Kate Tempest


Originally written for Exeunt.

When Kate Tempest takes to the stage to perform Brand New Ancients, audiences are offered a transformation. As she smiles a few words of welcome, the poet and performer is charmingly awkward, shy even. But from the moment she launches herself headfirst into her narrative, she is suddenly electric. Tempest is a shape-shifter; a small, unassuming figure in jeans and T-shirt, capable of making the air crackle. Ordinary and extraordinary all at once – just like the characters whose stories she so compassionately tells.

Brand New Ancients is all about looking at people differently. Shifting the focus of mythical narratives from unreachable gods in the sky to the ordinary individuals we walk past every day, Tempest asks her audience to see “real heroes in really normal people”. Her gods are at the bar and in the betting shop, smoking a fag in the street or eating a kebab after a night out. Fighting the false idols of manufactured fame and fleeting celebrity, Tempest argues that everyone is worth our attention.

“This thing about noticing people …” Tempest trails off during our phone conversation, pausing in search of the right words. “You walk around among people all the time without really noticing that they’re other human beings. It blows my head off every time I go anywhere; just looking at people, taking a minute to slow down a bit.”

In keeping with this focus on people, Tempest explains that it was the characters in Brand New Ancients who came to her first, with the form of the piece following as she wrote it. “I’m quite used to thinking about what it is now as a finished piece, but right back at the beginning I don’t think I quite had a handle on knowing what I wanted it to be,” she says. “I just had all these loose narrative threads about these characters.”

These threads eventually became the interweaved stories of two families, whose tale Tempest tells through a fusion of storytelling, poetry and rap. She explains that the finished piece was unlike anything she had done before and is in some ways her most ambitious show to date, featuring the longest sustained narrative and mixing a wide range of artistic influences. In a masterstroke, Tempest’s captivating performance is also accompanied by a soaring live score composed by Nell Catchpole, allowing wordless pauses for “your brain to recover from that onslaught and let the music do the talking”.

Given all these different, overlapping elements to her work, it is almost impossible to pin Tempest down to one genre. While the poetry world has recognised Brand New Ancients with the Ted Hughes Award, the inclusion of the show in the Traverse Theatre’s programme during the Edinburgh Fringe – where it is appearing as part of the British Council Showcase – would also seem to cement Tempest’s association with theatre. It was only last year that Tempest wrote her first play, Wasted, at the same time as continuing to make work by herself and with her band Sound of Rum. Speaking about her experimentation with different art forms, Tempest explains, “I’m now starting to have an idea and be able to choose whether that idea is a story or a play or a rap or a novel.”

The thought of not having a stab at new genres when the opportunity arises seems to be one that has not occurred to Tempest. And when it comes to the risk of failure, her attitude is remarkably relaxed. “Until you’ve got something really wrong you can’t get anything really right,” she reasons. “You’re not quite engaging with the decisions you make unless you’ve made a really bad one.” There’s also a steely streak of determination to Tempest’s character and a formidable work ethic beneath her laid-back persona. She’s particularly emphatic about the need to be constantly moving out of her comfort zone: “Push yourself, do something that’s hard work, do something you’re petrified of.”

It’s certainly a mantra that Tempest has lived by in recent years. As well as continuing to write for theatre, she tells me that she has just finished the first draft of a novel, at the same time as making a new record. And her latest project, from which she is taking a break when we chat, is a musical. Even Tempest sounds a little surprised about that one. “It’s very different,” she says, quickly adding, “and hopefully not shit. That’s all we can ask of any of it – please don’t let this be the thing that’s shit.”

For all the variety in her work, however, Tempest is dismissive of the idea that she might be innovating or crossing boundaries. “It is what it is because it’s what I’ve been doing,” she says simply. “I’ve read novels all my life and I’ve listened to rap music all my life and I love being told stories and I love the people in the place that I’m from, so it’s just very natural; of course it happens like this.”

At the heart of it all is an overwhelming love for stories. Tempest talks with enthusiasm about discovering her characters, about the stories that she and her family and friends are always telling one another, and about her recent trip to a writers’ festival in Sydney, where she met fellow writer and “the most amazing storyteller” Daniel Morden. “There’s just something that I react to, which is the narrator,” she attempts to explain her belief in the power of storytelling. “It’s comforting and it’s like the ultimate form of trust; trusting somebody that they’re not going to lie to you.”

“Here’s a story that Daniel Morden told me, right,” Tempest suddenly bursts out excitedly, abandoning the point she is halfway through making. She recalls a simple but beautifully told narrative about a visit that Truth pays to a town where no one will listen to him. After a few days, Tempest continues, a stranger arrives dressed in extravagant clothes and the townspeople all gather round him to hear what he has to say. When Truth asks the stranger what his secret is, he replies that he is clothed in stories, because “the naked truth is too much for people to bear”.

Falling into her distinctive rhythm, Tempest concludes: “So from that time to this, Truth has gone around dressed in the clothes of stories, and it’s easier for people to hear about themselves.” It feels like a fitting philosophy for the invention, enthusiasm and compassion of Tempest’s work. In the end, it’s all just stories.

Photo: Katherine Leedale.

Word Up


Originally written for Fest Magazine.

“I don’t really know what it is, spoken word. What the fuck is it?” jokes Kate Tempest, her infectious laughter ringing down the phone. But she has a point. What is spoken word? Despite gaining its own section in the Edinburgh Fringe programme last year and being stamped as a burgeoning cultural scene, the genre straddles a huge range of artistic practices. It’s an artform that revels in mixing influences.

“There’s a lot of snobbery,” Tempest reflects on her own experience of the spoken word label. “If you’re a spoken word poet, you’re not quite a real poet; if you’re a spoken word artist, you’re not quite a rapper; if you’re a spoken word theatre-maker, you’re not quite a theatre-maker.”

Whatever snobbery spoken word might have faced in the past, however, the Fringe is an increasingly welcoming place for performers whose work falls into this boundary-blurring space. As well as an expanded range of offerings in the second year of the spoken word section, 2013 sees two spoken word performances make it into the British Council Showcase: Tempest’s Ted Hughes Award-winning show Brand New Ancients and Inua Ellams’ Black T-shirt Collection.

Despite growing up performing her poems—“it’s never been surprising for me that people stand up and tell their rhymes”—Brand New Ancients marks something of a departure for Tempest. Blending storytelling, poetry and an electrifying live score, the show intertwines the tales of two modern day families, spinning an epic narrative out of ordinary lives. “I’ve never done anything like it,” says Tempest. “I’ve never sustained a narrative for that long; I’ve never tried to tell a story like this.”

Her starting point, she explains, was the idea of myths. “I’ve always found a lot of comfort in reading myths,” she says. “In the myths I recognise friends of mine, recognise my family, recognise myself.” Wondering why these characters that she recognised all around her could not have myths of their own, Tempest set about the task of creating just that. Her heroes are compassionate barmaids and dissatisfied advertising execs; they drink pints down the local and hang out at the betting shop. As Tempest points out, “you don’t really get to hear epic narratives about people who aren’t epic heroes”.

As well as drawing heavily on storytelling and poetry, the live score is central to Brand New Ancients. Music appeals to Tempest because, unlike with poetry, “you’re straight in, there’s no faffing around with language”. Uncharacteristically, she fumbles slightly for the words to express music’s narrative power. “There’s just something that happens when you hear a violin soaring and when you watch a drummer going for it – there’s something that happens to you,” she says.

Inua Ellams equally identifies a range of different influences in Black T-shirt Collection, which combines the simple art of telling a story with poetic and multimedia elements. “I don’t even necessarily think of it as spoken word or as performance poetry,” he says, shaking off the spoken word label as restlessly as Tempest. It’s just a story, he shrugs.

Criss-crossing the globe from Nigeria to Britain to China, Ellams’ story follows two foster brothers—one Muslim, one Christian—who travel the world selling their T-shirts. While Ellams is keen to emphasise the simplicity of the tale, along the way the brothers’ experiences touch on issues as diverse as sectarian violence, homophobia and the ethics of the fashion industry. “The story covers so many things and does so very honestly,” he reflects.

Ellams’ aim, similarly to Tempest’s, is to identify the human narrative at the heart of his subjects. “Whenever I read stories about politics they tend to bore me,” he admits, pointing to the lack of a human connection. “That’s what I try to do,” he continues, “just tell stories about two guys and how the world happens to them.”

As well as being a consummate storyteller, Ellams very much identifies himself as a poet, explaining that the page is usually his first consideration. He describes the range of his work in terms of transformation. “Usually I think of myself as Bruce Banner,” he grins, seizing with glee on the superhero metaphor. “When I write a poem I think of myself as this scientist, this geek with glasses, conducting literary experiments with paper and pen. And then I think of myself reading poems as somewhere in between.” It’s only in his solo shows, when harnessing theatrical elements, that he’s the Hulk – “the monster is entirely unleashed.”

Elsewhere in the spoken word programme at this year’s Fringe, the offerings are equally varied. From the chaotic spontaneity of an ad-libbing show at the Assembly Rooms to a range of one-off talks from speakers such as Jeanette Winterson and Jon Ronson, spoken word is a patchwork genre. Among the highlights are the return of Scroobius Pip, poet John Osborne’s follow-up to the acclaimed John Peel’s Shed, and Luke Wright’s new show Essex Lion.

As Wright explains, his show was born from the inspiration of the false lion sightings in Essex last year and has ended up bringing in a range of poems about the things we want to see. “I think we’re always looking for those things in the next field, those things on the horizon,” he says. “All the poems are quite unrelated in their subject matter, but they’ve all got that at their core; they’re all about longing in some way and wishful thinking and self-deception.”

Discussing the spoken word scene, Wright is more pragmatic about the terms in which it is described. “Labels exist for a reason,” he points out, and he speaks of the launch of the spoken word section in the Fringe programme as “hugely symbolic.” For all these artists, however, the work itself is more important than the words used to discuss it.

“Hopefully there are a lot of writers coming through who are exploring new places and having new ideas and going on this huge adventure with text,” says Tempest. “Whatever form that comes in, if that’s happening we should be really, really, really glad.”

Brand New Ancients, Battersea Arts Centre

“We are still mythical,” Kate Tempest persuasively tells us, looking around with wide eyes at the crowded space of the Council Chamber at Battersea Arts Centre – historically the most un-mythical of places. Her new show, taking as its basis the ancient use of mythology as humankind’s way of explaining itself, attempts to convince us that the gods are really everywhere; on park benches smoking fags, at the bar pulling pints, in the room around us. All of us have the ability to be mythic heroes.

This clash of the old and the new, of the exalted language of the gods and the lyrical banalities of the modern high street, feels perfectly at home among the gently crumbling architecture and faded charm of BAC. An unexceptional figure in jeans, T-shirt and plimsolls, Tempest commands this space, striking a startling stance between declamatory power and guileless warmth as she paces the stage with her microphone while the air around her crackles.

Part electric spoken word performance and part gentle storytelling, Tempest intricately weaves together the tale of two families, ordinary and alike in their everyday miseries. For her contemporary Oedipuses and Medeas there are marriages and affairs, betrayals and violence, all equally related with a compassionate lack of condemnation. The bond of friendship between two young men demonstrates the capacity for love even when surrounded by abuse and rage, while another boy escapes the dull reality of his life by sketching comic book epics, vivid sagas of those modern day gods known as superheroes. Tempest’s characters struggle and love and hate and regret, all to the evocatively pulsing soundtrack of Nell Catchpole and Kwake Bass’ live score.

Tempest’s style of delivery marries poetry, song, hip-hop, oratory and – ironically appropriate amidst all this talk of gods – something of the preacher. Fittingly both heavenly and earthy at once, she slides from close-eyed, lilting lyricism to bare, stripped down direct address, stepping out of her performative self to offer artless confidences. At odd moments, usually in the wake of a particularly crude observation, she shrugs, as if by way of charming apology for what she has created.

There are undisguised slip-ups in the performance; Tempest mixes up the names of two of her characters, correcting herself with a laughed explanation, before later tripping on one of the wires snaking across the stage. The lack of polish, far from distracting, makes for something much more vital and – crucially for Tempest’s purposes – much more human. We’re all flawed, she seems to be saying without apology, and that’s OK. While in one sense taking up the mantle of tradition and, like many poets before her, adopting the role of chronicling heroes, there are no pretences of poetic perfection here.

For all this easy charm, underneath the fizzing performance and beaming wit there is something urgently furious at the heart of Tempest’s plea for the value of humanity. Between the houses and parks and pubs, Tempest’s vivid brushstrokes capture a world in which “everything’s weighed on the scales of profit” and we fall on our knees before the false idols of fame, Saturday night entertainment and Simon Cowell, that modern day serpent in the grass. In this fame-seduced world, the television recurs as a symbol of loneliness, a poor but addictive substitute for the company of others.

In pleading her case for the gods and heroes all around us, Tempest is arguing for an appreciation of others that does not hinge on money or fame, but a recognition of the capability for love – as much as the vulnerability to hate – that exists in all of us. We might be flawed, but we are still mythical. And these stories that Tempest is telling us, with raw and captivating power, are the new parables.

Brand New Ancients runs at BAC until 22nd September.

Wasted, Roundhouse

Originally written for Exeunt.

If nostalgia is a disease, then poet and rapper Kate Tempest’s explosive debut play is a startling reminder of just how sick we all are. This bitterly funny snapshot of modern life takes as its subject a lost young generation already busy reliving a past when they used to feel something, haunted by untouched dreams and paralysed by indecision. As one character puts it, “we spend life retelling life”.

Ennui plagued twenty-somethings Ted, Danny and Charlotte are marking the tenth anniversary of the death of their friend Tony, to whom they each confess their fears, frustrations and limitations in a series of lyrical monologues. Everyman Ted, played with a groan of recognition by Cary Crankson, is trapped in a tedious, nausea-inducing office job and a comfortable but unexciting relationship. His best friend Danny, a swaggering yet emotionally delicate Ashley George, is his arty antithesis, the eternal dreamer lazily intent on being a rockstar and winning back Lizzy Watts’ frustrated teacher Charlotte. Each is like a fragment of an old friend, the familiar melded with the idiosyncratic.

Much is familiar in Tempest’s evocative ode to modern London, a concrete playground where the routine is as grey as the pavement and streetlamps blink down instead of stars. In the richly textured, quick-fire speech, shot through with distinctive rap-inflected rhythms, the poetic is often found in the pedestrian. The profound and the mundane are never more than a hair’s width apart, as the three characters question over the course of 24 hours whether happiness lies in chasing youthful dreams or in dull yet companionable trips to Ikea. There is a refreshing honesty to Tempest’s earthy writing, which intelligently recognises the penetrating human truths that can be found in ordinary experience. The resulting vision of life’s inevitable disappointments, sharply funny as it often is, hits close and hard.

Tempest’s persuasive collision of realism and spoken word gig is given punchily paced direction by James Grieve, who with the excellent performers has tapped into a rhythm that rarely falters. Transporting us to the clubs where Londoners drink to escape, Cai Dyfan’s simple yet striking design is all speakers and boom boxes, redolent of the constant noise that plays over empty lives and that pulses powerfully through the Roundhouse courtesy of Kwake Bass’ soundtrack. In another clever touch, close-up film projections of the actors’ blank expressions accompany their fevered monologues, a reminder of the repetitive boredom that they are desperate to break out of.

While this lean, muscular creation could do with some fleshing out, Tempest’s first foray into theatre is an undoubtedly impressive one. Her words paint a vivid, pulsing mural of a city writhing with its own restlessness and discontent, yet straitjacketed by a numbing sense of inertia. Her broken characters, hands wrapped protectively round microphones, warn us upfront that there will be no incredible truth, no deeper meaning in what they are about to relate. Instead the truth they reveal is all too credible.