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Spoken word artist Kae Tempest looks inward to search for peace in the daily rush


Kae Tempest has enlivened the spoken word genre with songs that include "Priority Boredom."


KAE TEMPEST: (Rapping) Yawn brigade and self-esteem. Say it like you really mean to mean it. Build your life around a secret...

SIMON: That's from their fifth album, "The Line Is A Curve," an introspective performance that steers us through the daily rush of life and search for peace. Kae Tempest, the novelist, playwright and musician, joins us now from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

TEMPEST: Thank you so much for having me on.

SIMON: That's a tough song to begin an album, isn't it?

TEMPEST: It was the only choice, really. It was the first song that we wrote when we didn't have any idea what we were going to be making or where it might lead us. But also, once I had written the final song, "Grace," and I knew where the album was going to end up, I fully understood even more why I wanted to start there because there's - you know, for me, that's the arc of the album, that it starts in that place of frustration or despair. It ends up in a place of acceptance, of love. But then the album wails back around - you know, "The Line Is A Curve."


TEMPEST: (Rapping) Kiss off the day with a mute mouth. Pass the commute. I can die faster than you. Build up resilience, build up views, but you can't build for long on a partial truth.

Just because we have achieved this state of acceptance or the desire to love more fully, it doesn't mean that, you know, that's it. One epiphany doesn't make enlightenment. You've got to wake up in the morning and actually, you know, do the work.

SIMON: That's a lot to put into an album.

TEMPEST: (Laughter).

SIMON: This album seems to be divided into sections, different sections on a journey between relationships, sickness, emotional health. Why take this approach?

TEMPEST: It's interesting you say about the sections because I definitely think of the album that way. I think the first three songs, they all share this minimal synth-driven musicality.


TEMPEST: It's all the Moog One, basically, this analog synth that sounds very much of its time but also, I think, completely futuristic, even now. And then the album begins to warm up.


TEMPEST: Musically and lyrically, everything seems to warm up. The drums become live, acoustic drums. We have the addition of brass and guitars.


TEMPEST: Then we move into the third kind of movement of the suite, which is where we enter into the more electronic, kind of beat-heavy section, where things build to an almost kind of euphoric, relentless crescendo.


SIMON: Let me ask you about the song "No Prizes." This was in collaboration with Lianne La Havas, and who sings this refrain over and over.


LIANNE LA HAVAS: (Singing) I just want to keep climbing, climbing, and I don't know why. I don't mind.

SIMON: Does there have to be a why as to why we keep climbing and go on living? I mean, isn't that why we're here? Or have I not given it enough thought?

TEMPEST: (Laughter) However it reveals itself to you is exactly as it's supposed to be. You know, once the thing's written, it doesn't belong to me anymore. It's yours to make of it what you will. But in the moment of performance, it's entirely my creation. But once that performance is over, it belongs to whoever discovers it. Anyway, I love that chorus. I think what Lianne does with her vocal is so beautiful. I am obsessed with what melody can do to a lyric. We were in the studio. I had completely different lyrics for this song at the time. Lianne started to discover this melody, and it was syllabic at first. You know, she's like, I want to say something like that (vocalizing) It's a two-syllable word.


LA HAVAS: (Singing) I don't mind. I don't mind.

TEMPEST: And for me to be led that way is just so refreshing because normally for me, the words are - you know, they come first. They're the be all and end all. So for me to be following a melody was just so refreshing. And then when she discovered that chorus and started to sing it, then I started to think in pitches because her song, her voice was transformative for me, for the lyrical possibility of where I wanted that to go.


TEMPEST: (Rapping) What are your dreams when they become ghosts in your ears, telling you things you just don't want to hear, like, you're too late?

SIMON: Tell us about the part called "More Pressure."


TEMPEST: (Rapping) More pressure. More release. More relief. More belief. More distance. More reach. The truth is, I don't know. It's so deep. I know nothing. I used to think things were so clear. I was so near to nowhere. I could feel everything in me pushing for certains. Certains are flimsy. Rock-solid ground beneath me now tells me there is no ground at all.

SIMON: What do we hear in there?

TEMPEST: Well, this was a really crucial moment in the construction of the album. There's a moment when you're just creating music. You're just creating demos. You're following the ideas. And then there's a moment when you realize, oh, we have something here. We've caught something, you know?


TEMPEST: (Rapping) Chin deep in a bag of white lies saying I'm sick and tired of my own advice. I see it now. So perfect, but so hard to put into practice. One step forward, two steps backwards. One soul's epiphany is another soul's madness. I saw the truth in the curls of the vanishing girl.

And then you start to really lead the process. You get in front, and you ask the audience to follow you. And this was one of those moments. My pen hit the page, and it's one of those moments when it just, you know, first thought, best thought. It just - they were flowing even before I'd started to speak them out loud, you know?

SIMON: And that leads to "Grace."


TEMPEST: (Rapping) It was Grace stunned by the last light of the sun. We were swimming in a green sea as deep as a drum. There were things I must record, must praise. There were things I have to say about the fullness and the place of this beautiful life.

SIMON: Do you hope that there are people who listen to your songs - and I will call them songs; they're spoken art and spoken word and music art - and will recognize something from their own heart?

TEMPEST: What I can say to that is that in my life I have received so much resonance, community, reflection from texts and music from other people. Sometimes when I hear somebody singing from a place of raw integrity or honesty or truth or however, it takes me to that place in myself, and it helps me. It really helps me to just recharge because I think sometimes we forget that it's what we bring to the music that's - you know, that's as important as what we take from it.

SIMON: That's performance - isn't it? - performance art.


SIMON: Kae Tempest in London - their new album is "The Line Is A Curve." Thank you so much for being with us.

TEMPEST: Oh, it's a pleasure. I'm really excited.


TEMPEST: (Rapping) In love and for love. And with love. In love and for love and with love. Surrender, I do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.