“Is that a smile that plays across her lips, or is it a tremor of dread?” asks Kate Tempest slowly in the opening moments of new record ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’, studying the hard-to-read face of Planet Earth herself, flinging the doors open. It’s a theatrical, traditional, narrative beginning to an album that – as with everything Kate creates – is totally infatuated with storytelling. Pressing the zoom button on Google Earth, flying from space at lightning speed towards an imaginary South London street, the pause button clicks itself at 4:18am, as seven sleepless strangers wander their houses, frozen and static in time. They’re terrified by the state of the world outside. Pete’s spending every single paycheck getting pissed. Zoe’s surrounded by bin bags, asking herself ‘what the fuck is all this stuff?’ Pious has been staring at the blinds for hours, unable to love. They’re all equally apathetic. Stacked high with big ideas, and held together by a single paralysed alarm clock, ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ is a hugely ambitious record. It stacks strange little observations – nicotine-stained wallpaper, 2-for-1 drink deals – underneath a big grey cloud of paranoid drudgery that’s near-impossible to flee. In this world, nothing is colourful, and there’s no escape. “Even the drugs have got boring,” Kate quips on ‘Europe is Lost’, adding “but sex is still good, when you get it.”
“This is a big story,” she says of ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ today, sat in a boat-shaped boozer, slap-bang in the middle of her home territory of Brockley, South East London. “It’s big story about seven strangers, feeling so lost and so disconnected in a city so full of life, and people, and other people’s purpose,” she clarifies. “They are kind of paralysed in this moment which will not move, this 4:18am moment.”
“I suppose that’s what makes a writer need to write, because all the little things about life are so loud.”
The very real, non-fictional world outside these pub windows is also paralysed. Kate’s insistence that we are living in the “end-times” might seem a tad dramatic at first glance - “I’ve been banging on about this for ages, and every year that goes past, it’s like, fucking hell, we are,” she reiterates – but in many ways, things just can’t get any worse. Turn on a news channel at any given moment, and it’s like a screen into a dystopian novel. Though she didn’t necessarily write this album, or indeed lead single ‘Europe is Lost’ – which was instantly seized on as a reaction to the current refugee crisis – as a conscious political statement, she’s a firm believer that politics have an uncanny knack for creeping into everything.
“I never intend for a song to be anything other than what I think it wants to be,” she starts, “if you sit down to write a political song, it’ll be bullshit. You’re giving your idea no space to stand up, and walk around… but of course, though, my politics will be in the music that I make,” she goes on. “In this particular moment in time, for an artist to make music that doesn’t speak of the times they’re living in, it makes no sense. I don’t think it’s possible for an artist to make music right now without the music being full of this particular pain, anxiety, struggle and terror that we’re in the grip of.”
That said, for all its shadowy anxiety, ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ is also hopeful. Not to give any spoilers – Kate’s albums thrive on their last-minute, climactic revelations, after all – but the idea that we’re all stronger together eventually wins out. “I think it has a positive message in it,” she agrees, “it’s about human beings.”
Along with the art of storytelling itself, Kate is fascinated by humans, and the tiny quirks of their existence. She willingly crosses into craniums, and enters into rambling, exposing internal monologues from each of her seven characters, noting down microscopic details along the way. “It’s things I notice,” she says, pondering why she finds herself drawn to making universal collages out of little fragments, again and again. “For example, the way you just picked up your cup with both hands, and put it down fully before moving your hands back to your lap,” she observes, pointedly. “These things, they speak really loudly to me, and I don’t know why. I suppose that’s what makes a writer need to write, because all the little things about life are so loud.” she adds. “They fill you up so much, and you need to write them down, to celebrate them, or make sense of them, or expel them from your system…”
“If you sit down to write a political song, it’ll be bullshit.”
When she was making 2014 debut ‘Everybody Down’, Kate was equally fixated on what she calls “the mythology of the everyday” - it’s just fewer people were paying attention to her in return. How things have changed. A surprise Mercury Prize nomination thrust her name into the limelight. Kate’s modern version of an epic poem, ‘Brand New Ancients’, won the Ted Hughes Award (a big-shot prize for living poets), and her first play, Wasted, was similarly lauded. Kate Tempest – the South Londoner who always wanted to be a rapper – suddenly found herself being piled high with weighty titles; novelist, playwright, poet, artist, musician. It felt strange to her, she says, because she simply sees herself as somebody who creates ‘things’.
“I don’t really think of myself in those ways,” she says, “I’m just doing what I do. It’s not really very healthy, I don’t think, to step outside of yourself and try to explain yourself to yourself,” she adds.
“Back in the day, a composer of music for example…” she adds, “it would not be unusual for that composer to be writing some kind of fussy, jolly dance piece for one person to pay the rent, but to also be working on a longer, deeper symphony, and at the same time, thinking about writing a practice piece for children. These ideas of how an artist wants to express themselves, and push themselves, it’s only recently it has become so surprising that an artist would want to do something other than fit into a strange little bracket we construct around artistic identity. And the strange thing about it is it goes against creativity so much,” she concludes, “this classification of a poet. An idea is so fluid and free, that your job is to facilitate it as best you can – by being open to it, the idea.”
Inviting you to delve into the complicated, criss-crossing world of ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’, and filling a single street with endless detail like she’s overseeing an IRL game of Sim City - in essence, that’s what Kate Tempest is. She’s a composer of stories.
Kate Tempest’s new album ‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ is out now via Fiction.
Photos: Emma Swann / DIY Additional design: Louise Mason / DIY.
Taken from the new, October 2016 issue of DIY, out now. Subscribe below.