Kate Tempest: The Best of What's Next

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Kate Tempest triumphs on the stage of a theatre as much as on the streets; a talented link traversing the role of hip-hop MC to award-winning playwright.

“I feel blessed to be working in all the fields I’m working in,” said the 29-year-old Tempest. “And, I don’t think it’s that much of a big deal that a person who loves writing would want to push themselves to engage with new forms. My favorite writers have all tried their hands at different forms. It’s not unusual to read a play by a poet or read a poem by a playwright.”

With an uncanny command of the language and a divine sense for eloquent cadence and inflection, the rapper/poet has turned heads at her recent U.S. tour dates with her graceful intermingling of musical articulations through a bracing and percussive delivery.
Tempest released a new single back in late January, a follow-up to her well-received album Everybody Down. “Bad Place For A Good Time” is a song that rises quietly like a melancholy moon, with softly crackled drum machines beating under a single repeated piano strike that resonates for entire measures under Tempest’s voice, starting as a whisper and rising, gaining vigor, flaring louder, oozing incrementally more ire and empathy, anger and compassion, swelling into a whirlpool of evocative imagery.

Tempest started her first series of U.S. performances at this year’s SXSW Festival. She grew up in South East London reading Joyce, Beckett and Woolf, while simultaneously listening to Wu-Tang Clan, Biggie Smalls, Lauryn Hill and Bob Dylan.

“The reason people find what I’m doing unusual is because one of the forms I work in is rap, and that speaks clearly, I think, of the ignorance that surrounds rapping as an art form,” said Tempest. “As if, because you cut your teeth as a rapper, it’s shocking to think that you might one day want to write a novel. I’m pretty sure that is about the prejudice and stereotyping that exists around the figure of a ‘Rapper’ as a caricature of stupidity and bravado. The rappers I grew up with were some of the smartest, most well-read, intelligent and thoughtful people I have ever met.”

During a self-described “wayward youth,” Tempest started working in a record shop at age 14, eventually engaging in (and thriving at) weekend rap battles, honing her talents toward the story-rhyme form. At 16, she started studies at the BRIT School for Performing Arts and Technology and later graduated from Goldsmiths, University of London.

Everybody Down, her debut album (released via Big Dada Recordings and Ninja Tune), was a mesmeric narrative unfolding across 12 chapter-songs, with her her raw and elegant raps portraying a small cast of weary souls as they stumble through the grime and travails of their daily lives, each yearning for something better, if not just more substantial, in both life and in love.

As she raps on an older poem, “Renegade,” she classifies herself as “an old soul” who maintains “a young mind,” proclaiming to have “ink running through her veins.” Aside from her latest single, which you can stream on Spotify, you should also look for her debut novel, The Bricks That Built The Houses, which comes out via Bloomsbury next year. Everybody Down was produced by Dan Carey, whose resume includes works with Bloc Party, Bat For Lashes and Yeasayer; it was nominated for last year’s Mercury Prize.

“Telling rhymes and performing my lyrics has always been a massive part of what I do,” said Tempest of translating her rap songs and poetry to live performances, be they on tour as at SXSW or during presentations like Brand New Ancients. “This whole thing started off with me rapping, and a rhyme wasn’t finished until I spoke it out loud. It’s the most natural thing in the world for me to be onstage speaking my words. I love what happens in a room when the audience and the artist are together in the moment, each person contributing to everyone else’s experience.”

Everybody Down was produced by Tempest and Dan Carey, just the two of them working in the studio; the touring band came in to accommodate the live shows. Carey’s resume includes works with Bloc Party, Bat For Lashes and Yeasayer; the album was nominated for last year’s Mercury Prize.

“(Carey) and I have a crazy chemistry, one that I’ve never felt with another musician before,” Tempest said. “Pure exhilaration at the other’s talent and at the possibilities. When we were making Everybody Down, (Carey) was really busy, and would call me on his downtime and I would run over to the studio whenever he had a couple of hours spare. So the feeling was always one of urgency and joy to be together in the studio at last. So, we spent the best part of a year working in Dan’s downtime, snatching a couple hours here and there, I was writing for theatre at the time and was thinking lots about character and dialogue.”

“We developed the idea of the sustained narrative over this time of working really full on for a day and then having weeks or months go past before we could find another day. At this time, I went away to do some teaching at a college and they put me up in a hotel for a week, I only had to lead two or three sessions, and the whole rest of the week I just wrote, what turned out to be the whole album plot. Then Dan and I managed to get two weeks together in his studio, and the album just flew out. We got the whole thing done in two weeks.”

Tempest is the youngest writer to ever win the UK-awarded Tim Hughes Prize for new poetry for her staggering book-length poem, Brand New Ancients, a collection of fierce and poignant words with a meter so musical it incites one to speak it aloud. Whereas we’re featuring Tempest in our Music tab, we’re considering her to be the best of what’s next in an arc of art forms—poetry, theatre, spoken word performance and, in a few weeks, literature. Although Bricks That Built The Houses will come out in early 2016, she’s already got a new eBook online (via Bloomsbury) titled Hold Your Own.

“Some of the most magic moments of my life have been on a stage,” Tempest said. “Looking at my band mates and feeling the electricity that happens when something is just working and you don’t know what or why or how, but it’s fucking amazing and you can be in the darkest moments before going out there, all kinds of things could be going on in your life; in the past I’ve been in pieces an hour before a show, dealing with bad news or something, but then you go out on stage and you start to speak the words and you listen to the drums and it’s like everything opens. You open, the audience opens. The music opens. It’s a deep feeling. It’s very real.”

“It’s hard to talk about it without it sounding clichéd and hyperbolic, but it’s a huge part of how I’ve earned my stripes. I’ve been rapping all over the place for over a decade—to empty pubs, to 500 punks at a squat rave, to inmates in prisons, to fashionistas at industry parties, to hip hop heads at rap shows, to kids in schools, to chin-stroking intellectuals in poetry cafes, to university students, to old ladies and their church groups at matinees in theatres. To festival-goers, to rich kids, broke kids. People of all ages.”

As stated, Tempest cut her teeth doing rap battles, but also toured the spoken-word circuit for several years and began writing for the theatre in 2012. She started her first tour of the states a full months ago with a full backing band. She’s not one to engage in grandiose elucidations over what specifically inspired her lyrics or what one should divine from their imagery; she’s more inclined to expound upon the inspiration she feels connecting to an audience, or the sheer exhilaration of being on a stage.

“For me, it’s the most truthful side of being an artist, standing on stage and communicating, I trust it much more than any other way of spreading the word about what I’m up to. I trust it more than this interview. Most of us read press stuff with an element of cynicism, we respond to ‘hype’ with skepticism and suspicion, and rightly so. If you read this interview you don’t see me, you see someone in an interview, but if you see me on stage, you see me. I see you. It’s real. It puts me right into contact with the people I’m talking to. I love people, truly, so fucking much it’s unbelievable. I could stare at strangers all day and no matter what’s going on for me, I just feel full up with love and empathy. It sounds cheesy but it’s true.”

Her lyrics, aching, evocative and gritty, are almost Dickensian in their portraiture of the melancholic muck of blue-collar weariness, able to punch the gut as much as tug a few heartstrings with their realism. “All life is forward you will see,” she sings on the percussive, guitar-spangled single “The Beigeness.” “It needs you to need it…”

“When I’m performing,” said Tempest, “it brings me into line with the people that most of the time I’m watching from a distance, loving them, but watching, which I think is what writers are like—if you felt truly a part of the picture, why would you feel so compelled to describe it, understand it, write it down? But when I’m performing, I’m a part of it. I go to a very soulful, very beautiful, heartbreaking place. It makes me strong and brave and I can be all the things that I am without shame. It’s a wonderful thing to have in my life. The closest I think anyone can come to religious feeling in these times is how an artist feels when they’re plugged in to the place the art comes from and sharing it with a room full of people.”

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