Near the midpoint of Kate Tempest's debut album, Everybody Down, the London-born rapper stumbles upon a line that proves to be a recurring theme in her work, spitting, "Some don't understand but I'm happiest when struggling."
Near the midpoint of Kate Tempest’s debut album, Everybody Down, the London-born rapper stumbles upon a line that proves to be a recurring theme in her work, spitting, “Some don’t understand but I’m happiest when struggling.”
“I think people are infinitely capable of struggling and getting through and finding some kind of beauty in the darkest of places,” said Tempest, 29, who visits the Basement for a concert on Thursday, June 11. “When we’re not struggling we’re not growing.”
Over the course of the album’s dozen tracks, Tempest traces the daily lives of three city dwellers — Becky, Harry and Pete — as they attempt to scrape by against a backdrop of continual social and economic upheaval. The characters fall in and out of love, work odd jobs to support themselves (some legal, others not) and navigate complex personal relationships. All are damaged to some degree (“Pete had his heart broken once/ He never fixed it,” Tempest confesses on “Lonely Daze”), yet each accepts these mounting hardships as part of the human experience and continues to push onward, determined to forge some kind of bond that will introduce a greater sense of meaning to their oft-trying existence.
“She’s not reluctant to touch/ It’s the one thing that must bring us closer together,” Tempest rhymes on the woozy “Theme From Becky.” “It’s such an important endeavor/ To feel tender.”
“I don’t know if it’s particular of our age, but it’s something I think the record is full of anyways, this desire to make more truthful connections,” said Tempest, who has previously experienced success as both a playwright and a poet (in 2014 she was named one of Britain’s 20 Next Generation poets). “When I look to an album or read a poem or I’m deep in a novel, what I want is to be connected with in that very real way. That’s one of the things I love so much about making work: It’s coming from the most delicate and powerful place in me, and hopefully it can reach the most delicate and powerful place in other people.”
Tempest had far more modest aims entering into early sessions with producer Dan Carey (Kylie Minogue, Franz Ferdinand). On the initial demo for “Lonely Daze,” for one, the characters didn’t even have names, let alone backstories, bad habits and career aspirations. But delays caused by Carey’s workload — “We recorded on his downtime, so he’d call me up and be like, ‘I have a couple hours here or there,’” she said — allowed ample time for the musician to construct an intricate world rich in novelistic detail.
“By the time I got back in the studio with him [after recording the initial ‘Lonely Daze’ demo] it had been six or eight months, and in that time those characters had really started to come to life,” said Tempest, who is gearing up to publish her debut novel “The Bricks That Built the Houses,” which revolves around the same three characters. “I feel like they’re still getting fuller and fuller, and I’m still figuring out more and more what makes them tick. I now know why Pete’s grandparents feel alone, and I know Becky’s first-ever employment. I know all these things.”
According to Tempest, Carey’s prior experience as a film editor proved equally important to the album’s development, since early versions of songs like “The Heist” stretched well beyond 10 minutes, filled with uber-detailed descriptions that did little to advance the plot.
“You’d hear when someone was getting out of the car and how they were walking down the street and what color cup someone was drinking from,” Tempest said. “Dan would be like, ‘We don’t need to see every detail when Becky’s at work in the café.’ It was this amazing, really liberating experience of going from a 12-minute song to a four-minute song. We could feel it tightening up.”
Tempest, who first discovered hip-hop as a teenager, initially gravitated to the form due in part to her love of storytelling and a fascination with what she termed the genre’s “lyrical wizardry”. “I remember listening to Mos Def on ‘Mathematics’ on Black on Both Sides and thinking, ‘How did he do that?!’” she said. “It was this really exciting, weird, foreign stuff.”
Even so, there was a time prior to beginning work on Everybody Down when Tempest wondered if a career in music would ever come to pass, or if circumstances would push her down some other path, much like the characters populating her debut long-player.
“There was a time when I was like, ‘When did I become a poet? Where’s my band? How come I’m not making records?’” she said. “But life has this way of putting you in certain places, and my writing wouldn’t have grown in the way it has if I hadn’t been pushed to make these new forms work for me. I had a really amazing time working in theater, and I had a really amazing time being a poet, and now I feel I’m on like four different journeys at the same time. If I’d had it my way, yeah, I would have been rocking and rolling all over the place, but the thing is I don’t think I was ready yet. I’m in a place now where I feel like I’m already one step ahead on my artistic path … and there’s nothing stopping me moving between forms. I’m an adult.”
Jo Metson photo