There don’t seem to be enough hyphens in the English language to keep up with multi-hyphenate U.K. artist Kate Tempest. Her work runs the gamut from hip hop, to poetry, to storytelling and theater. Oh, and she’s also writing a novel and releasing a companion album. She comes to New York January 10-19 to perform Brand New Ancients at St. Ann’s Warehouse as part of the Under the Radar Festival. Tempest spoke with us about the piece, gave us a peek into her childhood bookshelf, told us about her tattoos, and much more…
MB: The opening of Brand New Ancients seems to come from epic poetry. I was reminded of studying The Odyssey when I was in high school. What attracted you to the mythological form?
K: That’s just how it came out. I never really studied poetry. I’d just written it all my life and that was my study of it. I didn’t know where it was going to go or what it was going to be. And I think that it’s quite important for artists to acknowledge that sometimes in finished pieces of work, it’s easy to think that it was always finished. But actually you don’t know where it’s going to go or what it’s going to be. And you find your way through it. At the end of it, you say, “All right, now I get it. Now I get what it was trying to do.” But I didn’t begin by being like, ‘I’m going to write an epic poem and its going to draw on mythology.’ I wish I’d been that smart. It was more like, ‘We’re going to visit some characters in South London.’
MB: Brand New Ancients has these distinct movements between the music and the poetry. It’s interesting to see you hand off the microphone to the musicians.
K: It’s so wonderful to watch the drummer just going for it. And also, you’ve just heard all this poetry about struggle and human life and trying to live and love better, and then you watch a person playing a cello. It was the perfect physicalization of what we are talking about – watching somebody kind of struggling with this sublime thing.
MB: The piece made me want to shout and cheer while I was watching it. But since it’s in a theater, we’re all politely sitting on our hands waiting until the end and then clapping. How does that feel for you up there?
K: It’s strange. Last night we did it in this massive church in London, you know, with stained glass windows and candles – the lot. And I think because the audience is sitting on pews, and the congregation is supposed to feel like a part of what’s happening, people were much more vocal. They were clapping after every musical moment. I suppose it’s more about permission in a theatrical space. With a theater audience, as much as I say ‘Guys, I know that you’re here. You know that we’re here. Let’s all be in a room together and make this happen.’ I think it feels sometimes like you sit back and watch what happens in this kind of framed thing above you. And at the end you say you’ve enjoyed it.
MB: You’ve been touring Brand New Ancients throughout the U.K., and I saw show the show in London at the Royal Court Theatre. How was it for you performing in the Royal Court, which has so much theatrical history?
K: It’s been an incredible journey. The whole thing. The Royal Court is a home to writers who’ve created such important work. The legacy of that building, that stage. And I felt the weight of it, definitely. And the idea of coming to New York. It’s such a huge dream of mine, you’ve no idea. I feel like the story is so London, and so much about where I am from, that it will hopefully resonate with New Yorkers. Because I feel like New Yorkers are similarly linked to their city in the way that Londoners are linked to theirs. It was exciting being at the Royal Court but being in New York — that’s the thing!
MB: Is there anything you want to do in New York while you’re not on stage?
K: I’d love to see some rappers. I’d love to see some live music. But I’d quite like to go and see a basketball game because I’ve never seen one. And just hang around and walk about and just be in New York. Talking to people. That’s what I’d quite like.
MB: When you were a teenager, you started doing rap battles. Was there a particular hip hop group or song that really drew you in initially to that world?
K: I was going to say Wu Tang. But before Wu Tang, I was a 10 year-old girl. There was this cheesy hip hop boy band called Ultimate Kaos and Kris Kross, and shit like that.
The stuff that seriously got me was Gang Starr and Mos Def , Black Star and Talib Kweli, A Tribe Called Quest, The Fugees, obviously, and Eminem. All the lyrical lyricists. All the different sounds from all over the states. Just fascinating, how the rappers coming out from New York sounded different from the rappers coming out of L.A. Absolutely blew my mind.
MB: You’ve been working for a very long time. Who is the voice in your head which keeps pushing you forward?
K: I don’t know who it is. I know that from early childhood I’ve had a compulsion to be creative. I know that when I don’t work, when I don’t make work, I don’t feel good. It’s become such a huge part of my character, my identity, how I think about the world. How I think about my days — it’s everything, really. It’s like my relationships, my lovers, my friends, my family, and my work and that’s it. That’s life.
I feel very lucky to be in a position where I can truly dedicate myself to the relationship that I have with my own creativity. There are many, many people who are excellent and absolutely amazing, but they can’t dedicate their time to their art because they are working. So I feel like my compulsion is kind of informed by an obligation to everybody else who I know, who I came up with, and what’s inspired me. I must carry on and get better. I must improve, for everybody else who’s inspired me or who’s working and hasn’t quite been able to break through.
MB: What was your favorite toy as a kid?
K: I had this amazing teddy bear. Just absolutely amazing. My mom helped me make him these dungarees out of this green felt. I called him Duncan after my best friend at the time. And I wrote a poem for him that I put in the pocket of his dungarees and it was poem saying who he was, and what to do if he was found. Because he’d be lost if someone had found him and he would be unhappy. I think my Mom’s still got him. I carried him around everywhere.
MB: What do your tattoos mean?
K: Oh wow. (laughing) How weird that you know I have tattoos? Well, I find that the minute you start explaining the meaning you sound like an idiot but I have tattoo on my arm which is waves and cherry blossoms falling. My dad told me when I was a kid that when cherry blossoms fall, it’s time to write poetry. So I got them falling down my right arm, which is my writing arm. When I started to take my poetry seriously, [getting the tattoo] was like marking of the fact that it was always time to write. And the waves are about ebb and flow and creativity and childhood. My Dad loved the sea, and I loved the sea, so it was part of me and my family. It’s about stillness and depth and charging on. I got a tattoo on my leg which is kind of about the same thing. It’s got the moon in it. It’s about cycles and being true to things. I’ve got my partner’s name tattooed on my arm.
MB: Is there a thing you can’t stop talking about? Something you want to tell all your friends about.
K: There’s this band, this new hip hop group called Young Fathers that come out of Scotland and they‘re fucking unbelievable. I saw them at a gig the other night and I can’t stop thinking about it. Their performance was just wild. I’m telling everybody to check them out. I don’t know if their album has dropped yet. I don’t know anything about them other than I saw them the other night and they blew me away.
MB: Who do you fangirl over?
K: People in loads of different areas. So in theater, Jez Butterworth, I’m a huge fan of him. I saw Jerusalem. It changed my life.
MB: Name a Greek god or goddess you’d totally make out with.
K: I don’t know. I think I’d prefer humans. Every time the Greek gods and goddesses make out with humans it all seems to go wrong for someone. I think I’ll stick with humans, thanks.