BERWYN is taking over the world, and there’s no time for sleep
He’s worked with Drake and Richard Russell, shared two acclaimed mixtapes and now, is nominated for the Mercury Prize. BERWYN’s time is here.
One of the first things you notice about Berwyn is his strained relationship with rest.
That’s true irrespective of that first impression: whether on the record or in the booth, the British singer-songwriter is quick to colour his mindset with allusions to sleep – or lack thereof. It’s a brisk Wednesday morning in London when we talk, and it doesn’t take long to realise that when it comes to R&R, Berwyn’s more famine than feast.
“Bear with me one second as I get my takeaway breakfast,” he asks, the hustle of some lockdown transaction playing out in the background. An iced latte – “‘cuz I'm gonna need some kind of caffeine,” he adds – and a cinnamon roll. “I went to bed at four o'clock and I woke up at nine o'clock,” Berwyn explains, audibly fatigued. “If you want to calculate the maths, you could do that,” he adds with a laugh.
It’s hardly surprising that Berwyn is staying busy. In the past few years alone, he’s caught the attention of Richard Russell, head of XL Records; released his debut mixtape, DEMOTAPE/VEGA, to acclaim; worked with his hero, Drake; dropped a refined sequel in TAPE2/FOMALHAUT; and, in the time since our conversation, been nominated for Britain’s premier music award, the Mercury Prize. Receiving a nomination for a debut is impressive, but earning a nod for a mixtape is unheard of – that is, until now.
It’s a far cry from the life that courses through his deeply autobiographical songs, and as accolades accrue day-to-day, Berwyn’s still trying to process the premise. “It's crazy, I'm still trying to get my head around the fact that I do this for a job now,” he says, a touch awestruck. “That's one of the many things on my list of 'I need to get my head around,' so maybe one day I'll get to it!”
Trinidadian by birth, Berwyn moved to the UK aged nine. That proved a life-changing transition in more ways than one: while he excelled at school, discovering his musical talents and earning University-level grades, his immigration status put a hold on both those aspirations. In 2018, hemmed by uncertainty and bureaucracy, Berwyn made a simple studio of a rundown bedsit, spending two weeks recording DEMOTAPE. The sparse simplicity of his arrangements were borne of those technical limitations, the power of his vocal fuelled by the hardship that runs through his vivid lyrics.
DEMOTAPE might just be a concept record, if one can make a concept album tethered to the self. His tales unfold without contrivance, no veneer separating the singer from his subject. Hardly a bar into the first verse of the record, Berwyn confronts the self in no uncertain terms: “I'd admit I have some issues and I need you nearer,” he drops with a clipped casualness. That it comes attached to an earnest romantic proposition speaks to the offhand honesty he brings to the telling.
Even at a time when hip-hop and R&B feel more unbridled than ever, Berwyn’s frank reflections on his own life – his illegal status, his mothers time in prison, his departed friends – land with striking clarity. It’s wild to think that someone party to such trials, and subject to such constant vigilance, could debut with the piercing introspection Berwyn casually wields. It wasn’t even meant to be this way: “this wasn't my choice, I wanted to go to Uni,” he spits on the soul-bearing 017 Freestyle, “it was the government who told man I wasn't allowed.” Those same forces kept these words unheard for two more years.
There’s something to be said for Berwyn’s musical confidence, his voice placed front-and-centre atop minimalist arrangements, even if the man himself doesn’t feel the need to say it. “Never had any uncomfortability doing what I want to do,” he quickly responds. “It's always been very second nature to just do what the fuck I feel like doing, and I guess that's just another example of that.” Unintimidated though he is, Berwyn’s fearlessness is tempered some by his incisive storytelling, a heart-wrenching patchwork of tales too acute to be anything but real.
No soft vocal could sand the edges from a lyric like “bodies drop like flies / Bonnies wanting Clydes, Clydes dying long before their times,” nor could any sparse beat pull the heft from prose like “if you go it leaves a hole in my soul / and if they have a funeral for you I probably won't even go / I don't cry in front of people, I only cry on my own.” That Berwyn turns painful recollections to haunting art isn’t just a comment on his skill as a musician – it’s a testament to a fearless vulnerability, one at odds with the ever-guarded world of which he sings. It’s enough to indulge yet another Hov lyric, one uninvoked but still embodied by Berwyn himself: “I can’t see it coming down my eyes, so I got to make the song cry.”
“I've been guarded in many ways,” he admits, considering the gulf between the tales and the telling. “Even creatively I was guarded at a time, wherein that most of the releases were drill releases. There was loads of reasons why courage was necessary in the making of a piece like VEGA.” It’s a different kind of courage to that of his tragic subjects, both strains encapsulated so well by another standout TRAP PHONE lyric: “I been spending time sittin' down, just thinkin' about it / don't let them catch you with the knife, don't let them catch you without it."
The memories of those times – distant now, but immediate on recording in 2018 – have been more than a little creatively formative for the musician. “I've been around certain crowds where I get to understand the true value of bravery. I’ve seen some of the quote-unquote ‘bravest men in the world’ do the most cowardly things,” he says, picking up steam as he goes. “You ever watch a killer cry? You know, one of them kind of brave cries? Watching a killer do something like that, you start clocking what it means. I was there. When you see the fears of a killer, you get what it means.”
GLORY dips into a forceful hush, the kind delivered through gritted teeth and strained conversations. He traces an arc from Subway Sandwich Artist to a world-renowned superstar, eyes ever on the prize as deeper details unfurl. “It was just me, myself, the stars and my guitar in the night,” he says of those days, pondering the nature of his indefatigable drive. He puts it to compassion, the companionship of friends an essential: “that's the shit that got me through it, I still owe you my life / I swear I owe you my life.” Then, as if a memory has shaken loose, the song segues to MISSING U, spiralling into a macabre meditation on those not around.
“I have been opened and enlightened to certain angles of courage, and so for that reason, I’ve no longer held on to the illusion that holding a hard face is the bravest thing to do when the day comes,” explains Berwyn. “Actually letting that ‘brave’ face go seems to be one of the bravest things a man can do.” His 017 Freestyle is proof enough of such courage.
In spite of these trials – or, perhaps, consequently – Berwyn’s music is laced with references to fate. It’s a vague thread that winds throughout, his faith in a greater vision intertwining with images of slight living and cheap cars turned expensive beds. “It's a bit of a confused area for me in terms of faith, religion,” he admits, pensive. “They're all so, so crazy intertwined with loads of other working parts, both good and bad.”
The word ‘God,’ powerful in its own right, crops up intermittently, and though DEMOTAPE opens with the pious MOURNING PREYERS, Berwyn sees beyond the stricter confines. “I had a religious upbringing. My father was a religious man and a God-fearing man, and so was my grandma, who I later went to stay with,” he recounts, as if tracing back through his own devotion for some clarity. “I'm the puzzle that I am. I don't know what that is. I still don't even know. I'm kind of glad I don't, to be honest. If I knew it now, I'd be like 'oh, what'll I do now?' Nothing left to do!”
It’s just as well that the mystery endures, as God’s plan has seen Berwyn to some dizzying heights – and introduced him to some similarly reverent inspirations. In an Instagram freestyle – one of many casual releases – Berwyn offered a typically sage observation: “you don’t know life until you find out your life has meaning.” Berwyn has a little trouble narrowing it down to a sole epiphanic realisation. “I mean, I'll say getting signed, but hear this: man done get signed all the time. Nobody knows it happens, nobody ever knows it happened,” he muses, adding that “maybe those moments are yet to come.” It’d be hard to top the wildest moment of his blockbuster year, something that’s clear even as he says it: “if I had to evaluate the most valuable moment to me, [it’d] probably be being asked for creative help by the greatest artist on the planet, to ever walk the earth.”
“I came up talking very irrational, you know? I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor, listening to a Kanye album and saying, ‘don't worry, when I see Kanye, I'll tell him this,’” he says, a touch incredulous. “There was something in the back of my mind that was telling me that was true the whole time, and that little thing was right there all the time – that's what I mean by it; that's what I mean by ‘giving it some meaning’.”
Berwyn believed, but he didn’t expect it quite so soon. “I was 100% convinced that a day like that was gonna happen, but when it did... there's just no convincing yourself of that really, is there?” He’s right – it’s hard to imagine how you’d react if Drake himself gave you a call, but for Berwyn, that’s no longer a mystery. “I was most grateful I was able to experience it fully,” he says, admitting very little of the call and their collaborations. “You know, there was nobody around me at the time, we were in a national lockdown.”
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It’d be easy to put his rapid-release sophomore effort, TAPE 2/FOMALHAUT, down to the effects of that same lockdown, but Berwyn assures me it’s more than just an opportunity seized. “I've been writing in my kitchen, in my living room, in the studio, in the car, on the train, I write everywhere, constantly. I'm obsessed right now with making music, it's all I can think about. I can't get my head around anything else.”
TAPE2 basks in his rapid rise, instrumentals richer, arrangements stronger and emotional honesty as sharp as ever. “I wrote TAPE2 under slightly happier circumstances. I'm in a much nicer place now, I have a bed,” he explains. “I never use it though, funnily enough! I slept on the sofa last night.” In some sense, that almost mirrors the tape itself: Berwyn’s farther from the stories he tells, his sound refurbished and mind clearer, but some patterns are hard to break.
In the vein of DEMOTAPE, Berwyn lays vignettes on loneliness, regret, betrayal and duplicity, new problems and old scars duelling throughout. “There's that whole survivor's guilt theory that I fucking never even knew existed until I started feeling like a motherfucker,” he says of his new challenges. “That's a real thing, hundred percent.”
“I guess the stories have changed based on a change of experience and day-to-day lifestyle, but for the most part, I don't feel different,” elaborates Berwyn. On 100,000,000, an ode to unreachable family abroad, he misses more than just his father: “never trust a soul, I know how people are trash,” he admits, the first of many allusions to falling out and breaking up. He takes the blame on RUBBER BANDS – “never wanted to hurt your heart or tear you to pieces / that’s just what love is” – and flips those schisms into something existential on the unanswerable WRONG ONES.
Berwyn’s set on questions, whether existential, entrepreneurial or interpersonal: “will you be my medicine and remedy, yeah?” “Are you sure you certi' with them people that you deal with?” “Are you getting old? Are you dealing with the same shit?” “Why do we love the wrong ones, and trust the wrong ones?” TEDDY’S JOINT (CHORDS TO MAKE YOU CRY), a heartbreaking eulogy, asks none, nor does the deeply personal I’D RATHER DIE THAN BE DEPORTED and the cathartic FULL MOON FREESTYLE. These are minor odysseys; misty-eyed glimpses in the rear-view that feel as raw as ever.
It comes to a head on ANSWERS, where – in spite of his inquiry – Berwyn acknowledges closure might be out of reach. “I've always been inquisitive,” he tells me. “The ability to question is enough. I mean, that's the one thing that separates me from the sheep in the field, so even if I don't find the answer, the ability to ask the question is something. It's my birthright. I'll do that as often as I can.”
Staring down the big questions, then, comes as naturally to Berwyn as laying polished records. “I expect to be releasing things as quickly for the remainder of my career,” he confidently assures. “I work better when I work faster, I tend to work in large amounts, and a byproduct is a large amount of things to release.” It’s a passion that’s once again coming between the artist and his sleep schedule, but as he explains, there’s no denying it’s an improvement.
“I'm no longer sleepless for morbid reasons. I'm sleepless for good reasons,” he says, still a touch tired. “By God's grace, there's a lot of demand on the name Berwyn, and so for that reason, it's got me having maybe less hours and I need or I should be having. It's something I'm not so much complaining about, because it's a byproduct of something good now, you know?”
“I haven't taken a break in two years, man,” boasts Berwyn, pointing to a recent four-day ‘holiday’ as his only respite. “Do you know what? I'm focused, I'm gonna stay focused,” he says of the future. “The answer to that question is another two years without breaks, just hard work. Now I'm playing in the big leagues. What's next is just me in the big leagues, being in the big leagues!” He laughs heartily, enthused by the thought.
The big leagues means crossing perhaps his final musical threshold: heading out on tour. “I've done a couple of shows, but never really had to go on the road for that, kind of just got a cab there and a cab back,” he says with another laugh. What was once a DEMOTAPE circuit has since become a TAPE2 tour, owing to the ruinous global health crisis. “I mean, going on the road is all I ever dreamt of as a child… I'm just trying to live out my childhood fantasies.”
There’s one milestone in particular that Berwyn’s eagerly eyeing. “What I'm looking forward to mostly – which, by the way, I completely forgot even happens – [is] hearing people sing the words back! I know that's gonna sound narcissistic as fuck,” he says, rushing to an explanation. “Going on the road is all I ever dreamt of as a child… I'm just trying to live out my childhood fantasies. That shit managed to get me through. I closed my eyes bear times and experienced that one thing, so I'm trying to get there.”
It won’t be long until the goalposts shift again, each adjustment just a little more ambitious. It’s short work for Berwyn, who doesn’t so much rise to the task as embody the craft – he’s already putting in the hours, doing the work before the assignment’s even begun. The conversation comes to a close. We pull back from the big picture, and it’s just another day in the life of Berwyn DuBois. “I gotta go see Richard Russell later to listen to some music, so I'll probably be able to get a little two hour nap after this,” he says, relieved.
Berwyn should take that rest where he can find it – things are about to get a whole lot busier for the UK’s most promising new emcee.
BERWYN's new mixtape TAPE 2/FOMALHAUT is out now via Sony Music Australia.
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