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Kate Tempest: My creativity has been my oldest friend, my truest friend

Poet Kate Tempest is back with her new album, The Book Of Traps And Lessons, which has been five years in the making. The Mercury Prize-nominated artist talks to Lucy Mapstone about her partnership with legendary American record producer Rick Rubin and how she feels about performing at Glastonbury

Kate Tempest performing live
Kate Tempest performing live
Artistic journey: Kate Tempest

By Lucy Mapstone

Kate Tempest answers questions in an almost lyrical manner, a poet at all times. Every syllable is considered and expressive and engaging, even when chuckling over how sick she felt before performing at Glastonbury in 2017.

Tempest is extremely nervous ahead of her stint at this year's festival, despite having played there several times.

"Before going up... oh man, it was grim, the nerves..." she says, shuddering over the memory of two years ago.

"It was bad. I get nervous every single performance but this particular one...

"I thought I was going to faint or vomit, my hands were shaking. I was doing all the things that I do to calm down - my meditations, my little warm-ups, things that I do with my band - but nothing was helping.

"It's usually a good sign - nerves mean you're aware of what's about to happen, because the stakes are so high. It could go so wrong."

Surely nothing could go too wrong for the acclaimed spoken word poet, rapper, lyricist and playwright, a leading force on the poetry landscape blurring the lines between hip-hop and literature and touching on topics from individualism to police brutality.

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Since emerging nearly 10 years ago, Tempest has rewritten the rules on what it means to be a poet in the 21st century.

In 2013, she won the prestigious Ted Hughes Award for her theatrical spoken word piece Brand New Ancients and her first two albums were both nominated for the Mercury Prize - Everybody Down in 2014 and Let Them Eat Chaos in 2016.

Tempest was named one of the Next Generation poets by the Poetry Book Society in 2014 and a year later was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature among the likes of Margaret Atwood, Sir Richard Eyre and Dame Carol Ann Duffy.

She has also released three acclaimed poetry collections, put on three plays and toured extensively.

It's a lot to have achieved by the age of 33 and the London-born artist is refreshingly assured of her talents, although she does not think about success in such tangible terms.

"I just think about the stuff that I'm making," she replies when asked how she feels about her many triumphs.

"Obviously I'm extremely grateful to have the opportunity to continue to make work. To have a record label, because for so long I didn't have one. To have a publisher, because for so long I didn't have one, to have an audience, because for so long I didn't have one.

"It doesn't surprise me, because I believe in what I'm doing and I really believe in the journey.

"My whole life has been dedicated to it and my whole life has given me so much to think about. My creativity has been my oldest friend, my truest friend. We've been through so much together.

"The fact that people are into my work is great, but for every accolade or positive review there's the flip side, people who think the opposite."

Tempest shrugs, adding: "As an artist if you give too much attention to either one of those extremes it can throw you off balance."

She has faith in her new album, which has been half a decade in the making.

Called The Book Of Traps And Lessons, it started its life in 2014 when renowned American record producer and co-founder of hip-hop record label Def Jam Records Rick Rubin got in touch with her.

Rubin had seen Tempest telling a poem on American TV and was so inspired by her, he tracked her down, calling her while she was sitting on her sofa at home in south London's Camberwell.

A year passed before they started the album due to her many other projects, and Tempest and her musical writing partner Dan Carey went to Rubin's famed Shangri-La recording studio in Malibu.

"It was an experience I'll never forget," says Tempest dreamily, thinking back to the legendary musical bolthole previously loved by the likes of Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and The Rolling Stones among many others.

It certainly made a change for Tempest, who is usually in a studio in Streatham in south London.

"It's like nothing I've ever seen," she regales. "The Pacific Ocean and the grapefruit trees and hummingbirds and Bob Dylan's old tour bus, which is parked in the garden and turned into a writing room, where we worked."

However, it was a long journey of revisits and rewrites and working in a very different way from what she is used to, while still working on her other projects.

"Rick was encouraging myself and Dan to do something pretty challenging, which was to basically break every convention we'd come to know," she explains.

She says she is relieved to have the work finally out there.

"It feels like we've been carrying this bowl of water... you're carrying this full bowl and it's like, with everything else that you're doing, trying to balance it and not spill a drop," she says.

"What this album means to me is huge."

Rubin wanted her to push her lyrics like she had never done before, which she admits was intimidating and makes this record a big departure for her.

The album shows a new side to Tempest in its sound, but she says it can be listened to with current global crises in mind.

"There's a lot in the album about nationhood and nationality, my own experience of that, and about the fear I perceive around me," says Tempest.

"There's a lot about Britain, the West, the wider context of the post-industrialist, hyper-individualistic, capitalist system as we know it and have lived in it since the Enlightenment and industrialisation all those years ago.

"This is not so much an exploration of any of those themes, it's more just an observation," she notes.

Tempest is arguably one of the most socially aware artists of her generation: she's hyper aware of the present and the past, and is keen to reflect that in her work in a meaningful way.

"The album aims to offer some space for connection," she loosely summarises, not wanting to give too much guidance. Listeners can take from it what they will.

"I hope for a connection because this system requires numbness from us in order to survive.

"We are just consumers in the system, this is our lot, but something that snaps me out of my numbness is music or reading a novel or listening to a poet.

"So I feel a kind of responsibility when I'm creating my work that it has a social role."

She adds: "And my hope is that my work can offer some antidote to the numbness, really."

  • The Book Of Traps and Lessons by Kate Tempest is out next Friday

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