Brighton will get to see plenty of Kate Tempest next May. She has been named Guest Artistic Director for next year’s Brighton Festival. A hands-on job, it will enable her to curate artists and acts she believes in, and hopefully we’ll get to see her perform too. She’ll also be, by some distance, the youngest Guest Artistic Director the Brighton Festival has ever seen. Only 30, Tempest’s list of achievements are already extraordinary; Mercury Prize nominee for her debut album Everybody Down, Ted Hughes award winner for Brand New Ancients, shortlisted for the 2016 Costa poetry award, writer of several plays including Wasted, Glasshouse and Hopelessly; and acclaimed novelist with the multi-generational tale of drugs, desire and belonging, The Bricks That Built The Houses.
But it is her music that she is best known for. She has a long history of performing at open mics, spoken word events and with bands, all of which prepared her for Everybody Down, her first official album release. It was a brilliantly conceived collection of narrative tracks that married her traditional poetry craft, her skilful and resonating spoken metre, with the kinetic agitation of hip-hop and urban electro beats courtesy of Dan Carey. With that album she spoke from the heart and with a great deal of courage about everyday tales of poverty, class, consumerism and even simple everyday living – at times drawing on mythology and holistic philosophy to tie the individual narratives into a cohesive whole. Socio-political issues were being subtly woven into the fabric of her characters’ lives. She was a much needed socio-political voice in a sea of trite and trivial pop and rock. But she was also sharp and funny with it.
A couple of months ago, she released her second album, Let Them Eat Chaos, also made with Dan Carey. A continuation of Everybody Down, Tempest delved deeper into her thoughts on the universe and everything: each individual’s place within it and the interconnectivity between them and all things. It’s a collection of songs centred around an apocalyptic storm, that ultimately pulls together the lives of seven seemingly unconnected individuals, living on the same anonymous street in London. It details their lives at 4.18am, perhaps the deepest part of the night, a time when humans are perhaps least physically connected.
With another UK tour about to start, she took some time out to talk about the album, her appointment as Guest Artistic Director, her beginnings as a rapper and spoken word performer, and, of course, London. I tell her I have a stinky cold, which I blame on London, having visited it the previous day. “I blame London for most things! It’s usually London’s fault,” says the born and bred Londoner. Perhaps it’s why she decided to set the album in London. “It so happens that it’s set on a street in London. When I imagine a character, usually it’s located in the only space I’ve known, and I’ve only ever lived in London. I’ve never left. That’s why it’s there. But I hope it’s not so London-centric that it can’t be any street, in any town.
“What is important about this album is that it is not necessarily that it’s set in that particular place, but this idea that with each individual’s private moments there is much more commonality between them than they feel in their isolation. When they are brought out of that they realise they are part of something bigger than themselves. Maybe that’s a particular London concern because there are so many people here, and yet I think the impact of having so many bodies around you can, funnily enough, make people feel quite isolated.”
I tell her that I lived in London for about eight years, and that this feeling of isolation was one of the prime, if not the prominent reason, for me wanting to leave. I ended up not liking the fact that you could walk around for days and not recognise a single face, such was its impersonality. “I think that it’s slightly different for me because I do still live in the place I grew up in, so I do see lots of people that I have known for a very long time, just walking about. But there is another side to that, which is that it can increase – sort of kick in to overdrive – your empathy for those who may feel isolated. Yes, you’re surrounded by people and it can feel like a massive onslaught, but if you then key-in to this idea that actually there are all these people, these strangers, this kind of whirlwind of life… If you allow yourself to look again or invite yourself to look again, to connect with the idea that each of these strangers is full of life, full of humanity, has got this breadth of experience, these stories that are going on, it kinda counteracts the overwhelming nature of being surrounded by so many people. Because it’s an abstract thing, ‘oh there’s so many people’. But then if you actually think, ‘wow, so many people’! I find it equally comforting and disorientating.”
The narrative that runs through Let Them Eat Chaos is hinged on this moment of fictional time, 4.18am, when most of us are asleep. There’s Pete, who spends his wages quickly on getting out of it, and then wondering why and how, but everyone else is doing it; Zoe, who is packing cardboard boxes, wondering what is next. And there’s also Gemma, Esther, Alysha, and Bradley, all of them learning to survive and trying to cope within the unforgiving landscape of 21st century austerity Britain. It all sounds desperate for these seven, as Tempest bares their souls, as one-by-one they look for outlets to escape the mind-numbing drudgery of work and routine hardship in the big city. Meanwhile, Dan Carey evokes a late night urban setting via a blend of noir beats, textures and effects. Why did she choose that particular time, 4.18am? “I suppose because the vast majority of people are sound asleep, the question of who is awake at that time is quite an interesting one for me, when you’re beginning to invite characters to take shape. You have a question that you ask them or that you ask yourself as you begin to think who might be populating this record that you’re making. It means that you have an interesting silhouette that begins to take shape. Because if these people had no pressing concerns they probably would have been sleeping soundly. It just happens that they are awake at this very particular time of the morning, which is not yet dawn, not quite night anymore. It’s a very strange time, this 4am time. And there’s something I’m interested in about before the time belongs to your employer or your family, or your partner. It’s just you awake in that moment. So, the vulnerabilities of all these characters are completely open. One of them has woken from a nightmare, one of them has come home from a long shift, and there’s something about the openness that you are allowed to access if you’re going into people’s minds at that time. And that cyclical, repetitive nature of thought at that time, the kind of imsomniacs hour, when you can’t quite sleep and your thoughts are not doing what you want them to do, lends themselves quite well to the rhythms of song cycles and rapping and the poetics of thought, you know? It gives you a bit more space to play, I think.”
It’s what she does so well, rhyming and spitting about people’s ‘mental’ lives, never very far away from the madness and hysteria that is seemingly all around. The ‘chaos’ of the album title. Tempest looks at where we’re at and where we’re headed, as we go deeper into the 21st century, with the massive problems of climate change, nano-technology, and rising nationalism to look forward to. But there is also a strong poetic edge to her work, an ability to understand the bigger picture, imbibing some of her characters with this outlook. There is a line on ‘We Die’, from the album, that says: “Everything is connected, and even if I can’t read it right, everything is a message. We die, so that others can be born; we age, so that others can be young. The point of life is live, love if you can and pass it on.” It’s one of many on Let Them Eat Chaos that points to the overt marrying of the holistic with particular narratives. “I think the hope for it was by positioning these very insular stories about particular people against this bigger backdrop of beginning in space and then zooming in and then zooming out at moments, to catch glimpses of the world again, the idea is that hopefully you position these individual stories as being part of a much bigger picture and it invites you to look again, to look again at what connects us all. Rather than the primary impulse which is to think about what keeps me apart, what makes me different. That is something I hope the album does.”
Beyond the sense of impending doom, Let Them Eat Chaos has one silver lining. When a storm breaks, Let Them Eat Chaos’s seven strangers are forced to flee their homes. “They all realise they’re part of something much bigger than themselves,” she sums up. “In that moment, there’s something beautiful. That’s the redemption.”
And the album title. Can you talk about that? “It’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek reference to what Marie Antoinette was supposed to have said, which was ‘let them eat cake’. It was partly in the throes of the French revolution, and the people were marching on the palace. And she said to (her husband, and king), Louis, ‘what’s going on? Why are they so angry?’ he said, ‘it’s because of the price of bread’. She said, ‘Bread? Let them eat cake.’ Meaning that she was so detached from the idea of what was happening to the people she was supposed to be protecting or ruling over. It’s supposed to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, and a reference to the gulf between understandings of how life is, but also it seems to be a kind of devastating time, and we seem to be in the middle of quite a brutal moment. The title, I hope, goes some way to expressing my concerns for that.”
Chaos would be an apt description for recent real-world events, not least the unexpected election of Donald Trump, and the recent referendum on whether we should leave or remain in Europe. There appears to be some festering wounds (in a nutshell, disenchantment with globalisation, politics and big business) that has opened up a Pandora’s box, of complex complications and divisions. What did she make of the referendum? ” I found it to be a bit of a shock. I think a lot of people did. It’s difficult to sum up in a few neat words what this means for anybody, really. We’re still in the middle of working it out, I suppose. But one thing that struck me as particularly troubling is that I thought we were moving towards each other. The result, for me anyway, seemed to speak about the desire to atomise ourselves even further, and separate ourselves. It seemed to be so much about fear, so much of this rhetoric about fear everywhere. I found that to be particularly unhelpful when making a decision. To make a decision in panic mode is usually a bad idea.”
“I wrote ‘Europe Is Lost’ before the referendum, but funnily enough sometimes when an artist or a poet or writer looks around them and describes what they see, it has this knack of appearing like a dystopian vision of the future, or it acquires this prescient property which it never intended to have. But I was assaulted by what I could see when I was touring. I had been touring non-stop for ages so I was just walking around these different places, these different cities, and looking at these perspectives of people and lives, and out of it came this lyric, this song. The lyric doesn’t belong to me as the speaker of the poem, it belongs to a character, a carer. Her exhaustion, her tenderness, her particular sensibility which she has to cultivate and protect. Given the job that she does means that she’s affected in a very particular way by what she perceives in the world around her. But, we released it at the end of last year. We decided to put it out, because it felt like it was bubbling to get out. It needed to be heard. There is something interesting about people hearing that as a song in its own right. ‘This is definitely a protest song’, ‘Kate Tempest has written a protest song’. But it’s actually a part of a narrative whole.”
The appeal of Kate Tempest lies not only within her lyricism and delivery, but through the music of collaborator Dan Carey, a highly sought after producer, who has worked with everyone from Kylie Minogue to Hot Chip. They worked together on Everybody Down, which was released through the Big Dada label, and have come together again for Let Them Eat Chaos. It seems to suit Kate right down to the ground. “He’s amazing! He’s a genius. I know that word gets used a lot, but he is. We have a good connection. The way me and Dan work is that everything begins with us writing together. I sit in the studio with my lyric books and I write pages and pages and pages, and Dan will begin to play some beats, play some parts. We will kind of lock our brains into each other’s. We work for about a week non-stop. Long days and long nights, in this almost terrifyingly claustrophobic studio. Which is amazing, electric. I feel like when I’m at my happiest is when I’m in the studio with Dan and then we necessarily take a breather from it. He’s got albums to make, and I have to go on tour. We have this really intense burst of creativity where we throw everything at each other and then we go away and get some breathing space and come back and work out what it is we are making. And so the first sessions we are just generating ideas and then I had this idea it was 4.18am, and then I had this idea who these characters were, and that this storm was going to break. We had the idea first that it would be an album that would move across time rather than through it. And it would be this simultaneous moment. And we had this idea of something happening that could be heard in each of the rooms. So, we were thinking that there’s going to be an explosion, and you can hear that through the walls in each of the songs. And from that, ‘oh there’s a big storm’, it brings them all outside and this is the thing.” As she says this Kate is imperceptibly rap-singing to me over the phone. It’s an illuminating moment. It’s the way she talks sometimes, in getting her thoughts across. “It’s a process of having an idea and then waiting for the idea to present itself in a shape that can stand. Throwing everything at it and having no boundaries, and not censoring ourselves in any way, but maybe writing a 13 minute track that might end up being 50 seconds long by the end of it. But we allow ourselves to go that far, so that we can feel what is important and what needs to stay. It’s a really interesting process.”
Are your gigs going to be like the recent BBC performance where you performed the album live and in its entirety? Yes, that’s what we are going to do. The difference is that it will be mixed for live sound, so the music will be much more present, and bigger. For TV, sound is compressed at such a rate you lose some of the musicality. What’s exciting about playing live is that you are surrounded by the world you are inhabiting, sonically as well as lyrically. That’s what I am excited about happening in rooms, because it is lyrical, it’s this story. And hopefully people will follow the story but at the same time will be moved by the music: the drums, bass and synth.”
As a teenager, Tempest was drawn to the world of literature and poetry, and made her live debut when she was 16, at the London record shop Deal Real, and under the name Excentral Tempest (her real name is Kate Calvert). It was also around this time that she devoured hip-hop in earnest, rappers such as Slick Rick, Kendrick Lamar, André 3000 and Klashnekoff, who were able to tell stunning narratives. “I had so much to prove,” she has said. “I couldn’t just watch another MC at a rave; I had to be right up in that MC’s face, trying to get on the mic. Hip-hop was real to me. It was alive. The only thing that was weird was being a girl, I suppose, but I’ve kind of made my peace with that.
“I was at a hip-hop record shop in London where every Friday night the store would get packed out with rappers and they would do this open mic, where they turn a couple of record crates over and the rappers would take it in turns to do their bit. It was a pretty terrifying prospect. I did a lot of freestyling, and some battling. Much later I got into poetry. I was 20, maybe 21 (she won her first poetry slam contest that she entered, winning £100), when I discovered there was this thing called ‘spoken word’. I started off with writing lyrics to music really and spent a good few years rapping to anyone who would listen. I haven’t quite grown out of it yet. The slam stuff, I did that for a bit, yeah. I found it to be an interesting way of sharing the lyrics, but the competitive nature of it didn’t really agree with me. The same as battling. It’s not the healthiest way to express your creativity. But then there are lots of other ways to tell your rhymes”
So to Brighton, where she will be spending much of her time in the lead up to the 2017 Brighton Festival in May. I tell her that the social media feeds were buzzing with excitement when it was recently announced that she was going to be the Guest Artistic Director. “That’s good to know! I do have a real affinity with Brighton. I spent a lot of time there since I was a young kid. There’s a family connection there and my Mum used to live there when she was younger. I’ve been going down to Brighton since I was two or three years old. I’m really excited by the festival because it feels like such an important opportunity to be able to immerse myself in the arts, in what I love and to be given an opportunity to think about how to broaden the scope of the festival a little bit, and invite some people to perform who probably may not have been invited had it not been me who gets to do the inviting,” she laughs.
A firm supporter of the arts in general and indeed occasional recipient of arts funding, she feels that the arts are an important part of how we understand ourselves, how we make sense of reality. “It connects you more forcibly into life. For your mental health, it’s extremely important that people are accessing that part of themselves, tuning into other people’s creative expression, expressing themselves. I am quite excited about it (the festival). They are very cool people, they’ve got a really good team and there’s a lot of love at the core of it. People seem to be doing things for the right reasons, and it makes me feel very glad. I wish I could tell you all about it, but at the minute everything might go wrong. Hopefully it will be great, but I can’t tell you why, if that is alright!”