Photo: Julian Broad

Hold Your Own: An Interview with Kate Tempest

On any given day, you may see Kate Tempest working as a poet. Or maybe a playwright. Or a spoken-word artist with hip-hop connections. As she celebrates the release of her third album, she reflects on where her place is in Britain's powerful cultural moment.

The Book of Traps & Lessons
Kate Tempest
14 June 2019

Kate Tempest thinks things through to the point of exhaustion. It’s both a blessing and a curse for a person with a knack for language.

“I thought I’d learned my lesson once,” she laments on her latest album. “I learned it till it thumped my head to numbness.”

This coldness provides the source of her torment as well as the impetus behind her art. In a society that “requires numbness”, Tempest wants to establish connections with people in the way she knows best. She considers her new project, The Book of Traps & Lessons, as “advice to myself as much as it is to anyone else”.

“It’s about me trying to reconcile the ability to spot these negative behaviors with the ability to actually change them,” Tempest says, “I’m telling myself not to live in such an obsessive, consumptive, damaging way.”

The album, even with Tempest’s steady stream-of-consciousness and sparse instrumental elements, hints at the trouble brewing in the recesses of one’s mind. Such turmoil results in real-world consequences: “But total existence needs meaning and myth / Many misjudged the way and got lost in the mist / Your loneliness is the symptom, not the sickness.”

Lyrics of this nature and song titles such as “Marshall Law” lead many to paint Tempest as a political artist, though she says it’s not exactly the intent behind her work. She names “People’s Faces” as the song she’s most proud of on The Book… an admission which highlights other humans as her perceived antidote to the issues the world at large faces.

“It’s basically a daily thing in my life being blown away by how beautiful people are,” Tempest admits. “There’s something beautiful about sharing that, much more so than saying ‘Europe is lost’.”

A spoken word poet, musician, novelist, and playwright all in one, Tempest is to the written what Robert Redford is to the cinema. Her first two albums received Mercury Prize nominations, her poetry led to the Ted Hughes Award, and her first novel topped the Times’ bestseller list. Even in conversation, her eloquence unintentionally shines through.

“What works on a page doesn’t work on a stage and what works on a stage doesn’t work on a page,” Tempest says, unaware her inner poet is showing.

Tempest’s knack for wordplay attracted the attention of more than a few big producers in the music realm. Dan Carey, the producer behind her first two albums, boasts credits with Kylie Minogue, Tame Impala, and rising stars black MIDI to name a few. Even more impressive, The Book of Traps & Lessons found an executive producer in none other than the legendary Rick Rubin.

Tempest recorded the album at the famed Shangri La Studios, an experience she described as life-changing. Going into the recording sessions, she understood the importance of Rubin and his work, but one moment stuck out to her as one that solidified his genius:

“I just told him this poem I had been digging. It was finished. I published it in my own self-published collection, way back in like 2015 or earlier. In my mind, it was finished. I’d been doing it at gigs, and it usually went down quite well. He listened to it and said, ‘For some reason, this first 30-40 seconds I didn’t connect with at all, but the last two minutes I really felt I went there.’ I started thinking about those first few seconds, and I realized that what I’d done is taken two poems and squashed them together for no reason other than that I quite liked how the first bit sounded. The actual poem started to have its integrity in the second bit that I jammed onto the first one. He had spotted an edit I’d forgotten I’d made just by listening to it.”

Rubin and Tempest’s connection technically dates back to 2014, when he reportedly took Frank Ocean along to one of her shows, another area Tempest excels in. Though she says any attempt at visual art on her part would be “quite terrible”, Tempest herself is known as a sight worth seeing. She’s played Glastonbury three separate times and scored BRIT nomination for Best Female Solo Performer in 2018. With a world tour in the works, Tempest acknowledges the challenge of turning The Book of Traps & Lessons and its bare-bones songs into an equally compelling show. That said, if anyone enjoys a challenge, it’s her.

“We’ve been booked for several European festivals off the strength of our last time out on tour, which was more upbeat and musically-driven,” Tempest admits. “All I can say is that it’s a different type of rewarding when you try and create a setting that is conducive to connecting.”

Connection is key to Tempest’s style of performing. When writing, she cares less about her lyrics resonating and more so about her ability to convey the ideas in her head. She believes they resonate live because of the integrity she exudes when delivering them. Tempest points to the acts she saw at Glastonbury 2019 as a variety of musicians who radiate the same qualities.

“I went from seeing Fontaines DC to IAMDDB to Stefflon Don, and they’re all extremely different artists,” she says. “But something in their intention is all similar to one another.”

Growing up listening to ’90s favorites such as Gravediggaz guided her to the stage as a young adult to perform her verses in her South London hometown. “This immediate, direct connection to other people through lyricism, I just became obsessed with it,” she says. “You just couldn’t wait to stand inside and listen to other peoples’ lyrics and then contribute your own.”

As a white person in hip-hop, Tempest acknowledges the complexities of navigating the genre with authenticity and reverence. To her credit, she raps in her own accent, and her highly personal lyrics never let you mistake her experiences as anything other than her own.”I definitely feel that my debt to hip-hop is huge,” Tempest recognizes. “I hope what people will see in my work is that I’m exhibiting my influence by trying to stay true to where I’m coming from.”

She attributes much of this debt to the Golden Age of the ’90s, an era she feels cast a large shadow over the past 20 years. Today, Tempest says she can namedrop “a hundred MCs” whose work excites her today and attributes that to the time that’s passed. For many of the new MCs, their inspiration comes from people Tempest also considers to be new.

“Rappers like Ghetts from the UK are inspiring new generations of rappers who don’t know what inspired Ghetts,” she says. “Then it feeds back into older MCs who are newly inspired by what the younger ones are doing.”

As for what’s next for Tempest aside from touring, she’s not entirely sure. By working with Rubin, she hopes her material will be discovered by new fans that otherwise wouldn’t be familiar with her work. She’s also got a draft of a second novel written up (“terrible but hopefully will eventually be good”) and is also doing her adaptation of Sophocles’ final play, Paradise. But for the time being, she’s just glad the album is finished.

“I am relatively unflustered right now, which is nice.”