This is the unique soul of South East London

Week #04. Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest

image by BigDada.com
Something in the changing seasons prickled in her skin all day

Woah. Read it again. Out loud. Something in the changing seasons prickled in her skin all day.

When I heard that I was reeled in, listening deep to every lyric. Maybe it was the connection with the change in season that is happening right now. The prickle of the first frost on your cheek. Or maybe the changes and uncertainty that are happening across the globe, with Brexit and the US election. There is certainly a lot to cause prickles under the skin.

Photo by Emma Swann for DIYMAG.com

5 thoughts I took away from my week with Tempest:

1. This is a soundtrack to South East London

My early morning commute through South East London has been perfectly accompanied by Kate Tempest’s latest release, Let Them Eat Chaos, released September 2016.

4.18am is the thread that ties this album together. My journey is more of a 6.18am than a 4.18am. London feels very different at these two times. 4.18 is that time of morning when trains don’t yet run. Background hustle isn’t there. Streets are mostly empty. It feels more like night than morning, still and waiting and asleep. Yet it isn’t. Because people are awake behind their curtains and wonky blinds.

Despite being 2 hours later than 4.18am, when the labourers and early rise office workers are boarding the trains, I could still imagine Kate walking around the streets of Lewisham, Brockley and New Cross, watching people through the glass. Absorbing their narratives and so skilfully crafting these into her poetic portraits.

Alex Clark from the Guardian does a lovely job of describing this:

As its title suggests, Let Them Eat Chaos has to do with what sustains the populace in dark times: the club nights, two-for-one drinks and selfies (“Here’s me outside the palace of me”) that do little to fend off the isolation and fear that strikes in the middle of the night. That time is 4.18am, to be precise, a moment that recurs across tracks, and finds Tempest’s characters locked into flats, bedrooms, kitchens: Esther, a carer, making sandwiches and swigging beer after a long night shift; Zoe, packing her belongings into bin-bags, the grease of Blu-Tack on the woodwork; Bradley, a Mancunian PR who finds himself in London, alienated and depersonalised, trying to reassure himself that reality still exists by making films on his phone. “What’m’I going to do to wake up,” he asks himself, “I know it’s happening, but who is it happening to?”

2. Tempest’s portraits hold a mirror to the hopes and terrors of everyday living

On the track Lionmouth Door Knocker we hear how “7 different people are awake….counting their sheepish mistakes. Is anybody else awake, will it ever be day again”

Here we begin. Like a movie camera zooming in, it lands on us, the observer. “We start on a corner, with our backs against a wall”. Kate Tempest then invites us to peer into the homes of these 7 people. Us like a Dickensian Scrooge to her Ghost of Christmas Present. To observe, but most importantly FEEL, the world of the people we’re inclined to ignore and see how really we’re all connected.

For me each portrait brought to life a real person, somebody I had met. Sometimes it was friend. Other times it was someone who had shared their story with me when I was a qualitative researcher, looking to understand how people sustained a living in often vulnerable circumstances. This portrait of Alisha particularly struck me on We Die:

Alisha’s wrapped in her blankets
Head lent back on the wall
She’s gripping her knees
Looking for purpose, shaking and nervous
She keeps her brave face on all day long
But now, the brave face is gone
Something in the changing seasons prickles in her skin all day
Sucked her back through time and left her feeling far away
He was in her dream
She hasn’t dreamt of him for months
She’s so tired when she sleeps, she doesn’t really dream at all, but there he was
Holding his belly, blood on his shirt, she heard him scream her name
And then she saw him fall
Alisha wipes her face and whispers to herself
“It was just a dream”
She sniffs, and nods, and dries her eyes
She checks the time
It’s 4:18

3: Tempest not only reflects on deeply personal stories, but also the politics that serves to create and sustain these conditions

Listening to Let Them Eat Chaos sometimes felt like a guided tour. From arriving at London Bridge with views of the Shard and the finance district to this…

“Whose world is it if it belongs to these corporates?”

to reading about the destruction of the so-called “Jungle’ at Calais on the front page of the Metro with the track Tunnel Vision ringing in my ears:

She’s screaming, she’s screaming
The drone’s turned her beautiful boy into a pile of bones
No body to bury, nobody is home
Running from war, the boat’s full, the boat’s sinking a mile off shore….
Now it was our bombs that started this war
And now it rages far away
So we dismiss all its victims as strangers
But they’re parents and children made dogs by the danger…
What we gonna do to wake up?
We sleep so deep it don’t matter how they shake us
If we can’t face it, we can’t escape it
But tonight the storm’s come

Tempest’s writing is sharp in observation and tongue. But she portrays a mindfulness about the complexities of the narratives she is sharing. In her interview with Jamie Milton she consciously refrains from offering neat soundbites on compicated issues such as Syria and the refugee crisis. That’s refreshing.

“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.”

4. When you hear Kate Tempest speak her words, you feel her words

For me her poetry evoked feelings of empathy and anger. She connects with ancient archetypes that manifest in the modern day world. Offers a visceral and sometimes vicious window into her judgements. This, from her book Brand New Ancients had me nodding vigorously:

The first page of Brand New Ancients advises us that the words are written to be read out loud. I tried it. It felt good. But really the words are written for Kate Tempest to read out loud.

“Her performances are incendiary,” said the singer Billy Bragg, who in 2010 invited her to participate in the Glastonbury performing arts festival. “She wasn’t just singing or rapping. She was telling you stuff like her life depended on your understanding what she was saying.” (from Rachel Donadio’s article for the NYTimes)

The driving music and lyricism are best absorbed as a piece of spoken performance.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JLWlB3ib7ZM

5. If nothing else, you can just enjoy the beautiful use of language

Her observations bring to life the smallest of details. Blu-Tack greasing the paintwork of the flat. Ancient wallpaper stained nicotine gold. Fleeting connections with another person that made me hold my breath.

Brand New Ancients, the piece that got Kate Tempest her fame and a Ted Hughes prize award, introduces us to our antagonists Spider and Clive, aka The Bad Guys. I aspire to use language in this way.

And so they became the bad guys,
angry, disenfranchised,
mansized
punch-happy fists, sad eyes
….
In the old days they would have been warriors
Swords singing the names of all the throats that they’d opened
but in these times they’re out on the high street, smoking
nothing to fight for but fighting itself, saying,
‘It’s you and me Spider. Fuck everyone else’

So week #4 was all about getting to know Kate Tempest. I recommend

If you like Kate Tempest, check out Angel Haze and Speech Debelle

What female voice did I discover last week?

Cartoonist Alison Bechdel of The Bechdel Test fame

This post is part of my FemCult52 project in which I aim to discover 52 female creators in 52 weeks. Musicians and poets, authors and activists, artists and innovators, movers and shakers, protagonists and narrators