- 18 Oct 16
Musician and poet Kate Tempest discusses drugs, depression and creating one of the year’s best albums, Let Them Eat Chaos.
Kate Tempest is currently one of the most essential voices in British music. Her latest album, Let Them Eat Chaos, masterfully blends hip hop beats and electro rhythms with incredible lyrical flair. Themed around a group of characters all living in the same street, the songs provide gritty portraits of contemporary London life, and further capture the zeitgeist courtesy of allusions to drone strikes and political unrest.
A couple of weeks after our interview, Tempest delivers one of the best TV performances I’ve seen by any artist, when she turns in a stunning set during a night of poetry and music she curates for BBC Two. Just to further emphasise her remarkable talent, the singer and poet earlier this year published the novel that always threatened to emerge from her lyrics anyway, in the shape of The Bricks That Built The Houses, a no-holds barred look at modern youth culture in London.
Shortly before I arrived to interview Tempest at the Library Bar in Dublin, I’d noticed in Easons in O’Connell Street that the retailer had selected it for their monthly Book Club series.
“Oh wow!” smiles the softly spoken singer. “They’re very different worlds, literature and music. When you’re on a poetry tour, you get a nice hotel – when you’re on a band tour, you get nothing (laughs). But I could never jack it in and just do the literary circuit, I’d be bored shitless. For me, it’s weird having the crossover thing, because you don’t know what the audience want. What’s interesting about it is that you end up speaking to lots of different people, which is a huge blessing.”
A recurring theme in Tempest’s work is the part drugs play in modern youth culture – a drug deal backbones the plot in The Bricks That Built The Houses, while one of the tracks on Let Them Eat Chaos is titled ‘Ketamine For Breakfast’. When I ask if she went through a drug period herself, there is a lengthy pause.
Eventually she responds, “I don’t know why I’m being so fucking cagey! I think it’s probably quite clear from my work, my struggles with those things. There is a heavy, quite toxic drug culture in south London. When you’re very young, it can give you so much. It opens your mind and heart, and there are things I think about the world that I probably attribute to times when I was off my head. It’s like, ‘This is fucking great’, you know?
“The trouble is that I’ve seen some extremely intelligent, tender people become completely lost. It’s no secret – I’ve written about it in my poems.”
Is that a manifestation of a class divide in London?
“Well, I mean everyone’s getting fucked, aren’t they?” replies Tempest. “In Dublin, London, everywhere. But Wasted for example, which was my first play, was about characters who wanted to be doing more with their lives. Unfortunately, they’re trapped in that cycle of getting ruined. That lifestyle gives you the epiphany and the joy, and the sense of community, and the characters in Wasted had the potential to attain the lives they dreamed of. But they couldn’t quite make that jump. When you’re part of a very creative community, there’s a lot of it about.
“But I’m very lucky that I grew up around so many people who made the decision quite early on to throw everything they had at their artistry – their music, rapping and writing. There was a time when I said, ‘This is what I want and this is where I’m going.’ That’s something to hold onto, and it can take you through all that.”
With this being a special mental health edition of Hot Press, I ask Tempest if she’s ever had any struggles with depression.
“Yeah, of course,” she nods. “Many people in my life have had very serious battles. It’s interesting that when we say mental health, what we think of is poor health. This kind of relates to the record I suppose – all of these seven people who we meet are isolated in this moment of insomnia. They’ve been up all night and they’re caught in this cycle of strange, vulnerable thoughts. They’re somehow relieved from this by remembering that they’re part of something bigger than themselves, when this big storm breaks and they all go outside and see each other.
“The cities that we live, the times we live in, they’re not well – these times are sick. The sensible, healthy response to the way we live is depression, anxiety and so on. It’s the logical conclusion, so I’m glad that your magazine is opening up these issues up in a way that doesn’t feel cloying, barbed or judgemental. In my own life I’ve found certain things to be very useful. Creativity of course, and also exercise, even if it’s a strange thing to do when you don’t even feel like getting up.
“And also reading and listening to music. It’s good to feel a part of this massive community that goes back thousands of years, who left all of these beautiful pieces just for you to find.”