LONDON — “I’m just going to go into it, and I’ll see you on the other side,” Kae Tempest told the crowd at an intimate concert earlier this month.
Over the following 30 minutes, Tempest — who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns — performed their new album, “The Line Is a Curve,” a cappella. Standing alone onstage at Rough Trade East, Tempest closed their eyes and swayed, trance-like, to the rhythm of the words, occasionally wiping sweat into their cropped hair. The 300 audience members were silent and still, as though sharing the same reverie.
When Tempest performs, “I want to conduct this power that’s in the room,” they said in a recent interview at a cafe near their home in Catford, southeast London. “I want us to plug into each other and see if we can connect.”
That impulse has guided Tempest since they started rapping under the name Excentral the Tempest as a teen. Now 36, Tempest has been influential in London’s poetry and spoken-word scenes, creating a formidable body of work including poetry, plays, fiction and nonfiction books, and albums that feature spoken lyrics over a variety of atmospheric backdrops, two of which were nominated for the Mercury Prize.
“The Line Is a Curve,” released earlier this month, is Tempest’s fourth album, and perhaps their most personal call for connection yet. Tempest’s previous records and poems offered portraits of the inner lives of contemporary south London characters and ancient Greek gods. “The Line Is a Curve” is firmly in the first person: “I love you when I see you” Tempest chants over moody synths on “Salt Coast”; another track features a voice note Tempest recorded for a friend, intoning, “There can’t be healing until it’s all broken, break me.” The first track’s refrain is “to be known and loved.”
The album’s cover is the first in eight years to feature a picture of Tempest. Dan Carey, who worked as a producer on “The Line Is a Curve” and all Tempest’s solo albums, said that compared to their previous records, the new album “feels a bit more kind of tender, with a bit more acceptance. I think that Kae’s had some realizations about themselves that make it closer.”
Recently, the artist has started to share more of themselves. In August 2020, Tempest came out as nonbinary and changed their first name. Sitting in the south London cafe, Tempest’s eyes glistened as they spoke about this new process of self-acceptance. “I feel relief,” they said. “Trans people are beautiful, so why was I afraid of that person in me? We’re blessed people.” Since coming out, “Maybe I’m able to connect more fully with myself,” they added. “But I’ve been on a journey toward connection my whole life.”
Ian Rickson, who directed one of Tempest’s plays, an adaptation of Sophocles’ “Philoctetes” called “Paradise” at London’s National Theater last year, described this as a “shamanic” element of Tempest’s work. When Tempest won the prestigious Ted Hughes Award for poetry at 26, for a piece of live performance poetry called “Brand New Ancients,” there was still a rift “between what was perceived to be ‘literary’ and what was spoken-word/performance and perceived as somehow ‘not literary,’” said Maura Dooley, one of the judges for that year, in an email. Bridget Minamore, a poet and Tempest’s friend, said Tempest was instrumental in bridging that divide.
In the years since, Tempest has had many imitators in the spoken-word scene. “There is almost a mythology around them,” Minamore said, attributing it to Tempest’s combination of high energy and raw vulnerability onstage. “You watch Kae sometimes and you’re like, you’re going to rip yourself in two,” she said.
Capturing this live energy in a recording was central to Tempest and Carey’s goals on “The Line Is a Curve.” Tempest likes to record an entire album in one take, “so I’m going through it while you’re going through it.”
But for this album, they did something even more raw and bold, and recorded each vocal track three times, live in a theater, to different audiences. The first contained three teenagers; the second, Minamore, who was 30; and the last included one person, who was 78.
In live performance like this, “Your physiology responds to somebody else, there’s things that the voice will do in real communication,” Tempest said. “It takes it out of the realm of like, here’s some lyrics I’ve written, the words become a bridge.”
During the performance Minamore saw, “I smiled a lot listening to it,” she said, noting the record’s lightness and feeling of “letting go.” In the end, the takes recorded before Minamore were the ones Tempest used for almost the entire album. The LP features additional vocals from Lianne La Havas and Fontaines D.C.’s Grian Chatten, and was executive produced by Rick Rubin.
The beauty and mundanity of human interaction have always provided inspiration for Tempest, especially in southeast London, where they have lived more or less their entire life. In the cafe, their gaze drifted out of the window, tracking the movements of passers-by. “Most of what really comes to me in the process of creativity is observations, people,” Tempest said, pointing out at the street. “Even now it just feels so good to me, watching how people do it.”
Carey remembered waiting in line for a cab at an airport with Tempest. Ahead of them, some men were causing a delay by trying to maneuver a large appliance into a taxi. Carey was annoyed, but “Kae just turned to me and said, ‘I love people, just watching these people trying to do this thing,’” he said, laughing. “It’s moments like that, where Kae is able to come away with something beautiful from a situation where most people wouldn’t see it.”
The everyday isn’t the only thing that fuels Tempest’s art. In their 2020 nonfiction book “On Connection,” they wrote about the Jungian notions of spirit of the times, the zeitgeist and the place in the soul where creativity emerges. Talking about these ideas in the cafe, Tempest’s blue eyes were large and earnest behind the thick lenses of their glasses. “I feel like I exist too much in the depths,” Tempest said. “Sometimes I’ve got to really pull it back.”
They do this by talking about “random rappers on the U.K. chart and reality TV,” Minamore said; Tempest is a huge “MasterChef” fan. “Sometimes my mind is firing on all cylinders, thinking about a million things, trying to write characters, plot, narrative, rhyme,” they said, “but other times I just want to sit in the pub and not talk about anything interesting and just have a laugh.”
Tempest will embark on a European tour next month, and described the feeling of a good gig as being like “going to space.” “It’s really physical, it feels like being bound to this moment and to each other,” they said, “when it’s all happening, it’s like we’re all breathing the same rhythm.”
At Rough Trade East, Tempest achieved liftoff. “It just felt so personal, like they were speaking to everyone individually,” said Rob Lee, a 28-year-old fan, after the show. “I was in tears for most of it.”