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Kae TempestPhotography by Wolfgang Tillmans

‘I’m not hiding anymore’: Kae Tempest on coming out and letting go

Ahead of their new album, The Line Is A Curve, the poet talks to Dazed about coming out, letting go, and connecting with their community

Kae Tempest can’t have known what would occur in the two years since they released their last album, 2019’s The Book of Traps and Lessons, but it’s hard not to read the lyrics of the record’s fourth track, “Three-Sided Coin”, as a darkly insightful prediction of things to come. The UK is a country caught “In the mouth of a breaking wave / In the mouth of a breaking storm,” the musician suggests over longtime producer Dan Carey’s stripped-back piano melody. “Shaken / Thinking something is coming.

When Tempest was recording those lyrics, though, they were actually thousands of miles from their South London roots, laying down vocal tracks at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studios in LA. The first shock of COVID-19 and the stasis that followed – the two years spent at home, the cancelled plans for sweaty tours and exotic recording sessions – were still months away. The pandemic was yet to emerge as a defining event of the new decade, which, without taking concrete shape in Tempest’s lyrics, echoes throughout their upcoming album, The Line Is A Curve.

Like the vast majority of touring musicians, Tempest’s forced break from shows left them yearning to connect with fans face-to-face, be it in a tightly-packed venue or on festival stages across Europe. But the pandemic also provided a moment to slow down and take stock of their life and career, which has seen them receive two nominations for the Mercury Prize (once for their 2014 debut album Everybody Down, and once for 2017’s Let Them Eat Chaos), among many other accolades. On top of that, it allowed Tempest to focus on projects that had previously taken a backseat amid a frenetic touring schedule.

In 2020 came On Connection, a meditative non-fiction book on creativity, connection, and Kae’s own experiences. “(The book draws) from what I’ve learned from ten years of life on the road, and writing, and my life as an artist,” they say. “What that’s taught me about how creativity can help me to feel connected, and tuned in, and in the present, and how we all have access to that tool in different ways.” It was also their first publication since coming out as non-binary in August the same year.

Then, in 2021, the National Theatre’s Olivier stage hosted Paradise, the poet’s modernised take on Sophocles’ Philoctetes. For a playwright that’s a huge thing,” they add. “It was a really incredible experience. That’s like main-stage Glastonbury for a playwright in Britain.”

Earlier this month, however, Kae Tempest announced their return to music with the release of The Line Is A Curve’s first single, “More Pressure”. Featuring Kevin Abstract – a collaboration sparked by their mutual connection to Rick Rubin – the song occupies the penultimate spot on the record’s tracklist, following several other features, from Fontaines D.C.’s Grian Chatten, to south London’s Lianne La Havas and Confucius MC.

Besides marking one of Tempest’s most high-profile collaborations to date, the single might be regarded as emblematic of their fourth album as a whole: It’s a combination of what the themes in the record are all reaching for, this idea that the more pressure you’re under, the more possibility there is for release.” If “Three Sided Coin” was a particularly insightful illustration of what came next, it’s also tempting to consider “More Pressure” in the same light, as a prediction – or provocation – of the cultural explosion that could come in Covid’s wake: “More pressure, more release.”

Below, we talk to Kae Tempest about living in the unprecedented times that influenced The Line Is A Curve, how performing the new album to three different generations helped access a deeper truth, and why we all need to learn to let go.

It’s been an insane couple of years since The Book of Traps and Lessons. What have your days looked like during the pandemic, and leading up to this album?

Kae Tempest: It’s hard to get a sense of actually how long this time has been, because you’ve got nothing to really punctuate it. I feel like it’s been such a big period of time now that actually it’s even more abstract to think of the time before. But loads has happened, in my creative life and in my personal life. I’ve been really lucky because I lost a year or so of touring, but I was able to knuckle down and get this book (On Connection) written, and I also wrote a play (Paradise). I’ve been doing loads of stuff that I never had time to do because I was always on the road, so just reconnecting with myself and my health and my family and my friends. My actual life.

How did living in this time influence The Line Is A Curve? I feel like you can sense that uneasy stasis of the pandemic in some of the tracks.

Kae Tempest: I think that whatever the intention was behind a song, especially with poetic language and lyricism, it will take on the influences of the moment. So whatever you’re going through personally, you’ll find that in the music that you’re absorbed in. But also what we’re all going through collectively… poetic language will hold the influences of the moment. 

The Line Is A Curve wasn’t an intentional comment on the pandemic, really. It’s much more about my personal and immediate journey. But all that stuff will be in it, of course, because we made it in that time, and it’s in us, it’s in you. We’re so in it that we don’t even know what it is. We can’t even really have perspective on what this time has done to us, as creatives and as people, and as social beings. 

“Whatever you’re going through personally, you’ll find that in the music that you’re absorbed in… poetic language will hold the influences of the moment” – Kae Tempest

You took a much more collaborative approach on this album, with named features and other voices cropping up in a lot of tracks. What inspired that shift?

Kae Tempest: I really wanted the male voice background vocals. I just really wanted it, I knew it from the jump. I wanted this choral sense, and that’s Grian (Chatten) and Confucius (MC), who are friends of mine, and great poets, great lyricists. So having their take on my flow, it’s the most beautiful exchange really. 

I definitely knew that I wanted to collaborate and branch out, and just have more of my community present in the record. That’s just about where I’m at in my life. Also, making Traps and Lessons, we were under the guidance of Rick Rubin, and the record that we made, even though it was a collaborative album – between me, Dan and Rick – it was very insular in some ways. It was this kind of weird psychological journey into the darkness. I just felt like from that album, something must have started in me where I just wanted to breathe, and reach out, and connect with my community a bit more and bring them through.

The people that are featured on The Line Is A Curve are people that I have kinship with, connection. People I share my creativity with anyway. There are people on this record who I’ve been playing with since I was 17 or 18, so it’s a beautiful thing to have got to a point in my career and in my life where I can just bring that part of myself with me.

How did the Kevin Abstract feature on “More Pressure” come about?

Kae Tempest: I just sent him a message. It’s weird because all of the other collaborations are so local, like literally we’re in the same neighbourhood. I’m from south London, born and raised, and I’ve always been around incredible musicians, and wherever you go in the world now people have heard of musicians from south London. It’s amazing what’s happened. But when you can’t go anywhere, I can’t go to LA and connect with Rick or anybody out there, so to have this song with Kevin Abstract, it defeated some of the restrictions of lockdown. We still managed to create, even though we couldn’t really move.

The album feels less overtly political than Traps and Lessons. Was that a conscious decision, the move toward a more personal journey?

Kae Tempest: For me, it’s not really intentional to talk about politics or not talk about it. You make these pieces, and the themes in the pieces, they speak to the time that we’re in. Everything is political, obviously. You cant make a public declaration of any sentiment without there being some politics attached. 

On this album specifically, the journey that I’m hoping people will connect with is this idea of moving towards surrender, release, letting go. I suppose it’s more about struggles that I’ve had with mental health, and with my life and body. And that’s political, as a trans person. Right now, whether I like it or not, that has become politicised, because the people that are most often talking about trans people in the media are not trans people themselves. It’s just people politicising our existence. Although the album isn’t explicitly about that, it’s in there. 

Did publicly opening up about your gender identity affect how you thought about this most recent album?

Kae Tempest: I feel like maybe this is a bit of a cop-out answer, but this is the absolute truth: it is never as knowing as that. The album comes from a place that is mysterious, and it presents itself to you, and it says, ‘Follow me here, do this, keep going’. And then you discover what it’s about in the process of making it. For sure, me coming out two years ago has been incredible, and has been such an important, huge thing in my life, so I can definitely say that I’m sure that’ll be in my work. But it’s not like, ‘Ok, let me sit down now and write about it’. That is just not how it works for me. I live my life and then at the same time I have this other life, which is following the creativity wherever it tells me to go. Sometimes the two things don’t really have much to do with each other, because you just don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going to take you.

How has coming out affected your relationship with your audience, or the industry?

Kae Tempest: It’s so interesting, because I don’t know, because everything’s been on pause. All I can say for sure is that I’m on a journey. I’m so full of love for my community, and I’m so grateful for the people around me that show me I’m not alone, and that it’s OK to be who I am. I’m trying to give that light back to other people in my community and not hide any more from myself. It’s a long, long, long road but I’m so much less filled with shame than I was two years ago, and in two years time hopefully I’ll be even less filled with shame. 

On the subject of connecting with fans, you’ve just announced new tour dates. How do you feel about getting back out there?

Kae Tempest: I can’t wait, and I’m extremely excited for what this show is going to be and do. I also have some trepidation about experiencing the intensity of touring again, but I can’t wait to be in performance, to be in audiences. I can’t fucking wait. Actually, no, I don’t feel trepidation. I feel like I’m ready. I’ve learnt a lot in this time that I’ve had to take stock and reflect on what’s satisfying about touring and what’s difficult, and I just can’t wait to be with people again, in venues. 

I can’t wait to play festivals for audiences who don’t know anything about who I am, they’re just walking through. I’ve got all these memories of European festivals and these funny little stages, and different, interesting times of day. How different the music is in the context of whether people have come to see you. or people have just come... you don’t know why they’ve come, they’re just there. I just love it. I love to play, I love to discover. I love to meet people, so I can’t wait.

The Line Is A Curve will be released via Republic Records on April 8, 2022. Kae Tempest will tour the UK and Ireland from April 22 to May 21.