Interview with Kate Tempest of Sound of Rum

Last year had been described as a breakthrough one for Kate, Archie
and Ferry of the hip-hop inspired three-piece, Sound of Rum. The end of
spring saw the release of their impressive debut album, ‘Balance’,
which was followed by an extensive list of festival appearances
including Bestival, Latitude, Camden Crawl, Glastonbury and Les Inrocks,
to name but a few. Fronting the band, Ms Tempest may not be a household
name right now, but among fellow wordsmiths, musicians and DJ’s she is
often referred to as a thing of wonder. Scroobius Pip is often quoted
praising the prodigal talents almost unfair flair for words, proclaiming
her ‘the highlight of my listening year’. Sound of Rum are the type of
band you witness that you  can’t wait to tell your friends about and
urge to check out. I can imagine YouTube clips of their
performances being linked to on social networks, each viewer equally in
awe and stirred to pass on to the next. I am hoping more performance
stints, like those alongside Mercury-nominated rapper Ghostpoet, and as a
special guest to Billy Bragg (on his Leftfield in Motion tour with The
King Blues and Akala) will help to spread word of this unique trio. To
coincide with today’s digital-only release of new single ‘So Low’, Culture Compass talks to Brockley’s most talented poet and lyricist.

Firstly, let’s get the generic questions out of the way. You formed in 2008, but how did the three of you get together?

I was putting a new project together. I asked Archie to play bass
initially – I was thinking of a much bigger sound. It was meant to be a 7
or 8 piece band. I had 3 gigs booked in over this one weekend, so we
booked a rehearsal space for the Wednesday but the three of us were the
only ones who could make it, everyone else lamed out. We knew we’d have
to pay for the space, so we went along and jammed, just us three.
Archie had a loop pedal he was beginning to use so we mucked around and
reckoned we could get away with it. By that Sunday we’d played a pub
gig, a festival in London Bridge, and an event at the TATE Modern. We
haven’t stopped since.

Was a part of you apprehensive about being part of a trio?

I’ve always collaborated with different musicians and rappers, since
I began. I’ve only been doing the solo thing for a few years, so
playing with others is really natural to me.

You have been battling from the age of 16. How does someone start
doing this? Does it involve a fair amount of bolshiness to get
involved?

Yeah, maybe bolshiness is the right word, but I think it’s much less
conscious than that. It’s not like you decide you’re gonna be bolshi, I
was just desperate to rhyme in front of an audience. I used to be so
hungry to rap at people that I used to rap in cyphers on street corners,
on trains, on buses, to strangers, at parties….everywhere. I used to
go to venues to watch shows and spend the whole time trying to get the
mic off whoever was on stage, or even rap my way backstage to rap at
whoever I was just watching on stage. I was completely obsessed with
being given a chance and changing peoples minds. One time when I was
much much younger, I was out watching a crew from New Cross called IRS
who are an amazing bunch of rhymers. The MC from the crew, who in my
opinion has the most eloquent lyrics of the lot, was telling an
acapella, but for some reason I thought he was just talking. So I walked
up on stage and just reached for the mic, reached out to take it off
him in the middle of his set! That’s just something you don’t do,
especially not when you’re a weird looking 16 year old unknown girl and
he’s an established rapper in his area doing a gig – but I had no
gauge. I was just enchanted and on a completely different planet when
it came to what you were supposed to be or allowed to do. I think
that’s why I did well in battles. I had no fear and it was cool, I used
it as a means to an end. I won some studio time through battling and I
won a bit of money, but it’s not really where my heart is anymore. If
someone wants to ‘get into’ battling, they probably shouldn’t. If they
really wanted to, they’d have found the battles already.

It is not the most obvious musical route to go down. Was there
something about your upbringing that lead to an interest in literature,
poetry and rap?

I love reading, I always loved it. I love Hip Hop. I love lyrics.
For me, it is a very obvious musical route, nothing special about my
upbringing lead to my interest other than my parents always encouraging
my creativity and my Dad used to tell a lot of stories when I was
young. I fell in love with hip hop, and I fell in love with great
writers. I’m as passionate now about great writing as i’ve always been.
Hip Hop and books were my access points to hear great writing, and
along with the city I’m from, make up my frame of reference.

Are you a confident person in general or is performing when you feel at your strongest?

It depends where I am, who I’’m in front of and how I’m feeling.
Sometimes on stage I feel completely at ease and its the most beautiful
comfortable feeling in the world. Other times, it feels like a
performance, and then I don’t like it so much. Generally though, I do
feel more at ease on stage than off it, unless I’m with someone I love.

In an interview a few years back you said you had faced sexism
and wished that you weren’t referred to as a female MC. How is the
situation in 2012? Has anything progressed?

I think there have been a number of incredible women making great
music in a way that is honestly feminine, as opposed to gimmicky, and
more than this, making music that is actually dope. I think that’s
great. There’s No Lay, Lioness, Tor, Lady Saw, Ms Dynamite, M.I.A, and
loads more. I think there is still a tendency to bunch them all
together as female MC’s. I still hear, ‘you’re my favourite female MC’
from people, and it still does my head in (although not so much
anymore). I just find it reductive, as if the natural state of an MC is
the male. But I get it, most rappers are men. I just think if
someone’s dope, let them be dope, rather than being dope for a girl.
It’s like making allowances, subtly inferring that you might be good,
but you’ll never be as good as the men. Although saying that, being a
girl gave me an edge when I was younger and coming up. Every guy I knew
was a rapper, and most of them much better, wittier, more eloquent
than me, but they never got any recognition beyond the immediate
circle. Most of them don’t do it any more.

Do you think that the element of surprise is a strong aspect of
what you do? So many quotes from people say they are impressed with you
and your intelligent lyrics. Do you think it is more powerful because,
however foolishly, they aren’t expecting it?

For a long time, people were always saying they felt what I was
doing because it shocked them so much. People expect so little from
artists, from rappers and from young women. People are not used to
hearing girls on stage rapping about anything other than a broken heart
or how hot they are – which is a fucking crying shame. I know the
element of surprise works in my favour, but I’m kind of over it now.

You have spoken of admiration of David Jay as well as Roots
Manuva, Taskforce, Kashmere, Wu Tang. Are there any mainstream, pop (or
acts of unexpected genres) that you find inspiring?

Yeah, loads. I listen to music all the time. I listen to the radio a
lot at the moment. PJ Harvey’s latest album is incredible, and I
really like the Maccabees – are they mainstream?  I don’t really know
what mainstream is. I saw Adele on the telly the other night at the
Albert Hall and it was amazing, she was amazing. I think some of what
Nicki Minaj is doing is fucking great, but I mentioned that on my
Facebook page and got slated for it. Dizzee Rascals’s wicked too. I
don’t dislike pop or mainstream music, I just cant stand that generic
hit factory type fake dance music bullshit. If something’s got soul,
even if it’s cleverly packaged, well marketed soul, I can get into it.
Jessie J’s doing her thing, she’s pretty mainstream. I  don’t know, I
like lethal bizzle, he’s wicked and Jamie Woon.

I imagine in Sound of Rums the lyrical content is entirely down
to you, but how do the three of you construct the accompanying music?

It changes all the time, it’s pretty organic. We don’t sit down with
a formula in mind, we just play. We’re from a background of artists
who hang out and play together all the time. At parties you usually
find us in the corner jamming with whatever we can find – a broken
guitar and a couple tea cups, or the table or something. We love
playing together, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Archie is a
genius….that helps.

Is it a completely democratic arrangement?

Usually.

Would would you like people to get from your album Balance?

I would hope that they enjoy it.

You have gained much praise but do you worry about the reviews?

No, that’s not really what we’re in it for.

You are set to appear on Nick Grimshaw’s Radio 1 show on the
17th. How do you feel about talking on air and to an audience when you
are just being you ( rather than in your performance/stage guise)?

Being on the radio, doing this interview, or being on stage, it’s
all me. That person on stage is me. That’s the whole point. Talking to
Nick Grimshaw, or someone in a pub, or the man in the corner shop, or
the audience, or my mates mum, its all the same. I love people and I
love talking to people. I feel fine about talking on air, its a great
opportunity to be heard by people who don’t know who i am. Some of them
might hate what I’m doing, but that’s okay with me I think.

Radio shows like this obviously expose you to a greater, and at
times more commercial audience? How would you feel if what you did
became a mainstream thing?

I’m much more concerned with making some good work than worrying
about how well or badly it will be received. I’ve been rapping for ten
years now. It can be frustrating always being skint and never having
enough money for studio time or a tour van or whatever. I’d love it if I
wrote some beautiful songs that touched people enough to be accepted
into the mainstream, but I doubt it would happen. I’m not planning any
kind of strategy, I just want to make something incredible in the next
couple years. Tha’ts all I want to do.

Your new single ‘So Low’ is out today (January 9th). Can you tell
the readers a bit about the lyrical content or themes behind the song?

It’s all pretty much there in the song.

The video is made up of you on tour and playing festivals. Does the lifestyle of touring suit you?

It’s quite intense. We’ve been on the road for pretty much three
years solidly and it can do your head in. But it’s amazing to be able
to get up in front of people who don’t know who you are, in a town
you’ve never heard of, and do your best to represent yourself and make
them feel it. We drive around the country, us three and our sound man
Alex Gent, in a tiny tiny car. It’s fucking tiny that we drive around
with snare drums in our faces – you could call it character building.
It’s very unglamorous. We’ve been through a lot on the road, too much
to go into. Early last year we went on tour. Ferry was working by day
in Camden market (selling those massages where fish eat the dead skin
off your feet), so we’d be driving to like, Sunderland, which is a 6
hour drive or something. We’d play a gig upstairs at a pub to 6 people,
and then we’d drive home again. Ferry would go straight to work, and
then we’d pick him up and get going to the next one. Its been pretty
brutal. but that gig in sunderland, with those 6 people, was one of the
best gigs ever in a way. Whether there’s one person or one thousand
people, you still have to play from your heart to their heart, and
that’s what touring has taught us. I think it’s a valuable lesson that a
lot of artists who have found success quickly, and have never had to
win a crowd over, could do with learning.

You played numerous festivals, including Latitude and Beatherder.
What were the highlights of your festival season? Are there anythings
that you learned to do different for festival season 2012?

The highlights were the gigs….all of them, even the ones where we
were messed up and shouldn’t have been on stage. We were doing like 8
shows in a weekend, and it was heavy going. The summer is always
amazing fun, sometimes too much fun, but always a mental few months.
Next summer I want to take things a bit easier, and concentrate on
writing rather than spending 4 months living in fields. One of my
definite highlights was headlining the Spoken Word tent at Latitude and
telling poems for an hour to a fucking heaving tent full of people.
That was literally magical.

I was going to ask if you’ve ever mucked up live…

I muck up live all the time….all the time, but it’s fine. The
boys in the band are much more committed to playing things the way
they’re meant to be played, knowing what happens when, but it needs to
be fluid. You need to allowed to fuck up and acknowledge it and laugh
about it all together. Sometimes, if I’m telling poems, I completely
forget the words half way through, and I’ll have to phone Archie or
someone to remind me how the second verse of this or that poem starts
…while I’m on stage. I think that that’s okay, even though it sounds
really unprofessional and shit, it’s still okay and the crowd tend to
go with it. With Sound Of Rum though, it’s much tighter, more
rehearsed, that kind of thing would never happen… I don’t think. We
communicate well, so if something or someone fucks up we can come
together and cover it pretty well.

Do you have a preference in terms of performances – informal,
small venues, large crowds, outdoor etc? Do you think of  your
performance as a shared experience between you and the audience?

Any performance is a blessing for the performer. and hopefully for
the audience too. Obviously I dream of playing to a hundred thousand
people. but I’m probably at my best in intimate surroundings. Saying
that though, my favourite gigs are the ones when the crowd are up for
it and I’m up for it – whenever that happens, its always amazing.  I do
think of shows as shared experiences, what else could they be? I think
a room full of people, gathered to enjoy music, is one of the most
powerful places you can be. The dynamic between performer and audience
is so loaded, and they know if you’re not being honest. Performing is
fucking mental, it can be so moving, for everyone in the room.

Do you find after performing songs over and over again that the passion in the delivery diminishes?

You have to find a new way to mean what you say, find a new joy in
where and who you are performing too. The biggest failing is if you’re
on stage and you’re trying to be passionate. That’s shit.  

What are your aims for 2012?

I’ve written a play for theatre company Paines Plough, ‘wasted’
which is touring in Spring. I’m writing and developing a one woman
spoken story show with the Battersea Arts Centre as well, which will
hopefully get some funding so I can get musicians on board to score and
hopefully tour it. I want to make a solo record with some different
producers, that’s my main aim. I’m bringing a spoken word book/CD/DVD
package out on my own publishing imprint ‘Zingaro.’ I’m also making a
mix-tape and thinking about a novel. Lots of aims.

Dream Collaborations?

Jay Electronica, Rza, Leonard Cohen, Lauryn Hill, El-P, Bjork,
Durrty Goodz, Paul Simon. The Bug. I’d love to collaborate with anyone
who makes music from a genuine place,

Tell me something surprising about you?

I love swimming.

Recently played on your Ipod?

Bill Withers. He’s the one. I was also listening to Neil Young the
other day in my kitchen. He’s also the one. And the Bug, I been
listening to Skeng a lot.

Guilty pleasure?

Too many to mention.

The single is out today… go buy… now!

And Catch Kate with Nick Grimshaw on BBC Radio 1 – 17 January 2012

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