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Kate Tempest: Ever thirsty - and still holding her own

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Despite countless obituaries, poetry has never laid down and died, though there have certainly been periods when its relevance was hard to discern, when it struggled against the zeitgeist rather than cutting with the grain of it.

In that sense, Kate Tempest might be the most important thing to happen to poetry since John Cooper Clarke, recasting it as something of the street and the stage, rather than the salon.

Of course, the hip-hop culture that Tempest teethed upon all through her London childhood never forgot the value of lyricism. She's fused its sense of underdog swagger and warts'n'all realism with the great traditions of English verse in a way that's undeniably her own and truly of its time. It's hard to believe that, a mere ten years ago, she was just another kid waiting their turn at open mic nights.

How does that transition feel?

The focus, for me, is always on the next piece of work. What's amazing about being in the position that I'm in now is that the ideas that I have, I can pursue. It's a huge thrill and I'm extremely grateful, because I felt like I was smashing my head against a brick wall for so long. I couldn't work out how to take things further and I was so desperate to be heard, to get a bigger stage, to have an audience... Once you've been through that kind of arduous process then you don't take it too much for granted. Even when it gets tiring, you remind yourself, 'This is the thing you dreamed of'.

You always had that hunger to be heard, right from the start?

Yeah, absolutely. It was an obsession, from the moment I began. The thing about lyricism. it's naturally about sharing the words. That's kinda the whole point of it. You write a great lyric, you get excited about it, you can't wait to finish it so you can tell it to your friends. And as I grew more confident and grew more obsessed, the hunger also grew, to be heard by more and more people.

Do you start from an idea about the form of a piece or do you start with fragments and build out?

Usually you can tell from the beginning of an idea what form it wants to be. As with so many things in creativity, the reasons are practical. If I have a poetry book deadline looming, then whatever I'm thinking about will come out as a poem. It's such an unromantic way of explaining it, but really it's the case.

If I'm in a recording studio thinking about making an album, what comes out of me is music. But if I'm sat behind my desk, with a deadline to complete a play by tomorrow, then what comes out of me is a play. Practicalities are useful for directing the current.

I've looked at my hand holding a pen since forever

Do you still find yourself running right up to deadlines or are you more disciplined and controlled now?

No, I run right up to deadlines! Even with my discipline and control [laughs]

One thing that really comes out of The Book of Traps and Lessons is that you're documenting the clamour and pressure of the world. How do you make the silence for yourself in order to document that noise?

I think that the process of writing is usually about working out something that's going on, something that is already making a lot of noise within, y'know? So you create the silence by making the noise [laughs]

Is it a form of catharsis, then?

Absolutely, yeah. I can't really tell you how much a part of my life it is. I'm so involved with it. I have been since forever. It's how I understand the world, how I understand my place within the world, how I understand myself.

I feel most at ease when I'm writing. When I have particular things within my life which are traumatic or stressful going on, and I haven't written for a while, as soon as I find myself with a pen and a piece of paper it's like [exhales] that's it.

It's very centring. It's eternal. I've looked at my hand holding a pen since forever. And I know that there's something about that process which takes me back to an essential feeling. It keeps me in tune. It's like a service to something very profound.

It's not so much about documenting things, it's about [long pause] noticing things, and just going there, getting yourself out of the way and letting the thing come through you. Especially in performance. Performance is so abstract. What's happening is so beyond comprehension that it's like a surrender. And that's what I mean by service: it's like surrendering yourself to this thing that is so mysterious.

I've been listening to the Book of Traps and Lessons and it's put me through the wringer. It's like an emotional tube ride. There's a subterranean claustrophobia to it, all heat and darkness. But there's that sense toward the end, when you come out into that last track ('People's Faces'), it's like emerging into the light in Zone 3 or something. I've listened to it three times and cried like a child every time. Is that what you're aiming for? Do you have an idea of what you want people to feel?

No. When I'm writing, I don't think about that. When I'm performing, then it's different then I am thinking about connecting with people. But when I'm writing or making a record, it's about a journey that I'm on personally. And if I'm being honest about what's happening for me in this time, in this place, in this body, whatever, then maybe me allowing myself to be that vulnerable and that truthful and that raw will allow somebody else to go to that place within themselves.

That claustrophobia that you're talking about this is what my life's been like for the last year or two. That's what comes out when you make a record - your life comes out. And what a beautiful and amazing thing to be able to say, 'Well, all this stress I've been going through, now I've made this piece of work', and it can create a moment like you've just described, coming out at the end into people's faces and just feeling this relief, this tenderness, this light. It's hugely affecting to hear you say something like that.

But if I had started the process with that intention, I don't think I'd have ever been able to get there. You have to let it reveal itself to you. You can't really decide that you're gonna make an album that will affect people this way or that. You just have to go there, be as honest as you can about your own process.

To turn a question from The Book of Traps and Lessons back on you: where is the good heart to go but inwards?

That question is posed at a particular point in the album, but the answer is hopefully offered in the resolution which is that the good heart should go outwards, into other people, into people's faces, into other people's experiences, into connection and universality. That, hopefully, is the answer. The pull inwards, the pull to be fearful and to close and to protect, I understand that. But the answer is always an opening.

Paul Graham Raven

Kate Tempest performs at the Academy on 9 November.

The Book of Traps and Lessons is out now.

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Next article in issue 139

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