There is no better setting for Kate Tempest than the Festival des Libertés, where the British rapper, author, and spoken word artist can punch holes in the dark recesses of our existence with her tempestuous torrent of words. “I want to give real relevance to the eternal things that connect us all, rather than the particular things that separate us.”
Political and artistic, intercultural and creative, festive and subversive, the Festival des Libertés will mobilize all forms of expression in order to offer an overview of the state of rights and freedoms around the world, to point out lurking dangers, to encourage resistance and to promote solidarity”: the extended tagline of the Brussels freedom festival sounds combative. Especially when I slam it down the telephone with the rhythm of an accomplished spoken word artist while Kate Tempest races around her homeland England “on a massive mission”. “Sounds great,” the 33-year-old British rapper, poet, writer, and playwright says. A compliment that I happily accept. “Well, uh, I was talking about the tagline.” “Oh, yes, of course!”
The Brussels festival is a perfect fit for Tempest, who currently divides her time between London and the south of France, where her girlfriend lives. Since 2012, when she debuted with her poetry collection Everything Speaks in its Own Way, Kate Esther Calvert – her real name – has been exposing unexpected connections between William Blake and Wu-Tang Clan. The poetry collections, albums, novels, and plays that she has published over the past few years punch bigger and bigger holes in the dark recesses of our existence, so the light can get in. Her fist is exhortative because she realizes full-well that just like everybody else, she is looking for happiness in a society that is crippled by egocentrism, consumerism, and hedonism.
But faced with the “lurking dangers” of capitalism and climate change, it has become her “massive mission” to oppose them with empathy and love. “I’m screaming at my loved ones to wake up, and love more,” as she rapped three years ago in “Europe Is Lost”. She shows this love in abundance on her latest album, the intimate Book of Traps and Lessons. “Even when I’m weak and I’m breaking / I’ll stand weeping at the train station / ‘Cause I can see your faces / There is so much peace to be found in people’s faces,” she sings in “People’s Faces”, the last song on the record and perhaps the most beautiful and heart-warming that she has ever written. “Well, thank you.”
Tempest in paradise
Kate Tempest and Rick Rubin: no two people seem more different than the British rapper, poet, and author from grey London and the tanned and bearded super producer from sunny LA. They first met in 2014. “Rick unexpectedly came to see me at the Corsica Studios, a 200-capacity venue in London,” Kate Tempest says. “Frank Ocean was with him. I didn’t notice, I was lost on stage, going crazy doing my electro rap.” Soon after, Rubin invited Tempest to his Garden of Eden. That is the location of Rubin’s legendary Shangri-La studio in Malibu, an iconic place that once belonged to The Band, and where stars like Adele and Kanye struck gold. “It was just insane. You know, the Pacific Ocean, the gardens, the trees,” Tempest told The Big Issue about the first time that she and her musical partner in crime Dan Carey visited in 2015. It took until 2018 to find exactly what Rubin was looking for. That is when Tempest returned to sun-kissed California with gold in her hands – even Jay-Z witnessed her triumph. “It was surreal. Rick doesn’t actually do much. He listens. But nobody listens better than him.”
Am I right in thinking that you will feel very comfortable at the Festival des Libertés?
Kate Tempest: I hope so. Who knows? Feeling at ease is a daily challenge.
As the festival speaks about encouraging resistance, do you see your lyrics as an end or as a beginning?
Tempest: They are an end and a beginning at the same time. It’s the end of me writing that line and that’s the beginning of me performing that line. The minute that somebody hears it, it may well be the beginning of their experience of that song or that line or that feeling. So that reinvigorates the text. It gives it new light.
I don’t know if my words are a call to action. It’s never something as narrow as that. What I hope to do with my work, is to create an environment for truthful connection. That’s my true aim. As an artist, I believe that’s my responsibility to the people in the room.
It’s more about that connection than making the people aware?
Tempest: Yes. Awareness is not something that anybody needs more of, I think, at this stage in the history of humankind. People can educate themselves in whatever it is that interests them. Whether it is an extremely niche pursuit of information about the way a car system filters dust particles, or an awareness that they want to get about the political situation in Venezuela. It’s easy and necessary for people to have new information, new knowledge, new perspectives on however they fit in the world. A world that’s moving at what seems an accelerated pace towards phases which feel increasingly disastrous.
Maybe when I was younger, when I was on a mission to try and speak and be heard, I felt I had a message to spread. But right now, I think it’s much more important to give real relevance and emphasis to the things that we have in common. The eternal things that connect us all, rather than the particular things that separate us.
Is the capital of Europe the ideal place to create such an environment, at least for as long as it is still the capital for you?
Tempest: When I think of Brussels, I don’t necessarily think of the capital of Europe. But when you put it like that, it does sound pretty exciting. (Laughs) My relationship with Brussels is more about the people I’ve met, and the wonderful time that I’ve spent there just hanging around.
Brussels is a really interesting place because there seems to be an identity that persists in the face of its diversity. I’ve enjoyed witnessing that in terms of seeing what comes back at me from the crowd.
“I’ve seen the lions turn to cubs / And I’ve seen the hunters turn to prey / The lessons will come again tomorrow / If they’re not learned today,” you sing in The Book of Traps and Lessons. That does seem like a call to action.
Tempest : It’s more on a personal level, realizing the mistakes you have made and learning something from them. At the start of the album, you meet this person who is imprisoned by drunkenness, addiction, and unhealthy love. She meets a new woman who offers the chance to love fully, without the obsessiveness, the violence, and the destruction of an addictive, consuming love. “I trap you,” she says, but it’s positive because it is her first step towards insight and a personal transformation. But then the story zooms out and you see the bigger picture: that there is a lot of synchronicity between the traps in which we find ourselves in our private lives and the mess and confusion of this hyper-individualized, capitalist society.
On your debut record, Everybody Down, you created a world around searching souls Becky, Harry, and Pete. Let Them Eat Chaos was about seven people in one street who all wake up at 4.18 am, an hour at which you would also often be up and worrying. Your new album is written from a first-person perspective, and that has made the lyrics sound much more personal.
Tempest : Creating these characters is a bit tricky, but all my albums are super personal. When I tell stories about those characters, you assume that it’s that person’s reality. But of course, that is my – and your – reality too. I always write about me trying to work out stuff that I am going through in my life. That person at the bar could be me. No, it is me.
Is it nonetheless easier to write about the world outside than about yourself?
Tempest : There is no scale of ease within that. Using the first person for the first time, this album commanded a new technique from me, to write it and to deliver it. It was definitely challenging and demanding, but it always is. I didn’t feel any more exposed starting the album off with “I came to under a red moon.”
“We are born of collision / We are divisions of a bigger vision / And yet, we run around like hamsters / Spinning the wheel,” the female character in “Holy Elixir” says. One might think that this album is as dark as your last albums, but the tone is milder, more hopeful.
Tempest : The Book of Traps and Lessons is essentially about loneliness, how we in our modern society, without faith, self-respect, or a sense of community are fundamentally lonely. One way to escape from that is creativity. Creativity is fundamentally positive. Even if your creativity begins from a place of despair or discomfort. By the time you have created, you have been engaged in an act of love. There is always hope in that process, just for the pure joy of creating. The Book of Traps and Lessons is a hopeful album. All albums are hopeful albums.
Off the beaten path
“When everything is fluid, nothing can be known with any certainty / Hold your own,” Kate Tempest sings in “Hold Your Own”. It is a pivotal song on The Book of Traps and Lessons, but also in her whole oeuvre. “‘Hold Your Own’ started its life many years ago. The poem was a note to self, when I was trying to find the courage to put together my first poetry collection. I started performing it at the end of the Everybody Down sets. A lot of weighty, dark energy would accumulate during those concerts. I wanted to send people home with something that was more uplifting.” More importantly even, five years ago, “Hold Your Own” convinced the American super producer Rick Rubin to work with Tempest. “Rick had once seen me on TV and called me to say that he wanted to collaborate. Rick Rubin!”
Why did he pick that one out?
Tempest : It is difficult to say. Rick listens for...intention, feeling, for something to land in him. But he never explains what it really is. That’s why it took a few years to finish this album.
I hear more spoken word and less rap.
Tempest : Rick wanted to put more emphasis on the words; free them from any convention so that we could get closer to the essence.
The beats are minimal. Some songs don’t have any music at all. Did that make it more difficult?
Tempest : It’s really not a problem for me to just speak without any music, like when I’m performing poetry live on stage. The harder thing is hearing a beat and not rapping to it. (Laughs) I spent a long time learning how to stay on the beat. Whenever I hear a beat now, my brain tells me to rap, rap, rap! But Rick didn’t want that, he wanted to separate my poetry from the music. Sort of. I am very grateful to him because I now have a new tool in my talking, which I’m very proud of.
Before you recorded The Book of Traps and Lessons, you performed it twice a day, three days in a row. Do you do that with every album?
Tempest : No, that was just an experiment in connectivity. I wanted the album to feel like a whole, like a journey.
Because it feels closer to performing onstage, which seems to be your natural habitat?
Tempest : No, not really. A stage performance remains totally different from a performance in a recording studio. It just felt more complete, but also more vulnerable and intimate. As though I am sitting next to you in a room. Or that’s my hope, at least. The stakes are higher if you know that when you start speaking, you’re not going to stop for 45 minutes. You have to get into a zone. You have to be ready for it. I don’t know how to describe it, but something happens when you take it that seriously. There’s no safety net, you can’t erase mistakes, you have to complete the thing in one take. And if something does go wrong, you have to use it, go with it, and make that a part of it. Like in life, really.