The press day can be a tough experience – both for an artist looking to highlight their work but also for a journalist looking to find them in engaging form. When we are introduced to Kate Tempest in a central Dublin hotel she is charm personified, yet we can’t help feel a little guilty that we’re not the break for lunch she was expecting. Last night she was playing a tour warm up in her local pub, tomorrow she’ll be part of the panel who hand the Mercury Music Prize to Skepta. Today she’s twenty minutes away from a hot vegetarian meal and then an afternoon of more talking. Is, we wonder, there a difference between promoting an album (in this case her second record Let Them East Chaos) and her written work?
“Yeah….”. She pauses to consider her reply, something she does a lot. “There’s beginning to be more of a crossover because people are starting to ask about the work in general, so you end up talking about the process of music as well. It can be a little bit more terrifying talking to literary types because it’s not my instinctive cultural home in a way that music is. I can talk about music all day and all night”.
Isn’t it generally the case that kids are more excited about music though. We talk a lot about our first record, not so much about our first book.
“Certain types of kids maybe but I remember when I was young I was excited by books before records. I was reading stories from very young, I loved to read. The way I listen to music is very literary, it’s the lyric that first moves me. The way I read books is very musical – it’s the rhythm and the sound of the language that brings it to life. For me they’re the same”.
What lyrics first got your attention?
“When you’re about nine or ten you get that “what is this” moment when you realise that albums are the key to the universe. At that age everything that I’d heard was really cool, I was just investigating anything that I could – Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, The Clash. My brother was into Nirvana and Carter USM and they had swearwords. When I got a couple of years older I discovered the lyricism of hip-hop. I’d always listened to rappers as a kid but it was the kind of pop rap that an eight year old girl would listen to, Kriss Kross or whatever. Then Gangstarr, A Tribe Called Quest and Biggie came along. Through a journey into their lyricism and how people from different parts of America sounded I got into what was happening in the UK, especially in London. I was 14 or 15 and it was live and going on”.
The development from those roots has been incredible…
“What’s happening now is that the scene has found its own identity that is so new and so unique that, although it acknowledges its influences, it owes no debt to anybody. Grime is a UK thing, it’s a London thing, it’s an East End thing. It feels like the world is opening its ears a bit more because it’s such a specific self-identifying, self-mythologising form. Which I suppose is very similar to how hip-hop felt back at the start”.
Was that the point where literature and music crossed over?
“I was always reading, I had a job in a record store and always loved music. I was always rapping. For me the most knowledgable, interesting and educated people I knew were rappers because they were in love with language. They were all about self improvement, knowledge, wisdom and understanding. Those were the rules to being a rapper, you had to be fucking smart and reading all the time. It seems like other people have had such a different experience to what I’ve had. If you have an understanding of the culture – and I’m very humbled and blessed to say that I have had – you get this unique access point to language being a living, tactile, tangible thing that can suddenly create the most exciting, thrilling moment out of nothing. It started being about the beats and the parties but by the time I came to hip-hop it was the emcees’ golden era, it was amazing for me”.
Does the notion of public performance dictate how you approach your written work?
“As my creative capacity hopefully develops I realise that each idea needs to be seen on its own terms and you serve that idea the best you can. You will always let the idea down because by the time it’s finished you will have ruined it, that’s the nature of writing. As well as being an album, Let Them Eat Chaos will be published as a long form poem and I had to reimagine it without music for the page and I was confronted by the differences”.
Does that mean you took a different approach than you did on Everybody Down?
“Not really. I’d written it in the studio with my producer Dan Carey, we’d generated a load of material to get to the idea we had and created an early draft of the album. Dan’s wife listened to it and said there was a few nice songs but she didn’t really get it, so I could feel that idea didn’t have a musical or lyrical shape. I took all my notebooks and set them out as a manuscript, attempting to apply the same principles that I’d learnt from Don Patterson my poetry editor, to see if it would help. Through that process I realised that we needed to start in space and zoom in, it gives you the ability to set the scenes for each room. Before there was no way in”.
Both albums focus on the lives of individual characters – is that your favourite way of exploring the bigger issues?
“It’s really important. For me the pay off of the record is when you get to the end and realise what it’s all about, you have to go with it which I think is an amazing feeling for the listener”.
That’s completely out of step with modern trends though, listening to a record from start to finish….
“Hopefully it’s rewarding because of that. It’s pretty mental to do live, we’ve done a few small shows and when you’re beginning something like that in a pub you don’t know if people will go with you. When it works it’s fucking amazing because you have all the energy of a gig and you’re being told a story and taken on a journey. It feels so profound to have seen seven characters in their rooms. I can’t wait to see what happens on the tour in the bigger rooms. I hope people will get something out of it, I know we will on stage”.
Your characters here live isolated lives and it takes a major event to bring them together. Is that what it needs to bring people together?
“When you’re a kid you know all the kids on your street. You know their mums and dads, their grandparents, their carers – whoever it is. I remember that about my childhood in London but I think now we’re incredibly isolated from ourselves and therefore each other. The problem begins with how far away we are from ourselves. These are very unnatural times we live in. When a big storm breaks or the sun comes out unexpectedly, everyone suddenly becomes a human being. We look up and talk about it. I was on a train to Scotland and there was this older woman who was being a bit sneery and weird, we didn’t really like each other. The energy wasn’t right but suddenly when the scenery became beautiful we had a conversation about that and we connected. It showed me how ignorant I’d been, she was lovely in the end”.
Are we really connected with each other though, even given the supposed benefits of technology and social media?
“Hopefully we are. I think that we’re at the beginning of a massive revolution in communication and obviously we’re all terrified. The last time anything happened on this scale was the industrial revolution that changed the entire globe, for better or worse arguably. So of course we don’t know where we stand but you have to remember that we’ve always been terrified, forever, and hopefully we can learn. I have this idea of circles in my work, that we find ourselves retracing ourselves in our own behaviour and our personal relationships, as well as in the grand scheme of things. We find ourselves repeating the same barbarities, it’s terrifying that we can do that again – but I realise that until you understand your own role in damaging behaviour of some sort you can’t change it. Spot the fear, spot the barbarity in the moment and we’re better placed to do that when we were a couple of generations ago because of the wealth of communication and access to information”.
Let Them Eat Chaos is released on October 7th. Kate Tempest plays Dublin Whelan’s on November 29th and Belfast Empire Music Hall on 30th.