Kate Tempest interview: “What I’m trying to express is something bigger, something more universal”

In an age where social media rules our existence, climate change is threatening the planet, and politicians are making a right hash of it all, Kate Tempest is whipping up another storm with latest release ‘The Book of Traps and Lessons’. It’s a thought-provoking album that expresses the worries felt by most living in the modern world.

With an album tour coming to Sheffield on Saturday 9th November, I sat down with Kate to discuss the new record, musical process and how creativity is fundamental for human connection.

We start out by talking about how the new album came about and the unique way in which it was approached. “The process of making it was unlike other albums that me and Dan Carey [co-writer and producer] have done. He and I usually lock ourselves away in a studio and we just throw everything that we have at the ideas and we just… we kind of tunnel down this rabbit hole, narrative or sound or drums or whatever it is, and we get really involved in it. This album was different because of the presence of Rick Rubin, who acted like a guide for me.”

One of the most influential producers in the last few decades, Rubin has produced records for The Beastie Boys, Run DMC and Red Hot Chili Peppers amongst many other big names in the industry. He got in touch out of the blue, and thrilled by the opportunity  to collaborate, Kate jumped at the chance to work together following a phone conversation that mooted the idea of a new record. She describes the process that she, Dan and Rick went through.

“We would play Rick all the demos and then he would encourage us to pursue certain aspects and the things he was most interested in; the main thing that he thought this album should really be about was discovering how the lyrics and the music should be locking in with each other.Kate emphasises that in this album she’s “not rapping to the beat. I’m going at the pace of the words and the music is following the lyric.” From the sounds of it the musical process that Rick was encouraging was a difficult thing for Kate to nail as an artist so used to rapping and sticking to a beat. “It makes so much sense and it seems so easy to explain, but when we were trying to discover how to do that it was just so impossible and you have to understand ‘cos it’s like I’ve spent 15 years staying on a beat and suddenly this fantastic, legendary hip-hop producer is telling me to stop rapping.”

“It makes so much sense and it seems so easy to explain, but when we were trying to discover how to do that it was just so impossible and you have to understand ‘cos it’s like I’ve spent 15 years staying on a beat and suddenly this fantastic, legendary hip-hop producer is telling me to stop rapping.” – Kate Tempest 

The result of this new process is an album that is drenched in gestural music that sets the backdrop for Kate’s usual blend of provocative, gripping lyrics which highlight current woes of the world. I ask her if she always intended for the album to be a record of two halves: The Book of Traps followed by The Book of Lessons, with hard-hitting poem ‘All Humans Too Late’ bridging one into the other.

“It just kind of naturally seemed to be what was occurring from the demos that were successful. They wouldn’t make any sense at all and as we were starting to compile them, this kind of shape came naturally. I tried to kind of force a narrative into the demos that we had and Rick was basically like:  stop doing that, you don’t need to do that, let the songs show you how they want to be heard. It sounds so esoteric but it really was this process of trying to get out of the way of the essential creative process. Yeah, the album is in two halves, The Book of Traps and The Book of Lessons absolutely that’s what we’ve created, but it wasn’t like previous albums where I started with a map and I filled in the details. This was like a process of discovery and it just transpired that this is apparently what’s going on in my head basically, which is great.”

It seems that Rick Rubin’s presence has allowed Kate to unlock untapped material and creativity which has resulted in a somewhat personal and intimate album. When I ask Kate if this is the case she simply replies: “Yeah, I suppose it is that.”

“What’s happening when I write is that I am processing everything that’s going on for me. My politics, my particular belief systems, it’s all going to be there in the work…” – Kate Tempest

We start talking more about the narrative of the album and how a lot of the content is very relatable. With subjects such as relationships, sexuality, personal triumphs, and self-esteem being interwoven throughout, the listener can truly get involved in what Kate is imparting. Some subjects seem politically-motivated with themes such as climate change and racism coming through in the tracks. I ask Kate if this is her intention with the album and whether her artistic output is intrinsically motivated by her own politics.

“Of course, but it’s not the prime motive. What’s happening when I write is that I am processing everything that’s going on for me. My politics, my particular belief systems, it’s all going to be there in the work, but it’s not what’s starting the ball rolling; it’s not like I sit there deciding to write a poem that will be political. I feel like, especially at this time, that creativity, literature, music, it can all go much further towards connecting people that feel disconnected from each other. And so actually the less prominent my particular political beliefs are the better because actually what I’m trying to express is something bigger, something more universal, than this particular current fractured climate.” She goes on to say that sometimes people can feel threatened when they think someone is making a political statement towards them resulting in them closing themselves off. “Not to say that I don’t stand behind my beliefs, I want them to be prevalent and visible but my main motive for creativity is a desire to connect, and connection is the thing that drives me and it’s universal. It really is truly a universal thing that I’m hoping to achieve.”

As she talks about her craft, I can really see that her motivation is connectio: no matter what statements she makes through her lyrics, she just wants people to connect over them. That then gets her thinking about the world and how she can show that she, too, is connected with us. With this album Kate really makes a point of how the world is shaped right now and how it all is, frankly, a bit of a mess. “I think it’s important to say that when I’m writing about people I’m writing about myself, as I’m as much in this mess as anybody else. It’s not like I’m standing outside the mess going “Guys, what a mess.” It’s like I’m in the mess saying to myself “Kate, what a mess you’re in,” you know? I think that’s an important distinction to make because when I write I’m trying to solve something in me, not in you, but hopefully me being that honest about my own struggle enables you to access your own struggles when you listen to it.”

Writing music I really do feel like it’s my purpose on the planet

This statement alone encapsulates the effect of the entire album. Listening to it can really make you look inward and feel that someone else out there understands what you are going through, and that someone is Kate. As we move on from the heavier subjects of human connection and personal struggle, we talk about how this album has been in the making for over five years and how some demos for this album turned into Kate’s successful 2016 album Let Them Eat Chaos. It comes across that Kate is an incredibly hard worker, having many projects on the go at one time. Not only has she brought out four studio albums, she has also written three plays, a novel and numerous poetry collections. Tempest is a true creative, writing and expressing herself through many different mediums.

“I think they are just different facets of my creative personality really, but I absolutely love making music; I can’t tell you how much I love it when I’m in the recording studio. Writing music I really do feel like it’s my purpose on the planet, I fucking love it so much but when I’m working on other forms that I find more challenging that brings out a different part of me, a part of me that needs a challenge in order to overcome an obstacle. There is a part of my creativity that flourishes under pressure, to do things that are really, really hard. I really appreciate throwing something at myself like a play or a novel or something that is just so hugely challenging. They’re all different and I have this feeling that if I wasn’t doing all these different things, I would be exhausted,  but because I do all these different things it reenergises me; I can go from working really hard on an album, and then I switch focus and work on a poetry collection. It reenergises my motivation.”

I ask her if she’s always been like this, using creativity as a way to motivate herself. “When I think about my childhood I was always really in love with reading and writing and listening to music, I was literally in love with it. It was nothing like it is now though. It’s not like I knew that it was creativity, it was just what I personally really liked to do. I just loved to read and write stories and I really like music but it wasn’t until much later that I had the realisation that this could be my life and I wanted it to be my life.” The way she speaks about herself and her craft is very humble and it’s easy to tell that she feels lucky for being able to do what she loves as way of work. I emphasise that her work, her album, touches so many people and that is clear by the success of her recent tour that people really respond to her in an emotional way. As the conversation draws to a close, Kate is keen to mention that she is very excited to come to Sheffield as part of her album tour and I finish by asking her if it ever gets overwhelming seeing the effect of her music at her live shows.

“Yeah, it’s completely overwhelming. I mean, it’s like you’re not really thinking about how it’s gonna be listened to when you’re creating something, you’re just trying to get through the process and then there’s this quite exciting bit when it comes out and you start performing it and you start seeing what it’s doing to people and how people are connecting with it – it’s, like, crazy, it’s just crazy.”

This statement is seen off with a modest laugh, showing how, even now, she still doesn’t quite believe how her output is affecting people. She then again thanks me for listening to her album and we have a very quick chat about the things to check out in Sheffield once the tour arrives before signing off to carry on with our days. After our chat I felt such a sense of happiness after having such a lovely conversation with a genuine person. Despite all her success and fame, Kate Tempest still remains a true person who is just trying to connect with people by producing music and words – a sentiment which in this lonely technological age is much needed.

Kate Tempest plays O2 Academy Sheffield on 9 November

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