As a child, their older self visits them in their room. They are given directions and guidelines on how to approach life. They grab their pen and paper and start writing, and since then Kae Calvert, aka Kae Tempest, has not stopped writing poetry, lyrics and stories. Thanks to the necessary perseverance, a lot of guts and their strength to never give up hope, they succeed: two albums, a play and a novel are released. And after all those successes, it's now time for The Book of Traps and Lessons, in which that hope to never give up resounds more than ever.
Written by: Loulou Kuster
The making process of The Book of Traps and Lessons took almost five years. In 2015, they began writing with Dan Carey in producer Rick Rubin's studio. In the meantime, a book was released, The Bricks That Built Houses(2016), and their penultimate album Let Them Eat Chaos (2016) (2016). That new album is more personal than their previous work, is clearly closer to their feelings and, unlike all their previous work, is told from the first person point of view.
“The album is about someone who realizes that they are trapped in an unhealthy pattern of addiction, drunkenness, violence and a damaging love affair. They are trapped in the traps of society. You experience a moment of realization on the first part of the album; the realization that they are doing something that may not be going quite right. This leads to a more grounded awareness of their place in the world and what really matters to them. The second part of the album is about the lessons that have been learned or will be learned. They are able to recognize themselves in the bad behavior they exhibit, their roots, the complexity of their behavior and how debilitating and violent it is for themselves and those around them. Once they recognize that, they are better able to love, to see the beauty of existence and to bring change in their lives. That is clearly apparent in 'People's Faces', the last track of the album: then everything really fits together like puzzle pieces."
An important theme for Kae Tempest on this album is 'hope', hope that things will get better and that things will be okay, even if those traps are lurking. “Making music and writing poetry has always given me hope, because no matter how dark the world can look to me, those two things give me strength and so much positivity. It makes me want to live, to be really busy and to be absorbed in my own world. There's something hopeful about cutting and pasting all day long with words and music, because even if it comes from anger or protest, it's pure passion that creates something that can touch people. For me, the optimism is in the creativity itself, that's how I feel. This whole journey – sitting through it completely, writing about it and then putting it out – has given me so much hope to continue what I'm doing and it's given me the privileges to travel and play around the world. I am so grateful for that. Now the album is going its own way and making its own stories. If someone puts on this record while they're just making an important decision - a break-up, a move - that moment will be stuck with this album forever. There is a certain connection, that is something very intimate. It then takes on a life of its own. I'm not physically with it anymore, so I'm handing the album over to everyone who listens to it. Letting go is also one of the most beautiful and important aspects of making an album.”
"Now the album goes its own way and makes its own stories. If someone puts this record on when they're just making an important decision - a break-up, a move - that moment will be forever tied to this album."
The Book of Traps and Lessons is more minimalist than their previous work: more spoken word and fewer instruments. That minimalist approach turns out to have been the idea of living legend Rick Rubin. “Rick wanted Dan (Carey, ed.) and I to try something instrumentally groundbreaking. He focused more than usual on piano loops and synths; he wanted to hear from us that he hadn't heard a million times before. In this way he wanted to make an album of poetry. It was really an amazing experience to work with Dan and Rick on this album. In 2015, when we started this record, we spent a week in Shangri La, Rick's studio in Malibu. That was my first time working on a record outside of England. Bob Dylan's old tour bus has been on Rick's property since 1968, and we've spent hours and hours working and writing in it, looking out over the sea. That was an experience I will cherish forever. It's so ridiculous that I got that chance. Because Rick wanted something very specific, the writing process was horribly slow. Dan and I wrote about six songs, of which Rick only liked one. But it was more than worth it, without his stubbornness the album wouldn't be the way it is today."
The London rapper themselves is sharp in their criticism of the way we live and interact with each other in 2019; they long for how man lived 'in the past'. “There is a certain kind of idea of purity, holiness and devotion that was lost when we became prey to Western progress. There has been a degree of hyper-individualism and mass consumption, something that has brought us much and far, but also so much has been lost. It is a violent system that we live in, not only towards the earth, but also towards each other. In the West, we think this is better than other systems out there in the world. We think we have found the solution in sedation: as long as we numb ourselves with telephones or social media, or even alcohol and drugs, we can forget for a moment how bad we are actually doing. At the end of 'I Trap You' I say: 'I check my phone seventeen times a minute to see if you called and I missed it.' It's a trap. Then there's only the question: how could I want the world to change if I don't change myself, if I myself check my phone seventeen times a minute and numb myself with things that matter less, like holding on to your loved ones? If I reward myself with the same oppressive patriarchal violence that I am opposed to in this system, how can I expect the world to change? How can I make healthy decisions when I'm tired, and how do I maintain the discipline to say, 'This isn't good for me, I need to put this away and do something useful'? I'm just addicted to this mindless stream of information that moves so fast that my brain can never really settle down. I have a huge addiction-prone personality, I struggle with that a lot. Not only with my phone, but also with food, alcohol and drugs. I'm really just really weak and alone. My luck is that I am good at being creative and creativity is an antidote to loneliness. When you are creative, you are connected and connection is another antidote to loneliness.”
"I was drunk practically non-stop for ten years. I felt it was good for me, for my creative process and for my writing, but the poems I wrote when I was in my early twenties are terrible."
But the life of an artist like Kae Tempest simply comes with obligations like sending emails, days of interviews and other activities that don't require creativity or even numb that creativity. “It makes me lonely, but it's part of it. Alcohol can then be a sedation, and that's a really big problem in the music industry. I was drunk practically non-stop for ten years. I was on stage drunk or stoned. I felt it was good for me, for my creative process and for my writing, but the poems I wrote when I was in my early twenties are terrible. They're just about how I'm drunk and drunkenness in general. Now I don't drink before I go on stage, although that is sometimes quite difficult, because you pretty much get paid in alcohol. After the sound check you drink wine, before a performance there is a fridge full of beer backstage and afterwards it is then replenished. When a performance goes bad it helps numb the pain and when it goes well it's there to celebrate. I think the majority of people who work in the music industry are just alcoholics.”
“When we started this album, about five years ago, I was extremely lonely. I worked hard and was very busy with all sorts of things, but the loneliness was eating at me. Like the me person on this album, I went into pubs, got drunk, but I lacked something, a certain connection. Like at the end of the album the person is moved to tears by strangers at the station just by looking at their faces, that's how I've seen it. The album is about the journey I am now on in life. I am not literally this figure, but all emotions, observations, pitfalls and lessons come from me and from what I have experienced.”
“On this album, I'm basically telling myself how to live. I don't know better than others how to do it, but I learn from my mistakes and from the lessons of life. What I do know is how to write down things I see and think. I'm a writer, that's what I'm good at. There's a kind of power above me, which is part of me, yet hangs over me, telling me how to do things. When I was little, I was visited by my 'older me'. My older self would come to me as I went through it and manifest itself in my mind. My older self would then tell my 'younger self' that it would be okay and which paths I had to take so that it would be okay. That's also how I started writing, because my older self told me what to do. I never really got this one told, because it is vague shit, but it is what I experienced and why I am now the way I am and why I now have the honor to tell so much of myself and my insights to others.”
Kae Tempest will be performing at Best Kept Secret and Pukkelpop this summer. The Book of Traps and Lessons is out June 14 on American Recordings. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.