Kate Tempest takes a particular interest in other people’s lives. The former Mercury Prize nominee and judge concerns herself with characters: their nine-to-five jobs; their idiosyncrasies and worst habits; the ways they punch the clock. Several of these strangers make up her new album Let Them Eat Chaos, a collection of songs centred around an apocalyptic storm that, while wreaking havoc, manages to bring seven lost souls together.
“There’s a real problem if you’re not thinking about where other people have been or where they’re going,” she says, sitting on a bench outside Deptford market in south-east London in the blazing, late September sun. This happens to be the perfect place to people-watch, and many passers-by – unaware of Tempest’s celebrated status – make quick conversation with the musician, poet, screenplay writer and author. It’s moments like these where London shows itself to be brilliantly alive, a source of endless fascination.
“If you live in a big city, the impact that will have on you is pretty relentless,” Tempest says, to the soundtrack of blaring traffic and buzzing market stalls. “I understand the kind of toll it takes on people to be so surrounded by life. And obviously the coping mechanism is to exclude as much as you can from your field of vision, so you can focus on the things that you’ve got to do. But I think it’s making people pretty unwell. Just look again. Remember that all of these people are human beings, they’ve been through a hell of a lot that day, that week, that month, that year. Reinvest yourself with a sense of empathy that extends beyond your exhaustion, your particular panic.”
Let Them Eat Chaos centres around one specific time and place – a near-silent London street at 4.18am, with all but seven strangers fast asleep. The restless ones are caught up in their own personal turmoil. Pete is chasing a paycheque, spending it on booze, ending up more broke than the previous month. Pious can’t discover love and finds himself hooked on one night stands. Zoe is packing her life into cardboard boxes, wondering where she goes next. All of these characters are in a lonely rut. With their stories unfolding, the album then finds Tempest painting a picture of the world today. She captures the confusion of a modern world, stampeding over harsh realities using dagger-sharp lyricism and equally tight, abrupt production from Dan Carey.
One lyric, on the sprawling “Europe Is Lost”, is especially eye-opening. “Massacres, massacres, massacres/New shoes,” she chants, instantly distracted from tragedies thousands of miles from home. “That is the reality,” she says, when asked to unravel that line. “It’s a fleeting concern for the loss of life, if it’s on a grand enough scale that pricks your attention. And then there’s a much more pressing concern. ‘I saw these shoes. They’re so nice.’ It’s just reality for people.”
There are a dozen harsh lessons in each of these songs, but Tempest doesn’t want to come across as judgemental. “I hope it doesn’t feel like there’s any blame in it. It’s just a description of what’s happening,” she claims. “It’s just f**king hysteria. We are living in this absolute madness. Absolute f**king madness. No wonder everyone’s feeling so mental. The conversations that I’ve had with people, they’re saying this is always the way it’s been. People have always felt terrified about where the world is heading. In the Cold War, people were living with the very real threat of the end of the world. And I do understand that. But in terms of where we’re heading, with the daily advancements and the impossibility of seeing anything as a whole – I’m talking about economics, technological advancements, humans fusing with cyborgs, nano-robots that cure and detect diseases, international relations – nobody can see where we’re heading.”
Beyond an end-times sense of impending doom, her new album has one silver lining. When a storm breaks, Let Them Eat Chaos’s seven strangers are forced to flee their homes. “They all realise they’re part of something much bigger than themselves,” she sums up. “In that moment, there’s something beautiful. That’s the redemption.”
There’s similar optimism to be sourced from the real world’s state of disarray, she says. “It’s really helpful and amazing to have music, literature, poetry at these times.” And it’s true that Tempest isn’t the only musician to be casting an eye on what’s going on today. A wave of young musicians are expressing concern, anguish and protest without being strictly classed as “political” songwriters. They wrestle with gender, identity and race in ways that help make more sense of the world. Tempest is right up there with the best of them in forging magic out of madness, which is why Let Them Eat Chaos is her first release to be met with anticipation on such a big scale. Writing music with a sharp moral compass isn’t something she strives for, however. “When the idea comes, it doesn’t come from you,” she says. “So all you can do is equip yourself to express these things adequately, and then realise that you’ll never get it right and you’ll always have to keep trying.”
For Tempest, the downside to capturing so much anger and frustration in this kind of vivid detail is having to explain it further in interviews. The way she describes making music, it sounds like a primal process, something that just happens. Looking back on these songs, tracing steps and delving deeper is far from her idea of fun, to say the least. A couple of times, when pressed to explain the meaning behind one thought or the other, she seizes up. “It’s so useless me even talking about this,” she quips, midway through describing people’s reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s not that she’s being hostile, more that she’s pointedly aware of how broad statements could be taken out of context.
“People – especially journalists – seem to be hankering after a political statement or stance. But if you’ve just made a whole album that expresses some quite nuanced views on a given situation, the last thing you want to do is sum that up in a couple of sentences that will come nowhere near to expressing the scope and the complexities of how things feel at the minute.”
She ends on a cutting, bleak note. “To be even more frank, it’s too late. It’s too late now. It’s gone beyond somebody being right and somebody being wrong. It’s far too late. We’re in the middle of a massive humanitarian crisis. The planet’s on its way out. Well, we are. It’s too late to be tiptoeing around.”
At this moment, a fan recognises her in the street and thanks her for being such a “big inspiration”. Whether she chose to become one or not, Kate Tempest is one of the country’s most vital songwriters. We’ve experienced a year where very little makes sense and tomorrow’s problems are even more frightening, but this only goes to further establish the importance of musicians who can at least attempt to make sense of what’s happening.
‘Let Them Eat Chaos’ is out on FridayReuse content