is a little more telling.

looms.: The first thing I heard was “Rapper’s Delight.” My mom had that on CD, the long, seven-minute version. I remember hearing that and “White Lines (Don’t Do It)” by Grandmaster Flash. My mom was enjoying the end of disco and RnB and they kind of fell into that. She doesn’t like rap music but those tunes were there.

In my mind I was lost in the lyrics, it was like they were speaking to me. Even as a little kid I could hear they were f*cking around and having a good time, it was so stupid and fun and silly. Talking about how he likes butter on toast? You’d have to be nuts not to like that.

That was my first moment where I was like, what the hell is Hip-Hop? Like, I didn’t have access to the internet yet so that was all I knew. Then my mom’s partner at the time, he showed me an Eminem CD, but only showed me the song “Superman.” And as a kid, I was like, “how can this be so watershed, how can I be hearing this language at such a young age?” I was so young then.

When I started listening to music more seriously, as generic as it sounds, the first artist that really made me realize what rapping really was, was MF DOOM. So yeah, it started at “Rapper’s Delight” and ended up at MF DOOM… via Eminem.

What was it like for a young artist in a small town in England? What sort of access to music and art did you have beyond those hand-me-down CDs?

looms.: There was no scene. No community. No one was into rap music, I was always the only one. People just thought it was hilarious that I was making music, they couldn’t wrap their heads around it. I didn’t know what a community felt like until I left that town. Close friends growing up, we had this insular only little world where after school – I’d drop my stuff off, go to someone’s house and sit until 10:00pm, just showing each other music. We’d just relay as much information as we could about art and philosophy and all this shit that interested us, but we didn’t know anyone else who was into it.

I don’t know if it’s just a family thing, but being creative didn’t ever feel like a viable option, even as a party trick, let alone a job. It was like a dirty secret. Some shit that I shouldn’t even bring up because it might embarrass my family.

This is the case for a lot of towns across the UK, especially in Hip-Hop, so much of it is seen as corny and the more of a niche you go down creatively, you’re just making yourself an outsider until you are condemned so much you have to move to a city. You move there and suddenly you’re f*cking cool, it’s crazy.

When it came to releasing music publicly, your name would be on the same Soundcloud playlists and reshared in the same circles as a lot of London artists: Lord Apex, Finn Foxell, CLBRKS. What are your memories of that mid-2010s Soundcloud era?

looms.: I remember it being a true way to escape from the situation I found myself in at home. I wasn’t living in London, I was orbiting London and had friends in the city, and opportunities to do all these shows, but I wasn’t actually living there, which is funny because a lot of people thought I was there, but I was probably in a bedroom somewhere on my own, much like all the other kids involved.

That whole era was a very lucky moment where a lot of like-minded people found each other online. The music really connected with people, there was no ego, and it was a real community. If you liked someone else’s song, you’d share it. Can you imagine doing that now in the same way? The whole social dynamics around music change so rapidly. If you found Soundcloud and that realm of music, you were probably a die-hard fan and so it felt like as an artist and a listener, we were really onto something.

That was me cutting my chops. Previously I had a lot of experience rapping in person with people who I almost had to convince what I was doing was good, when it probably just wasn’t for them. But on Soundcloud, I uploaded a couple of demos and boom, it just clicked, all these people are gassing me up, sending me really touching messages about me and my music. The anonymity of it meant I was willing to put my music out, otherwise, I’d just still be making music privately.

It’s the furthest thing from a rap battle in The Bronx where you’ve got to show and prove. I was showing and proving but without leaving my room, which gives more people the power to be able to share their opinion and just whittle it down to the art of the music. It’s not about how you look, or how you carry yourself in a circle of people. And people were feeling it then and still to this day which I’m always humbled by.

Yeah, there were so many young English rappers at that time, all of them specifically making Hip-Hop as well. Artists from then have gone in various different ways – both sonically and in terms of career trajectory – but was that era like the starting block for yourself and some of the aforementioned artists?

looms.: If you were there it’s undeniable (that it was the starting block). It’s almost hard to imagine. Word spread quickly and people showed a lot of love. People think of London as being such a cold place creatively, but that whole era was not like that. I’ve not seen anything else like it since.

You’ve immortalized that era of music on the more present-day streaming sites ever since, Spotify and the rest. Why did you want to do that?

looms.: Yeah, a few people have asked me about that, almost as if I’d be expected to hide it away. But all those songs play such an important role in telling people who I am as a person and every one of them was me discovering another layer of what I could be. Every song was a different level of intention. I didn’t have anything around me, I was just shooting in the dark. Even with shows, I was shooting in the dark.

It was the world that told me, now’s the time, now you’re good enough to have listeners and a crowd. There was a time when I listened to them back and cringed a little bit because that’s not necessarily the pocket I want to be in now, but that’s real life, that’s who I was, and I owe those songs everything because they’re the reason I still release music today. Uploading them onto DSPs was almost like a thank you to the songs and the people who love them.

You decided from the off to not show your face and to be represented by this sketch of a face instead. What made you go down that route?

looms.: I didn’t want people to be involved in my personal life. There’s a lot more to it. I had a lot of very intense family issues, a lot of trauma in my family, a lot of abuse. Through experiencing all of that abuse as a child, is actually how I found making music myself. Writing, poetry, music and short stories, that’s where I was able to let all of that out. I found myself being so overt about my upset and the pain that I had gone through, I reached a point where I realized I was never going to be able to be comfortable in my own skin and announce who I am, because it would hurt my family as a result.

The no-face element has many levels, but that’s what it stems from. I don’t have people looking at me just because I can do a dance or look greazy – although obviously, I do look greazy(!) – but the real core of it is retaining my own sense of self and being able to go out and not worry about being identified, or my family being identified for that matter.

Firstly, much appreciated for speaking so openly about your experiences of trauma. You speak openly about it on the tape as well as in person. The opening track literally starts with: “mom-raised son, Dad used to beat us.” What made you want to start the project with that line, jumping straight into it? And does it take an element of bravery to do so?

looms.: That song is like the tip of the iceberg. I’ve written many, many songs on this subject and this is one that was very mature, and well-rounded, and I’ve left out some of the details that would be truly bloody to reveal. There’s an element of feeling raw enough, but also not doing anyone in my family a disservice by releasing it.

I didn’t make the project in chronological order, but when I sat back and listened, I realized what I had done by starting the EP with that line. I spent my whole life wanting to make a statement like that. How I’ve come to terms with my experience of abuse, the more I cower away from it, the more I let it define me, the more my Dad has won. Who the hell would I be if I was still hiding in the corner like I was when I was a kid?

I’ve been making songs for myself forever, there are genuinely hundreds or thousands of songs that will never be released, because that wasn’t what they were made for. If I have something to say, I make a song, or if I have something I feel that I’m unsure about, I make a song. All of this is just how I deal with trauma and process what happened to me.

And I owe it to the millions of boys and girls out there who have a similar experience. Someone somewhere will hear those lyrics and be like, I’ve been through that too. They’ll pick up one theme from the EP, or recurring themes; the police interviews, the looking like your own abuser.

Writing songs about this weaponizes it.

We’ve spoken about one of the main themes already, and this question is very music journalism 101, but what else were you trying to achieve with Saints Are Hard To Live With?

looms.: So every song represents a chapter of my life in the three years that I went without releasing music. A different defining moment in my life when I was overcome with the feeling that I had to put it down into words and into a tune. Each song has a real element of honesty. There are themes that link it all together but, more so, each song is a different story in itself.

The title Saints Are Hard To Live summarizes what it’s about – it’s about not being perfect and that if even if you were, who would want you anyway?

And the project was of course originally released privately, made available to only those who purchased these handwritten letters you’ve been selling…

looms.: Yeah, so there’s a thread through my life of writing letters to people that I really care about, even when I was a kid I used to go back and forth with letters with people and it always felt quite powerful.

Because I’m so grateful for the following that I have, I wanted to do something that felt genuine with those supporting me, something more than just a DM because, half the time, you don’t realize it, but most DMs always say the same thing. There’s almost like a whole language that comes with using DMs, like if I stood in front of you, would you really say “tune’s crazy bro” with a fire emoji?

Nah I guess not, even if you truly meant it.

looms.: Exactly. It’s another example of technology influencing music. So with the letters, I’m opening up a much more interesting dialogue with the people buying them, there’s stuff only the people with the letters will see and those people have had the project before anyone else.

If you want to write back and ask me a question, we can have a conversation and a relationship like that. You can see my handwriting, see where I’ve smudged it with my hand. All of them, I signed. They’re private, I want people to know the value of their support and connect deeper with my music on a level that they usually would.

With the step taken to release your music privately with handwritten letters at first, what’s your take on the current streaming landscape?

looms.: I think it’s a real shame. The fact music is now ubiquitous means that the value of music is not what it used to be. It feels free to the listeners now. That carries with it a lot of pain for artists. I don’t think people view music as the art form that it used to be when people had to go out of their way to buy it, especially younger people.

That means in the same way we live in this fast food economy – scrolling for stuff to catch your attention that you “like” and then forget about 20 minutes later – that culture has crept into music and people feel like they have to release 2000 albums. I’m not saying it doesn’t work because some people are blowing up off that, but if the music is timeless, if it’s good enough, and if you believe in it, that should be all that matters. Otherwise, you can lose sight of the power of music.

If that’s what being an artist is, I don’t want to be one. Not every tune has to have my blood on it, but I can only make music when I have something to say.

And what have you been up to since you last released music?

looms.: I’ve been living life, man. I’ve been going away so I can come back. I’ve been doing my own thing. I didn’t rush anything. I am very proud of that because this world can make it feel like you have to rush things.

So there’s more music to come?

looms.: I got a lot more to come. Whether or not I share it publicly or not is another thing.

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