Since she first performed poetry as a sixteen-year-old in a dingy hip hop store on Carnaby Street, KATE TEMPEST has not only taken the underground art scene by storm but has achieved the kind of crossover success that only comes around once in a generation. Over the last fifteen years she has written plays and poetry collections, toured with her band, Sound Of Rum, supported Benjamin Zephaniah and Scroobius Pip, and has even started writing a novel. In 2014 she finally became a household name when her debut album Everybody Down was nominated for The Mercury Prize. Ahead of her upcoming gig at The Kazimier (18th February), Tempest kindly took some time out from a writing retreat to speak to Liverpool’s own slam poetry prince, Paddy Hughes, about her fantastically diverse career.
Bido Lito!: Hello Kate. You’re involved in music, poetry and literature but what came first?
Kate Tempest: It was music that was my first way into being creative. I just fell into the other things after a few years of writing lyrics and being in bands and mucking around with lyrics. As for the poetry thing… that was kind of an accident. I just wrote lyrics that I already had to beats and music, and performed them at poetry gigs. Now poetry for me is a very separate thing to my music, but at the beginning it was all the same because I just had lyrics.
BL!: For a lot of musicians in Liverpool the city, for better or for worse, becomes an early focal point when writing. Did that apply to you growing up in London?
KT: When you grow up in a city like Liverpool or London, it’s such an intense environment because it’s so full of people… so many people and so much influence to hold in your head at one time. When you’re a kid and you experience a darker side to your city it leaves its mark; but so do the other parts, like the access you have to creativity through community recording centres. For me, your city gives you so much oxygen. I love London; it’s such a big part of who I am. Like, if I’d grown up in the countryside I would be a completely different artist.
BL!: When did it become apparent that you were going to make a living from music and writing? Is that what you always wanted to be or did you have different aspirations when you were a lot younger?
KT: I actually wanted to be a vet when I was really little because I loved animals, but I can’t really imagine anything worse now. I wanted to be a writer when I was ten. I loved reading and telling stories… I never made a decision because it was everything that I was living for already. So I just went for it. I wanted to write and make music and now I’m pinching myself.
BL!: How did you find the transition from recording spoken-word to recording music, and how have your fans reacted to the switch?
KT: There have been some funny moments at gigs where I have looked out from the stage which has two drummers and a full synth set up and I’ve seen people who have obviously come to hear poetry, and at first it is a strange feeling… but I’m always glad they’ve come and have followed my work. A gig is just about the journey that you all go on together and when you achieve that journey it is very exciting.
But, yeah, it is a very different thing and they both demand very different things. When I know I’m onstage with the band I feel a lot more relaxed and for me that is the most natural state to be in. The band feels a lot more inclusive and chilled out. It’s just more fun.
BL!: With freedom of speech being discussed in every pub and coffee shop, how important do you feel it is to have a liberal, thriving arts culture in the city that you live in?
KT: It’s extremely important. Art is important in keeping people sane. So much happens politically and globally that it’s often hard to understand what to think, but you might hear a song that may be unrelated but brings you into context with how you feel about the world and the time you’re living in. That is why art is so important. I feel that we have moved beyond politics; it doesn’t exist. Finance runs things but music gives us the meaning, something that’s real. A purpose.
BL!: When you’re not busy writing who, or what, do you listen to?
KT: I listen to loads of different people. Poetry-wise I’m blessed to count Scroobius Pip, Polar Bear, George The Poet and Hollie McNish as peers and friends. Other poets I admire are Robin Robinson and Carol Ann Duffy … the proper monoliths of writing.
Music-wise…. Mika Levis, who composed the film score for Under The Skin, is fantastic. Young Fathers – who are also on my label, Big Dada – are brilliant. Also, Jam Baxter has just released an album called And Then We Ate Them Whole ,which you should really check out.
BL!: So how do you and the band create your music?
KT: I work with a producer called Dan Carey. We make all of the music together. Dan is brilliant… we just get together and spend hours and hours in a strange world and come out the other side with music. That’s the only way I can put it!
BL!: It must have felt strange then when your debut solo record was nominated for The Mercury Prize…!
KT: It felt amazing; I mean it’s massive. I have been trying to get into the music industry for about twelve years, so to have got that nomination it just felt like a clichéd ‘dream come true’.
But when you make a piece of work it doesn’t really matter what others think as long as you like it. In the past I’ve made work that I wasn’t really happy with because I cared too much about the reaction, but with this record I was just excited because I am so proud of it. It’s the beginning of a whole new chapter in my career. I’m thrilled to bits because this is everything I have ever wanted to do.
BL!: Do you have any advice to Liverpool’s performers and writers?
KT: In terms of writing you need to remember that you love writing and to enjoy what you have written. Performing well is about putting yourself in a natural state. If you can enter into this real space between your intention and your work and not under-say things and not over-say things, you’ll be fine. Put yourself into that space and mean it. There was a poet called Rilke who used to get artists writing to him and asking him for advice and he said that you don’t need advice. He said that what you have produced is your work, your art and your life. You don’t need anybody else to tell you when it’s finished or ready.
BL!: What are you working on at the moment?
KT: Well I’m working on a novel, which I’m really excited about. It’s a whole new world and I don’t know what people are going to think about it, but I’ve wanted to write a novel all my life and now I have the story. It is a hard thing to do, though. That will be out in 2016. I’m also in the studio making another album and I’m touring all of 2015 with the band. I’m just pushing myself and appreciating every opportunity – and, as always, trying to be a better writer.
Words: Paddy Hughes / @paddyhughes89