South London in Slow Motion: Kate Tempest’s Narrative

Sasha Geffen

Kate Tempest

For Kate Tempest, London is always happening. She watches the city unfold in slow motion and high definition, showing details of ordinary moments that, for her, are full of story. “I’ll look at a situation and it will just be on fire with meaning,” says the 27-year-old rapper, who also keeps busy as a poet, playwright, and author at work on her first novel. “You sit on a train and everything is happening. Who is that person? What are they thinking? Where have they been? Look at the way they’re holding hands. Look at the way they’re fighting.” She’s speaking to me over Skype from her home in the city. Her dog, Murphy, pants in the background.

She’s always lived in the city—South East London, to be exact—and the city has always hid stories for her. She started telling them at age 16, when she booked an open mic slot at a West End record store called Deal Real. Since then, she’s toured with a live band, won poetry slams, put out a book, and performed in her own play, a solo piece called “Brand New Ancients” that blurred the line between spoken word poetry and one-woman theater. The city is where the characters in her new narrative album, Everybody Down, were born, too. Produced by Dan Carey (who’s known for working with Santigold and M.I.A.), the record follows Tempest’s characters Becky and Pete, two people tangled in the mess of urban youth—falling in love, putting up with friends and family, working unsavory jobs to survive.

“It’s such a crazy city, London. You can’t close your eyes to it,” Tempest goes on. “Everything is alive. Even the most desolate situations, rush hour and panic, when you think the world is going to end, even that is fascinating.”

A lot of plot runs through Everybody Down, but the core of the music is more subtle than its moving parts. Tempest lets her characters wax philosophical over Carey’s cagey, colorful beats. They’re not just perceiving life as it’s happening to them, though it happens a lot. They’re trying to connect the dots, to fit their experiences into a bigger picture of being human. Within the album’s first seconds, Tempest takes a scene from London’s nightlife and turns it into an existential struggle: “Everywhere is monsters, tits out, wet mouth, heads back / Shouting and screaming just to prove they exist.” Her words come down hard and urgent, cheered on by Carey’s uneasy production.

Anybody who makes art, you feel like it’s going to consume you. It’s everything. You can’t stop thinking about it. But to have a healthy existence, to have healthy relationships, you need to stop thinking about it.

Carey boasts an impressive resume as a music producer, but his experience as a film editor also proved invaluable to Tempest as they collaborated on her album in the studio. “The first drafts of some of these songs, they were like 12 minutes long. I was writing every detail,” she says. “[Carey] was so helpful in being really clear about edits and saying to me, ‘Okay, we don’t need to show the journey from the front door to the cab. We can just cut straight to the next scene.’ When you’re creating a world on your own, it can just consume you. But the fact that me and Dan were in it together, you can believe in it a bit more. You don’t go too far into your own asshole.”

The characters inside Everybody Down also live on the pages of a novel that Tempest has been busy drafting. The book, tentatively due for a 2016 release through Bloomsbury, will act as a longer-form companion piece to the record: same characters, same story, more detail. Though Tempest has put plenty of hours into honing the novel, she found that her characters came to life while she was making music about them. “I would be sitting there with Dan in the studio and it wasn’t like I just realized what I wanted them to say—it was like I heard them speak,” she tells me. “I found out what they were like and what they were going to do and where they were from. It was like letting them out, like it was already happening and I just had to look at it in the right way and then I could see. It was amazing.”

She speaks energetically, like it’s all still happening around her—Becky, her love for Pete, their fights over her job as a masseuse for wealthy, lonely men. Tempest apologizes to me a few times, afraid she sounds crazy. “I’ve always seen things in quite a strange way.”

Even more than the characters’ individual struggles, Everybody Down is an album about noticing, about learning to look at things in the right way. “Life is huge, but we have shrunk it / We’ve made it small,” Tempest raps on “The Beigeness”, an early single in which she slices away at the cruelty of modern isolation. “The world is the world but it’s all how you see it / One man’s flash of lightning ripping through the air is another’s passing glare, hardly there,” she rhymes on the refrain of “The Truth”. She keeps stumbling upon epiphanies through the prisms of her characters.

In another context, these lines might sound too forceful, too optimistic, too didactic. But Tempest sells them with the vividness of her verse and the buoyancy of her delivery. She sounds as wide-eyed as if she were walking through the city for the first time, absorbing the buzz and the life inside it. She speaks through the album’s protagonist on “Theme From Becky”, combing through Becky’s troubled relationship with Pete while asserting, “Some don’t understand, but I’m happiest when struggling.” She looks around and finds hope through the hardship. Through Becky, she sings, “Life’s to be lived, not agreed with.”

The more she writes, be it poems or plays or chapters or raps, the more Tempest learns about the place she calls home. “As I grow up and grow older, I think about my beginnings and my childhood and my teenage years. My friends, my loved ones, my family. It all just gets clearer and clearer to me,” she says. “These characters, they begin in the place that I’m from because that’s what I know the best. But I think once this album has been made and once the novel’s finished, I feel like I will have said what I want to say about this part of London. I feel like I will have gotten it out of my system and it will be time to write about other things.”

Though she has the rare ability to immerse herself deeply in her observations and her writing, Tempest has to detach herself sometimes. The stories are everywhere. They could take her over if left unchecked. She stays cautious. “All writers have to be very careful to turn that part of their mind off when they’re with their lovers or their family and to just live in the real world, not in the story writing world,” she tells me. “You just got to remember that it’s all just bullshit, really. It’s my work. I live and die for it. I’m so passionate about what I do. But it’s my work. Anybody who makes art, you feel like it’s going to consume you. It’s everything. You can’t stop thinking about it. But to have a healthy existence, to have healthy relationships, you need to stop thinking about it. You need to be able to separate the artist from the actual person that you actually are. You have to remember that that’s the person that is actually alive. I’m constantly trying to remember that it’s all just a dream. What does it really mean anyway? Even though my whole life is dedicated to making my work, I’ve also got to be a good partner, I’ve got to be good to my friends, I’ve got to be good to my dog. Stuff like that.”

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