Play It Forward: Kae Tempest Watches The World Vibrate | WCAI

Play It Forward: Kae Tempest Watches The World Vibrate

Aug 17, 2020

In this week's Play It Forward, where artists tell us about their music and the musicians who inspire them, we hear from the British spoken word poet and musician Kae Tempest. In last week's segment, Indigo Girls' Amy Ray and Emily Saliers talked about Tempest's ability to capture small human moments in large meditations about life and the resonant way they think about love. Ray called them "a true poet," like one of the literary greats.

"You can read something that [they] wrote before what's going on right now and it applies to what's going on right now. It's like, are you a [prophet]?" Ray wondered. "I find that I have catharsis when I listen to [them] and read [their] words. I hear hope in them: The willingness for [them] to be so vulnerable makes me hopeful and the willingness for [them] to love humanity through the darkness makes me hopeful."

Tempest is humbled by the praise.

"I feel like they said some extremely beautiful things and I feel honored that people are paying such close attention to my work," they say. "I felt like what they were saying about the hope and the vulnerability — the willingness to feel vulnerable being a sign of hope — it's just a beautiful, perceptive thing to notice. What I can say? I feel lucky."

NPR's Ari Shapiro spoke to Kae Tempest about reigning in the desire to despair, the art of paying attention and the uplifting power of Lianne La Havas' voice. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of the interview. Editor's Note: NPR recorded these interviews when the artist went by the name "Kate Tempest" and used she/her pronouns. Since then, they've put out a statement saying they will use the name "Kae" and them/they pronouns. NPR has been given permission to air the interview as it was recorded.


Interview Highlights

On loving humanity through the darkness

I think it's hard work: It's a process and it's a practice. It demands a willingness to defeat the parts of you that want to go first to despair or want to go first to hurt or distrust, to actually try and override that. It's a mark of my privilege that I'm in a position that I can do that so it's definitely important that I acknowledge that, but at the same time, it's something that I live by. That's why so much of my work is about it, because so much of my life is about trying to find that balance.

YouTube

On practicing empathy for other people

Empathy is about hearing other people's stories before telling your own. - Kae Tempest

It's about looking again. It's basically allowing yourself — or in fact, demanding — that you notice and feel and tune into the idea that every single person is existing at as ferocious a frequency as you are. Empathy is about hearing other people's stories before telling your own and just having an awareness of that at all times. For me personally, the practice is to look again. It's about a reanimation of a kind of a veiled existence. It's about trying to reanimate, take the veil back, look again; it's about noticing, particular attention. And as soon as I pay attention to anything ... it suddenly becomes something that's extremely beautiful and it's full of life and has a lot to teach me.

On being described as a "prophetess" by Amy Ray

For writers, we pay extreme attention — this is what I'm saying about this decision to pay particular attention. And when you do that, what you access is the present but what it looks like and reads like is prescience. It looks like you're talking about the future, but actually you're just paying attention to the present, and it happens all the time when you read novels or you listen to lyrics by people that are afflicted with the burden of being somebody who notices in such sharp frequencies what's going on. Then you explain it and you get it out of you and it seems like you're talking about future but you're not; you're just describing the moment.

YouTube

On the melodic brilliance of Lianne La Havas

There is something that happens when I hear her sing, which is so uplifting. I feel like the way that she selects melody and the way that she embodies those melodies — her guitar playing, the placement of the breath in the lines that she sings — I just find it extremely uplifting and healing. She's one of these people that have put all this effort into making it appear effortless so that we can just be met with this wash of pure melodic brilliance. I just want to celebrate her because I've got so much out of her melodies.

I was lucky enough to be at the Albert Hall when she did a gig in London. And she did a cover version just with the guitar singing Aretha Franklin's "Say A Little Prayer." I mean, that's a challenging song to cover, right? But it was such a beautiful moment. I just hear somebody enjoying the beauty of music; like what a beautiful gift it is to have music and to play music and give music to others. I'd like to say thank you for making me feel less alone in the world and for putting your heart into everything you sing, and I'd like to say thanks for all your music.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's time for Play It Forward, where artists tell us about their music and the musicians who inspire them. Last week, the Indigo Girls told us about a spoken word poet and rapper from London.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNHOLY ELIXIR")

KAE TEMPEST: (Rapping) I touch the beginning, animating animals and tree gods.

SHAPIRO: And a note here - we recorded these interviews a while ago when the artist went by the name Kate Tempest and used she/her pronouns. Since then, they've put out a statement saying they will use the name Kae instead of Kate and use them/they pronouns. We've been given permission to air the interview as it was recorded. Here's how Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls described Kae Tempest.

AMY RAY: I find that I have catharsis when I listen to her and read her words. I hear hope in them. The willingness for her to be so vulnerable makes me hopeful. And the willingness for her to love humanity through the darkness makes me hopeful.

SHAPIRO: And Kate Tempest joins us now from London.

Thank you for being here. Welcome to Play It Forward.

TEMPEST: Thanks for having me. I'm really happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: Well, what's your reaction to what we just heard from the Indigo Girls, to start?

TEMPEST: I feel honored that people are paying such close attention to my work. I felt like what they were saying about the hope and the vulnerability, the willingness to feel vulnerable being a sign of hope - it's just a beautiful, perceptive thing to notice. I feel - you know, what can I say? Feels - I feel lucky.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD YOUR OWN")

TEMPEST: (Rapping) I know the days are reeling past in such squealing blasts, but stop for breath, and you will know it's yours.

SHAPIRO: They specifically mentioned your willingness to love humanity through the darkness. Does that come naturally to you, or do you have to work at finding that love in spite of the darkness?

TEMPEST: I think that it is - it's hard work. It's a process, and it's a practice. It demands a certain amount of a kind of willingness to defeat the parts of you that want to go first to despair or want to go first to hurt or distrust, to actually try and, like, override that. I mean, it's a mark of my privilege that I'm in a position that I can do that. So it's definitely important that I acknowledge that. But at the same time, it's something that I try and live by for sure. And that's why so much of my work is about it because so much of my life is about trying to find that balance. It's not easy for sure when you get annoyed with people (laughter).

SHAPIRO: I mean, like, what does the practice involve?

TEMPEST: It's about looking again. It's basically allowing yourself or, in fact, demanding that you notice and feel and tune into the idea that every single other person is existing at as ferocious a frequency as you are. Empathy is about hearing other people's stories before telling your own and just having an awareness of that at all times.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE'S FACES")

TEMPEST: (Rapping) But it's so hard. We got our heads down and our hackles up, our backs against the wall. I can feel your heart racing. None of this was written in stone. The current's fast, but the river moves slow. And I can feel things changing, even when...

For me personally, it's about noticing particular attention. And as soon as I pay particular attention to anything, like a really mundane household object, suddenly it becomes something that's extremely beautiful and is full of life and has a lot to teach me. I mean, I say that 'cause I'm looking at a coffeepot.

(LAUGHTER)

TEMPEST: So I'm like, can I feel that about this? I think it has to be a living thing. I just heard myself say that. I was like, I'm - that's - I'm going a bit far there. It has to be a person.

SHAPIRO: I mean, it reminds me of the lyrics of the song "People's Faces." I mean, the last line is, I love people's faces. And it speaks directly to what you're describing right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE'S FACES")

TEMPEST: I love people's faces.

Yeah, that's it for sure. That's, like, the truest line. It's a mad thing because I spend my entire life putting words together, and then I feel like that particular line is just the closest I've ever come to telling just the clearest truth that I could. That is it. I love people's faces. That's pretty much it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EUROPE IS LOST")

TEMPEST: (Rapping) Europe is lost, America lost, London lost. Still we are clamoring victory. All that is meaningless rules. We have learned nothing from history. The people are dead in their lifetimes, dazed in the shine of the streets.

SHAPIRO: The Indigo Girls called you a prophetess, and I read an interview...

TEMPEST: Cool.

SHAPIRO: ...That you did with the - yeah, it's all right.

TEMPEST: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: You can wear that title. There was an interview you did with The Guardian in 2017, and you said, we're in a terrible situation in this country - meaning the U.K. - and I don't think any of us are quite prepared for what the next few years might bring. That was three years ago. And when I read that, I thought, wow, prophetess is the right word. How have you been adjusting to this new reality that we're all living and that none of us could have anticipated three years ago?

TEMPEST: Interesting question. Well, the first thing to say is that for writers, we pay extreme attention. This is what I'm saying about this really - this decision to pay particular attention. And when you do that, what you access is the present. But what it's - looks like and what it reads like is prescience. It looks like you're talking of the future. But actually, you're just paying attention to the present. And it happens all the time when you read novels or when you listen to lyrics by people that are just afflicted with the burden of being somebody who notices in, like, such sharp frequencies what's going on. Then - and then you explain it, and you get it out of you. And it just - it seems like you're talking about a future, but you're not. You're just describing the moment.

SHAPIRO: Well, Kate Tempest, it's your turn to play it forward. Who would you like to tell us about? - a musician who you appreciate, who you feel grateful for.

TEMPEST: I would like to appreciate and show my gratitude to Lianne La Havas.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIANNE LA HAVAS'S "BITTERSWEET")

SHAPIRO: Tell us about her. Why did you choose her?

TEMPEST: There is something that happens when I hear her sing, which is so uplifting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BITTERSWEET")

LIANNE LA HAVAS: (Singing) Please stop asking, do you still love me? Don't have much to say. Let's speak in the morning.

TEMPEST: I feel like the way that she selects melody and the way that she embodies those melodies, her guitar playing, the placement of the breath in the lines that she sings - I just find it extremely uplifting and healing. And I think she's one of these people - they have put all of this effort into making it appear effortless.

SHAPIRO: What song of hers can we play to introduce listeners to that beauty that you're describing?

TEMPEST: Do you know what? I was lucky enough to be at the Albert Hall when she did a gig, like a kind of homecoming gig in London. And she did a cover version, just with her on the guitar, singing Aretha Franklin's "Say A Little Prayer."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LA HAVAS: Here it goes.

TEMPEST: I mean, that's a challenging song to cover, right? Like...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

TEMPEST: I was - it was such a beautiful moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LA HAVAS: (Singing) The moment I wake up...

(CHEERING)

LA HAVAS: (Singing) ...Before I put on my makeup, I say a little prayer for you.

SHAPIRO: Well, we're going to go to Lianne La Havas next. What would you like to say to her?

TEMPEST: I'd like to say thank you for making me feel less alone in the world and for putting your heart into everything you sing and play. And I'd like to say thanks for your music.

SHAPIRO: Kate Tempest's most recent album is called "The Book Of Traps And Lessons."

Thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure.

TEMPEST: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you so much. And thanks to the Indigo Girls.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LA HAVAS: (Singing) Without you would only mean heartbreak for me.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: And we'll talk with Lianne La Havas on the next episode of Play It Forward. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.