"When I write, I'm visited by a higher self": Kate Tempest on poetry, performance and South London pubs

The poet and musician discusses her latest album, The Book of Traps and Lessons.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

“Do you know what the secret to making good ginger tea is?” In the bar of a central London hotel, Kate Tempest lifts the lid of her white china teapot to show me its contents. She asks me to pay attention to how the ginger has been cut: in slices, two millimetres thick, which float unappealingly in the hot water. “You don’t get any of the goodness out. You need to grate it, or cut it in strips. I mean, this is still nice, but if you grate it, it’s really good.”

I’m willing to believe it. A few seconds before doling out this sage advice, Tempest has agreed – with an unfussed shrug – that she doesn’t say anything lightly. Her manner is not exactly intense, but considered, a little indignant, and always serious.

Earlier this year, Tempest released her third album, The Book of Traps and Lessons. She has also written three plays, a novel and four poetry collections, one of which – Brand New Ancients – won the Ted Hughes Poetry Award in 2013. Her music moves fluidly from floating spoken word to rhythmic rap. Her body of work spans poetry, music and performance, always in her distinct voice.

The new album is broadly divided into two sections, the first six songs making up the book of traps, and the final five comprising the book of lessons. Tempest tells me that the album takes the perspective of someone “finding it easy to spot these abhorrent tendencies in society and the world at large, but it’s harder for them to spot the same tendencies in themselves.” The record posits that structural and personal violence are related: “you have this song about the violence of the state against the individual and then a song about an individual against themselves, embodying all the things they find so wrong in their culture.” It’s when this narrating character finally realises these tendencies that the album moves into its second phase.

Tempest has never been an easy listen. On the single “Europe Is Lost”, from her 2016 album Let Them Eat Chaos, she speaks of a decaying capitalist landscape: “The water level’s rising / The animals, the elephants, the polar bears are dying / Stop crying. Start buying […] No trace of love in the hunt for the bigger buck / Here in the land where nobody gives a fuck”. It’s this sharp cynicism that has characterised Tempest’s work to date, and The Book of Traps and Lessons offers a bleak take on both societal and personal problems. “I Trap You” provides a starkly realistic outlook on a relationship, with a tongue-in-cheek music-box soundtrack. Tempest maintains that her work has always been personal – to her, at least – but there is an intimate tension here that feels more defined on this album than it has before.

Perhaps this is because the record is, unusually for Tempest, in the first person. “As soon as you put a character’s name in front of a feeling it sets up a convention of how people identify with a story. And as soon as you say “I” at the top of a story people assume it’s you, especially if you’re the speaker of the text,” says a slightly exasperated Tempest. It seems fair enough that her audience might assume her first-person work was autobiographical, but the “I” of Tempest’s writing is fictional and fluid. Whether the album is about others or herself, “for me it’s still a story,” she says.

At Rick Rubin’s Shangri La studios, Tempest and her band recorded the album in one take, two or three times a day, for three days, in order to “commit it to body memory”. This repetitive process of performance allowed Tempest to see the work from a new perspective. “When you put all the lyrics back to back like that and you record them together, something happens. There are words in the first or second song that begin to hold hands with words in the fourth, fifth or sixth song. There are these brackets around ideas,” says Tempest. “You show yourself the surprises within your own work.”

Tempest seems to deliberately detach herself from her work once it is written. She is from south east London, and there’s a lyric I want to ask her about that seems to refer to the gentrification of that area: “The last real pub in the South is surrounded by wankers”. But she’s not particularly interested in explaining it. “As soon as something’s written, it stops being about what I intended,” she says. “Could mean anything, couldn’t it?” This strikes me as a remarkably disengaged comment to make about one’s own work. But perhaps there isn’t as much to it as I’d like. “That lyric is about a place I know very well which is changing. What can I say?” she shrugs, eventually. “The last real pub in the South is surrounded by wankers.”

I feel embarrassed asking her to hash over the meaning of her work, when she insists it should speak for itself. Tempest is happy to be asked about it by journalists, she says. But she doesn’t have all the answers. “As much as I’ve spent a long time working on my craft, the process is just as much a mystery to me as it is to anybody else,” she explains. “I don’t know why or how. That’s the beauty of it, and the challenge.”

“Hold Your Own”, the standout track of the album, embodies something of this procedural mystery. Though it was singled out by Rubin as a must-have for The Book of Traps and Lessons, it was never intended to be heard by anyone but Tempest herself. “I wrote it as a note to myself about what I wanted my [2014 poetry] collection Hold Your Own to embody,” she tells me. “I wrote the collection based around the mythic figure Tyresius. It was about gender, sex, childhood. For me that was a real turning point. It was the first time I’d written about my sexuality and my gender.”

“Hold Your Own” did not appear in written form in the poetry collection of the same name: Tempest says she wrote it for private use, to give herself the courage to write the book. “When everything is fluid, nothing can be known with any certainty / Hold your own”, she says, in the song version that appears on the album. “Every pain / Every grievance / Every stab of shame / Every day spent with a demon in your brain giving chase / Hold it”. When she talks about this song she is markedly more animated: its significance is clear. She speaks with the same considered rhythm that she deploys for her poetry: “Rather than seeking validation in other people’s approval, and rather than being motored in this pursuit by shame, this song is hoping to encourage the acknowledgement of a huge resource beneath these things, a huge well that we can all draw from.”

This song strikes a chord with audiences when performed live, according to Tempest. It particularly affects women – it’s easy to see why, in an era of increased social media scrutiny and with awareness of emotional abuse techniques such as gaslighting on the rise. Tempest’s shows are marked by intense emotions – she seems lost for words when she describes them as “kind of amazing”, “absolutely mad” and “fucking mad”. But she does emphasise the importance for her, as a performer, not to get too caught up in the atmosphere. “If you’re enjoying it too much you get in the way, you ham it up a bit too much,” she says. “It needs an element of distance. If you over-say the words, you lose the words. There’s something about letting them drop that gives this feeling of like…”. She gasps.

Though Tempest has been categorised as a political artist, she doesn’t see herself that way. “It’s easier to understand an aggressive performance poet than to understand somebody with a…” she tails off. “My whole writing life I’ve been writing about the world and the person within it, the world and the person within it, the world and the person within it.” She beats these words like a drum. Like a good cup of ginger tea, breaking things down into individual pieces helps to access the essence of the larger entity. Throughout the interview she has corrected herself from the generic “you” to “I” and vice-versa: always blurring the boundaries between her own story and somebody else’s. But here, she holds her own. “When I write, I am visited by a higher self,” Tempest tells me. While her work is frequently a question, not an answer, she still finds certainty somewhere within it.

 

Emily Bootle is the New Statesman’s editorial assistant.