Wordsmith Kae Tempest brings their new album The Line is A Curve to the Edinburgh International Festival
From Whitney Housten to their massive dog Murphy, the writer and performer is all about love
Spoken word and recording artist, poet, playwright and rapper Kae Tempest comes on the phone from their home in south London sounding chilled and happy as they prepare to hit the road touring their latest album The Line is a Curve. Fresh from Glastonbury they are due to perform in Leith Theatre at the Edinburgh International Festival next weekend.
Fans of their work - from poetry including Hopelessly Devoted and the 2013 Ted Hughes Award-winning Brand New Ancients, the plays Wasted and last year’s reworking of Sophocles at the National Theatre, the albums, Mercury-prize nominated Everybody Down, Let Them Eat Chaos, and The Book of Traps and Lessons, to their debut Sunday Times best selling novel The Bricks That Built the Houses, or even those who just know the People’s Faces Facebook ad that struck a cord during Covid - are in for a treat as the new album will be performed in its entirety. Plus it’s their most personal project to date, which is saying a lot for someone already known for telling it like it is.
Tempest gets a kick out of performing live and “Just feeling it happen.”
“It’s so mysterious that you don’t know. You can tour a show for two years and it’s still a surprise when you go out there. It’s incredible.” They chuckle. “It’s so cool.”
The unpredictable nature of live performing means Tempest’s show is different every time, but they do give us a preview of what we can expect.
“I’ll be playing the new record, The Line is a Curve, all the way through as one piece, and then a collection of older material that I’ve sequenced together so that thematically it fits in with where we’ve all just been. So the whole show has continuity and seems to work really nicely.
“And then I’ll maybe do a couple of poems, depending on how it feels in the room, if it feels like that’s what needs to happen. It depends on the shape and size of the room, the crowd, the kind of feeling. How well lit the room is, how close the audience is, whether I’m nervous or feeling secure, what’s happened in the day privately but also in the day for all of us. It’s fascinating stuff.”
Tempest was in Scotland playing Edinburgh and Glasgow, as part of the album tour, but this is their first Edinburgh Festival since 2019 and that year’s album The Book of Traps and Lessons.
“I feel it’s coming back in terms of the Festival ‘cos it’s a slightly different setting, it’s different people around. People might have heard of me or discovered my music since the last time, hopefully they have. And hopefully I can make some discoveries too. “
Now aged 36 - they first performed live at 16 at open mic nights - Tempest has always expressed themselves best through their work. In August 2020, they came out as non-binary and changed their name from Kate to Kae so this fourth album is the place to find where they’re at now. Their most personal offering yet, “It’s reaching for something beyond what the others have been,” they say.
“I think it’s warmer in tone with the inclusion of the acoustic drums, the bass and guitar and the piano. Even though those instruments are employed on the previous record they are sparser on Traps and Lessons and Chaos and Everybody Down, the palette was more electronic. So maybe there’s just a warmer tone and it’s the same in that it’s a journey. The speaker of these poems goes on a journey but it’s different in that each song can stand on its own. You don’t need to hear the whole thing to get a kick out of it hopefully, you can just hear each song and still think oh, that’s cool.”
Their words always bittersweet, gritty and from the heart, the lyric in The Line is a Curve that sums up best how Tempest felt when they wrote it are to be found in ‘Grace’, the same words that they repeat to themselves before going onstage to keep them grounded.
‘Let me be love, let me be loving, let me give love, receive love and be nothing but love, in love and for love and with love’
“That’s the plea, the pledge, the promise of the whole record itself. It’s like where the whole album is trying to get to. I think,” they say and pause, coming back with a laugh: “But also maybe More Pressure, More Release!”
Maybe the pressure is what comes from being so prolific in various forms, with three plays, a novel, six poetry books and last year’s On Connection, a debut work non-fiction work, while right now they’re working on another novel and a book of poetry.
Of the novel Tempest is reticent, hesitant to expand much.
“Sometimes when you’re in the middle of writing something if you talk about it, you feel like you’ve already done it when you sit down to do it. So I just don't want to put any energy away from the actual writing of it. It’s in progress…”
As for the book of poems, this involves digging deep into traditional forms as Tempest develops and stretches from their roots in slam poetry and spoken word. Speaking about this their enthusiasm is infectious, if somewhat apologetic.
“I’ve been really into these really old, really traditional poetic metres. It's so interesting to push against something that’s so complete. I really enjoy boundaries. So when you’re writing a lyric you’ve got the beats to push against, you’ve got the musical conventions of whatever style that you’re employing. But with poetry - I came quite late to poetry. I was already in my twenties before I started thinking of myself as a poet - I’m learning as I write. And I’ve just been REALLY interested in these cool, old forms. There’s this one form, like pentameter, in three line verses… It’s kind of really boring to talk about,” they say, although when Tempest explains rhyme schemes it actually sounds anything but.
As for themes, they have always homed in on relationships and connections with others, but what do they identify as the threads that run through their work?
“I discover them in performance really. As a writer I’m not that aware of what the themes are. You’re just like following the ideas, whereas as a performer it’s different. I just did a gig in Avignon to close a theatre festival in this place called the Palais des Papes, a huge like fortress castle, absolutely mad. Because it was a theatrical festival I had to structure the set using my poems to pull out some of the themes in the album so it was presented as a more theatrical piece.
“It’s incredible that you can ask these songs to have a different shape, using poems as soliloquies to introduce the meat of the action which is the song; it’s really cool what happens.
“I think there are themes about patterns, repetitions that are made in life, lots of stuff about trying to struggle through difficult emotional states, relationships, and trying to find some connection with others that feels profound.”
Covering such a range of forms, from live performance with spoken word and music, to writing plays, novels and poetry, asking Tempest if there’s one that stands out as the place they feel most at home feels like asking a parent which is their favourite child.
“They all are. They satisfy different parts of my creative personality and I really enjoy working on different things at the same time. It’s like what happens to me when I’m doing very formal poetry for the page and now exploring these archaic forms. It’s such a huge contrast to writing music which is so instinctive and it’s such a huge discovery. Usually the forms that I write within the music and the lyrics are as nuanced and complex as poetic form but they’re not held in the same way; they’re like heard, they’re things I’ve learnt through listening, conventions that I’ve understood through studying through my ears rather than poetic forms that you study through your eyes.
“I enjoy the contrast. I love writing. I love performance. The only thing that can be jarring sometimes is that performance and writing are such different headspaces and require such different things of me. So all the different things I write and perform can live quite happily, but it’s when the performance and the writing happen at the same time that I can get a bit confused.”
When they’re working on an album, what comes first, the words or the music?
“Usually they come at the same time. I get in the studio, we start with nothing and we work together. For me that’s a really beautiful way of doing it.”
Tempest revels in working with other artists and in terms of those they’d love to collaborate with some time, it’s another Scottish band that comes to mind first.
“Young Fathers. Edinburgh heroes. They’re absolutely incredible. And Kojey Radical, I met him at Glastonbury and we had a chat. I’d like to collaborate with loads of people. My dream collaboration, if she wasn’t dead, would be Whitney Houston. Or maybe I just want to hang out with her, I don’t know,” they laugh. “But that won’t happen in this life.”
Which is obviously a pity, but what do they imagine the result would be?
“I’ve got no idea. I’d just like to meet her. I’d love to write lyrics for Whitney Houston.”
Could they not just write the lyrics anyway, even though Houston is no longer around?
“Well, I’d really like lyrics for her to sing. I’m really interested in what they sound like. I want to work with incredible singers and I want them to bring words to life. But I haven’t found the right singer yet.”
In the meantime, the book of poems will be out early next year and the tour of The Line is a Curve continues.
“There are lots of things in the pipeline. I’ll keep working on the novel, that may or may not ever be finished, and I’m always working on a few things. I’m just hoping and praying that I continue with my work and ideas.”
After last year’s reworking of Sophocles’ two and a half thousand year old tragedy Philoctetes starring Lesley Sharp at the National Theatre in London, will they do more of that?
“I hope so, yeah. I really enjoyed the process of doing a translation, or a new version of an old play. I found that fascinating and inspiring so I’m waiting for the idea to find me. I’ve put the fishing rod out and I’m just waiting to catch one.”
“What’s cool is it all exists so the usual slog of the brainwork which is creating the world and the action and the scenes has been done so you have this very solid framework and foundation and you just get to play. It’s like what is happening emotionally when this person says this to that person, how can I make that make sense to me now? So it’s just a different way of jumping in and it took out the first bit of brain ache out for me, which was great.”
“There’s a reason those plays have lasted thousands of years. It’s because they’re absolutely brilliant. You can do a cover song of an incredible song that’s done the test of time and people are still interested to hear it even if they don’t like what you’ve done with it. So with Sophocles if people have never had a way into that play, then perhaps a newer version can create an avenue in, somebody can become familiar with the original through the contemporary translation, which is cool. “
In the short term, there’s Edinburgh, and as well as the Leith Theatre Festival gig, Tempest will appear In Conversation with Edinburgh poet and author Michael Pedersen at The Portobello Bookshop, an event that’s already sold out but available to stream. Pressed for an opinion on his debut prose book, Boy Friends, about his male friendships including that with Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison, Tempest says:
“I think Michael's a glorious writer and person and it’s hard for me to abstract what I think about the book with how much love I have for this person. I love the book, I love Michael, and I think it’s really necessary to have a reason to think about and elevate the friendships in our lives, to think about how powerful that mode of loving is. It’s kind of the unsung hero of the many loves that we have in our lives.”
As well as Pedersen, Tempest is planning to catch up with other friends when she’s north of the Border.
“I’ve got lots of friends in Scotland, and I’ll be with Murphy, my dog, so I’ll walk somewhere. He’s a husky cross, a big wolf-looking dog, and he’s very sweet, sleeping at my feet as we speak.”
Murphy goes on tour with Tempest unless they have to go on a plane, in which case he can’t tag along.
“You can bring a dog on an aeroplane if it’s small but you can’t bring a big dog,” says Tempest. “It doesn’t make any sense, like Murphy’s more chilled than all these little tiny dogs that are allowed everywhere, he’s just massive. Anyway, pet peeve,” they say and laugh.
Being wolf-sized Murphy would require his own seat.
“That’s the next step isn’t it? laughs Tempest. “That’s when you really know you’ve made it, buying plane tickets for your dog!”
When they’re not working, the wordsmith likes to chill out at home in South London ‘a stone’s throw’ from where they grew up.
“I’m still here. I don’t know about the future, like I have desires to be in COMPLETELY different places, but not really. I feel close to this place, this neighbourhood makes me feel very much at home. It’s a great comfort to know where every street leads. When you’ve been in lots of places where you don’t know where any of the roads go it’s exciting but it’s nice to come home and just wander and know exactly where every road goes.
“I just hang out with my brilliant girlfriend and do the washing up and try and try and make sense of life… Same thing that everyone does when they’re not at work. Watch TV, go to the pub.” They laugh, sounding happy in their skin.
So when and where were they happiest?
“I’m pretty happy right now.”
Which is the correct answer, isn’t it?
“Yeah… Sometimes,” they say, adding: “And I hope people come and enjoy the show.”
Which would make them really happy.
KAE TEMPEST, Saturday 20 August, Leith Theatre, £31/concessions, https://www.eif.co.uk/events/kae-tempest, https://www.eif.co.uk/venues/leith-theatre
Michael Pedersen & Kae Tempest, August 21 @ 7:00 pm - 8:00 pm BST
£3-£20. The event is sold out but available live to stream athttps://theportobellobookshop.com/