Tempest raging against the chaos
Kate Tempest closes the gap between hip-hop and poetry. Hilary A White meets a new laureate for a new age
What did you call it?" Kate Tempest squints, leaning into the phrase.
"Sean-nos," I reiterate. We had been talking about the idea of "sung language" when I mentioned the Irish a cappella tradition whereby stories are made song. She loves the concept. "I feel very close to that idea. My experience of telling stories or poems is that communication is a musical thing. I need to hear that."
This relish from the 30-year-old poet, rapper, novelist and playwright is typical. It is this hunger along with a ceaseless work rate and sheer white-hot talent that saw the Londoner push past the somewhat snooty, academia-led literati to become a new laureate for a new age. By 27, she'd won the Ted Hughes Award for innovation in poetry for Brand New Ancients, an epic about inner-city life that drew its energies from antiquity. Fellowships and curatorships sit next to a Mercury Prize nomination for her 2014 debut album Everybody Down. As a teen, she was as comfortable in the company of Sophocles as she was Q-Tip and Lauryn Hill. She is at home at both Glastonbury and the Old Vic. Does she lean more to one side?
"It's not for me to classify myself," she says, stirring her coffee. "At first I found the term 'poet' a very big term I didn't deserve. Then someone told me it's a praise word. It's offered to you. You can be described as a poet by another, but if you describe yourself as one you're probably not."
I know a few people who fit that description. "Yeah right," she laughs. "That rings in my ears every time I say, 'Hey, I'm a poet!' It's more a characteristic, a personality rather than a profession. It's the way you experience the world. Something will happen and I'll be like, 'God, you're being such a poet, f**king hell!'"
You only have to listen to her speak to know Tempest burns with a conviction all too rare in "showbiz". Like any artist that matters, she sees the world through a viewfinder all her own. It can lead to moments of localised elation, such as in anecdotes about a friendly itinerant who talked literature with her in a park in Portland, or how at a poetry slam in a Rio favela she saw four generations of a family in the audience.
But for each nice memory there is a thorn in the side. The Brazil story is finished with: "It's not elitist in a way that in Britain especially is so f**king elitist." On the encounter in the park, she sighs: "You're doing a 'literary tour' in libraries to 'literary types' but the most profound and interesting conversation I had about a book was with this homeless guy."
Tempest is warm, thoughtful company, but pluck any verse from her catalogue and a leonine heart snarls back at you, one sickened by injustice, greed, waste and violence. In Europe Is Lost on the brilliant new LP Let Them Eat Chaos, she rails hard. "Massacres massacres massacres/new shoes, Ghettoised children murdered in broad daylight by those employed to protect them, Live porn streamed to your pre-teens' bedrooms, Glass ceiling, no headroom, Half a generation live beneath the breadline."
Does disillusionment come to us earlier in life these days? She nods. "Youth is still as difficult and enjoyable as ever but the stakes are much higher. The prospect of catastrophe looms pretty large for this generation in a way it did a couple of generations previously with the prospects of nuclear war. I take comfort in positioning myself on a line that goes back to the beginning of time but it does feel like - and this is my rational mind talking - my emotional core is rattled by the present times. It'd be impossible to be born into these times and not be aware of how potentially disastrous they are in a way that many years ago you couldn't be. It's in our timeline but it's also actually happening."
Let Them Eat Chaos was cut in a studio with super-producer Dan Carey before Brexit trampled into the picture but it is, of course, on her radar. "It speaks of a worrying trend that in times that feel chaotic and close to crisis, you blame others and create divisions rather than heading towards a realisation - which is what the album's all about - that we are all part of something much bigger than ourselves, and that blame is not useful. And the idea we're heading towards a surge in nationalism in Britain I find worrying, because it doesn't make any sense with how I understand human experience."
A pause. One of many. "That was a really laboured way of saying something simple!" she says, letting through a flicker of goofiness that you doubt Tempest gives enough airtime to. A very becoming sunny smile also breaks out on her face when I ask her about her professed love of the Big Three of Beckett ("He completely cloaks you in his humour and way of seeing things so that you can't leave the house"), Joyce ("A huge influence. He probably directly led to Brand New Ancients, those ideas about the mythology of the everyday, the immediacy and the eternity of very tiny moments") and Yeats, for whom all she can do is mime a miniature mushroom cloud exploding in front of her.
There were other inspirations, however, long before the highly literate primary-school girl or the rebellious wordsmith who gravitated towards the hip-hop and dub-reggae communities. Born Kate Calvert, she grew up the youngest of five in Lewisham, south-east London. Both her father (a lawyer and a glass-blower) and grandfather read Greek and Roman classics to her as a child. There was a teacher - there always is - who pushed her. More recently, there was also a wife who "challenged" all she knew (that relationship, she tells me, is no more). It was her aunt, however, who became her role model.
She smiles. "Yeah, she's amazing. Women visual artists face a very particular struggle. She would say to me that they only give you your own exhibition at a big gallery as a woman if you're dead or too old to cause any trouble.
"If there's any hint of anything slightly radical, they'll wait until you're dead. I think her experiences are not consciously directly related to mine but you look around and you learn about the possibility of living for art. The drive is very familiar; the compulsion, the frequency at which we operate, is so raw and open that until you make some sense of the world, it's too much."
Kate Tempest plays Whelan's, Dublin, on November 29. Let Them Eat Chaos is out now on Fiction Records
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