As Britain’s premiere poet slash MC, Kate Tempest, releases her third album — The Book of Traps and Lessons — we talk making connections, broken social structures, and the end of the world for Notion 84!
“It’s okay. We’re dead, we’re gonna die,” proclaims Britain’s resident polymath MC, spoken word artist, poet, playwright and novelist Kate Tempest, with a laugh that acknowledges the bombastic nature of her sincere statement. “These systems can not continue. It’s a mad thing to talk about in a magazine!”
Tempest isn’t wrong, on both counts — it is a mad thing to talk about in a magazine and we are gonna die. We’re in at the deep end, discussing themes that run through Tempest’s third album, The Book of Traps and Lessons. This, it turns out, is what you sign up for when you sit down for a chinwag with Tempest — the South East London raised, Brit award and two time Mercury Prize nominee, recipient of the once in a decade title of Next Generation Poet, and winner of the Ted Hughes Award for her poetry work.
To record The Book of Traps and Lessons, Tempest and her band rigorously rehearsed the album, committing it to their body memories. In September 2017 they decamped to Shangri La, the legendary recording studios owned by Def Jam founder and producer Rick Ruben. Ruben had caught Tempest performing on Charlie Rose and tracked her down, eventually taking on production duties for the album. At Shangri La, they laid down single takes of themselves performing all 45 minutes of the album in its entirety, three times a day, for three days straight until they recorded the definitive version you hear.
“It was mad. I’m just fucking standing there with this beautiful mic, in this beautiful studio, in this beautiful place,” says Tempest of the album recording sessions. “As you start you’re like ‘okay I’m gonna start in a minute and then when I start it’s 45 minutes before I stop, so I need to be in this right now’.” But Tempest is no stranger to this kind of endurance performance, having toured her 75-minute narrative poem, Brand New Ancients (though it’s demanding and often violent content would push her to her limit).
“There’s something interesting that happens when all the words are said at the same time,” Tempest muses, “they have all this relevance to each other. Something that happens in the second song, suddenly it’s holding hands with something that happens eight songs later — there’s these links that happen between words that would never happen if you stopped and recorded these tracks separately, so it gives this feeling of mad communication happening between the lyrics.”
Tempest has been working on the album for years, even before her second album, Let Them Eat Chaos, the demos for which came out of sessions for The Book of Traps and Lessons. Tempest is always making two or three things at any one time, currently juggling releasing the album with a play she’s writing. “These things, they just occupy different space, they keep me energised” Tempest explains, “When you’ve got all of this going on, then it would exhaust you if you didn’t have your other outlets, your other things to switch focus.”
Anyone that’s heard her first two albums, Everybody Down and Let Them Eat Chaos, or seen one of her numerous plays or read her book, The Bricks That Built the Houses, will know that Tempest’s work demands to be heard. It’s not the kind of thing you put on in the background while you’re hoovering the house. It requires your attention, for you to submerge yourself in its language and its narratives — it’s basically a bloody good book with beats.
“IT IS ONE THING TO NOTICE DAMAGING BEHAVIOURS THAT HAPPEN IN YOUR SOCIETY, IN THE WIDER HYPER INDIVIDUALISTIC INDUSTRIALISED CAPITALIST SYSTEM THAT WE ALL LIVE IN AND HAVE DONE SINCE ENLIGHTENMENT AND INDUSTRIALISATION, BUT IT’S ANOTHER THING TO NOTICE THOSE BEHAVIOURS IN YOURSELF.”
In the process of making Traps and Lessons, encouraged by Ruben, all the things that Tempest was previously comfortable using in her creativity were stripped away or broken down to just the essentials — including rap technique, structure, flow, as well as narrative devices she’d become accustomed to, like third-person perspectives. Tempest describes the result as a more open and intimate album than its predecessors, explaining that its title references a journey in which the speaker of the poems becomes aware of damaging patterns in their behaviour — or ‘traps’ — that they want to break free from.
“They realise they’re caught in these traps in their life, in their relationships, in their addictions, that they want to break. So the first half of the album is these ‘traps’, ending with “All Humans Too Late”, which is the middle and at the point where you’d turn the vinyl if it was on vinyl. Then you move into the second half of the album, which is the ‘lessons’, it’s when the speaker of these poems is able to actually put into action some of the things that they’ve been thinking about, some of the realisations they’ve had about their behaviours and things start to change throughout the book of lessons which is the second part.”
Within the intimate framework of the record, there appears to be two overarching and intertwined perspectives — one that speaks of intimacy, tenderness and love, another that hints at climate catastrophe, broken political systems, serving a bleak assessment of humanity and the end of the world (at least as we know it). Tempest’s voice itself flows between the two, switching between confessional tales and battle ready rhymes; as it embodies the crippling world, buckling under the weight of humanity. The language Tempest chooses is just as volatile, “vomiting memories” and “fangs and destruction, suction and froth and dysfunction”.
“A person is both in the world and in their own life at the same time,” says tempest. “One of the things that the album seems to be holding, is that it is one thing to notice damaging behaviours that happen in your society, in the wider hyper individualistic industrialised capitalist system, that we all live in and have done since enlightenment and industrialisation, but it’s another thing to notice those behaviours in yourself, in your own relationships.”
For Tempest relationships are the “front line” in this battle, a place where you can’t hide anything, where you come face-to-face with how you’re coping and how your experiences are manifesting in your behaviour. In short, a self-awareness on a level that allows you to be able to zone in and say: ‘this is what I’ve just done and this is everything around me that has influenced this moment’.
Talk turns to Tempests own relationships and “Firesmoker”, the tender expression of queer love and first single to be lifted from Traps and Lessons. “I wanted that to be the lead single because it’s just a beautiful articulation of queer love,” says Tempest. “It’s a powerful thing to stand up and make these proclamations about sexuality to women. So often those depictions of two women together are controlled, and directed, and written by heterosexual men — this idea of what two women together is, what it means, what you see when you see that in popular culture.”
“It took me a long time to be able to stand with my own queerness and where I sit on the gender spectrum. That journey, for me, has been a challenging journey… To be able to just articulate something beautiful and positive about this experience and to be able to just stand on stage and just be in my presence, and in my body, and the fact that I’m even there at all — that’s powerful for somebody in the audience going through their own journey with their sexuality or gender. I feel that.”
“THE FIRST STEP TO REALLY BEING ABLE TO MAKE A CHANGE WITHIN YOUR OWN PATTERNS IS AWARENESS”
“I do love it whenever I meet people who have got a kick out of my work for that reason, it really gets me. It’s like recalibration, like right I’m on the path, it’s working. I have this little check-in with all the people I’ve been throughout my life and that little kid who could have done with seeing the same thing.”
Baring in mind the overarching themes of identifying and unlearning negative behavioural patterns to live healthier lives and in turn create healthier societal systems — change is another hot topic that runs throughout The Book of Traps and Lessons. Changing these behaviours, both personal and bigger picture, is arguably one of the world’s biggest challenges. An inability to come to any consensus on change is what’s fueling inaction and division in everything from Brexit to climate catastrophe. Tempest says that bigger change must be built on a foundation of personal responsibility — then together we might be able to break the wheel.
“The system that we live in, one of the things it does is that it creates factionism, violence, it creates a desire amongst rootless people who are nothing but agents of consumption — this is what we are useful for and this is the role we’ve been given, this is literally what we are for within our system. It creates a desire for a kind of chauvinist male leader to give us some kind of violent solution. Stalin and Hitler have been written out of the Western progressive capitalist story as if they were these freak occurrences, but actually this is the conclusion of this system, it creates this, and it continues to create it, and it has never stopped creating it; and the myth that the West tells itself about its own progress is a convenient myth that allows this system to spread further and further afield.”
Tempest references the work of Pankaj Mishra and his book The Age of Anger, in which Mishra explains that we have forgotten the violence that happened at the dawn of capitalism and took root in industrialisation. Mishra traces these systems — which are dehumanising, exploitative systems that uproot communities and give people no agency beyond a role to play in a consuming machine — back to their roots.
“I think it’s worth saying that the solution to Brexit or anything else, is to realise that this is nothing new. This is what happens under the system we live in and the first step towards making a huge change is cognisense, being like, this is what’s happening in my behaviour, in your day to day relationships for example, this is what I’m doing, this is what’s happening. The first step to really being able to make a change within your own patterns is awareness and that takes education and careful thought.”
“If I am addicted, if I’m an alcoholic —which I have been for a long time — if I’m not aware of it, then I’m not ever going to decide to not have a drink. That might be a strange parallel to make but this system, another thing it does, it encourages numbness in us. It’s a requirement of the system — in order to function you must be numb. Creativity, poetry, literature, music, that’s one thing it can do, it can reconnect — for me anyway. When I’m at my numbest, often it’s creativity, someone else’s artistry, that brings me back and reconnects me, that’s why I might cry when I’m watching someone sing because I’m suddenly a human being again, I have my vitality back.”
Tempest says that the second requirement for change is reconnection, explaining that as a maker of artwork, connection is something that she is consciously trying to do on a day-to-day basis.
“I love to connect, I love to be in front of people telling the poems. I have to keep sight of that, as you get on a touring cycle there’s this mechanical process that happens behind touring that logistically you have to get from this place to the next, and be there at this time, and set up — it’s an industry like anything else. You have this opportunity to stand in a space with people and speak language and make a connection. As knackering as it does get, it’s beautiful, I feel so lucky.”
On The Book of Traps and Lessons, Tempest might have made room to be more openly personal than ever before, but she is still throwing punches at the system and unafraid to be vulnerable and to ask the big questions, even if she doesn’t have all the answers and it’s as much of a mystery to her as the rest of us.
“It’s really important to remember that this is one phase of the planet, we happen to be living and born into a time that was this phase,” says Tempest. “That’s what I’m saying on the album: we’re dead.”