Kate Tempest: 'When You're Writing, It's Not About You' Everybody Down, the new album by the English rapper and poet, is a series of glimpses into the lives of everyday Londoners. "You need to take yourself away ... so your characters can speak," she says.

Kate Tempest: 'When You're Writing, It's Not About You'

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Kate Tempest is a woman of words.


KATE TEMPEST: (Rapping) Harry feels weak today. He can't take it, and he doesn't know it but he's glaring, thinking of Becky and why he insisted on sharing so much with a stranger. He feels a faint sense of danger, ashamed that he'd made a fool of himself. He's an idiot, sees it in his mind's eye...

MARTIN: Rapper, poet, playwright, novelist - it is language and the stories that language bring to life that are at the core of everything Kate Tempest does. Her subjects are just regular folks; their hardships and failures; their loves and losses. Her debut album is called "Everybody Down." It was nominated for the Mercury Prize Album of the Year. Kate Tempest is on tour right now in the U.S. She joins us in our studios here in Washington. Kate, thanks for coming in.

TEMPEST: My pleasure. Thanks for having me in.

MARTIN: So I want to start by asking you first about the name Tempest because it is a stage name. You were born Kate Calvert. Of all the things you could have chosen, why the word Tempest?

TEMPEST: Well, when I was a teenager, I was a rapper. That was before I was a poet or anything like that. And my rap name was Exsential (ph). And nobody could ever understand what that word was or what it...

MARTIN: Exsential.

TEMPEST: Exsential, yeah, exactly.


MARTIN: I did pause for a second and I had to think, is that a word? I don't know.

TEMPEST: Right, exactly. So then I had to take kind of another bit to it. And I felt very elemental when I was writing or performing. It felt like a storm was breaking, you know, something very elemental and forceful was happening when it was going well.


TEMPEST: (Rapping) Who's bad to the kiddy in the jackal hat, to the kiddy in the Rooney shirt, dragging back the curtains in the room in her daddy's flat. A young girl heard the truth in an alley cat.

I always thought Kate Tempest was kind of cheesy like, I didn't really like it.


TEMPEST: But as I grew up, I suppose, and grew into myself a bit more, I realized that I wanted - the name just - yeah, it just kind of happened as I started doing my poetry.


TEMPEST: All life is forward, you will see. All life is forward, you will see.

MARTIN: The album "Everybody Down," this is a single narrative. And it's a series of glimpses into the lives of these characters who are connected. Let's listen to the first track where we are introduced to two of the central characters, Becky and Harry. They're meeting for the first time at a party in a bar. This is called "Marshall Law."


TEMPEST: (Rapping) She was like nothing that he'd seen before - strong body, soft edges with something so raw in the core of her iris. He said his name, Harry. And never in his life had he felt so happy. They got talking. Free bar. Exhausting decorum, he drank until she was so absorbing he blacked out the party, the floor spun, he stared at her face and felt sure something was happening here. He was kind of nervous...

MARTIN: So we get a glimpse into who they are. But can you fill in the contours of these folks?

TEMPEST: Both of them have these kind of unconventional ways of making a living. Both of them feel pretty lonely and pretty strung out and pretty afflicted by life in London. And the kind of concepts that are running through the record are about how to kind of trust a relationship, how to find a way of breaking out of this kind of endless separation and isolation that seems to be a kind of a part of modern life.


TEMPEST: (Rapping) He's staring at her desperate for something to click. He is opening up. This is it.

MARTIN: Nowhere in these stories that I can discern is you. You may be connected to the characters or have similar experiences in some way. But you didn't make yourself a central character in this.


MARTIN: I understand that you have done so, though, in a recent book of poetry.

TEMPEST: (Laughter) Yeah, yeah. Well, the poems are based around a mythical figure, Tiresias. They move through autobiography and social commentary and mythology. But, you know, I'm much more - there is an I in the poems. But, like, the album came as an idea I got excited about. And Dan Carey, the producer of the record, we got really excited about sustaining a narrative over the course of an album - is it possible, can you do it, would it be interesting? The first draft of "Lonely Days," which is one of the songs off the record, that was like 12 and a half minutes long. So then Dan, before he was a music producer, he was a film editor. So he kind of took that eye to the track and was like, OK, we don't need to see them walking out of the car, we don't need to see that. They can just enter the club straightaway.


TEMPEST: (Rapping) Inside it's the usual scene. They're dancing at the bar, waiting to get served. Becky's mate screaming about something absurd. And they're all fake laughing, even on the...

It was just like this incredible lightness came across as both by just cutting, cutting, cutting. And so this big, sprawling, ridiculous idea just got tighter and tighter and tighter and tighter. It was the most liberating, astonishing process.


TEMPEST: (Singing) But will it be this way forever? These are lonely days. Wait, she could be the one that makes it better. He looks away, can't hold her gaze.

MARTIN: Do you write stuff down constantly? How do you log what's happening in your head?

TEMPEST: Well, it's difficult 'cause we're on the road. We've been touring for - basically, a year we've been on the road. And its different headspace. When you're performing, you know, it's about you. You have to be kind of in touch with how you're doing and how you're responding and relating to the audiences and to your band members. But when you're writing, it's not about you. You need to take yourself away from it so your characters can speak, so the words can speak. So those two things, the performer and the writer, they don't sit very comfortably in the same space. So I'm kind of working out how to be in the back of the van and be able to get myself in the headspace to be drafting a novel or to be thinking about lyrics or whatever. It's...

MARTIN: Can you move comfortably between those spaces or does it take...

TEMPEST: I'm kind of working it out. Sometimes I get frustrated, but, like, this is the best job in the world. Touring is incredible. (Laughter) It's like it's so much fun. I spent so many years rapping to three people, you know, by the burger vans at a festival.


TEMPEST: Like - and the other day, we played at Sasquatch, and it was like this festival in the middle of this gorge, a landscape that I've never seen, you know, this American landscape. And I'm from this tiny island, and suddenly there's these, like, red rocks and, like, snow-capped mountains and, like, biggest sky I've ever seen and a thousand people or whatever hanging out in this field. So I'm very much in touch with how exciting this moment is.

MARTIN: Kate Tempest. Her album is called "Everybody Down." She is on tour now. She joined us in our studios here in Washington.

MARTIN: Hey, Kate, thank you.

TEMPEST: My pleasure. Thank you.


TEMPEST: (Rapping) It's all relative, right? One thought, many thinkers; one flame, many cinders; one view, many windows. Love in a time without sacrifice. We want what we want, and what's more, we deserve it. We run around panicking, nervous, thinking could this be the one? Man, they're perfect. A couple years later, you're chained to the circuit, breaking them down as if you're determined to waste what you've found. Well, what's true about you? Is it the things that you claim to be true or is it deeper, lurking in places that you don't dare to journey to face with a new way of seeing it? Are you the type to accept or the type to clench fists and reject...

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