Search The Line of Best Fit
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Kae tempest 2022 press no credit given
Nine Songs
Kae Tempest

One of the UK’s most celebrated writers, Kae Tempest tells Alan Pedder how lyricism and integrity guide not only their own work but also the music they love.

22 April 2022, 08:00 | Words by Alan Pedder

Kae Tempest worked in a market stall record shop on Lewisham High Street from their mid-teens until the age of 20, a time they describe as “a sort of apprenticeship in discovering music.”

The shop specialised in hip hop, soul, reggae and dancehall, but Tempest explains the people they worked with were primarily into East Coast rap music, and that passion was passed on as they started to broaden their palate. “I think that when you’re young, discovering music can be the most technicolour experience,” they say. “For me, it was like going from black and white to colour – life suddenly became so much richer. I discovered all these great rappers who had already put out so much work. Suddenly there was all this incredible music to dig through.”

Alongside working at the shop, Tempest would perform regularly at open mic nights from the age of 16 – notably at the Deal Real record store on Carnaby Street, once known as London’s hip hop Mecca. At 18, they formed alternative hip hop trio Sound of Rum. Born out of a squat party in Peckham, the band split in 2012 after just one album, but not before Tempest’s righteous and poetic rhymes made a mark on their hip hop peers, winning fans in the likes of Roots Manuva and Scroobius Pip.

Fast forward 10 years and Tempest has become a two-time Mercury Prize nominee, an award-winning poet (both published and performed), a novelist, a playwright and, with 2020’s On Connection, an essayist too – a remarkable run by anyone’s standards. And with their latest album The Line Is A Curve becoming a UK Top 10 chart hit, the only way continues to be up.

Speaking over the phone from their home in Southeast London, Tempest tells me about their love for music that is lyrically transformative. “When listening to music, my ear always goes to the lyrics first,” they say. “I hear the melody, I hear the beat, I hear the musicality and the harmonies, but I’m listening most deeply to the lyrics.”

It makes sense then that every one of the artists that Tempest has chosen for their Nine Songs is known for their way with words, whether in writing the story or simply telling it as only they can. Another thing the artists all share is a perceived integrity, a characteristic that Tempest says they are consistently drawn to.

“Obviously you don’t know how much integrity a person has unless you really know them, but I feel it in their music. All of my choices have a staggering lyrical integrity, and it’s like a lens through which you can see the world more clearly.”

“Shadowboxin’” by GZA feat. Method Man

“I was like a disciple of the Wu Tang Clan or something. Listening to them is so evocative to me, like it transports me immediately back to being a certain age and how much I loved them at the time. And I still do.

“I was probably 12 when I first discovered their music, starting with 36 Chambers. To this day, every time I hear a Wu Tang song from that era, it takes me straight back to those moments of discovery. Even then I was so attracted to the voice of GZA, but it wasn’t until a year or so later when I discovered his Liquid Swords album, which “Shadowboxin’” comes from.

“With GZA, I wanted to know everything about who this incredible lyricist was. I was so drawn to his imagery and how visual he is. You know, people often talk about GZA as quite a filmic rapper, and I agree with that. He really sets the scene, giving very specific, concrete details in his character descriptions. There are very subtle things he does that create these huge moments of understanding with the listener.

“I could very easily talk at length about any one of the Wu Tang rappers, including the kind of affiliated rappers like Cappadonna, who was actually my favourite. But I had a special connection to Liquid Swords. I could have chosen any song from this record, but also it had to be “Shadowboxin’”. I just love the mythology of it. The whole thing about shadow boxing I found exhilarating.”

“I used to try to rap my way backstage at Wu Tang shows all the time. Sometimes they’d get girls up on stage that they would maybe take backstage after the show – which is problematic in so many ways – but I would use that opportunity to rush over to the bouncers and just start rapping, as if to say “Look, I’m not going back there for that, I’m going back for this. Can you just let me through?” And a couple of times it did work out.

“I got to meet some of them, and we had some beautiful exchanges. It was like meeting gods. It’s true that I got thrown out by Method Man one time, but he did it in a way that was extremely cool and made me kind of respect him more.”

“I Can’t Write Left-Handed (Live at Carnegie Hall)” by Bill Withers

“This song, to me, has just about everything I find exciting about lyricism: the way it’s constructed, the storytelling, the sense of place, and the conjuring of character sentiment in order to speak of a bigger thing. I think it takes storytellers, musicians and poets to remind us of the human cost of what happens to a body in war. To tell the story of a wounded young soldier in song – by taking it out of reality and into artistry – somehow makes it more real to the listener.

“I think you really have to care about people to want to write a song like this, and to want to listen to and tell the stories of other people. I just get a sense from the way he approaches his music that this is real love for him. Like, I can hear love in his voice.

“The whole Live at Carnegie Hall record is staggering. I think it’s one of those rare live recordings where you don’t feel like you’re missing out by listening to it later. Sometimes live albums just sound messy, or you kind of miss the element that makes them special because you weren’t there. But this particular album is like a document of an incredible moment that’s so rich and detailed that each listen brings you closer and closer to the songs. To me, it’s a perfect of example of how to speak of a bigger picture without losing that close-up perspective.”

“Redemption Day” by Johnny Cash

“I associate the Johnny Cash American Recordings with Rick Rubin and my time with him at his Shangri-La studios. Through Rick I was able to understand that Johnny Cash was a real person, because to me he was like a supernatural being; he has the ability to make me think in pictures.

“I think Johnny Cash’s approach to telling the story of a song is unparalleled, and that's what Rick saw in him too. When creating the American Recordings, towards the end of his career it’s like he was suddenly given this purchase on the human story. The way he took other people’s songs and went so deeply into the heart of the lyrics is a really incredible example of being able to find the truth of a story and make it really clear. I find it difficult to listen to this song without crying. It’s so moving. Even just talking about it fills me with shivers.

“I had no idea at first that it was Sheryl Crow who wrote this song. The first time I heard it I just found it really staggering. The lyrics are absolutely incredible. To my shame, I didn't really rate Sheryl Crow as a fantastic lyricist before then. I was ignorant about her, really. I only knew maybe one of the big famous songs. So I had sort of an epiphany moment with this Johnny Cash version, and it brought me to her lyricism in a way that I wouldn’t have found it otherwise.”

“By His Deeds” by VC

“This song reminds me of my childhood. It reminds me of growing up where I did; going out dancing in the places that I used to go. I had a friend who was a DJ who used to play it out at all these parties where I would end up on the mic later in the night, so it’s a really important song for me. Not just in the way that it soundtracked a particular moment in my life that was important, but also because it sort of stands for a lot of the music that really inspired me in my formative years. The roots and reggae music that really taught me about how you can approach lyricism with real dignity and care.

“The thing about roots music that I found exhilarating was the way the lyrics had this emphasis on seeking and telling the truth. I associate roots music lyricism with righteousness and trying to be a better person, with pointing out injustice and spotting the hypocrisy in people’s behaviour.

“This particular song I found deeply affecting, because there are almost biblical resonances to some of the language, and I like how galvanising it is. Lyrically, it's perfectly astute in its observations.”

“Conception” by Black Thought & Salaam Remi featuring Reek Ruffin

“I've been listening to The Roots since I was 12 or 13. Probably around the same time that I discovered Wu Tang Clan. What we have in Black Thought is a rapper who has been writing incredible rhymes, at the top of his game for 30 years or so. And I think the stuff that he has been releasing recently is actually his best stuff.

“When I heard the Streams of Thought EP’s I was so inspired, because it’s quite rare in the music industry for someone to not only sustain an excellent career with integrity, but also to actually blossom and get better late into their career. It’s rare to see a rapper who uses their years of experience and dexterity and learning to obtain and deliver a perspective that they couldn’t have had at an earlier time in their career.

“It’s just incredible to have been a part of Black Thought’s journey in some way. I remember when I was around 14 and I heard him rapping on The Roots album Do You Want More?!!!??!, and his flowing seemed almost like a kind of musical accompaniment. It was percussive and conceptual, and there was so much melody and rhythm to it that it would sometimes be at the expense of what was being said. That’s how I felt back in the day, when I was really trying to work out which rappers I was drawn to. Back then I wouldn’t have put him alongside a rapper that I thought had a total focus on the scope of the language. But now, in his later career, he’s really going there.

“I chose “Conception” because the construction of the rap is… let me just put it this way, it’s genius. I love his wordplay, the rhyme scheme, and the way he keeps looping back to the main theme of what the song’s about. I love what he’s doing with this. I think it’s an extremely advanced craft. The maturity is in his approach to his own fallibility, his own weaknesses. This is the poetry of a real grown person who’s really looking at their effect on people and how that manifests in their actions and behaviour. I feel lucky just to hear it.”

“Act 1: Eternal Sunshine (The Pledge)” by Jay Electronica

“My good friend Kwake Bass – who is basically my brother – introduced me to this music when it first appeared on MySpace. He was like, “You need to stop what you’re doing, sit down and listen to this.’ When I get that kind of instruction from somebody who knows my musical tastes so well, I take it pretty seriously. So I sat down and listened, and the world has never been the same. My jaw was on the floor for the whole 15 minutes. I couldn’t believe it was happening.

“For me, Jay Electronica has total access to the divine. When I listen to his music I feel some kind of transformation. I totally get the sense that he is a portal to another place. When I hear him rapping – especially on this song, because it’s the first one I head – I feel like it’s doing something to me on a molecular level. This music affected me so deeply, and it also transformed my idea of what the possibilities were. Like, what is a song? Well, it can be a 15-minute recording with no drums and loads of talking, and it can be the most incredible song you’ve ever heard. That’s crazy.

“I spent years waiting for his album to show up. I was one of those people who had all kinds of theories about what was happening with it. There were so many forums on the internet discussing it. There was one theory that the album never got made and didn’t exist and that was actually the point of it, like it was some highly conceptual piece of art. But what I realised in the process is that, if you love an artist, it’s not about needing them to give you what you want. It’s about saying thank you for being in the world and making what you make. I love you, I’m here with you on this journey, and I respect and appreciate the time that you take to create this work that I get to be a part of.

“I think to drop any piece of work into a pool of such high expectations is challenging. Someone is always going to feel that their expectations haven’t been met. What I can say is that when I saw Jay Electronica live for the first time a few months ago, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my concert-going life. It was so good to be confronted with him as a human being. I saw him being so intent on his rhyming, his storytelling. He was so committed to his craft, and it really brought that album to life for me. It made me realise how important and powerful the album is, and I was very moved by it.

“So yeah, I’m a big fan. Jay Electronica for life!”

“Gatekeeper” by ESKA

“ESKA is a guiding light to the musicians of the area where I grew up. She’s been huge in the local scene since I was a kid, playing in a lot of different bands, working with jazz musicians and producers, and singing on millions of different records that you would have heard. She’s a queen. A real beacon.

“This song is from an album that she dropped in 2013 that received a Mercury Prize nomination, but it didn’t go as big as I think it should have. I think it’s quite telling about the music industry – and about us, the music listeners – that an artist with so much power, integrity, delicacy and grace is not huge. When you think about who is huge and who isn’t, I do think it says a lot.

“I just think this song, “Gatekeeper”, is excellent. I think the whole album is excellent. It draws heavily from quite surprising folk roots, but it’s also very choral and has all this interesting vocal sonics stuff going on. And it reminds me again how much is possible. Like, what is a song? What can it do? Well, it's just about the connection between the singer and the listener, and it can be infinite, anything.

“I was lucky enough to work with ESKA on a play I wrote that was on at The National Theatre last summer. There was a role in the play for a kind of prophet, a character who speaks in verse, and I wanted there to be melody underneath the verse. We had all kinds of different actors who came in to audition for the part, but they just couldn’t make the language fly. I was watching them and thinking to myself, “Imagine if this was ESKA?” When we approached her, she laughed at first and didn’t think it was real, but then she eventually said yes.

“Working with her has been one of the most inspirational and illuminating processes. I love the way she approaches discovering melody and bringing melody to life. Being that close to her voice in a rehearsal room and seeing the way her voice just flows out of her was a real privilege. She’s one of the greatest artists I’ve ever been anywhere near in real life. She’s incredible.”

“God is Alive Magic is Afoot” by Buffy Sainte-Marie

“This song is a masterclass. It sounds like some kind of charm or a beautiful protection spell. When I hear this song, it’s like it brings me straight into tune with the infinite and reminds me of the power and the beauty that’s in everything.

“It was sent to me out of the blue, without any explanation, by the composer and great musician Mica Levi, who I’m lucky enough to call a friend. I think I was on tour at the time and feeling sort of depleted and in need of some kind of soulful restocking, and it totally plugged me back into reality.

“The song is adapted from a piece of Leonard Cohen prose, and I just love his turn of phrase. He had a very particular way of hanging two images next to each other. Very specific to his style, I think. Because I’ve listened so much to Leonard Cohen in my life, the lyrical phrasing of “God Is Alive Magic Is Afoot” felt at once really familiar to me ­­but also like something entirely new.

“It’s amazing that this song was recorded off the cuff in a single take. “Umi Says” by Mos Def is another example of somebody just going into the recording booth and letting it out – stream of consciousness, first take. Both these songs are so definite and precise, but they don’t come from the part of our minds where we usually store things that are definite and precise. They are completely from another place, the part of our minds where we are at our most instinctive.”

“Who Is It” by Björk

“Björk is so inspiring because she appears to be somebody who is really on her own path. She got hugely famous and could have been very much compromised by the ferociousness of the music industry in the ‘90s, but she dug her heels in and refused. She insisted on doing things on her own terms, to create in her own way, and to stay in her own skin. I keep saying the word integrity in this conversation, but that is what I feel about Björk. From the outside looking in, as the audience, what I perceive is that there is real integrity to her work.

“I could have chosen any Björk song, really, because for me she is a true guiding light. I've been so moved by her artistry for so many years. Each time she drops an album it's a big event for me. There are so many layers to her music and the way it has developed through constant experimentation. The decisions she makes – musically, lyrically, sonically – are constantly challenging and pushing at the boundaries of her creativity.

“I’ve seen Björk live on quite a few different tours. I try to see her every time I can, because it is profound to watch her perform and the musicians she chooses to collaborate with. I’ve had my mind completely opened by some of the things that I’ve seen at her shows. Her live shows have consistently taken me beyond my expectations and into a place of pure beauty, and I can’t really say that about any other artist.

“With Medúlla, where she used almost nothing but vocal sounds to create the textures underneath her singing, she was really going beyond the scope of what she’d done before. I mean, each Björk record is its own process and has a completely different set of parameters, but the things that she was exploring sound-wise on this album were really inspiring.

“Maybe it confounded some people at first, because they had their expectations and the record didn’t make sense to them, but that’s actually encouraging. It was a deep lesson for me as a musician to learn: to stick to your guns and follow your creative compass, even if it’s going in a way that’s uncharted territory. Some people won’t really know where you’re going with it, but eventually they do catch up.”

The Line Is A Curve is out now via Fiction Records
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