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Recently, a friend sent Kae Tempest a video, filmed 15 years or so ago now, that showed the spoken word artist in grainy black and white, rapping in a crowd outside a show by the hip-hop artist Immortal Technique at a converted cinema in London’s Elephant and Castle.
They were 22 then, the face softer and the hair different – long and curly rather than the short crop they wear today, but watching it, they were struck by something fundamentally undimmed: “It’s the same motivation, it’s the same impulse,” they say, across the screen today from their home in south London. “I had more fury then. I had less perspective. I was so hungry for it.”
Much has changed since Tempest first began performing. They were a teenager then, stepping up to open mic nights at Deal Real, a hip-hop store on Carnaby Street, and quickly gaining 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, Everybody Down, to broad acclaim, and toured widely, their performances growing increasingly electrifying, their tone rapturous, furious, awed. There have been commissions from the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mercury nominations, a Ted Hughes poetry prize, publications in nine languages. In 2020, they moved from Kate to Kae, her to them.
This month, they released their fifth album, The Line Is a Curve. It is an extraordinary work, fired by collaborations with various artists including producer Dan Carey, Lianne La Havas, and Fontaines DC frontman Grian Chatten. But it is also a departure of sorts. Ahead of its release, Tempest wrote a short passage about the record, its themes of letting go, shame and anxiety, the simultaneous hunger for and discomfort with the spotlight, and the desire now to reconcile the two: “I am not hiding from the world any more,” they wrote. The album sleeve shows Tempest, head dipped and bare-shouldered, in a photograph by Wolfgang Tillmans.
“I don’t know,” Tempest says when I ask why this album brought about this reassessment. They start most answers this way, then pause, then invariably proceed to deliver a response of startling eloquence. “It’s partly about the record that I’ve made, feeling really close to that experience, and really excited about the music,” they say after a moment or two. “And also having done some time with this industry and got my head around some of the things that it requires of you. And just understanding things a bit better I think, understanding myself a bit better.”
For years, they wondered why writing songs and releasing albums should be so different to other forms of writing. “If you’re a playwright you would never put your face on the play text,” they point out. “And actually if a novelist is too visible in the text it gets in the way – this is something I learn as I hopefully mature as a writer of fiction as well; the whole thing is that you need to let go and get out of the way and let the work come through and be less writerly and just tell the story.”
It is only quite recently that they realised how music creates a different relationship with its audience. “You want to be invited into the musician’s world, you’re asking the musician to take you into their heart, into their confidence,” they say. “And you know the music comes from that person, and you believe in that person. When I was thinking about this album, I was thinking about albums that I love and a lot of them have got the artist on the front cover, and there’s something about it that says: “This has come from me, here I am, and I welcome you in.”
Early on, Tempest realised that The Line Is a Curve was “an album that desires other voices”. They called up Chatten, La Havas, MC Confucius, assia, Kevin Abstract. “The opportunity to collaborate makes me feel so… refreshed,” they say. It is a quite different sensation to writing a novel, which they regard more as an intense feat of endurance. “When you’re working on a really long piece of writing, it’s like you’re creating a world and it can sometimes defeat the real world because you necessarily have to believe entirely in the world that you’re creating,” they explain. “But then with a play or an album, it’s so collaborative and I feel like it’s an inexhaustible creativity that opens up when I’m in collaboration with other people.”
In producer Carey they have found “a true partner”, they say. “His presence in my life is just unbelievably important. I find myself reaching for his company or his creative connection. I can think in a way that I don’t think like with anyone else, or on my own, even.” It is with Carey that they first share new work. “It reminds me of when I started rhyming, when it was always about trying to get to the end of the verse so you could say it to someone, so you could share it,” they say. “It would make it feel like you’d caught one, you’d got one, you’d done it and it’s exciting to share that.”
La Havas arrived at the studio having heard nothing in advance, and Tempest was struck by the fact her way into songs and language was so different to their own. “She just came down and started singing,” they remember. “She was looking for melody, and then text was like a syllabic accompaniment to a melody. And then when she found that chorus it enabled me to start thinking 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 lyric.”
Tempest had sent Chatten the verse and the chorus to I Saw Light. “And then he came down and just told this beautiful poem,” they remember. “I think Grian is a true poet. I use that word differently to how other people use it maybe, I don’t even necessarily use it to mean somebody that puts words together. For me it’s like a condition of being, it’s like a quality in the soul, as I perceive it. I think you have to have a real interest in people and a real desire to notice in order to create lyrics that resonate that way.”
When I think of home, I think of this girl, scraping the gravel in her AirMax
I tell Tempest how Chatten once told me that he likes to write in rubbish pubs, sitting alone over a few pints, watching and listening to the world around them. They nod. “Yeah,” they say in agreement. “And refill the reservoir. Because I think writing comes from a desire to be close to other people. I think that’s what it is.” They hesitate, and correct themself: “What do I know, everybody writes for different reasons, but the thing that connects with me when I read work that I love, is this longing for like proximity, or understanding through creating characters that are so acutely observed that your own life resonates louder.”
One of the album’s most resonant tracks is “Salt Coast”, a tender tribute to a land of foul wind, old ghosts, leaves and rain. “It’s a love letter to here, to the United Kingdom,” Tempest says. The coast in question could be anywhere along this small island. “When I’m full up, when I’m at the end of my tether, I’ll try and get to the edge. If I can just get down to the edge and stand down 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 soil and the cities are just built on top of it, it just gives me this perspective. It really helps me to breathe when I feel like I can’t take a breath.”
To write about this country presented a challenge for Tempest. “I think that every single writer on the planet has written about home, and I wanted to write how much I love this place and what it’s taught me and the people that I’ve loved here and that have loved me,” they say. “But if you’re going to write about home you have to pay very specific attention to the detail, otherwise it’s just cliché.”
The track, then, runs as a detailed list, a character profile or portrait. “It’s a personification of how I understand this place, these islands,” they say. “It’s this woman or this girl. It’s like every girl I’ve ever waited around for, looked up to, been looked after by. That’s how I understand this island, like that, it’s her.”
Do they view the UK as female? Tempest thinks for a moment. “When I think of home, I think of this girl, scraping the gravel in her AirMax, so beautiful, so chaotic, so grounded. It’s just like…” they grin, “I love women. I love women. I have done since I was a baby. They’re the coolest people I ever knew really, people I learned a lot from. And real tough people that really looked after me. That’s how I think of the land. Also, Rule Britannia — she’s a woman isn’t she? I wanted to invert that I suppose and reclaim that a little bit.”
They concede that this moment might be seen as a difficult time to love this island. “There are huge, calamitous things happening politically,” they say. “And not to dismiss that, but what I’m interested in as a poet and as a person, is the deeper registered things, the eternal things, the things beneath. I love this place. It’s fierce. My love for the land, the way I feel about the landscape, the rock, the clay, the chalk, the people. It’s ancient.”
‘The Line is a Curve’ is out now