Kate Tempest on Let Them Eat Chaos

The London writer and performer speaks about new album Let Them Eat Chaos, and the radical, positive power behind her thunderous words

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 28 Nov 2016

Kate Tempest is a writer, reader, rapper, playwright, poet and novelist. She grew up in Lewisham, a South East London borough, and it’s difficult to avoid describing her as some sort of prophet. Tempest’s burning words offer crystal clear, cutting condemnations of the state of our times; in her newest album Let Them Eat Chaos, set in a semi-fictional London, we are our own greatest problem and our only source of hope. Since her 2014 Mercury nominated debut album Everybody Down, she’s written a poetry collection and a novel, and this fluidity between art forms has fed her ability to craft wincingly accurate portraits of the person opposite you on the bus, or behind you in the Co-op queue.

Let Them Eat Chaos opens in Tempest’s London at 4.18am. 'Here is our moment, frozen.' We travel across time rather than through it, as we’re introduced to a cast of familiar faces all awake at this exact minute, on this exact street. Articulating all those confused, angry, frightened feelings you might have been feeling recently, Tempest weaves together seven strangers’ stories to talk about shift work, war, rent hikes, radicalism, coffee shops, happy hours and powdered highs, all shadowed by that acute, insular fear that simmers in the middle of the night.

The narrative is so absorbing that you could describe the record as a novel, or compare it to T.S. Eliot’s sprawling worlds, but Kendrick Lamar’s epic To Pimp a Butterfly shares just as many similarities. The lyrics for Let Them Eat Chaos have been published as a long poem, too, but a musical format holds a unique, theatrical power for Tempest.

“This was always going to be an album,” she explains. “And I think it’s less about me deciding, and it’s more about learning how to listen to what the idea wants. You can be too controlling – or, I can be too controlling with ideas – and try and shoehorn them into moulds that don’t fit them properly. This was always going to be an album, because it began its life in the studio, with Dan [Carey, producer]. I had my lyrics book out, and we just began…”

Mid-record, we meet Pete. 'Well who’s this, staggering home?' Tempest notes, looking down from the clouds like a late-night David Attenborough. 'Grappling with half a cigarette,' Pete is smashed, he’s been dabbing away his rent money, and he lives on this street. 'His thoughts are like a pack of starving dogs,' and Carey’s brutal, exhilarating beat kicks in as we jump straight inside Pete’s blurred mind.

Tempest remembers; “So Dan’s playing this beat, and I’m like fucking hell. This is a guy that’s bouncing off the walls – I know this guy, I can hear him, so I start to write. I can hear the beat because it’s in the room, it’s being made as I’m writing – I show Dan what I’m writing and that makes him go even wonkier. He goes even further into Pete’s brain at 4.18 in the morning, and we know when we’re kicking off each other, we know when it feels really good. Whoops was one of those golden moments when it’s like, what the FUCK are we doing? What’s this?!”

Next to Pete you’ll meet Bradley, 'he’s got a good job,' but he’s numb with loneliness in this new, cold city. Gemma who’s mourning, Zoe who’s moving and Esther who’s too exhausted to sleep. Tempest’s analytical, observational eye is unstoppable, and every detail is vital.

“It’s important that we see what [Zoe’s] putting in her boxes – the contradictions of those items and her beliefs, and whatever else. [As a writer], you locate yourself so firmly in the present that you notice. It’s not a decision that you make – you look around and you see. Then it’s your compulsion, your urge, your need to record that stuff, to write it down and give it this life outside of yourself. Because if you don’t, it’s deafening."

Tempest continues, "I can’t imagine telling a story without rooting it in this very particular present tense because that’s how I experience life. It’s the way that people move and it’s what they have in their pockets. It’s the things they say that they don’t know that they’re saying. You know? You know.”

'I know it’s happening, but who is it happening to?' asks Bradley of himself, about life, alone in bed. Tempest’s unique talents put human histories to news stories, faces to austerity politics and – most of all – demand that we own up to our own complicity. 'England. England. Patriotism. And you wonder why kids want to die for religion?' she barks, words like daggers, on a track titled Europe is Lost.

And so, a biblical, Shakespearean storm bears down at 4.18am, uniting these seven strangers in a great, terrible act of nature. On the record, Tempest describes how 'the sky cracks into a wide mouthed grin and unleashes all the water that it carries', fuelled by waves and 'churning' rivers. 'They see their city, new,' she murmurs, this moment full of potential redemption and possible future action.

'I see it from above,' she speaks, on Breaks, as the rain washes the streets. 'Seven doors to seven flats, open at the same time. [...] Here’s our seven perfect strangers. And they see each other.'

On the phone, our conversation is only marginally lighter. “I wanted something to happen which drew them out of their rooms, I was thinking – what is it?” She laughs. “It’s a fucking storm! Of course! Weirdly enough, after we made the record, Dan got these telescopes. We were outside his studio in the middle of the night, looking at Jupiter or something, and every single person that passed, all different people, were stopping. Coming together to look.

"Suddenly it felt very real, and I think that rather than this big analogy – and obviously it is that – it’s hopefully something very believable. There is a moment that can be shared, that’s somehow bigger than all of the fears and concerns that permeate the record. Standing together with strangers and sharing something that’s bigger than you – reminding you, in all this synthetic fever, what humanity can feel like.”

Again, it’s hard to write about Kate Tempest without describing her as a sort of soothsayer, a seer. There is the power of a full force gale in her careful, considered words, and what better antidote to mass misinformation than logic, reason and a storytelling tradition that puts community first. She rages against the “myth of the individual”, people who look away, look down, stare at their shoes, but she rejects that this is “speaking out” and prefers instead her work described as “a response to the times” because that’s what writers "do".

Tempest finds the pinnacle of her purpose in live audiences: “The reality is the connection between you and the audience, which happens in the room. It’s so… profound, and moving, and strange, and ancient. I can’t get my head around it, and also it’s the only thing that I’ve ever felt that I understand fully. It’s a very strange moment, and it’s so much bigger because it’s real, it’s happening. I’m moved when I come off stage! It’s fucking epic – and when it isn’t, that’s when you start to worry.”

Born Kate Calvert, Tempest has been rapping since she was 16, sparking connections and discussions across festival fields, pub stages and poetry slams. In the 15-odd years that have followed, she’s worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company as naturally as she has with Boiler Room. Next year, she’s due to guest direct Brighton’s annual arts festival. Kate Tempest’s words will continue to shoot across the skies, and thank fuck that they will.

Let Them Eat Chaos implores you to “love more,” and in typical spirit she affirms that this is no easy fix: “The idea of rooting yourself in an activated empathy, it’s precious to me. It’s not an easy thing, to love that way. It’s not, ‘Hey, kick back, smoke a spliff, just love more, yeah?’” Tempest pauses.

“It’s not washing your hands. It’s actively meeting the panic and the fear and finding a way to let the driving principle be a loving principle, an empathetic one, a forgiving and loving one. I feel like that’s the only way we’re going to get out of the panic which stops us being able to think. And I mean that on a really day to day, local level. To live like that is something we can actually do, but it was to go all ways. All ways.”

Let Them Eat Chaos is out now via Fiction Records; Kate Tempest plays The Art School, Glasgow on 1 Dec