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Kae Tempest "I was always collaborating. It was a social practice – rapping, rhyming, telling poems"

The fifth album from the poet, performer and playwright is a musically accomplished exercise in collective catharsis featuring some surprising collaborations. Kae Tempest told us more about its genesis and creation.

Wolfgang Tillmans

Kae Tempest is an authentic and incisive voice for our time, from critically-acclaimed theatrical productions to authoring a powerful treatise on how we can use creativity to connect more deeply with ourselves and others.

Their first four albums unflinchingly reflect inner turmoil. Fifth record The Line is a Curve is likely to feature in many people’s 2022’s top five list, not only as an accomplished musical production from an artist at their peak, but as a series of stories acting as a collective catharsis to help us navigate current calamities. Kae told us more about the genesis and creation of the album.

Your new album is again deeply personal and political but this time there’s a real sense of optimism apparent. What led to this underpinning sense of determination and hope?

I’ve been going through some crisis, like all of us, having been through what we’ve been through. It’s been a time of deep reflection, necessarily, and lots of big changes. Being in the proximity of so much illness, death and financial concerns, it’s been a really challenging time, I think, for everybody. People with kids, elderly relatives, whatever, it’s been a period of transition. Also, within that time I had to face some things that had been building throughout my life.

Getting some time off tour meant that I had to do some recognition of the state I was in. I wasn’t very well. I tried to put myself together a little bit and, although the album began its life before the pandemic, it was taking shape in the years leading up to it, little sessions here and there. We did about half it before we got to the pandemic then we probably wrote about half of the songs in the pandemic, the last year and the year before. So it’s all in there. Not to say that’s where it started or that’s what I hoped for it, but all of that is in there.

This idea I have in the album is the more pressure a person is under, the more possibility they have for release. This is something that I’m trying to reframe in my own mind and I think it’s maybe something useful. I often have to ask myself, ‘You wrote this thing. Cool. But is it useful?’ Because if it isn’t, maybe it’s not for a project, maybe it’s just my writing.

If you’re a writer you can get attached to how much you enjoy writing and then you forget it has no purpose beyond the fact that you’ve enjoyed [making it]; it doesn’t then mean it has to be out there. But I think if there’s upliftment, beauty and then reframing of struggle, it made me think there’s something here, there’s something this album wants to give. Once it’s all over and you talk about it, it’s easy to get this perspective. I didn’t have that perspective at the time.

You put an album together out of whatever you’ve been going through and that’s just where I’ve been, basically. And now it’s all over and I’m sitting here and it’s all made, you can kind of look back and go, ‘All very clever. I did this, this and this,’ but that isn’t the reality of how it comes about. It’s much more mysterious and messy than that; you follow it.

There’s a been a recent phrase ‘anti-fragility’, and the album appears to come from that exact place. It’s about how you can be under pressure but, from this, it’s possible to reform yourself and come back from it stronger.

Anti-fragility. That sounds like good stuff.

The idea is, in real time you hear this person taking stock. They’re struggling, they’re in crisis, they’re down. There is a realisation that I’m down and I may not be able to get up right now but I accept that at some point this is going to be over and I will be able to get up again.

‘Water in the Rain’, ‘Move’, ‘More Pressure, ‘Grace’ - that’s the feeling that’s what they’re all trying to say; I’ll fight you until I win. I might not be winning right now but at some point I will be able to get up. That’s what I mean about letting go.

The last album was all about, ‘Oh there’s these traps, we’re in these cycles: personally, socially, globally – we keep making these same mistakes.’ I can spot these tendencies out there but I can’t root them out of my own behaviour. ‘Traps, traps, traps!’ How am I going to stop (bangs the table) and reset the cycle? This album is surrender. Life is cyclical; we are cyclical beings. You will make mistakes [laughs]. Do you know what I mean?

One line that really resonates is, “I used to make plans and now I make decisions.” As an album of transition, is that transition from slightly younger adulthood to older adulthood? What kind of other personal thoughts or experiences and places have you been drawing on for that?

I’m sure that’s in there because that’s where I’m at. It’s all floating around everywhere. It’s never quite a knowing thing, that you’re like, ‘Oh, this is what I’m experiencing, I’m going to write a song about it.’ Often what happens is that I find myself writing in the studio and it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s how I feel about that thing that happened yesterday, or last week, or three months ago. There it is.’

Everything is filtering through, and at some point it comes out in one way, or in a surprising way. It sounds like a cop out to say it, but in the infancy of an idea I don’t know where it comes through and I don’t know where it’s going. You’re just doing your best to get out of the way and let it do its thing. And then at some point, once you realise what the album wants to be or what the project’s trying to say, then you get more in control. I’ll get a title, I start to understand and then you start to really build; you start to really make this thing. But for the first bit of the process, I’m following.

You recorded three different vocal takes of the entire album to different generations of people while you were in the studio. Did you notice specific things as a result of this? How did your performances differ?

Yeah, I did. With the older man I was really aware of how he was doing. I think I was slightly deferential to him. He had lived an incredible life. He’d been through so much. I knew a bit of his story so I was aware of his presence in a way that meant I wanted to, I dunno, ‘please’ him or something like that.

There’s something that happens physiologically when we speak to other people. As much as I’m a centred person, I for sure could feel myself moving towards wanting to make sure that he was OK, basically. He got tearful at one point in ‘Water in the Rain’ and that kind of shocked me. Then my mind starts thinking, ‘Well, what it is about that that’s connected with him?’ and then suddenly the next song took me by surprise.

Right, now I’m in ‘Move’ but I was still with him - where he was at. It’s things like that. It’s not necessarily about the generation, maybe it’s about the person, but I could feel like I was trying to restrain myself a bit. And then with the young people, I was just like, ‘Are they alright? Are they bored? Do they need anything?’ These kind of things are running through my head. ‘Should I be pulling my punches here?’ Actually, I should have been going harder than ever for the young people; it's for them, really. It’s these people that are going to have to deal with everything.

For the person my own age, who’s also someone I know, someone from south London, there was enough commonality, I think, between us. Also, it was the second of the day [in the studio] so I’d kind of had a moment to expel some of the nerves. That one felt more confident. It didn’t feel like I had to explain anything because we have a cultural understanding, a mutual experience, even though in some ways it should have been more nerve wracking to do that to a friend or someone you know. I felt more at ease being fully committed than I did with the older guy or the young people. Strange, a really strange process.

The Line Is A Curve Kae Tempest

There are a number of interesting collaborations on the album. What was the thinking behind this and how did they come about?

I was always collaborating. Back in the day when I started doing this I was in bands with lots of people. It was a social practice, rapping, rhyming, telling poems. It was something I did with people. Then, when I met Dan [Carey] and we started making these albums, the focus got really tight because I was obsessed with narrative and flow. And also I wanted to prove myself. I wanted to make my own space and present my ideas in that way. It was intricately constructed albums that were so intense there wasn’t space for other voices.

But this record, I just knew it. I just felt I had the desire for community. I wanted other players, other voices. I just knew it from the beginning. The people that are on the record are people I have connections with. Lianne La Havas is from Streatham, she’s someone I’ve known for years. I love her, I love her playing, I love her voice. We’ve jammed together a few times at parties but we’ve never made any records together and it just hasn’t been the right time, but this felt like the right time. It wasn’t like a ‘starry’ request. It was, ‘Hey what are you up to? Would you like to come over and make a song?’

It’s the same with Grian [Chatten]. Grian’s somebody who I met through Dan because he recorded the first Fontaines album all those years ago. He phoned me up screaming, ‘I cant wait for you to hear this band. Oh my god, you’re going to love this guy, Grian. He loves James Joyce.’ When I met him, when I saw them perform and when I saw Grian sing, I was like this guy is a true poet. This man is a poet for sure. He’s the real deal. I always resonated very deeply with what he was doing, I was honoured to have him on the record. Same thing, gave him a shout, ‘What are you up to? Would you like to come and hang?’ It was very chill and natural. Symbiotic.

After such a long wait, how are you feeling about getting back out on tour?

I’m excited. I can’t wait. It’s been a welcome moment to take stock. I wrote this whole book, On Connection, all about performance. I was deeply meditating on performance itself whilst I was restricted from being able to do it. I feel like I’ve been in deep preparation for going back out there.

I hope that people will come. I know that personally I’ve had profound experiences post-lockdown. Just like seeing gigs, being with other people again in spaces to hear music. I feel lucky that I’m able to see it for what it is. It’s like I took it for granted and I didn’t realise how powerful it was because I never had to question that it wouldn’t happen. Especially if you’re a touring musician and you’re at festivals, four festivals in a weekend. You don’t even remember to think about how amazing it is. There’s all these bands everywhere playing and all of these people having a great time. You allow yourself to forget.

Dancing all night in front of a massive sound system is one of the most incredible things that we can do. It’s so cool. I feel like I’m re-energised and reacquainted with actually what it is. To stand on a stage with a 100 or a 1,000 people, or whoever comes, and create this moment of mutual presence is something that I can’t wait for. I’m nervous but I’m excited too. Mainly excited.

Learn more

Kae Tempest performs at the Octagon on 15 May 2022.

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