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'There Was More I Wanted To Say': Kate Tempest Turns Hit Album Into A Novel

Kate Tempest has written music, plays, poetry and novels.
David Stewert
Courtesy of Bloomsbury
Kate Tempest has written music, plays, poetry and novels.

Rapper Kate Tempest has become kind of a sensation, winning awards as both a performer and a poet. In her hit debut album, Everybody Down, she told the story of Becky and Harry, two Londoners in their 20s who are struggling with work, love and drugs.

Now she has expanded that story into a novel called The Bricks That Built The Houses. She tells NPR's Ari Shapiro that when the idea for the story first came to her, she knew it would be both an album and a book.

Interview Highlights

On Becky

Becky is a dancer; she makes her living as a waitress as well. And she works as a masseuse, but she works in the shady end of that trade, shall we say, where she's an erotic masseuse, which she is absolutely fine with and comfortable with. She's made that decision and she uses it to support herself in pursuing her dream of becoming a dancer.

On Harry, who is a man in the album and a woman in the book

She's very cool. Everybody in her life thinks that she works in recruitment, but actually Harry is working very hard distributing cocaine to kind of media moguls and unsavory kind of celebrity types. She has also got a dream that she's chasing, which is that she wants to open up a community space, a restaurant, a café, a kind of bustling harbor in the center of her place where she's from, South London. So she's trying to raise up some capital to start a legitimate business, but she's been making her living this way for quite a long time.

On why she wanted to make an album and a novel about Becky and Harry

The story came to me and I decided that there was something I could do with it within the context of a record which was going to be really exciting, which was to sustain a narrative throughout a song cycle of 12 tracks. But there was more I wanted to say. And also I wanted to explore the kind of interior, the private worlds and the histories of these characters. And I can't really tell you honestly why. ... The idea came and I knew that this was what it had to be.

On the difference between telling a story through music and doing it through fiction

Within the context of the novel, I go further in and I explain — as in me, the writer — I explain at greater length and in greater detail about Becky and her life and her work. Whereas within a kind of four- or five-minute track, there's an ambiguity to a lot of stuff because actually that's what you need in that moment. You don't want to be kind of beaten over the head with the minute details of everything; it needs to work as a song.

I feel like there is a moment when language lives, and that is when it is read with the same kind of electricity and vigor as it's written with.

On the power of reading out loud

I kind of think that all literature, all written words, should be read aloud to really be understood. ... I mean, that's a big ask because you're not going to sit down at home and read a whole novel out to yourself, but there will come lines or moments that you will just feel compelled to, as the reader, just read out loud, you know, just to kind of understand what that means or how that works.

I feel like there is a moment when language lives, and that is when it is read with the same kind of electricity and vigor as it's written with. You know? So the writer, the writing and the reader have to all be kind of burning at full volume and at high temperature in order for this kind of electrical current to surge between the three points and create this living thing, which is literature when it really works.

On letting the book go now that it's done

Once it's written, once the thing is written, it doesn't belong to me and it doesn't belong to my intention for it or my description of it. Now it belongs to you, it belongs to whoever reads it. And whatever they think of it, that's exactly what it is. So if somebody thinks, you know, it's a piece of trash and I shouldn't have written it, that's exactly what it is. And if somebody thinks it's a book-length poem, that's exactly what it is. It's got nothing to do with me or what I wanted anymore.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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