24 Feb 2020

Kate Tempest: 'I witness the world by paying attention'

From Nine To Noon, 10:10 am on 24 February 2020

Critically acclaimed UK playwright, novelist, lyricist, and rapper Kate Tempest spoke with Kathryn Ryan while in New Zealand for the Festival of the Arts.

"It's coming to pass, my country's coming apart
The whole thing's becoming such a bumbling farce
Was that a pivotal historical moment we just went stumbling past?"

The lyrics of Kate Tempest’s 'People’s Faces' may sound like they’re about the polarisation of Brexit, but in truth they were written a long time before the referendum even took place. “As events develop, and time comes and goes, poetry takes on meaning and resonance far more than the poet intended," she told Kathryn Ryan.

Tempest is an award-winning English spoken word performer. She believes if you’re a writer, you’re paying such close attention to what you experience and witness that often it can seem prescient.

“You don’t realise how something has affected you until you work it out through what you make. There’s things that preoccupy me that I research, that I spend time reading up on and that will never come out in my lyrics and then there are things that I don’t even realise I’ve been struck by that suddenly are in everything I’m writing, so it’s a mysterious situation.”

It's about trying to get closer to meaning, she says.

Kate Tempest

Kate Tempest Photo: ©__NZF20

Among the heavy realities of Tempest's work, there is simplicity, “And I always come back to love.” The creative act is an act of love in itself, She says.

“Part of me is a writer, and doesn’t exist on stage, that person doesn’t come onto stage. Part of me is a performer and has trained for years in different ways, I’ve been up on different stages, rapped my heart out in different environments and have honed all these different skills for communication.

"It’s like that part of me I’ve learnt through trial and error that for text to be truly alive, for connection to truly get made then the text, the speaker of the text and the receiver of the text, they all need to be absolutely animated and connected…otherwise the thing doesn’t live.”

Tempest’s journey to creativity began with an obsession - she wanted to listen to every album she could find, get in front of every rapper she could, read every book she could access.

“It was just this mad hunger that I had really, in my formative years,” and it turned into an overwhelming desire to create: “It wasn’t like I even decided, I just followed.”

As with all of the songs on her record, 'Hold Your Own' is about Tempest trying to work out a truth for her life.

“To be honest, as much as I hope it connects with other people, in that moment it’s about me trying to work something out that I’m going through.

“There’s something about paying particular attention to something in my own experience that I think allows it to connect with other people’s experience.”

The album, The Book of Traps and Lessons, has been in the making for five years and was guided by producer Rick Rubin.

“His ears have definitely affected the life of this record, you know this record wouldn’t sound like this without him, the record wouldn’t be from the perspective it’s from without him.”

Having a record deal, being able to make records is a huge privilege, after the gates were shut for so many years, she says.

“This is beautiful, I’m telling you, this is one of the most incredible feelings in my life, of gratitude…I remember sitting in the park with my mate and he would say not if, but when, and I didn’t believe him.”