Every now and then, fate, for whatever reason, brings us in contact with very rare forces of energy that in hindsight, are found to be necessary. On Friday morning from her gate at the airport in Helsinki a phone conversation with Kate Tempest became one of those moments. Her answers were brief but dense with information and personality. As much as I wanted to goad her into long form discussion as a music junkie that felt compellingly pressed to learn as much as possible about her process, experiences recording under the ear of Rick Rubin and any and all information that could improve my own verse. The new album Book of Traps and Lessons is on the way and its content packs the sharp, dramatic and provoking voice we have come to know alongside a brilliant, yet completely different approach.
mxdwn: What are some books any aspiring lyricist should read?
Kate Tempest: Hmm. Well, maybe I’ll just tell you what I’m reading right now or else that could just become anything. The Age Of Anger — it’s a non-fiction book about late capitalism by Pankaj Mishra. The American Pastoral by Philip Roth. I don’t usually read books like that but I’ve been getting a kick out of this one. It’s an interesting take on a bigger picture. It’s not in my top five but it’s a great bit to think on. The Book of Daniel by E. L. Doctorow is such a great book. And I’m reading The Empty Stage as well, now that I’m on tour.
mxdwn: How was Let Them Eat Chaos received?
KT: The thing about response is that I’m not really ever checking any reviews or critique whatever people are saying. I have no real way to judge it except from the live shows — that’s the only gauge I use. The social media stuff and the press makes me feel like, it’s not good for my brain to be thinking about that. But in terms of the shows, to me that feels much healthier and more organic way of the response. It’s a better picture of what it means to people and how it’s communicated.
And with a record like Chaos, a mixture of things happen when you’re performing. Either people show up to see you and let them take you on that journey or if I’m on a festival circuit and people are just passing through this whole other thing happens where everyone is just as surprised as everyone else about what’s happening. I’m talking about all these things in a context that they’re not expecting and to me that’s the most powerful moments of that tour. When you see people with that look like “Oh I didn’t expect this to be happening.” That’s when we seem to connect and that connection is everything that’s what really excites me.
mxdwn: Does the response affect your creative process and next direction?
KT: No it’s not really like that. It’s two separate worlds. Kate the performer is a completely different person from Kate the writer. Two creative identities that are not really involved with each other. When you’re writing you are listening to an idea trying your best to facilitate it. And then when the idea is finished it’s a piece of work that you commit to memory and entrust the performer to go out and deliver it. And the performer will learn things about the writing that the writer never knew. The performer becomes the communicator of the text and the things happen that the writer couldn’t get. But when you get back to the studio, you’re not thinking of that you’re just thinking of the record and how you can get the message across and maintain the integrity, the intention. How can I put it down over music and serve the mad stuff that Rubin is trying to encourage me to find in my performances? You’re not really thinking about what happens after. Just staying true to the ideas.
mxdwn: What was your first impression of Rick Rubin?
KT: I was overwhelmed by his integrity and the way that he listens. I’ve never been listened to like that. When he listens to music, it’s like the whole room becomes… his ears. He’s a mystery and it doesn’t go away when you work with him, even now after the process he’s still as much of a mystery.
mxdwn: How does the political state and world affairs interfere with your creative process?
KT: I’ve learnt that you don’t really notice how much time you spend dwelling, or how fixated you are on a subject until it starts coming out in your work. It’s not like I am pouring over this day-to-day as much as they seem to be in my lyrics. The lyricism is just the outlet. Writing isn’t the only time I think about the exploitative and violent nature of capitalism but I feel it all the time. Writing is how I get it all out so I can function.
mxdwn: Do you try to write every day?
KT: I try not to pressure myself. Someone told me once there’s no writer’s block there’s just a fear of writing badly. For me personally I’ve learned to take the pressure off. I don’t punish myself for not writing for three days. I know that that means I need a break. I try to write as often as I can but there’s things you need to do that are a different head space from writing like on tour. It can become a bad thing when you put yourself in that pressured spot. But I do notice when I don’t write, I feel itchy.
mxdwn: How does insomnia interact with your writing?
KT: It’s not really like that. Sometimes it can be creative to be awake while everyone else is asleep but often it’s not like that. To make that time a creative time requires a particular set of circumstances. The best time to write for me is when I’m awake and full of energy but when you’re up against something like that it can be very draining. The worst thing you can do is sit there thinking you can’t sleep and that you can’t write. I’m not sure that has had much positive effects on my creativity.
mxdwn: Being so multi-faceted do you have a favorite medium or lane to engage and be complimented on?
KT: I like to talk and connect with people who know about the field or form that they are engaging with. Because I work in these various worlds, I can be talking to someone extremely literally but with no cultural understanding or recognition of the music I love. It’s difficult to talk to them about the music I make because we come from such different places, I have to do a lot of extra explaining and that can be frustrating. The literary specialists who do the Q & A’s the experts who will ask me things like “So, tell me what rap is.” But in terms of my favorite lane, my intuitive and instinctive safe place is musicality and lyricism. I feel most at home there and it was the thing that really sparked my love and passion as a kid. But the things that are harder for me to complete fulfill a whole different part of me, a different satisfaction when I get to the end of a play or a novel. It’s all hard work but they satisfy different areas of my creative personality.
mxdwn: Does your process across the various forms look the same?
KT: No it’s not at all. Absolutely different worlds. The way that ideas manifest themselves are different — you can often feel them in different parts of the body. Sometimes dialogue for a play might begin in the ear, like something you heard on the street. Songwriting begins in the mouth, making sounds, different speech patterns. Fiction is all in the brain and poetry is deeper in the guts, you know? I don’t know, it’s mad. And of course, it also differs depending on deadlines as well and what else is going on surrounding each thing. You might only have time for a short poem for yourself one day and you just have to work with that. There is a different intention behind each expression.
mxdwn: What kind of questions would you like your audience to ask you about The Book of Traps and Lessons when it comes out?
KT: All I can say is that I hope it connects. I think that’s all you can really hope for a piece of work. To have some connecting power. That people connect with themselves when they hear your experience and that it helps them connect with everyone around them. That’s why I love making music. I don’t know what questions I want them to ask but I hope they recognize the elements of those experiences and feelings that help them connect.
mxdwn: You mentioned “Holy Elixir” as a penultimate moment of the album. How important is album sequencing to you?
KT: It’s really important. I think of this album as one movement. And how we recorded, it we memorized the whole thing; Dan Carey, he wrote the music and played the music and we went together and did it in one take. Playing it like three times a day starting on a Monday and by Wednesday we had it. To me it’s one piece. We worked really hard to get it in the right order and to get the movement of the entire body work to feel true. Where one song ends and the other begins is extremely important but also learning and recording it as one piece in one take, it means that every single word belongs with every other word, where each word needs to be so that they all part with the same force. When that song happens, I needed to be speaking those words as much as I feel people need to be hearing those words.
mxdwn: How was that process of recording? I’m trying to picture it.
KT: It was amazing man. Amazing. Imagine like you go into the studio and you’re looking at the mic you make all these preparations. I have a friend who made me all these herbal concoctions to smell and all this stuff to reset the energy. And when you begin you know you have 45 minutes to carry the take, I’m going to get into it. I’m in the mic booth of Shangri-La which is, everything. Incredible. Unreal. It felt like the most important moment of my career where I had to rise to the occasion. And I didn’t feel any pressure but I felt like, yes, it should feel like high stakes. You should commit to the delivery of it. Things come out that you couldn’t get unless you were committed to the journey and the endurance of the performance. I’ve never done it that way before but I’ve always had a hunch I should. Memorize the lyrics first and then record it from my body memory. Usually, I write a song, record it, go on tour, and by the end of the tour I fully know the song so well, better than when I wrote it, that’s when I feel as though I’m finally ready to record it. So, I had the idea for a long time to commit the songs to my body memory and then go to the studio. And I feel it’s the only way now.