Kae Tempest interview: how their latest album was born out of a breakdown

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hen it comes down to it, being on stage is a lot of people’s worst nightmare. Imagine, then, having to do it, night after night, in the grip of a near-breakdown. “It was such a weird time,” Kae Tempest tells me, talking about the tour for their 2016 studio album Let Them Eat Chaos – a time when they were dealing with depression, a panic disorder and ADHD.

“I was on tour, and I had to keep going on stage. I was having these intense panic attacks and I had one on stage. I was behind the keyboard player in f***ing floods of tears, getting up, going back to the mic and just carrying on. I was in a lot of pain and that’s really where this album comes from, that experience of crisis.”

We’re talking about Zoom, with Tempest, who now uses they/them pronouns since coming out as non-binary last year, at their London home, on the eve of release for their upcoming album, The Line is a Curve. Lockdown gave the poet, musician, playwright, and author time to pause and take stock after years of back-to-back touring, and they’re in reflective mood.

“I think like everybody, lockdown presented me with lots of things that I couldn’t hold down really any longer. It was a time of reckoning,” they say, pensively. “It was a tough time… but in my own small, private way, I was actually very glad of the opportunity to make some changes in my life, to try and recover from some of the things I was going through that I hadn ‘t really had time to give attention to. I wasn’t very well.”

Outwardly, Tempest, who grew up in Brockley, was going from strength-to-strength in a career that spanned poetry, prose, music and drama. Their early poetry collection, Brand New Ancients, won them the Ted Hughes Award for poetry and their first two music albums, Everybody Down and Let Them Eat Chaos, blended spoken word, poetry and rap, with each earning a Mercury Music Prize nomination. Last year, their play Paradise – a modern take on the Philoctetes legend starring Lesley Sharp – received much acclaim after a run at The National Theater and their debut novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses, became a best-seller. Behind the scenes, however, Tempest was in the middle of a mental health crisis – something they explore on The Line is a Curve.

“I think of the theme of the album as being this kind of culmination of pressure that’s happening to the speaker of these poems – me,” Tempest explains slowly and solemnly. It’s difficult for them to talk about. “You have this gradual onslaught of pressure, before breakdown and collapse.”

Tempest says their mental health issues go back a long way: not all the compositions here are recent. The first writing session for the album took place during that Let Them Eat Chaos tour, but Tempest has struggled with mental health issues “since childhood. Just in my own way. I was like, ‘This is my brain, this is just what happens to my brain.’ If you’re a writer, you have to pay such close attention to the mechanisms in your brain because every day you’re asking your brain to work with you. Asking your feelings every day, ‘How do I feel?’

“[I’m] creating poetry out of that,” they continue. “If all that stuff starts turning on you, it’s not like you’re in the position to not listen to it. I’ve trained my brain for 20, 30 years to pay attention to this stuff.”

That the album begins at a point of crisis is palpable to the listener. The opening track, Priority Boredom, sees Tempest ask “How can I sustain the pace… when I can see the self I can’t bear to face” over producer Dan Carey’s unsettling analogue synths. On follow up, I Saw Light with Fontaines DC’s Grian Chatten, there’s the gut-wrenching line: “I stopped living… stared at the grass at the edge of the cliff.”

Even while they were struggling on tour, though, gigs were a lifeline, Tempest says. “There are people there watching and you have to get out there – they’ve paid money to come and see you. It doesn’t matter where you’re at, you have to go and [perform]. If I hadn’t had that…” they trail off. “Well, it would have been a different story.”

There are lots of long pauses and deep breaths in between Tempest’s answers, while thoughts are slowly gathered, eyes closed. Then they frequently come as streams of consciousness, where thoughts tumble and emotions collide. Tempest says getting help is making a difference when it comes to both talking about and understanding what was happening to them.

“I had some medication, some Rational Emotional Therapy.” They look down at the floor. “[Lockdown] meant I was actually able to pay attention to these things, rather than incessantly keeping on, which is what I think we all probably found ourselves faced with; some harder truths about how we’d been living.”

The Line is a Curve sees Tempest, 36, exploring these emotions on what is their most introspective record to date. For the first time in eight years, Tempest’s face is on the cover, there are several collaborations (including with Liane La Haines and Brockhampton’s Kevin Abstract), and they recorded the album in front of listeners from three different generations – a technique they adapted from another frequent collaborator, Rick Rubin.

Tempest says all of this was about reaching out for greater connection and improving the way they communicate their innermost thoughts to audiences.

“I knew from the beginning [this album] was a bit more open, something was happening that made me think, Yes, I want community with me here,” they say. “I wanted to share the music with people.” Recording in front of different audiences was a way to see “how the same words are changed by who is listening”, they say. “I had this vision of speaking to someone, a direct communication, because there is nothing like communicating to create communication.”

They were “really happy to have my picture on the front of the album too because I wanted to welcome people into this record – everything about this record is reaching for communication and I think the portrait on the cover was a part of that.”

In a social media post during the first lockdown, Tempest posted another picture of themselves, with newly short hair. It was accompanied by a post in which they came out as non-binary, announcing a name change from Kate to Kae and a pronoun change to them/them.

“I’ve been struggling to accept myself as I am for a long time,” Tempest wrote in the post. “I have tried to be what others wanted me to be so as not to risk rejection.” Today, Tempest says it took a lifetime to navigate that moment. “It’s mad because for so long, I couldn’t [come out] and I just thought I was never going to be able to and it was just so painful.”

“[Gender] dysphoria is very serious and it’s awful,” Tempest continues. “If you’re lucky enough to be born into the right body and you’ve always felt successful in your gender and you’ve never had to question yourself or you’ve never had that experience of deep, deep unease, then it’s really hard to communicate how often it comes up.

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“In terms of coming out, I’m on a journey,” they continue. “I’ve been on this journey since I was born. It’s taken me a long time to get here, but it’s still just the beginning… I don’t think people really have an awareness of how gendered life is.”

Rigid gender structures exacerbated their dysphoria for years, they say, making coming out even more challenging. “At every level of communication, there is a gendered response, which is often the politest way to talk to somebody, or people trying to be what they think of as being affectionate, but actually it’s excruciating for somebody who’s trans, non-binary or just exists outside the binary,” Tempest explains. “Every step in the journey of your day you can face these kinds of antagonisms that create friction in yourself. Every day you kind of get used to feeling wrong all the time.”

Tempest says that when they finally came out, the LGBTQ+ community went “above and beyond” to support them – and still do. “I know that feeling of ‘I can’t do this’ [on coming out] and then something galvanises you and you say, ‘I can, I’m so not alone’ and I get that from my community, from trans people.

“A friend of mine came out in the absolute freezing cold night to walk around the park with me and talk to me about their journey and give me some advice on mine. Every single person that I have a connection with, in this community, has… shown me that I didn’t have to be alone in this journey. That is the thing that makes me overwhelmed, that if I can create some echoes of the love that has been shown to me and that somebody can feel from me that willingness to show up for them, for someone else, that makes me feel like everything is right in the world, as it should be.”

Tempest explains they are still trying to unpack the question of whether there is a link between their dysphoria and mental health through therapy, but it is clear that this album isn’t about their coming out, because they haven’t even begun to process that yet. .

“I can’t really separate my dysphoria from my mental health,” they explain. “I think of the things as different, coming out and transitioning, and hopefully now being on that journey is going to be part of me improving my mental health. I don’t know if that’s the cause of my depression or not.”

The Line is a Curve is very much more inspired by mental breakdown than coming out as trans, they say. “Wherever you’re at with your life will filter through into what you make, but often I lack the perspective when I’m deep in it to know how something is impacting my creativity. It’s often not until much later I’ll look back and realize [what it was about]. When you’re deep in the trenches of whatever you’re going through, it’s hard to have perspective.” Creating is “always a way of processing for me. I often don’t really know what’s going on until I hear what I’ve written.”

You’ll be relieved, perhaps, to know that Tempest’s album takes a turn mid-way, via the gentle These Are the Days, when a character starts a recovery, mirroring Tempest’s own journey. “You have this moment where this character is just finished, down, low,” Tempest explains, “and then you have this decision within that moment of collapse to be relentless in the idea that you will get up.”

“These are the days / When I feel the days / Rise in my body and I take them in hand,” goes the song’s crescendo.

Tempest reached such a point during therapy and found a way out of their depression via creativity, but says it took time. They go back to the character in the poem, who, by the end, finds hope. “There’s this galvanizing response to pressure, which enables the speaker of the poems to understand that pressure, as well as it being an oppressive force, can also present a possibility for change, for release.”

It’s a message Tempest is always trying to remember. “Sometimes when your mind is stuck, looping and doing its thing and attacking you, a small re-framing of a thought can provide some oxygen to stop the brain racing down these spirals. That’s what I hope the album can offer, a bit of head space really.”

Tempest smiles and the mood lifts. They say talking about it now is cathartic; another part of both their processing and recovery. But nothing is helping more than making music, writing poetry. “I feel really good about what I’m working on,” they smile – a new collection of poetry is due out next year. “I’m happy, I’m good, things are exciting… it’s all a journey and this album is a journey through despair into love.

“I can be in a terrible state at home, and I can take all of my pain, get myself into the studio and I am given access to life again in a way again that’s so beautiful,” Tempest smiles. “Creativity is my life force: it makes everything better.”

The Line is a Curve is released on April 8 (Fiction Records)

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