Originally published in the French magazine Ballast – a recent interview between author Frank Barat and artist Kate Tempest.
FB: How is it going? How’s the tour going so far?
KT: It’s going well. Every night is a discovery. So you never know how to prepare for this particular performance because you never know how it’s going to feel, what’s going to happen to you, what’s going to happen with the crowd. So the whole day is about doing your best to be ready for something that you don’t know what it is and what it’s going to be like. It’s always a surprise. I get halfway through the performance and I’m like, oh it’s like that tonight, interesting. Every night so far, even when it’s been challenging, even if there’s been like technical problems or things have been uncomfortable on stage for one reason or another, there’s always been some moment of revelation amongst me and the crowd together, something happens that’s new. So that energizes the whole performance, you know.
What we’re doing is about 30 minutes of older material from « let them eat chaos » and even a few songs from “everybody down” and then we do the whole new album. You get to see me rapping. I get to do that which makes me feel comfortable on stage and also it can kind of get out some of my nerves through the musicality of the earlier work before you get into this really intense performance, which is the new album. Putting the songs like that, putting them next to each other, you see the common threads going through everything. There are certain things that I’ve been talking about on every single song I’ve ever made. These things start to become apparent. What happens by putting older work next to newer work is that you set up this conversation between the words. Which is cool. I like it.
FB : Do the audience react differently between the 2 albums. Do you see them when you perform ?
KT: Yeah, they do react differently. We have learned that if you give the audience permission to dance then they respond to the musicality of the later stuff. The more poetic work is still live, it’s still musical, they’re still beats. But if you don’t set it up correctly people think it’s an accompaniment and you know, they don’t allow themselves to move to the music but if you start the set with the beats and with music then it just creates a convention in the room where even though we go into the more poetry stuff, it becomes like heightened, it becomes musical as well. I can see the audience, the people. Sometimes I can see them too much like when we played in Amsterdam at Paradiso, a beautiful venue. There is people everywhere. It’s like three tiers of people really close to the stage and because there’s a white ceiling, it’s very reflective so you can see everybody and sometimes it makes you feel a bit exposed, you know, when you realize what you’re actually doing.
Sometimes when I’m halfway through “Europe is lost” or something, It just it just strikes me what I’m doing and it’s like “this is fucking mad”. Like what am doing? You know, like there’s so many lyrics and you’re just flowing. We play that song right at the beginning of the whole show. So usually that’s when all the nerves are really really present in me. I come out, I get mad nervous beforehand, I come out and intentionally we put that song up front because it’s really the only song that anybody knows and it’s also a good release for me because once it’s out, it’s like something’s happened to me where I’ve kind of set the pace in some ways.
I’m on a stage with all these strangers saying all this stuff, you know, it’s like the spell is broken a little bit and it’s like when you become too aware of the reality of what’s happening, it can freak me out a bit.
FB: Does the fact that you now perform in front of huge crows change the way you write, or what you write?
KT: I think that what happens with the writing is progression, hopefully. As I move through my writing life I’ve become more confident and I understand more about my voice and the possibilities of my language. So of course the writing changes, but I don’t think that you write for the room. It’s not like I’m ever thinking about the audience in the moment of conception of an idea. In performance it’s all about connection and it’s all about who’s there. And when I’m recording it’s all about connection and communication. I’m thinking constantly, how do I make this about the connection between me and whoever might be listening. So when it comes to getting on stage it definitely reflects the bigger rooms, but when I’m writing, when I’m in the studio, I don’t think about the audience at all. I just think about an idea and if anything I feel myself on this line that goes back to my beginning. Sometimes I just I feel that I stray from the line and I have to put myself back in. I suppose like all of us in our lives suddenly you realize that wherever you’re at in your life, somehow the kid that you were started that journey, so sometimes I think back to that kid that was 12 and I have some communication with that.
FB: Can success blur that a little bit?
KT: Yeah, but you know what, I think it’s easier to talk to 2,000 people than it is to talk to 10 people! It is so hard to walk out in front of an empty room and engage everybody, bring them with you, let everybody feel comfortable in your presence. That can be tiring and I spent a very long time doing that, playing to empty rooms and doing support tours and just getting up when there was no other poets or lyricist or anything and they would just put you in the middle of two punk bands at a squat rave. I would just be so desperate to rap that that i’ll go on over a jungle DJ’s or anything, I just wanted to get on the mic. So when you’ve been through that kind of thing then suddenly when you’ve got this big stage and 2,000 people it’s much easier to enter into this like, Kate the professional performer who’s got this message and got this show. When we were in the States, it’s like you go back a few paces. Because America is so big and all my music is very difficult to place especially in there. It’s like where do they play that on the radio? What is that? So when we go to America, we might play to couple of hundred people, maybe less. I played a gig to 26 people in America! It was cool, in this like kind of foyer of this museum. It was bizarre. That’s like a reality check. It’s more special in some ways for the people there because it’s so much more intimate, but for you it demands a whole different mindset. It’s a kind of humbling experience to be like, oh, yeah this is what I tried so hard to stop doing but I still love it.
FB: You mentioned before not forgetting where you coming from and that it was important for you to go back to your roots. You come from a pretty working class background, right?
KT: Well, actually my family were pretty well off. We grew up in quite a working class neighborhood, but my old man retrained as a lawyer and so we were affluent. He really did well. You know he was kind of a radical guy, but then he totally bought into the capitalist dream. My mum then stopped working and looked after us, we were 5 kids, and we luckily never wanted for anything. It was a beautiful sacrifice that they both made. But the neighborhood that we grew up in was very working-class neighborhood in South London, Lewisham where there was majority kind of West Indian living there as well as a big kind of afro-caribbean community and some Irish as well. A normal life, you know. But my experiences as a kid, my kind of formative years of what I saw, and also the politics of the area things like that have given me a particular attentiveness, I suppose, or willingness to understand my privilege and to also see it in a certain light because I was always aware of how lucky that is, you know, I always could see there was a lot of struggle around.
FB: How do write? It feel like you observe what is happening around you, and then find the words to describe what you feel about it. Is it what you do?
KT: Yeah, I think it’s about attention to detail. A lot of my writing life has been about trying to celebrate the tiny things that give you all of the sense and the feelings. It is very small things that people do or that happen in a moment, like a conversation. It’s a very small thing that actually gives me all the feeling, just the way somebody picks up a cup of water, it’s like I see something. It’s also about sensitivity. Often I think that writers, musicians, people that are drawn to be creative, have this huge well of sensitivity and it’s a huge blessing but it can also feel like a massive burden especially if you don’t have access to your creativity. But if you do have access to it, I think what happens is that if you are able to tune into the world at that frequency, then it’s kind of your responsibility to do something with that, because not everybody can, and everybody needs at some point to name some of the unnamable things, and it just so happens that poets are very good at that. They put a name on it. In my life there’s been so many instances of me reading something and saying that’s it, that’s my feeling. But I wasn’t able to get there alone, I had to read somebody else and it just connects me to myself, connects me to my experience, connects me to them and it’s a humanizing thing. It really helps me to escape from the numbness that is a requirement of the times and so I think that it’s just about tuning in and then sometimes you manage to tune into something which is common, that is a communal thing.
FB: Do you feel that as someone who is privileged, that you have to use your voice to speak about the ones that aren’t?
KT: It’s very important in this day and age to be fully aware of your privilege and the fact that I’m in this position speaks about my privilege, anyway. When I was coming up around different rappers, MCS, poets…Why is it that I have this position to speak? And some of the other poets that I came up around don’t. That’s about class privilege. My race. my looks, my gender, the color of my skin, all the things that allow me to kind of get in around the back door. You’re looking kind of harmless to people. But I mean in terms of what you say about do I feel a kind of responsibility to speak for under-privileged. It’s not really like that. If you have a mic, if you have an audience, yes, it’s extremely important that you know your motive, and there is also the creative calling to me, that I take really seriously and although I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to speak for anyone, I would say I’m trying to speak to people and with people. What I write is observations of what I know. I have lived a complicated life and I have been many people in my life. There has been many phases that have been very revealing in different ways. I’ve been through some things that I don’t even realize how they’ve affected me until it starts to come out in the writing, and I feel like my work is usually a conversation with the different selves that I carry around, the different parts of my life that creep in and out and that I’m trying to bring into this space and settle. That might sound quite selfish but I feel like by being really attentive to what’s going on in my internal landscape, it allows people to check in with their own, like we were saying earlier about reading something or hearing something and saying oh that’s how I feel. I think in performance what I’m trying to do is reach out and connect and be beyond this wave with the people in the room. That’s about trying to willingly make something happen. But when it’s me and the pen, it’s a bit of a mystery really. All this stuff comes out, things that I’ve seen, things that have happened, somebody that I’ve loved, somebody that I’ve lost, grief. So much of my earlier work was about a very particular set of circumstances that I was trying to deal with, so much of it is all about that. It’s not as if I sat down to work that out, it’s just what came out, and it has been the case since I was 16 and I started running around everywhere with a pen and a piece of paper. It just became natural to think of life and writing in the same bracket, like they’re the same thing, you know, I live I write.
FB: Are you a very disciplined writer? Do you set a time every day when you have to sit down and write for example? Or is it a very organic and chaotic process?
KT: It’s different all the time. If I have a deadline to meet then I have to fit that into whatever I have to do. So then I need to write you know, it’s really unromantic. It’s like “oh fuck I’ve got to write 600 words today, I better go and find somewhere I can do that”. Other times when I’m in the studio, if I’m in the mode, I can write from 10 in the morning when we start until 10:00 at night non-stop. It doesn’t feel exhausting, it feels like it’s on its way, I get on the wave and that’s its, it can feel endless, which is beautiful. Often one of the problems that I think people can probably relate to in their own lives, is when you start to do professionally what you do creatively. When you have a job that requires that creativity from you, you can forget to be creative just for yourself. If it’s always coming out for projects then sometimes it’s the last thing you want to do. The thing that I need to do the most is write, just for myself, not for a novel, not for a play, not for an album. So usually I know that I haven’t done that if I start to feel like I’m a bit pissed off or something. I need to sit down and write.
FB: Listening to your work, London feels as much internal as external in your life. Could you describe your “relationship” with this city? What it does represent for you?
KT: When I was about 14, I stopped going to school and I just started hanging out, because I was excluded I wasn’t doing very well. I had this job in this record shop and I just was hanging out all the time in lewisham where I’m from and it was at that time that I started to journey further and further away and that I started to understand the geography of the bigger city. When you start to realise, wow this isn’t just where I grew up but I’m in London. It started to strike me the opportunities for music, for hearing music and for going to parties. It is like the pace picked up in my relationship with the city and I began to grow into myself as well. Then I went to college a couple years later and it was in a different part of the city. As I have grown up the city has had this huge impact on my identity and my life. It has taught me almost in a parental role about what life is, could be and should be and it has shown me the greatest injustice as well as the greatest justice. So much of the world is in London that for a writer interested in people, it was just the most exhilarating, energizing and dangerous place for a while. There was so much I was learning every day. Also, because I had this application to this talent that I was trying to nurture, I wanted to be a rapper, I wanted to write, I wanted to be out there all the time getting engaged with opportunities to be rapping so I was hungry for London and I think that at that time there was so much possibility and I would push myself to the limits of what I could do and get. When you’re an adolescent with a creative passion, nothing can stop you from getting on the mic, or I’ll be at my friends, I want to stay up all night and I want to see the morning come up somewhere new. It was an exciting time. So in some senses this kind of lost London that you can probably see in my work may well just be childhood, those days are gone. At the same time London has changed and does change so much, all the time. When I was 18 and living in New Cross, what I would see and feel as I walked around was so affecting, it became a huge part of my internal landscape. It taught me everything. It’s my foundation and that New Cross doesn’t exist anymore. Those places that were revelatory for me, not only has time passed but those places don’t exist. The people that were always in the neighborhood are not there anymore. I saw someone had a t-shirt on the other day that just said “regeneration is segregation” and I was like “you know what, this sounds right”. Where I’m from, Lewisham, it looks completely different. There’s all these mad kind of skyscraper buildings built to house these one bedrooms and two bedroom flats for like half a million pounds, crazy stuff. For every Londoner that is really trying to stay in their city, you have this relationship to the changes that are happening which are hard to explain because it’s so violent and it’s happening live. It’s happening every day. When I get home after this tour, it’s going to be different. Some building will be knocked down. There will be flats in their place, like the swimming pool won’t be there anymore. Literally that’s what happens, you come home and you’re like “wait, where’s the swimming pool? Oh its luxury flats there now”. It is just mad.
FB: You write “My country is falling apart”….. what is your point of view on Brexit? And what about the fact that even though we now know that the Brexit campaign was built on lies…some people seem not to care, and still want to believe in it.
KT: I think that it can be attractive to believe in something. Everybody needs that. It doesn’t matter if the brexit campaign was built on lies or not because the fact of the matter is people have some blame, some anger. Brexit is symptomatic of a wider and deeper problem. When I wrote that lyric “is coming to pass my country is coming apart”. Brexit wasn’t on the even on the horizon. There was not even a referendum yet. When I wrote that it was about something that is deeper in the country, something deeper that’s in the psyche. I was talking to this guy just two days ago outside a venue. He lives in Europe now with his wife and he said to me “you know, my family voted for Brexit and I live in Europe and I’m married to a Dutch woman”. He was saying his family is not even thinking of it like that. What they’re thinking of is there’s loads of Polish people taking our jobs.
The problem is that there is a need to put all of this feeling of stuckness, trapness and why is my life not going the way that I’ve been sold the dream that it should be going. It’s the system that is faulted. It’s the system that is not working. But then the need for people to find a scapegoat to blame, to have something that’s easily understandable is huge and I understand that. We’re at this moment in Britain where it’s so vicious, so factional and I suppose that’s the same throughout Europe at the minute and that’s always been the case actually, it’s just come to the surface now. There’s a belief to wear, it’s kind of horrible and my whole thing at the minute, what I’m trying to focus on, because I have the luxury of being able to make music, is to just get past to what divides us and just think about what connects us. I want to just get closer to this idea that no matter where you stand on this or that political spectrum, there is commonality. Obviously there are certain issues that you need to know where you stand on them but increasingly, I feel like it’s more important to focus on what connects us and what keeps us together, because everything is pulling people apart, it is getting violent. Everybody’s entitled to their opinion and some people have done a hell of a lot of research and reading into this thing and they really do think that this is the best thing for the country and who am to say anything about that? I do not fucking know. All I know is that it feels like it’s a time of transition, something’s definitely moving and I feel like it’s been coming for many years. I felt this approaching movement for a long time. It doesn’t surprise me.
So I try to think about empathy, radical empathy. I believe personally that Boris Johnson is poisonous character. I believe that his policies are dangerous. I disagree with him politically, but I don’t disagree with your ability to choose on your own merit. The way that I was raised was “you just distrust tories”, that’s it. Tories are bad. Because what they want and what they believe in is dehumanizing. This is an inherited truism that I have and I’m sure that on the other side of it people talk about “loony lefties” or whatever, that it goes to the same way, but in the opposite direction. But if I believe in empathy at all costs, above and beyond, then that needs to extend even to Boris Johnson. I need to be able to say well, you know, he’s got a really tough job. This is going to really upset some people to hear me saying that I’m sure but this is how I believe it is and it should be like and that if you can sit down with somebody who votes for Boris Johnson, if you can sit down and chill and spend some time with such a person, that’s really important thing to just to remember that outside of all this noise, if you turn that frequency down of who’s right? who’s wrong?….I’m us and you’re them…..there’s commonality there. Especially as we’re heading into this kind of accelerated moment of environmental destruction. It is really important.
FB: If we want to change things, and understand these movements, or how Trump, Johnson and co came to power, it is important not to simplify things too much, and say, like you sometimes hear, that Trump voters are all rednecks imbeciles….
KT: I don’t like that kind of discourse at all and I do hear it a lot, you know when people just can’t understand how this has happened. It’s like come on, of course this has happened. Where have you been at? This makes perfect sense. I am aware that it’s my privilege allowing me to say, empathy at all costs, because I’m not on the receiving end of racist abuse or violence. That allows me to say empathy even to them, I think it’s important that I say it, that I am aware of my privileged position and the kind of hypocrisy evident in that, but it’s just a feeling that I have right now. This is the setting of my compass. This desire, this willingness to connect at a more eternal level. C.G Jung talks about the spirit of the times and the spirit of the depths. This is what really moved me as I was going into the process of writing this album. I wanted to write an album that had at its core a conversation between the spirit of the times and the spirit of the depths because I relate to that. The spirit of the depths is what calls me to write my poetry. I’ve always lived on this particular line. Even when I was young that’s what I was into. I wanted to know about eternal things and I was always drawn to this, the eternal wisdoms. When I was reading that was the stuff I wanted to read about. But the spirit of the times is so loud at the minute that it confuses things. It takes us off track. So we need allow ourselves to pan out a little bit and just think about life as a global concern.
My partner is originally from Algeria and her roots are Sufi and Berber, and I’ve been learning a lot about Sufi mysticism and poetry. I’ve been learning so much about just recalibrating your kind of inner compass. We get so cluttered and concerned with the western model but this is just a drop in the ocean really. It’s nothing. If you really zoom out of it, if you think that people walked from Yemen to Algeria across the Sahara Desert. It’s a pretty big reality check. Humanity survives and is capable of such powerful things. What’s more troubling for me at the moment is what’s happening with migrants. This is what I think will define our age. How we handle this. Global warming will create something terrifying in terms of waves of migration and I think that the panic that people are feeling about borders is the dangerous thing for me. I wonder what’s going to happen with this in the short term future.
FB: You were at the receiving end, two years ago in Germany, of threats because of your support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement directed towards Israel. How were you affected by this? Were you scared or did you feel empowered by it?
KT: Both. The reason we canceled the show at tempelhof is because the show was meant to be in solidarity with migrants who were being temporarily housed in what was once an airport. We were going to go there and the proceeds of the show were going to go and help them. Then there was all this violence and threats coming my way. There were these protests planned, pro-Israel protests and I just felt that was a dangerous thing to bring to people who had already suffered so much, with a lot of them coming from Islamic countries as well. I just felt I didn’t want to bring violent protests to people who had already experienced so much violence in their lives. It didn’t feel like the responsible thing to do. So that’s why we canceled that show. Then a couple of months ago, we did a festival in Germany and there was a kind of protest in the crowd, a little banner. Then suddenly this guy tried to get on stage, and I mean it was violent, but you know what, I said to him in the moment “I love you. I love you. I love you, I’m so glad that this dialogue is open that we live in a space where I can have this opinion and you can have yours”. It wasn’t the moment to be having that conversation and I definitely feel like the whole subject is much bigger than can fit on a placard, but I came off that performance feeling rattled. I was scared because of the violence coming from this guy who wanted to beat me up. I could feel it. I know what this type of violence feels like, I’ve been there before, and I saw it in his face, this guy wanted to punch me in the face. And because the performance is so vulnerable and naked, it’s poetry, it felt even more brutal. It was like “fuck there’s nowhere to hide”. I felt freaked out because of this, this kind of protest. I realize that this is a very hot topic for people and I don’t want to present as somebody who has an easy answer to it. But as far as I’m aware, the people of Palestine have called for a cultural boycott and I have agreed to it. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that I have a willingness to kind of discuss the ins and outs of Israel-Palestine at length. I’m of Jewish Heritage, I’ve got family in Israel. It’s a really complicated thing. It’s been a really confusing time. So I feel both scared and empowered when this violence happens. On one hand it makes you just wish you hadn’t said anything, because you’re scared you might begin to second-guess yourself, but at the same time I do believe that this is the right thing for me to do.
In the bigger picture, what does this do? What does this gain? Because there’s other artists that will say for every reason I have, there’s an opposing reason. I’m trying to go carefully with it I suppose but at the same time stick to what I believe my convictions are.
FB: Did we forget how to love each other? How to love and how to be loved? Does it come down to this?
KT: In this album there is this pull back from the bigger picture to the very intimate space. How does a person spot the barbaric tendencies in themselves, the traps, the things they’ve inherited from a toxic culture, from a poisonous, oppressive and by nature exploitive system. How do we grow up in this culture and not be marked in our most intimate relationships. Then once you spot that in your relationships, how are you able to really do the work on yourself? So that when you love you can love fully, truly, with tenderness and not with the traps of a patriarchal capitalist system that come out in you. Things like ownership, jealousy and need, all the stuff that the album deals with. How do you actually be present enough in your relationship?
You have to go through that journey, of trying to improve yourself as a lover, first, you know. We want our country to change, I want the politics to change, I want to live in a less explorative system, but if I am practicing exploitation with the person that I meant to care most about or even with myself, against myself, if I can’t break these traps in myself, then how can I expect the society as a whole to break the traps?
In this sense love becomes the absolute frontline.
This is where the big battles happen because once you get some sense of how to live with love, with love for yourself, with love for your fellow, with love for your intimate partner, it then radiates outwards. It’s big stuff and this is the belief, it is my core belief beyond anything else. My belief is love. I know people roll their eyes when I say that, but whatever this is where I’m at.
I believe it and it’s a practice. It’s a hard practice. You can’t take your eyes of the ball when it comes to it. In a situation where you’re faced with violence can you respond with love? In a situation where you’re faced with ignorance, can you respond with love? And can your love be without the traps? This is the thing for me right now. This is the practice and I think if you have a relationship with music, you have this relationship to the infinite, to the eternal because that’s where the music comes from, that’s where poetry comes from. You have this relationship to this deeper place and this also tunes me into love and loving. Somehow the two things are linked when I go out on stage, it’s an embodiment of my spiritual practice. Somewhere all the things are linked up. (laughs)
Frank Barat is an author, journalist and film maker. He has edited books with Angela Davis, Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappé and Ken Loach.