UK emcee Kate Tempest is one part Dessa, and one part The Streets. She has an ability to craft gripping narratives, lace them with a razor sharp wit, and enthrall a listener with the stories she weaves. Her latest story is Everybody Down, which, although her debut album, isn’t even close to the first story she’s told.

An accomplished poet and playwright, in 2013 Tempest won the Ted Hughes Award, which is given to a living UK poet for new work in poetry, for her spoken word piece Brand New Ancients. She’s also worked with a litany of major arts organizations, including The Royal Shakespeare Company. Her true love, however, has always been hip-hop.

With Everybody Down due out on May 19th on Big Dada, we caught up with Tempest to find out more about her history in hip-hop, how she’s dealt with people underestimating her, and why she chooses to focus on the human aspects of life. Tempest also told us about her time as a record store employee, and whether or not she had any High Fidelity moments.

Adam Bernard: Having earned awards, and accomplished so much in the realms of poetry and playwriting, what attracted you to go the route of the recording artist, which we all know is not an easy life?

Kate Tempest: Everything started with me rapping, and with music. It’s the first thing that I did. I kinda fell into poetry and playwriting later, as I was developing my talents as a lyrics writer, but everything began with music. I was writing rhymes, and everything that I was writing was poetic, and I discovered I was a writer. I discovered it through being a rapper. I’m still a writer. I’m still writing plays, I’m still working on longer pieces, I’m working on a new poetry collection. I feel like a much older artist than I’ve ever felt like before, but I still feel like a rapper, and I’m really excited to be making music again. Even though it’s obviously difficult to be making records, and putting them out, my heart just feels so jumpy when I think about the fact that there’s this record that we made and it’s coming out.

AB: Since the music came first, when was your first interaction with hip-hop? When did you first get into it?

KT: I was about 13, something like that, when I first found out about it. Obviously I knew about it since I was a child, but (that was) the kind of young girls hip-hop that we were listening to, like Kriss Kross, or whatever. {*laughs*} Then when I got to about 13 I started listening to A Tribe Called Quest, and The Fugees record had come out. I was listening to Outkast when I got a bit older, just really lyrical rappers. Then I had this job at a record shop, which was like a hip-hop and bass music record store, so I got to listen to anything that had a cool cover, or anything that I’d heard of. Suddenly I could read a hip-hop magazine and find out exactly what they all sounded like. I got hooked. I just completely got hooked. So I was 13 when I first heard it. When I was 14 I was going to see shows. When I was 15 it was my life. When I was 16 I was rapping. Then I was just rapping until I got to about 21, 22, and that’s what I started writing poetry.

AB: We have to backtrack a bit, because you mentioned you worked at a record store. Everyone who has ever worked at a record store has looked at customers with derision for their purchases. Do you still have the ability to give that look of derision when someone talks to you about music?

KT: No, I never had that. I was excited to talk to anybody who came in because it was a small, independent store, and I was always interested in what people listened to, so even if somebody came in and bought something that I didn’t think was particularly cool, I thought it was a really interesting way of kind of checking people out, and seeing what kind of stuff people are into. I really loved working in a record store. I hope I never gave anyone a look of derision. I think I gave everybody a very enthusiastic, heartfelt, kind of discussion.

AB: So there was never that Jack Black moment from High Fidelity where he was like “Your daughter would hate that song!”

KT: No, I don’t think so. Maybe I wasn’t quite ready, at 14, to be kind of engaging that way.

AB: Yeah, that’s true. Fourteen is a little young to be that opinionated. Did you make any good friends based on what you saw people purchasing?

KT: Well, around that time I met a bunch of people who were really cool kids. They were rappers, and hip-hop DJs, and dancers. I began to feel like I’d found a place where I could be myself. I was an odd kid, like so many of us are, and I felt uncomfortable with school, and people I knew my own age, and suddenly I found this world of really cool kids, really cool people. So yeah, when someone came in to buy a Wu-Tang record I did have a moment of like, “Oh my God,” but they often would look at me and think, “What are you doing working here?” But it was cool, man, it was a good time.

AB: Is the store still open?

KT: No, it closed down. It’s sad.

AB: Damn. It would have been cool if they were open and could stock your new album, Everybody Down. Let’s discuss Everybody Down. There’s a story that runs through it. Without giving it all away, what picture are you looking to paint with this project?

KT: Well, I think that the more I say about what I was trying to do, the less the record can do it itself. I’m quite excited for people hearing it and kinda working out for themselves what it might be saying. All I was trying to do was tell a story. I thought it would be really exciting to not just have each track telling a story, but have each story relate to each other, and then the whole piece tell a story. I think when I finally got in the studio with Dan Carey, who is the producer, I was like they expect us to make a record that’s all about me, and this would be my record, and suddenly I realized how many albums I’ve heard from rappers talking about themselves. The idea that really got me going was I’ve been working a lot with narrative, and through playwriting I’ve been working with drama, and it felt like this record (is something) I could only have made now, having made the departure from music, and exploring theater, and drama, and fiction. I feel like I have all these new tools, and the record, I think, is kind of bubbling with this energy, which is somebody who has found all these new tools and is coming back to something they love. It’s like kind of saying, “Guys, check this out! Check out what we can do with this stuff!”

AB: Was there something going on in your life that made you relate to the story you’re telling with the album?

KT: Yeah, all of it. It’s all from me, and from home, and from where I live, and where I grew up, and what I know to be true about people. I think, essentially, it’s a love story, but it’s a cool love story rather than a sappy one. {*laughs*} I mean, all the people are characters, and I think they’re pretty cool people. You have to love your characters, otherwise no one else can ever love them, so I have this whole relationship with them. The music has also become a character for me. I think the beats are fucking crazy. I’m so excited about it because I’ve just been, today, in the studio, working out how to play it live.

AB: Is that going to be difficult, because you can’t randomly select tracks since it’s a full story?

KT: We’re working that out. We’ve got a nice set, and it’s a really interesting live set up. We have two drummers playing electronic pads, and samples, and triggers. I think it’s gonna be cool.

AB: Switching gears a bit, I don’t think I’m breaking news to you when I say you look young for your age. How often do you think people underestimate you due to your looks?

KT: I think all the time. They always have, and I think that’s probably part of what spurred me on to want to make work that speaks about who I am, and what I think about, and how I feel, because when you’re a girl, when you’re a woman growing up, and you’re not the kind of woman that demands a particular kind of attention, or when you’re a human being, when you’re a person that walks around and people think a certain way of you, I believe that everybody inside is kind of burning away with intricate passions and intelligent stuff to say, but we forget to merit everybody with the same kind of level of expertise. I’ve always enjoyed the fact that people think I’m invisible until suddenly I can get mad fierce. It’s a nice thing. I think I’ve humbled a lot. When I was younger I used to be terrible, I couldn’t go anywhere without just rapping at anybody. I couldn’t chill out for a minute. Now I’ve gotten older, I feel a bit more comfortable in myself, and I don’t really mind anymore.

AB: You took the chip off your shoulder like, “Alright, we’re not gonna bring THIS with us tonight.”

KT: {*laughs*} Yeah. I’ve gotten a bit older, but I suppose that everything that I feel about the world, and experience, just goes straight into my work. Everything that happens, I just can’t experience anything without making work about it. I think that’s a good thing.

AB: All your other careers stem from your love of hip-hop, but have you had any specific opportunities that have come about just because of music?

KT: Well, it’s quite like nothing was really kicking off when I was making music. It was an underground thing, rapping in the UK, at the time. I was learning my skills, but I wasn’t successful in any sense. I had done a few battles in the underground scene, I did quite a lot of gigging. We did a lot of work, but I didn’t get much acclaim for it, really, apart from the fans that we made, that we earned. When I started doing spoken word stuff, and poetry … I suppose when you’re rapping on a beat some people can automatically assume they’re not gonna like it, because they don’t like hip-hop, or they don’t like beats like that, but when you’re just saying the words you can just cut through, and reach a much wider spectrum of people. Suddenly I found myself really busy, and having opportunities to write for like Amnesty International, and The Royal Shakespeare Company, and Barnardo’s, which is a children’s charity. Suddenly I was being listened to by much older people, people who would never have listened to me if I was rapping the same lyric with a beat. Music has been kind of the backbone of my internal landscape, and when I’m writing it’s always with a flow in mind, and it’s because of all the lessons I learned freestyling, and jamming in cyphers. That’s how I learned about rhyme, and patterns, and flow, but my success, what of it I’ve had, has come about through my writing. Hopefully people are gonna be ready for me to go back into doing a rap record, and they’re not gonna be like, “I liked you better when you were just talking.”

AB: You don’t want to hear, “Can you just release an a capella version?” You’ll be like “NO!”

KT: NOOO! But it’s cool, because I’m still writing poetry. I have a poetry collection coming out. I’m still doing that side of things, but I think I needed to express this side of my character.

AB: Diving into your history for a bit, you were very active politically for a while, and then moved to focusing on a more human aspect of things. What inspired that change, and what kind of perspectives, and knowledge, do you think you’ve gained since making it?

KT: I think that the political aspect of life is in us as humans, and it’s in our stories as people, and characters, and how we relate to each other. I don’t think it’s necessary for me, at the moment, to be engaging with Politics with a capital P, because that stuff affects us on such an intrinsic, emotional, level – the way that we relate to each other, the struggles that we go through – and I actually find it much easier to care about a story when it’s about people, rather than about politics. I think that your politics will be in the stories you tell, but you don’t have to stand up and say, “This is a political song, and the message of the song is this.” At the minute, that kind of stuff doesn’t really connect with me in the same way that reading a novel, or listening to a song about a person, does. It’s scary times, and my politics are still desperately important to me, but I think storytelling is just what’s exciting me at the minute. For a listener to listen to a narrative is just so exciting. It’s like the oldest form of communication, to tell stories. It’s not like I don’t want to do politics, it’s more that I want to do narrative.

AB: When you’re rapping a narrative, and you’re on the stage, you want people to listen, and you want people to get the story, but at the same time it’s a concert, and you want people doing normal show stuff in the crowd, and having a good time, and going crazy. How are you going to make that work, where people will be listening to you AND going crazy?

KT: I can’t wait to be back on stage doing music. I’ve been doing this show, Brand New Ancients, and it’s about listening, and it’s very emotional and intense. It’s been amazing, but I just can’t wait to just get on stage and for it to feel fuckin great, and for it to be a party, and for the people to be moving, and feeling it, but not necessarily having to hear every word. It’s more about putting a feeling in the room of “this is fucking cool,” then later, once they’ve seen the show they can go home and get the record and be like, “Oh fuck, it was a story!”

AB: Who gives you that “this is fucking cool” feeling?

KT: Anybody that performs with integrity and passion. Anyone. I could watch a busker playing the violin, and if he’s doing it with heart and sincerity I’ll be moved to tears. That’s the thing that moves me. It crosses any genre.

AB: If buskers make you emotional don’t ride the NYC subway.

KT: I’ve done it. It’s crazy. I saw some kids dancing, taking off their sneakers and like moving them around their bodies, and catching them, and I gave them a standing ovation. It was a big deal.

AB: Were you looking at the rest of us like “How are you ignoring this?” and we’re like “We ignore this every day!”

KT: Yeah, exactly.

AB: Is there anything else you’d like to add about yourself, the album, or when we might see you in America?

KT: Yeah, the thing I’d like to say is I’m hugely excited about the idea of this record reaching an American audience. I just want to pay a huge tribute to the cultural influence that America’s had on me. Obviously it’s the birthplace of hip-hop, it’s the home. I feel kind of nervous to think that my record is going to be out there in the US, and I would like to say that I’m deeply excited. This shit is like my life. I’ve been working almost 15 years non-stop at my work, and trying to get myself in a position where I could be making my work. This is like everything. This is everything, and it feels crazy. I can’t describe it. It’s like a dream, (but) it’s not a dream, because I’ve been fucking working every day to do it. I just hope people enjoy it, and I hope they get it, and I hope they feel it, and if they don’t then at least I hope they listen to it and think, “Wow, that’s fucking crazy.”