The Current's Rock and Roll Book Club: Kate Tempest

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Jay Gabler with Kate Tempest books
Jay Gabler with Kate Tempest's books 'The Bricks That Built the Houses' and 'Let Them Eat Chaos' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

The Guardian calls Kate Tempest "the first poet to make authentic headway in the world of pop since John Cooper Clarke and Linton Kwesi Johnson the best part of 40 years ago." It says something about the general status of poet-musicians that you still probably don't know her name — but you should.

Although she found her first success as a poet, Tempest was raised on hip-hop and always wanted to be a musician. Born in 1985 as Kate Calvert (she took a stage name inspired by the way she feels while performing), she grew up in a working-class neighborhood in South East London: environs that have remained the locus of her storytelling. After what she calls a "wayward youth" working in a record shop and living in squats, Tempest steadily gained recognition as a poet and performer.

Tempest's story-poem Brand New Ancients garnered the prestigious Ted Hughes Prize for poetry in 2013 — making her the first person under 40, let alone under 30, to earn that honor. The following year, she went into the recording studio with producer Dan Carey (Bat for Lashes, Django Django) to record Everybody Down (2014): an album that tells a set of interconnected stories about young Londoners living on the fringe of respectability.

That album was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize, and Tempest developed the stories into a novel called The Bricks That Built the Houses — published, to acclaim, in spring 2016. Late last year, she released her second album. Let Them Eat Chaos (also produced by Carey) is a post-Brexit reflection that looks into the lives of seven Londoners who are up late at night, worrying and waiting, all for reasons of their own. Tempest debuted Let Them Eat Chaos as an hourlong live performance on BBC TV, and the album's lyrics have just been published in book form, as a long poem of the same title.

Tempest is brilliant at painting pictures with words, drawing compelling characters that pull you into their lives. We wouldn't be talking about her at a radio station, though, if the music didn't work. The artist refers to her music as hip-hop, but it's highly nontraditional hip-hop; Carey's soundscapes draw on EDM and rock, closely calibrated to the rushing rhythms of Tempest's delivery. Both of Tempest's albums hurtle forward like freight trains, underlining the desperate lives her characters lead.

Though it's understandable that Let Them Eat Chaos would be published in book form, it also feels a little incongruous: right on the title page, Tempest specifies "this book was written to be read aloud." You could do the honors yourself, of course, or you could just turn on the album and hear Tempest herself tell the stories of characters like Alicia, a single mother whose boyfriend was killed, and Bradley, a public relations professional who's dead inside. The poem is laden with intimations of doom for the individuals specifically, for British society generally, and for the entire planet. It's very 2017.

The Bricks That Built the Houses, on the other hand, is a book to curl up with. It's a riveting read, all the more so if you're familiar with the album. The novel's chapters take their titles from the songs on Everybody Down; the book fills in the story of Becky, a server and erotic masseuse. Becky, who's bisexual, is torn between her boyfriend Pete and his gay sister Harry. We know from the book's introduction that the story will end with Becky and Harry speeding out of London in a car driven by Harry's friend Leon, carrying a suitcase full of money that "sits fat and happy as a baby."

The car stereo, we're told, is playing the song "A New England" by Billy Bragg, who's called Tempest's performances "incendiary." When Bragg invited her to perform at Glastonbury in 2010, he remembered, "she wasn't just singing or rapping. She was telling you stuff like her life depended on your understanding what she was saying."

Tempest's music will be familiar to fans of Minnesota hip-hop: darting from speaking to singing to rapping over complex and unconventional backing tracks, she recalls not just the Streets (to whom she's often, understandably, compared) but also Dessa, Slug, and Brother Ali.

"I've been trying to smash my way into the music industry for the best part of 12 years," Tempest told the New York Times when Everybody Down became an indie hit on both sides of the Atlantic. She's certainly succeeded — and she's smashed her way into book-world stardom while she's at it.

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