Interview: Kate Tempest chats with NWMS

Kate Tempest, poet, epic poet, playwright, novelist, spoken-word artist, and all-round bender of genres, took her show to “The Tonight Show,” “NPR’s Tiny Desk,” “Late Night With Seth Meyers,” and just about all over the globe in the flesh.  Her new album, recorded with Rick Rubin (see below), is called The Books of Traps and Lessons, and she’s taking it to one of our stages, the Showbox with SassyBlack on Sunday, September 29th.  She was also kind enough to take a few questions.

NWMS:  What are your best, worst, and oddest stories of playing Seattle–which years, tours, venues, other bands on the bill, etc.?

Kate Tempest:  We’ve played some amazing gigs in Seattle over the years. I don’t have any odd stories to tell unfortunately, all the odd encounters seem to blur into one, and I find it hard to conjure memories just like that. Sometimes memories from the road creep up on me and make me laugh to myself when I least expect it, but honestly right now, when I think what was Seattle like, I just remember a big crowd and excitement in me to see the people there, and a good feeling in the room as we played the show.

Something I look forward to this time is that I’ll be supported by my good friend SassyBlack. She’s awesome.

NWMS:  What are your best, worst, and oddest stories of playing the world over?

Kate Tempest:  Something funny happened when we were touring Everybody Down–I can’t remember which state we were in, but it was weeks into an American tour. I had been to NYC a year before with a long poem I told in theatres called Brand New Ancients. It had been successful and had also been published as a book.

A church group had been reading it together in their weekly meets. They all came, in a minibus, to the show and the average age of this lovely group of ladies had to be 60. They bought their own chairs. And we rocked up to play this hard electronic rap set, with aspirations to break America, and looked out at a row of seated churchgoing ladies, and a few young people stood awkwardly behind them. I felt so exposed, but I had to just commit to it.

It was kind of a crushing experience, because I always feel that when people come for poetry, and I want to play music, or when people come for music and I want to deliver poetry, their expectations can interact with mine and create confusion. But it was a valuable lesson to learn. No matter who turns up, no matter if it’s one person, or one thousand, an elder lady in her own chair or a young kid who’s barely 8 years old, you have to level yourself and give the performance every chance to be the best it can be.

NWMS:  Is it harder to win over an audience with spoken word?

Kate Tempest:  I don’t think so. It depends on what is going on in the audience, what the occasion is. I’ve spent so many years telling poems to bunches of people who don’t want to hear poems. In the UK, there was all this funding made available for taking poetry into places where people don’t usually encounter it, so all us working poets suddenly got booked to go tell poems in pubs while the football was on, or on street corners, or standing beside monuments in tourist traps, or having to climb on to the bar at a live venue, or stand in the foyer of a theatre, wherever it was.

I used to get booked between bands at punk gigs. I used to go on the mic at big squat raves to rooms full of people who just wanted techno. I’ve told poems in a women’s prison, in a halfway house to people in recovery, and at the opening of a posh fashion house in Bond Street. All of these places were not expecting poetry, didn’t particularly want to hear it, but when I came on, if I was in the right spirit of humility and I had the willingness to connect, something about the rawness of one voice, one person telling what can often be a painful truth, can make the audience transform.

People generally shake off their guardedness and become more vulnerable when they see someone being vulnerable on stage. Generally speaking that is, obviously not all the time.

NWMS:  Who are your heroes of spoken word, and why?

Kate Tempest:  I just heard Rapsody‘s album. She’s a hero now. Because of her commitment to an idea, to what I perceive as a philosophy of being, embodied not just in the lyrics, but in the form she is employing, the samples she uses. Her flow.

Leonard Cohen is a hero because of how he writes about love. Johnny Cash because of his empathy and how he tells stories with his voice. Nina Simone is a hero because of her unparalleled divinity, also because of her dedication to the mastery of craft and the communication of her truth.

Yasiin Bey [Mos Def] because of his fluidity and tone, his imagination and creativity. Pharoahe Monch because of his excellence and boundary-pushing. Lauryn Hill, because of everything. Too Poetic from Gravediggaz because of his wordplay and knowledge. There are millions of heroes.

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