Kate Tempest opens the door to her south-east London home, dressed casually in grey jogging bottoms, an orange jumper and odd socks.
The 24-year-old is exhausted from touring the country, performing on the spoken-word circuit, and this is her downtime. In a gravelly south London accent (she’s Brockley-born and bred), she asks if I mind her smoking. Before I have a chance to answer, she lights up a fag in the front room of the four-floor Victorian house she shares with eight friends, and cracks opens a Polish beer. It’s only four in the afternoon but Kate likes drinking Tyskie. It’s cheap.
It’s not difficult to see why Scroobius Pip (performance poet and one half of dan le sac Vs Scroobius Pip) called Tempest “the highlight of my listening year” on his Spoken Word Surgery recently on Radio 1. So impressed by her raw poetic talent was he that he asked her to support him on his nationwide tour. She has already entertained ecstatic festival crowds at Glastonbury, Latitude and the Big Chill, as well as supporting John Cooper Clarke at Leeds Carling Weekend. Not bad considering she started out performing her gritty, rap-rhymes at squat parties. Now audiences across the country have the chance to hear her on a nationwide tour, she has just released her first poetry album with record company Pure Groove, and her band, Sound of Rum, have recently signed a record deal.
But before Tempest made a name for herself, rappers at Deal real, the hip-hop shop on Carnaby Street, would refuse to share the limelight with her during MC battles, because she didn’t fit the mould. “I used to have to get my friend, who is a man, to pretend he wanted to rap so that he could get the microphone and pass it to me. I’d start talking and people would be like: ‘What? You can actually spit rhymes?’
“Now,” she says, a touch nostalgically, “it’s all poetry, where people give you space.”
These days, since gaining notoriety and winning several poetry slams, Kate has become a fixture at more formal, organised poetry events, performing at spoken-word evenings across the country for Apples and Snakes (the leading organisation for performance poetry in the UK). Despite finally taking centre stage, she laments the loss of jostling for the microphone that characterised her early career. For Tempest, the struggle to be heard is a major part of the enjoyment she derives from poetry.
Her talent is not an academic one though; it is raw, unabashed emotion, and as such, she felt stifled at Goldsmiths: “I was studying poetry but it was killing it for me, I hated the way they were ripping it apart. I felt so inferior the whole time; that my creative engagement just wasn’t worth anything. It’s all meant to be of the mind, but I’m kind of all about the guts when it comes to words.”
Guts are certainly what spring to mind when you watch her perform, clutching at her stomach, as if she’s in pain. You get the sense that she wants to create something tangible and real through language, that she’s giving birth to her words. Her poetry, which deals with issues ranging from social exclusion and personal disenfranchisement, to the effects of capitalism and even Greek tragedy, is as much about words and syntax as it is about watching her physically agonise over the delivery of every syllable.
The key to writing great lyrics, she explains, is to drown out the worldly static and just “be open to receiving”. These days, though, Tempest finds her natural ability only gets her so far. “That’s where I’m at – the transition between it being a really natural thing and then all of a sudden it being my career. I’m trying to make peace with it not being this tap that you just turn on… I really want to develop my discipline, carve things out for the page.”
Ultimately, Tempest would like to progress from poetry to writing fiction but admits, “I’m just not there yet”. She sees herself as a woman on a cultural mission, to be “commercially present so that young girls see that you don’t have to do what the Pussycat Dolls are doing in order to be a successful woman.” Despite her ambitious goals, though, she always keeps it real: “I don’t want to be on a massive moral mission – that’s just gross.”
This balance between arrogance and self-aware vulnerability is what makes Tempest so captivating. She describes her method of writing as “schizophrenic” and worries that one day she might lose her mind. She also worries that her performance poetry is “self-indulgent”, which is why she’s much happier performing with her three-piece band, Sound of Rum: “If you are playing with a band it feels a lot more communal – it’s about the audience as much as it is about you venting your frustration with the world.”
For the moment, though, it seems that everything she touches turns to gold. Will she be rapping forever? “No,” she says. “I don’t like the idea of rapping at 40 – there’s no grace in it.” Before I leave she shows me some postcards on the wall of her study, pictures of the people who have influenced her: Virginia Woolf, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, W B Yeats and W H Auden. At the end of the line she points to a picture of Tracey Emin in a compromising position. She keeps it there, she says, to remind herself that no matter how popular she becomes, she’s never too far away from pissing on the floor and calling it art.
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