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Kate Tempest: Poet, Playwright, Rapper

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Photo by India Cranks

"I know we've only just met, but can I have a cigarette?"

It'd be pretty much impossible to turn Kate Tempest down, not only because she's kindly taken 20 minutes to talk to me before she steps out onstage at Shambala Festival with her new live hip hop album, but because of her piercing blue eyes. It's a cliche to talk about a writer's eyes, but there really is something quite stunning about how Kate Tempest looks at you. It's vulnerable and fierce at the same time, almost as if she knows about that 20p you stole from your mum's purse to buy some ice lollies when you were 10.

Kate Tempest is a force of nature at the moment. Recently selling out almost all of the dates for Brand New Ancients, and now touring the release of her new hip hop album, Everybody Down, she has a new poetry book and novel to follow which expands on the characters she created for Brand New Ancients. We caught up with her to talk festivals, character-led narrative pieces and advice for any aspiring writers.

How have you adapted the album for a live set?

It's really cool what we've done actually. I'm really proud of it. Obviously it's all electronic music, but we want it to feel live. So we've got two drummers playing [Roland] SPDs, triggering all the parts, and then Dan Carey, who's the producer of the record, plays synths and Anthia Clarke sings and backs me up with a lyric. It feels really live, like it's a band actually playing but it's electronic, so it all sounds really bass heavy. The worst thing that could happen is you're playing to a grid and you're just locking in. There's not much space to go off on a tangent when you want to.

How is the reception different when you do live music to when you do poetry?

It's a completely different thing. When you're telling poems it's intense and it's very naked and it's a listening thing. With this, there's much more of a party. Hopefully people are still listening, but I didn't want people to be so worried about not catching the lyric that they can't enjoy the music. Often when you're rapping with drummers or rapping with beats you're obviously not going to hear everything, so I wanted to create a show that was involving and exciting as a show and was a party. Then people can go and find the record later. I feel with this set up it's a completely different experience, which is welcome for me because I'm still doing my poetry. I've got a new book coming out. I'll be touring that. That's a really nice thing to do separately - to have this thing I do with the band - because there's different parts of my personality and different energies that I like to explore.

Is the novel completely different to the album?

The novel has the same characters in it as the album and characters from Brand New Ancients in it as well. The book that's coming out is a new collection of poems. The novel won't be out for ages. Because I'm doing this, I don't have much time to get it finished.

Recently you've been doing a lot more character-led pieces, with Brand New Ancients and with the album. Where did that influence come from?

I started writing for theatre. Before that I hadn't really thought about narrative in that way. I'd always been interested in storytelling - I've always loved it - but I never thought it was something that I could explore in a satisfying way. I was completely blown away by how it feels as a writer to let the characters say the stuff, to let the work do the talking. It's easy, once you've written a piece, to say that that's what I was trying to do, but actually it's just what's coming out. It's just what was buzzing in my head at the time.

You don't need my advice, you need your advice

Where do the characters come from? Are they from friends or overheard stories?

They're not ripped off people that I know, but they are people that I know because they're my characters. I love them. They're me and they're you and they're everyone I've ever met and everyone I've ever loved. It's not autobiographical but it's from life, definitely.

What's it been like touring the album so far?

It's been a real relief. Doing the theatre work and doing Brand New Ancients was incredible, but very cerebral and very intense and it took a lot out of me. This feels like much more fun. It's not like I'm writing at the same time and finishing loads of stuff off, so getting back on stage and just having a great time for an hour is such a great relief. I feel like the luckiest girl in the world. It's my dream.

You started off MCing when you were 13. Is this the project you've always wanted to do?

I wanted to make albums, definitely. I wanted to be a rapper and make music. Music was the thing that turned me on to writing. But I'm really, really glad of the times I've spent writing poems. I'm really excited about being a poet and being a playwright and a novelist, but I have a special relationship with music. It's very nourishing and exciting and it feels very natural when I'm jamming. It's like an old friend.

Are there any upcoming poets or musicians that you think we should check out?

There's a guy called Zia Ahmed, who's a poet. He's brilliant - really dry humour, really beautiful language and turn of phrase. There's a singer called Rag 'N' Bone Man, who's just great, from South London as well. He's a big, scary looking guy but he's got this beautiful, sweet voice. And then obviously Hollie McNish. She's doing great. I've got a lot of time for people who are doing their thing.

Have you got any advice for upcoming writers and musicians finding their feet?

There's a book I was reading just today, actually. There's a poet called Rilke who wrote a book called Letters to a Young Poet, which is a collection of his correspondence to this young guy who was writing poetry, and I think he says it so perfectly. The only person who knows the value of what you're doing is you, if you look inside yourself and say, 'Is this the only thing?' The way Rilke says it is, 'Must I write? Is this the only thing? If I couldn't write, would I die?' If that's the question, that's the gravity of what we're talking about. For me, this is everything. I'm not trying to be anything. I'm answering to this thing I'm desperate to do. So the only advice I could give after reading this today is you don't need my advice, you need your advice. A young poet, a young playwright, a young musician - if you know this is the thing to do, then you know when it's not right and you know when it is right. You have to put yourself in the space when you're really listening to yourself and you're not trying to do what someone else has done. You have to develop your own thing and have an independent contribution to creativity, and that comes through really working hard and being in that relationship with yourself.

Joe Kriss

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