New Forms: Kate Tempest's Hardcore Journey

Scott Wallace
3rd Dec 2015

When rapper, poet, playwright and soon to be novelist Kate Tempest’s voice crackled over the line all the way from England, I could sense that she was tired and tense after a slew of interviews. I ended up being last in line to talk to her, but still, as we spoke, her voice came alive with the excitement and fervour that anyone who has heard her music will recognise. In January, she’s playing in Sydney as part of the 2016 Sydney Festival, so I took the opportunity to ask the multi-talented artist about her background, her inspirations and her thoughts about how far she’s come.

You’re coming to Australia as a rapper, but you have a varied artistic background that isn’t necessarily in the rap sphere. Tell me a bit about that.

I've been writing for... my entire life, but seriously dedicating myself to it for about fifteen years now. I started as a rapper when I was a teenager. After two years of thinking of myself as a musician primarly, I moved into writing poetry. I was gigging a lot… I was really desperately hungry to speak and to be heard by a lot of people. I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder and was out every night gigging and was seen by a theatre director who had a new theatre company who then listened to my poetry and my lyrics and commissioned me to write a play.

Up until that point, whenever I had an idea, it came out as a rhyme… And then I had this experience of writing a play, which I found challenging – really challenging – but really incredible… It was kind of terrifying and hideous and wonderful and difficult and I watched it go on stage and I realised that it was possible that it possible to do something as difficult as that.

I found it so difficult writing that first play, and then after that, it was like a door had been opened in my brain and I started to think about new forms; I realised that I could explore narrative and dialogue and suddenly I learnt so much – just in that moment – about how far you can go with a narrative. I pushed on and I wrote three more plays and a couple more collections of poetry… It’s been a pretty hardcore journey, but it’s still just the beginning.

How do you view the overlap between poetry and rapping? Do you see them as one and the same?

No, they’re not the same – for me, anyway. Rapping is a poetic form – it’s a very complicated and nuanced form, which is as valid and as important as any other poetic form. Rap is poetry, of course. Poetry can be rap… There’s so much snobbery around what poetry is or isn’t and I think that if you feel it, if it kicks you in the guts and is teaching you something about yourself and about the world, then it’s really valuable. It’s really important to not limit yourself in what you get a kick out of. If you love language, then you should be listening to rap, because really it’s probably the most adventurous and exciting form that has happened in our lifetimes.

How much would you say the place you come from influences your work and your artistic identity?

Completely. I think that every writer carries their home and their roots and what they’ve seen in their formative years. Especially London. London is such an intense city. South London, the area where I grew up, it’s so present within my internal landscape. Everything I write is me trying to make sense of this place and then I get to the end of the day and I look around and I realise I haven’t said anything about it because it’s still happening and it’s still here and it’s bigger than it was when I sat down to write a minute ago, so now I have to write again. South London is huge in my heart.

Your album Everybody Down, which came out in May 2014, was shortlisted for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize last year. What was that like? Were you surprised?

I was really surprised. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience. You have to understand I’ve been trying to get into the music industry for years without very much success at all. Actually, I turned to these other forms because I wasn’t really making it as a musician, which was good, because it forced me to really push myself and find out who I was and find my voice. But it was a really momentous moment. It was one of the most exciting, jubilant moments of my life.

You worked with producer Dan Carey on the album. What was it like going from something that’s a more individual pursuit to something collaborative?

Oh, amazing! Me and Dan have got a very sensitive and like… It’s high in chemistry. We push each other to great heights, really. I think he’s probably one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met, and that I’ve worked with. And I really enjoy collaboration.

When we tour, you’ll see when we come to Australia, I play with musicians. For me it’s very important that music is live – you’re not playing to a backing track – you’re playing together, you’re creating the sounds live. I played with a drummer that I’ve been playing with since I was fourteen years old. You know, it’s real music and Dan is very much a part of that. He shares this presence when it comes to creating music or creating something… In playing he’s like a mad scientist or like an evil genius or something. [Laughs] He’s got this kind of unholy collection of drums machines and synths; It’s just so exciting… He’s one of my heroes.

Given that the album as a whole is very narrative driven, how do you go about translating the songs to a live setting?

We’ve had to kind of re-think it, which has been really exciting and great. When you make an album it’s one thing, but when we’re playing live it’s a whole different thing. You are asking something different of the people you’re playing to. It’s not like they’re sitting down listening on headphones or in their houses. They’re coming to a room, to gather together and feel and watch and you want them to be able to laugh and feel and just enjoy.

Just over a year we’ve been touring this record and at first it was like “Are we able to play these songs out of order? What happens?” Actually, we’ve found a really brilliant way of playing the record live. We’ve kind of re-thought the songs for a live setting, they’re bigger, bassier, heavier, darker. They’re also sweeter, softer. A live setting is different, man. The thing is if you recorded the live show and listened to it at home, it wouldn’t be the same. If you came to the live show and watched it live, hopefully it will grab you. I’m really excited about the live show.

Your upcoming novel The Bricks that Built the Houses continues the narrative of the album. What made you decide to continue the story of Everybody Down in novel form?

Well, when I was making the record, I had this huge idea. These characters, this story was kind of taking shape. We made the record and we did all the writing in the studio, it came to fruition, we finished it, but those characters were still going in my head. The story was still going and I felt I had so much more to say. It just came out – the first draft just came out. It was like a week of solid writing; suddenly there it was. It was the longest story I’d ever tried to tell. Kind of simultaneously, as the record came out, I realised that this could be two things. I think that it wanted to be two things. This idea wanted to go into these two worlds.

Kate Tempest is performing twice in Sydney as part of Sydney Festival on January 21 and January 22 2016. See the Sydney Scoop calendar for details. She is also playing Museum of Old and New Art's Festival of Music and Art (MONA FOMA) in Hobart on January 17 and Sugar Mountain in Melbourne on January 23.