RRecently, a friend sent Kae Tempest a video, shot about 15 years ago, that showed the spoken word artist in grainy black and white rapping in front of a show by hip-hop artist Immortal Technique in a converted theater in front of a crowd London’s Elephant and Castle.
They were 22 then, with a softer face and a different hair – more long and curly than the short cropped haircut they’re sporting today, but seeing it struck them as something fundamentally unclouded: “It’s the same motivation, it’s that same impetus,” she Let’s Say, via screen today from her south London home. “I was more angry then. I had less perspective. I was so hungry for it.”
A lot has changed since Tempest first appeared. They were then teenagers, performing open mic nights at Deal Real, a hip-hop joint on Carnaby Street, and quickly gained a reputation for the ferocity and beauty of their words. Soon they were supporting John Cooper Clarke and Benjamin Zephaniah, writing plays, writing poetry, writing a novel, writing essays.
In 2014 they recorded their debut album, all down, to widespread acclaim, and touring widely, their performances becoming ever more electrifying, their tone ecstatic, angry, awestruck. There have been commissions from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mercury nominations, a Ted Hughes poetry award, publications in nine languages. In 2020 they moved from Kate to Kae, she to them.
This month they released their fifth album, The line is a curve. It is an exceptional work created through collaborations with various artists such as producer Dan Carey, Lianne La Havas and Fontaines DC frontman Grian Chatten. But it is also a kind of awakening. Ahead of the release, Tempest wrote a brief passage about the record, its themes of letting go, shame and fear, the simultaneous hunger and uneasiness of being in the spotlight, and the desire to now reconcile the two: “I’m not hiding from the world anymore”, write. The album sleeve shows Tempest with his head bowed and his shoulders bare in a photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans.
“I don’t know,” says Tempest when I ask why this album has led to this reappraisal. They begin most replies this way, then pause, and then invariably deliver a response of startling eloquence. “It’s partly about the record I made, feeling like I’m very close to that experience and really excited about the music,” they say after a moment or two. “And I’ve also spent some time with this industry and looked into some of the things it asks of you. And just to understand things a little better, I think, to understand myself a little better.”
For years they have wondered why writing songs and releasing albums should be so different from other forms of writing. “If you’re a playwright, you would never put your face on the text of the play,” they point out. “And indeed, if a novelist is too visible in the text, they get in the way – that’s something I’m learning as I hopefully mature as a novelist too; The whole thing is you have to let go and get out of the way and let the work come through and be less of a writer and just tell the story.
Only recently have they realized how music creates a different relationship with its audience. “You want to be invited into the musician’s world, you ask the musician to draw you into their heart, into their trust,” they say. “And you know the music is coming from that person and you believe in that person. When I thought about this album, I thought about albums that I love and a lot of them have the artist on the cover and there’s something that says, ‘This comes from me, here I am, and welcome to you .”
Tempest recognized this early on The line is a curve is “an album that calls for other voices”. They called Chatten, La Havas, MC Confucius, Assia, Kevin Abstract. “I feel so…refreshed by the opportunity to work together,” they say. It’s a very different feeling than writing a novel, which they see more as an intense endurance effort. “When you’re working on a really long text, it’s like you’re creating a world, and that can sometimes defeat the real world because you absolutely have to believe fully in the world you’re creating,” they explain. “But with a play or an album, it’s so collaborative and I feel like there’s an endless creativity that opens up when I work with other people.”
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They say they have found “a true partner” in producer Carey. “His presence in my life is just incredibly important. I find myself reaching out for his company or his creative connection. I can think in a way that I don’t think with anyone else, or even alone.” Carey is the first to share their new work. “It reminds me of when I started rhyming, when it was always about getting to the end of the verse so you could tell someone and share it,” they say. “It would feel like you caught one, you had one, you made it and it’s exciting to share that.”
La Havas arrived at the studio without having heard anything first, and Tempest was struck by the fact that their approach to songs and language was so different from their own. “She just came down and started singing,” they recall. “She was looking for melody, and then lyrics were like a syllable accompaniment to a melody. And then when she found that chorus, it enabled me to think in pictures, I started to see the feelings behind the words, the thing about striving and perseverance, and then I was able to write the lyrics.”
Tempest had sent Chatten the verse and chorus to I Saw Light. “And then he came down and just said this beautiful poem,” they recall. “I think Grian is a true poet. I may use this word differently than other people use it, I don’t even necessarily use it to mean someone who puts words together. For me it’s like a state of being, it’s like a quality in the soul as I perceive it. I think you have to have a genuine interest in people and a genuine desire to stand out in order to write lyrics that resonate.”
I tell Tempest how Chatten once told me that he enjoys writing in dumpsters, sitting alone over a few pints and watching and listening to the world around them. you nod. “Yes,” they say in agreement. “And fill up the reservoir. Because I think writing comes from wanting to be close to other people. I think it is.” You hesitate and correct yourself: “What do I know, everyone writes for different reasons, but what unites me when I read works I love is this longing for closeness or understanding through the creation of Observed characters so acute that one’s life resonates louder.”
One of the album’s most resonant tracks is “Salt Coast,” a tender homage to a land of foul winds, old ghosts, leaves and rain. “It’s a love letter to here, to the UK,” says Tempest. The coast in question could be anywhere on this small island. “When I’m fed up, when I’m at the end of my tether, I’ll try to get to the edge. If only I could go to the edge and stand by the sea and look back at the land and understand that this is just clay and chalk and rock and it’s land, it’s dirt and the cities are just built on it, it just gives me this Perspective. It really helps me to breathe when I feel like I can’t breathe.”
Writing about this country presented Tempest with a challenge. “I think every single writer on the planet has written about home, and I wanted to write about how much I love this place and what it has taught me and the people I loved here and who loved me,” they say you. “But when you write about home, you have to pay close attention to the details, otherwise it’s just a cliché.”
The track then runs as a detailed list, character profile or portrait. “It’s an embodiment of how I understand this place, these islands,” they say. “It’s that woman or that girl. It’s like every girl I’ve ever waited for, looked up to and been looked after by. That’s how I understand this island, that’s what it is.”
Do you see Britain as female? Tempest thinks for a moment. “When I think of home, I think of this girl scraping the gravel with her AirMax, so beautiful, so messy, so grounded. It’s just like that…” they grin, “I love women. I love women. I’ve been doing it since I was a baby. They really are the coolest people I’ve ever known, people I’ve learned a lot from. And really tough people who really cared about me. This is how I imagine the country to be. Also, Rule Britannia – she’s a woman, isn’t she? I guess I wanted to reverse that and reclaim a little bit.”
They admit that this moment could be seen as a difficult time to love this island. “Huge, ominous things are happening politically,” they say. “And not to dismiss that, but what interests me as a poet and as a person are the deeper registered things, the eternal things, the things underneath. i love this place It’s intense. My love for the country, my feelings for the landscape, the rock, the clay, the chalk, the people. It’s ancient.”
The Line is a Curve is available now
https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/features/kae-tempest-interview-b2058140.html Kae Tempest: “I’m not hiding from the world anymore”