Kate Tempest on The Book of Traps and Lessons
We speak to Kate Tempest about her third album, The Book of Traps and Lessons, which sees her viewing the Britain of today with a much wider lens than usual
Kate Tempest is testament to the power of words. The spoken word poet and musician from London rose to prominence in 2014 with her Mercury Prize-nominated debut Everybody Down, which told the story of a troubled character named Becky. In 2017, she received a second nomination for its follow-up, Let Them Eat Chaos, a tale of seven neighbours in urban London – all suffering their own hardships – who meet for the first time following a storm.
Fast forward to late May of this year and we're speaking to Tempest ahead of the release of her third album, The Book of Traps and Lessons, which sees her viewing the Britain of today with a much wider lens than usual. Thematically, it's a companion piece to its predecessor. It also uses a similar narrative structure to examine the confined social system we live in and search for poetic justice. "It is an exploration of a character who suddenly becomes aware of developing patterns of behaviour in their life," explains Tempest. "They’re trying to find a way out of these traps that they’re in, but this album takes a more in-depth approach [towards analysing] their state of mind."
The traps (and subsequent lessons) which Tempest speaks of are universal, forming an album that every listener can identify with, either directly or indirectly. "There’s a discussion of addictions: alcohol, drugs, food, sex, and an obsession with love," she tells us. "The trap of violence and exploitation is seen too; firstly, as violence in a person's own life, against themselves, but also that of the state against the individual. As the album continues, we come to understand that the traits this person is finding problematic in their own life are the same ones they are seeing to be prevalent in the social norms of the system that they live within."
As a born and bred Londoner, Tempest has witnessed the city change significantly over the years: politically, socially, economically and culturally. She acknowledges that her new album finally sees her conveying feelings which had previously remained lost in the confusion she feels towards home. "I think that it’s taken a long time to get this stuff out of me," she admits, almost in disbelief.
"I spent my entire adolescence and my 20s trying to articulate this fever that I felt about the place that I’m from. For me, [London is] an extremely special place: I spent all this time trying to make a record about it and I'm so glad I did. It's been a changing place for years. It’s funny that I spent so long trying to describe this place that suddenly vanished. There are elements that are still there, but it's very different now."
The album was written and produced to be enjoyed in a single sitting. "For me, it's one piece – one performance – but we obviously had to extract tracks from it to lead people into it," says Tempest, referring to recent single Firesmoke. "I can understand that people may come to hear it in loads of different ways, but I would hope that however they are led into it, they would be interested in hearing it as one piece."
The Book of Traps and Lessons was made with the assistance of Rick Rubin. Tempest and long-time collaborator Dan Carey were aided by the legendary producer, who guided the pair in making what they consider to be a personal address to the nation. It was recorded as a live take over three days at Rubin’s infamous Shangri-La studios in Malibu, California. While the recording was quick and enjoyable, Tempest tells us that by contrast, the writing process was lengthy and challenging.
"We were trying to break convention; break all of the conventions that both of us, musically and lyrically, had kind of adopted over the years to feel secure in our creativity," she acknowledges. "The boundaries that we were breaking were, for me, things like the narrative structure [of the first two albums]. I was also trying to get closer and closer to the core of what I was wishing to express, so it was quite difficult. But we just took our time and eventually, as we started getting a sense of the album as a whole, it came together in one shape."
All Humans Too Late provides the album’s background free centrepiece. Tempest poses the question 'What can be done to stay human?' within verses containing direct and thought-provoking lyrics. It delivers a barrage of messages within its three-minute duration. There's a particular focus on divisions in society and the perceived requirement to 'choose a side'; in reference to events like Brexit and war in general. More broadly, it's a commentary on the historic power of government, business and technology.
As she discusses the track, Tempest explains that she was driven to speak her mind clearly on the aforementioned social system which hinders many people living and working across the country. "One of the things that inspired the song is the deregulated, free market capitalism that has been with us in the West since industrialisation. It was this that pedalled an ideology about progress which led to all of the confusion and ruthlessness that we still see today, but has been tidily written out of the narrative."
The Book of Traps and Lessons is a raw, honest breakdown of everything we need to be wary and understanding of in the present day. However, Tempest is keen to note that listeners shouldn’t lose track of what makes them happy as they manoeuvre around life’s obstacles. For Tempest herself, the root of such happiness is simple.
"One of the things that I find restores my vitality and brings me back into my humanity is music, poetry and literature," she reflects. "These are the things that remind me that I exist, so I feel that as a maker of [such things] I have a kind of social role [towards others]."
With this in mind, does she feel the album offers guidance? "It’s less of an instruction and more of a reflection of despair, but it becomes hopeful as it moves along. I don't think the album itself is despairing, I just think that in order for it to be completely connective it has to be truthful. I hope that it doesn't feel like the album is offering any hint of an easy solution though. These poems are not meant to be answers, they're meant to be connections."
The Book of Traps and Lessons is out now via Fiction
Kate Tempest plays Leith Theatre, 9 Aug, part of Edinburgh International Festival, and The Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, 16 Nov