Coming out as non-binary was one of the hardest things poet and musician Kae Tempest had ever done. In August 2020, Tempest, a Mercury-nominated artist praised by Rolling Stone for his “visceral, rhythmically dizzying angst,” announced he was gender-neutral and changing his pronouns to “they” and “them.” Kae would also replace Kate’s name. It was, says Tempest, a difficult experience. But, with the dust having settled, the Londoner believes going public with something so personal was the right course of action.
“In a way, the public nature of my life, this job that I have as a performer, as an artist, kept me from being the person that I am. I was really terrified about living any type of life for me,” Tempest (36) said on Zoom. “To live for Kae. I had to live my life for Tempest. In the end, it wasn’t going to work out. I reached a crisis point, I just had to come to terms with the situation I was in and accept that the stakes are too high to continue on the path I was going.
That’s not to say living a private life in public doesn’t get stressful at times. Tempest, from Lewisham in London, is an up-and-coming artist, with two Mercury Music Prize nominations and a string of acclaimed records, including the 2019 book The Book of Traps and Lessons (co-produced by Beastie Boys/Johnny Cash collaborator Rick Rubin ). Yet being in the public eye doesn’t necessarily make it easy to share deeply private aspects of your life and identity.
“It’s not great if you have a 20-minute conversation with someone and the first thing you need to talk about is something deeply personal,” Tempest says. “At the same time, on the other hand, there may be someone struggling with their gender, discovering you. Who hears you on the radio. And for them, this could be a crucial time to feel less alone. I know I’ve had this experience with other people in the trans community, and I’m really, really grateful for that.Then it’s about humiliating you.
Tempest is set to release their fifth album, their first as Kae. Recorded with DC Fountains producer Dan Carey – and with Rick Rubin as executive producer – The Line Is A Curve is a deeply moving assault on hope and fear, angst and joy, ferocity and abandonment.
Putting slam poetry on electronic rhythms, the project unfolds in a tumult of breathless and sincere images. The vocals were laid out in a single 45-minute take – a marathon feat even for a veteran of the performance poetry circuit.
“I can’t make a cool rock’n’roll singer. I can’t do a cool rap phenomenon. I can’t do those things,” Tempest says. “When I’m in the cabin, what can I do? I can go deep into a 45 minute poem. And I can feel the cumulative power, almost stepping into this other world. And that’s what I learned to do.
Trying to do anything else — be an “artist” — would be to lose sight of what makes them unique in the first place, Tempest believes.
“When it comes time to record, if I part with it and try to ‘hammer the flow’ or get something really cool in the intonation, then that’s at odds with the pinnacle of my creative expressiveness. It’s like a marathon in some ways. That’s what I do best. Going deep into a hold. And knowing that, when I say the first word, I have 45 minutes to get out of this taken. It puts me in a more deeply felt place. And I appreciate that.
On previous records and on their many published volumes of poetry, Tempest has tackled mental health, their home country’s class system and what it means to be British and English in the age of Brexit. The Line Is A Curve is more expansive in that it aims to diagnose the human condition. The track More Pressure is, for example, about putting too much pressure on yourself and the freedom that comes with accepting the world as you find it.
But there are also songs like Salt Coast, which refer to the changing idea of Britishness and Englishness in the strange new world we find ourselves in. “It’s a love song for Britain. It’s a complicated place to call home, but it’s home. I love the earth. I like the landscape. I like people. I’m a Londoner, so it’s an identity. I also come from England. I am also British. Within all these identities, different complexities accompany the territory. My heart is so full of all these places.
“I think the personification of Salt Coast of Britain is this girl. All the girls I’ve known, loved…I associate with that kind of Britishness. That’s what I understand, when I think of home. From England. It’s dirt. “Scratching the gravel in your air max / So beautiful, so chaotic, so grounded.”
“I wanted to be very specific and precise about what home meant to me. Often statements of national pride come down to really big clichés. That just doesn’t resonate with me.”
The Line Is A Curve features Fontaines DC’s Grian Chatten, whom Kae got to know through Carey – a Fontaines collaborator on all of their records. Chatten has lead vocals on two songs and contributes backing elsewhere on the project.
“I recognize his poetic soul,” Tempest says of The Dubliner. “And it sings to me. I have been so moved by Grian’s poetry ever since I first heard the music they were making, when Fontaines was working with Dan Carey. Dan was in Dublin with Fontaines and phoned me. And it was like, ‘you gotta hear this guy. You have to meet Grian’. I had the chance to share their journey thanks to Dan. Listen to their albums. See them perform live. See them in small places. And recently, at the Alexandra Palace in London. A huge show. And I’m so grateful that Grian came to the studio and wrote that verse. It’s his voice throughout the album. He has a beautiful voice. I love fountains. I think they are one of the most important bands of the time.
With time running out, the conversation returns to trans rights. Britain is in many ways a country at a crossroads when it comes to public debate on gender fluidity. Trans people have never been more visible. And yet there are also claims that gender and sex are not mutually exclusive, with public figures such as JK Rowling expressing concern that women are being erased. On social networks, in particular, the debate has become a bit of a conflagration. Does Tempest think Britain is a welcoming country for the trans community?
“What I can say is that a lot of times it’s not trans people, non-binary people, who have their voices heard in the most felt conversations in the media. Very often, whenever I hear about transited or gender identity that is outside of the binary, it comes from that place of deep fear. Or deep discomfort. Or worrying about an agenda or something that really conflicts with my experience, in my life, of family and community. I have a real love in my heart for people. I don’t want to have a really combative conversation.
- The Line Is A Curve is out April 8. Kae Tempest plays Rosin Dubh, Galway, April 30; Cyprus Avenue, Cork, May 1; Vicar Street, Dublin, May 4