Kae Tempest: ‘There’s so much love in this record’

For many artists, instore performances and signings are a handy means of promoting their latest albums in the week of release. But Kae Tempest saw a recent run of them as something much more personal.

Kae Tempest. Picture: Wolfgang Tillmans
Kae Tempest. Picture: Wolfgang Tillmans

“It’s really amazing to look at the people who are buying the records and to share it with them to say thank you,” says the 36-year-old poet, playwright, novelist and Mercury Prize-nominated spoken word artist who now uses they/them pronouns since coming out as non-binary.

“Doing a signing can be quite intense, because people usually have quite intense relationships with the work because of the nature of what it is that I’m talking about; often people have got quite big stories that they want to tell. But at the same time it’s really beautiful to me to put it out into the world in real time, it’s not just like an abstract thing, like, ‘here’s the record’, it’s kind of amazing.”

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This month Tempest is back on the road with their band on a national tour.

The 12 tracks on their new album The Line is a Curve came out of a personal crisis that Tempest experienced while touring its 2019 predecessor, The Book of Traps and Lessons. “I wouldn’t say that anything needed to change for me to go on making my music or my work, it was more like my life was a wreck,” they say. “The decision to be creative was the only thing that I was still profoundly engaged with, that stays a constant.

“But what I can say is everybody goes through periods of greater or lesser struggle and right now what I’m really glad about is this feeling of upliftment that seems to be around since coming out of lockdown and getting out on the road and having put a few things straight in my personal life. What do they say? It just feels like the sun on my face, the wind on my back – that’s what it feels like.”

Like many, Tempest found the lockdowns “tough”, throwing up “a whole load of challenges that weren’t foreseen” in their private and work life, but they were grateful for the time they afforded them to take stock. “Obviously I’m not grateful for everybody who had lost family and were unable to attend funerals and all the awful things that happened to people that lost livelihoods, but just in my very small private way, I would say I’m really grateful for the time it gave me to make some changes,” they say.

Writing The Line is a Curve became a way of processing all that they had been through in the last decade since their breakthrough spoken word piece Brand New Ancients. “I think writing in general for me is a way of processing, I’m not quite sure what’s going on in my head until I’ve made an album about it,” they say. “All my work is a way of getting closer to things, sometimes the feelings are too big to get perspective on them until you’ve worked them out through music or poetry.”

Tempest came out as non-binary in 2020 with a post on Instagram. For an intensely private person, they agree it was a momentous moment. “It was a great relief in some ways to just be honest about the journey that I’ve been on since I was born,” they say. “It’s a strange thing to carry shame around with you. It did feel like a momentous step.”

In publicity notes for this album, Tempest said it’s a record about “letting go”. Unlike their previous records Let The Eat Chaos and The Book of Traps and Lessons, it also features their photograph on the cover – with newly shorn hair. The image was taken by Wolfgang Tillmans, one of Tempest’s favourite photographers. “The sequence of thought that went into it were just about wanting to welcome people into the record, releasing that the best way to do that is with your face,” they say. “In conversation that is the thing that I am drawn to in terms of opening up to someone or listening to someone open up to me, it comes though the face.

“Then in terms of albums that I love, so many of my favourite albums have got the artist on the front cover, just their face. I just had a moment of understanding about the difference between what an album is and does and what a book of poems or a play text or a novel is and does. Once that realisation had been made of yeah, I want it to be a portrait, I’m ready for that, I want it to be my face, then it was just daring to dream of having my favourite photographic artist take the picture, which is Wolfgang Tillmans.

“I had no idea what he was going to say, I didn’t know him, I hadn’t had any contact with him before, we just reached out and the stars aligned and he was up for it. It was an amazing shoot, it was so gentle and for me it was really inspiring to be around him.”

With Tempest in a “communicative” mood, they invited a number of guest artists including Grian Chatten of Fontaines DC and singer-songwriter Lianne La Havas along for the journey. “That’s what it wanted,” they say. “In previous records the focus was so tight on narrative and plot, intentionally that’s what I was interested in, my head was so excited with the idea of sustaining narrative over 45 minutes of music, but with this album I just had the feeling that it was time to have other voices.

“I began making music collaboratively, as a teenager I was working with friends, it was how I socialised and established friendships, and I continued working collaboratively all the way through my formative years until I got into the studio with (producer) Dan (Carey) and started mucking around together. That’s when the focus really started getting tight onto narrative because suddenly I was with somebody who allowed my vision to be complete, there was no challenge to Dan’s creativity that mine was so big. Sometimes when I was in collaboration with other artists there just wasn’t space, so intentionally I wanted my own space over the first couple of records, but with this one it was I’m ready, I want other voices, and there are people on this record that I’ve been working with and have been friends with for 20 years. It just felt right, it was the right time, it’s what the album wanted.”

For all the personal struggle in the background of the record, Tempest feels their is a sense of hope at its heart. “I think the album is all about upliftment, really,” they say. “I’m performing it live every night at the moment, so I’m quite close to it in terms of what it’s doing in real time as I play through it, and it feels so different to my experiences of going out and playing previous records.

“When I would be performing Traps and Lessons, which was the last album, or Chaos or Everybody Down and also Brand New Ancients, which came before, there was the sense of conjuring quite a fierce darkness because that was what I was feeling and that was what I could see in the world and that was what i was bringing into the rooms to allow us all in that audience to face it collectively for a moment. There would be a moment of light in the set, a moment of upliftment where the clouds would lift and suddenly there would be this uprush of light and energy, and that would be pretty much how those last tours went. It meant that when I would go out onstage I felt the responsibility of that, of taking people there.

“On this album I don’t feel any of that. I feel light. I walk out onto the stage and it’s ‘Right, let’s do this’, it feels good, I know that what we’re giving people and what people are giving us, it’s no less real but at its core it’s got this sense of upliftment, of resilience and love. There’s so much love in the record, in terms of who’s on it, who made it, what went into it, what I want from it. The word love is there about 150 times on the album. It feels less introspective, it’s reaching out a bit more. I think that’s what I mean about communicative. It’s doing something different for sure than the other live shows were.”

During the pandemic, Tempest published their first book of non-fiction, an extended essay called On Connection in which they talked about importance of connectivity through art and in particular live performance. They say they are looking forward to rediscovering that on their current tour.

“What’s funny about that essay is I put all my thoughts together about performance in a time where I wasn’t allowed to perform,” they say. “I think that I was able to take stock of what I’d learned over the last 15 years while I was doing this in a way that I hadn’t been able to digest or process because I’ve been deep in the trenches of it, so On Connection was actually a very important little moment in my life, to crystallise some of the things that I know that I feel and think about and put my theory down on paper.

“What’s cool about it is if people have read it they can come to the show and they understand a little more about what’s going on behind the notes, my approach, my process, what I’m thinking about before I get up on stage. That is available for people to meet me there if they want to. I’m really glad that came out the way it did.

“It was a bit of an accident that book, my agent said Faber want a book of non-fiction but I was absolutely snowed under, I had no time. She said, ‘It’s all right, you can turn it in any time in the next five years. You’ve got ages, don’t worry about it, just sign the contract’. Then the editors changed over at Faber and the new editor was like, ‘I see we’ve got Kae Tempest contracted to do a book’ and they called me up saying, ‘Can you deliver this in a month?’ I thought I had like three years, I hadn’t even thought about it, it was on the back burner. Then suddenly it was OK, I’ve got a month, and then it was lockdown, so I was, OK, let me try and get 20,000 words out about whatever and it turned out to be a deeply profound, beautiful healing experience. Actually it’s a book that’s connected really well, I think better than my other books in terms of who it’s reached and how people feel about it.”

Last year Tempest’s play Paradise premiered at the National Theatre. They’re now at work on a new collection of poems. “I’ve nearly finished,” they say. “It feels really good.” What’s “motoring” the new poems, they add, is form. “I’ve become absolutely obsessed with very traditional, old school form. It’s like a veil has been lifted and suddenly I’m like, ‘Oh right, that’s why this is so amazing’. There’s something fascinating for me about ideas which are limitless and expansive pushing against form which is very precise and restrained. I’ve suddenly fallen in love with these quite archaic, quite stiff forms. The poetry collection thematically is about many things, where I’m at right now and the world, but the bones of it are structured around traditional forms.”

The Line is a Curve is out now. Kae Tempest plays at Leeds University Stylus on Wednesday May 11. www.kaetempest.co.uk