Interviews are weird. They occupy a very strange social space. They require a degree of performance from interviewer and interviewee both, some artifice and negotiation, and this is only intensified when you’re sitting in a spectacularly bland, white room in the offices of the Brighton Festival with a clock ticking loudly on the wall and seagulls squawking outside the window.
Kate Tempest – poet, playwright, novelist, musician, guest director of this year’s Brighton Festival – so evidently at home on stage, magnetic, electric, completely connected with her audience, is not over-fond of interviews. A few of my (admittedly lame) attempts at humour fall flat and there are some strained silences, but then there are moments when she loosens up, laughs, and the conversation takes off in unexpected directions.
For Tempest, performing is clearly an intense experience in which the lyrical and the physical are intimately linked. She speaks of memorising her work as a bodily experience. “That’s when I really understand it,” she says. “When it’s in me and I can recall it.”
Before each performance Tempest likes to find some space to prepare before she steps out on stage: “To meditate, to shut the door, to turn the music off, to not have lots of chat.” To listen to her body, because while “your mind might think it’s okay, your body knows different”. She adds: “I get a kind of a tunnel vision. I don’t like to be touched. I burn incense.”
Tempest grew up in south London. When she was 16 she studied music at the Brit school, as a guitarist. “Me and my mate Kwake Bass, my drummer, we went there because we were desperate to throw ourselves into music.”
The two of them went along to an open day and were struck by the school’s facilities. “There was a recording studio, a radio station, so many practice rooms all kitted out with pianos, and we were so blown away; we hadn’t seen anything like it,” she recalls.
“When you’re that age,” she continues, “to suddenly be surrounded by loads of other teenagers who are extremely enthusiastic and committed to learning their instrument, their practice, it’s really intimidating and stimulating. I’d never really encountered so many people who were so driven before.”
But, she admits: “I wasn’t that committed to being there at the time. I wasn’t there that much but when I was there, I did get a kick out of it.” It was during this period that Tempest started to take rapping more seriously. She performed at her first open mic night when she was 16. “I’m not sure how much I learned through being in education,” she says. “It was about being in a band, gigging.”
She’s previously spoken of both William Blake and the Wu-Tang Clan as influences, but she also cites novelists – Doctorow, Faulkner, DeLillo – as teachers. Their work is full of “great teachings about how to be a better writer and how to take more delicate breaths”. They show us “how to observe more acutely. All music and literature to me is just packed full of teaching. That’s what it’s for”, she says.
Tempest roamed across forms from early in her career. As a performance poet, she’s supported everyone from John Cooper Clarke to Benjamin Zephaniah. She’s performed at Glastonbury and gigged around the world with her band Sound of Rum. She’s won a number of poetry slams and published her first poetry book, Everything Speaks in Its Own Way, in 2012.
This was the year she also made her first steps into theatrical performance, with Brand New Ancients, a euphoric full-length, solo spoken word piece – a kind of modern parable featuring a mass of characters, everyday gods, mythic figures in a recognisable urban setting. The show, accompanied by a soaring live score by Nell Catchpole, was full of humanity. In 2013, this dramatic poem won her the Ted Hughes poetry prize, making her the youngest ever person to win it. Brand New Ancients, a Battersea Arts Centre co-production, co-commissioned with the Albany, also introduced her to a new audience. She performed the show at the Traverse Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and took it on tour to theatres around the UK. When she performed it at the Royal Court in London, Tempest says she could feel “every other great writer whose work had been performed on that stage at my back”.
“I could feel them coming up through the floorboards. The gradual rake of the stage, the architecture of the room, everything is designed so that the audience and the story meet in the middle. Everything is designed to help you speak and be heard.
“I’d spent years rapping in pubs and squat parties, so suddenly to be in this space where I had all this help, the generosity of the building, the history, that enabled me to find a particular element in my performance.”
Brand New Ancients was succeeded by a period of intense productivity, though it feels as if the need to make work, to write and write, is fundamental to Tempest.
Project followed project. In 2012, her first play, Wasted, tracing the lives of three south London friends, was produced at the Albany (her local theatre). Then, in 2013, she staged a second play, Hopelessly Devoted, about the relationship between two women in prison. Inspired by her own experience of performing her work to inmates at Holloway, it premiered at Birmingham Repertory Theatre before going on tour.
In 2014, she published Hold Your Own, her first full-length poetry collection, based around the mythical figure of Tiresias, following a person’s journey from child to man to woman to prophet. In the same year, she released an album, Everybody Down, which was nominated for the Mercury Prize. A novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses, was published in 2016. And new album Let Them Eat Chaos was released in autumn last year. She’ll be performing a rearranged version of the album with Mica Levi as part of the Brighton Festival.
Tempest’s schedule sounds both exhilarating and unenviably intense. While she works across an increasingly wide range of art forms, thematic threads connect all her work and there are characters that recur, though sometimes they shift bodies, genders, like Tiresias. How does she juggle these different modes of storytelling?
“Music was my first love,” she stresses. “I feel most at home in a recording studio or on a stage with musicians. But different ideas need different tools. Long-form fiction offers me something different. If I was just doing one thing I think I would find it exhausting, but because I’m doing so many it re-energises me.”
Last year, Brighton Festival approached her to be the latest in a line of guest directors, following performance artist Laurie Anderson and novelist Ali Smith. Brighton is a multi-arts event, so Tempest, whose work straddles forms, seems a natural fit and she’s evidently been more hands-on than some past directors.
The theme of Tempest’s festival is ‘Everyday Epic’, though the theming process is, she admits, a little arbitrary, as while some of the work is commissioned for the festival, a lot of the programme consists of pre-existing work.
She’s interested in those everyday moments of artistic experience, such as “when you’re listening to music and you’re on the tube”. She continues: “Having this intimate soundtrack makes everything extremely beautiful or poignant. This accompaniment to reality makes it more real.”
What was your first job? Handing out flyers after gigs.
What is your next job? Guest director of the Brighton Festival.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?I got some good advice. A rapper I really respected told me: you think you’re ready now but it takes 10 years of dedication to your craft before you’ll be ready. I was 18 and I thought ‘fuck that’ because I thought I was ready, but he was right. Work harder. You’re not ready. You’re never ready.
Who is your biggest influence? My peers; Kwake Bass, my brother; Dan Carey, my producer; Mica Levy, a great beacon in the wilderness.
If you hadn’t been a director, what would you have done? Something in the care industry, maybe a nurse. I’d still write though.
Do you have any theatrical rituals? Meditation.
Tempest had “big dreams” for her festival programme. She had a huge wish list of artists she wanted to invite and ideas about different kinds of events and spaces they could set up. She got some, but not all of what she hoped for, but that’s the festival team’s job, she says, to let the guest director’s imagination run wild, while also imposing “reality checks” and explaining the limits of what’s possible in the festival context.
“There’s this incredible team here whose job it is all year to research things I know less about, like contemporary dance. The guest director’s role,” she concludes, “is less that of a curator than someone who injects their identity into the bigger picture.”
It’s clear that she’s thought a lot about her role and what she wants from an arts festival. At Brighton Festival’s launch event back in February, Tempest talked – via Skype from a literary festival in Sri Lanka – about how access to the arts can boil down to things like the cost of a bus ticket, or childcare, really basic barriers to access and engagement that can get overlooked in wider discussions.
“I don’t know when it happens, but there’s a point in some people’s lives when these things cease to be a concern and they forget they ever were a concern. That’s something that is endlessly fucking dismaying. There’s this bit of residual, unintentional snobbery that comes out when people talk about ‘who are the arts for?’”
Arts festivals, she has also said in publicity material for Brighton, risk being “closed, comfortable spaces – the same voices speaking to the same ears”.
One of the most striking things about Tempest’s programming of this year’s festival is the way she’s tried to address this, taking the festival into different parts of the city and different sections of the community. For instance, there will be two festival hubs in Hangleton, a neighbourhood in west Hove, and Whitehawk, an estate in east Brighton, with two weekends of free events.
Initially, Tempest wanted to programme work in these locations throughout the festival, but as this is the first time the festival organisers have tried this, they’re going to start with one weekend in Hangleton and one in Whitehawk. They consulted people in the communities and asked them what they would like to see programmed at these spaces. It came down to something quite simple: free events that people can see without having to travel into town. We start to talk in more general terms about art and its place in society.
Tempest observes that people used to make art “to fulfil a social and human need, and now it’s judged to be successful if it sells out a theatre”.
“Everything is defined in monetary terms,” she continues, “because we are consumers and it’s hard to ask art to occupy a more soulful place. But we lack it in our lives, and you can tell by the levels of mental illness there is in society.”
Tempest believes strongly in the beneficial effects of creative expression on people’s mental health. This is of particular relevance in Brighton, which has a high level of mental health problems. Recent government figures, analysed by the charity Shelter, revealed that one in 69 people there are homeless, making it the city with the worst rate for homelessness outside London.
One of the festival projects designed to address this is Nabokov’s Storytelling Army. Together with local artists, the theatre company has been working with recovery and addiction centres and community spaces in Brighton to help them share their stories. These will be performed in public spaces around the city.
Every single person that you walk past, every single human being, has a story that’s worthy of your time and attention
“It’ll be theatre, not just therapy,” says Tempest. “There’s something transformational when your story is shared, it’s not just about you and your pain, but the connection with other people. It’s less about these voices being unheard, it’s about us not listening. It’s about untrained ears.
“Every single person that you walk past, every single human being, has a story that’s worthy of your time and attention.”
This strikes me as being one of the guiding ideas behind so much of her work. She continues: “Their lives are as full of love, pain, joy and loss as your own. Everything conspires to make you forget that in everyday life – to keep us on our individualistic tracks all bound up in ideas of success – but poetry, storytelling, music, they can shake us out of that.”
“What’s really important is to learn to truly listen to yourself. I don’t mean that in a self-help way, it’s important to truly listen to your poetic instincts; if you feel something’s finished, you need to interrogate that feeling a little more: you need to ask is it just my ego talking, is it because I need validation that I want to go to this poetry slam, or is it because I feel I’ve done some of my best work? To separate these two impulses is extremely important, and it’s something that’s often overlooked, especially by poets that are just starting out. Have you really done the best you could by that idea?”
The conversation shifts to south London, where we both live. “I grew up in Lewisham and it’s completely unrecognisable from when I was a kid. The skyline’s changed. There are new apartment blocks – luxury accommodation built out of fucking chipboard. Half a million quid. It’s insane. When you’re a kid you think if I ever had a million quid I’ll buy a castle, I’ll live in a palace, and now people are spending that much money on a two-bed flat.”
Cities change, she says. It’s what cities do. They have never been places of stasis. But it does feel as if the way things are going is toxic – for communities, for those in the creative industries, for the young. “I worry that it’s too late,” she says, to fix things. “I hope kids growing up in south London will still find ways to be creative. There is a vibrancy in south London that remains.”
Even though there are young rappers making work now that fill her with positivity and hope, “it does feel like something terrible is happening to this corner of the city to the point where I’m ready to leave. I can’t really afford to stay where I’m from”.
What advice would she offer to people starting out? “If you can do anything else, do anything else. If you can’t do anything else, you don’t need my advice. Writing poetry, playing music, these are necessary aspects of life. They’re very important for our personal development, for cementing social relationships, but to make it a career, to even ask that it becomes that, can divorce it from its beauty and use.”
Born: London, 1985
Training: Goldsmiths, University of London
Career highlights: Wasted, play (2012), Brand New Ancients, spoken word (2012), Hopelessly Devoted, play (2013), Hold Your Own, poetry collection (2014), Everybody Down, album (2014), The Bricks That Built the Houses, novel (2016), Let Them Eat Chaos, album (2016)
Awards: Ted Hughes Award for Brand New Ancients (2013)
Agents: Johnson and Alcock, Primary Talent (music)