Interview: “When you find a piece of artwork on your own terms… that’s when the real magic happens”
We caught up with the acclaimed recording artist, poet, playwright and novelist Kate Tempest, recently named as Brighton Festival 2017 Guest Director - mid album tour - to find out more about her plans for the role
When you were first approached to be Guest Director for Brighton Festival 2017, what was it that prompted you to say yes?
Well, the place that art has in a community is something that I am constantly turning around in my mind because I think it is one of the most important tools that we have for connectivity, for cultivating empathy and a sense of community – it’s a kind of antidote to isolation. For me gathering together to experience artwork is the most important thing that we can do. The most exhilarating moments that have brought me closest to myself and closest to my fellow human beings have been through gathering and watching and feeling and participating in works of art. So, when I was approached by Brighton Festival, the first thing that made me excited about accepting the offer was the possibility of bringing work to people who maybe feel that kind of experience doesn’t belong to them, opening the doors a little bit and just allowing people in.
What are you most looking forward to about the role?
I think the most exciting thing is being able to engage with what it is that makes a piece of work plug you more directly into life. What it is that kind of pulls the ground out from under you then catches you and puts you back on your feet and shows you the universe again. This is the feeling that I have - whether it is from listening to a record or watching a play or whatever it is. And encouraging and cultivating that feeling in everybody, because everybody has this capacity to be connected with this way by literature or music or opera or whatever it is - and just encouraging a celebration of that feeling in a way that isn’t cheesy or patronising. So I’m very excited about trying to encourage the artists that I want to perform here to just run with this idea of being a part of Brighton for these three weeks. And not just Brighton, but also the outlying communities and the neighbourhoods around Brighton – I want to take work outside of the centre of the town and just bring it to people.
You have appeared at Brighton Festival before - what’s been your relationship to the city and the Festival to date? Do you have any particular memories of Brighton and or the Festival?
Yeah - I’ve had a relationship with this place all my life! There was always someone from my family that lived here or close to here. I remember coming here to see gigs when I was younger and getting on the train with pals to come to some of the record stores here. And I had some mates that went to uni here and that were living here and we used to come and party here. As I’ve grown older, getting to play in Brighton Festival was an amazing feeling because Brighton has this reputation as a very open and free thinking town. As a queer woman coming here, the relief that I feel when I step off the train is palpable. It makes me want to cry when I walk around the street and I see loads of women and men and transgender people just holding hands and walking around the street. Honestly I can’t explain the feeling that it gives me, it makes me feel really welcome and safe. So the idea of a liberal town is one thing but actually for me personally to get off the train and walk about and to be like: ‘Wow this is ok, I’m ok here, I’m welcome here you know?’ That is a really important thing.
It's obviously still early days but, what are your aims with Guest Directing Brighton Festival this year?
One of the most important things I want to do is to invite people into spaces they don’t know. I don’t want somebody who’s never seen a classical concert to not go because it is a classical concert and I don’t want someone who only goes to classical concerts to not go and see an incredible contemporary electronic act because they have never done that. I just want to make it a safe space for people to experiment because I think that the minute you give people permission to think of themselves as human beings rather than cleverly bracketed consumers of one particular type of art, then maybe they will have an amazing experience.
Are there any particular artists or dream acts on your wish list at the moment?I’ve got very high hopes. I’ve also got ridiculous ideas that are probably never going to be achievable but the Brighton Festival team are amazing at allowing these ideas into the room and then doing everything they absolutely can to make me feel like these goals are achievable goals. I feel very cared for in this place. I feel like it is a really exciting way of thinking about what I want to present and how I want to present it. And also the idea that this is a collaboration - that I am guest directing and I am here as part of something that already exists.
You are following the footsteps of the likes of Laurie Anderson and Brian Eno in taking on the role of Guest Director. How does it feel to taking on the baton from such company?
It feels great! I really really love both of those artists and in fact Laurie Anderson particularly I think the world of. I think that you can either be cowed by following in the footsteps of big celebrated artists or you can be extremely humbled by it and just recognise that this is an opportunity to do something really great that could honour all the influences that I’ve had from people like them. And I think that goes for everyone in lots of different ways so I try and just think of it in a very humble way and think: ‘Oh I can’t wait to just see what I can get done’.
You will actually be the youngest Guest Director of Brighton Festival to date. What do you think your perspective will bring to the role?
I want to programme some different kinds of things; I think it’s important for me that we bring in younger people. But I suppose my age is kind of beside the point. The idea is beyond age actually. It’s more about allowing and inviting people to connect with a piece of work that they might never have imagined was going to reach them because in that moment that’s when life-changing moments happen. With art that’s when the exciting thing happens, when suddenly you find something on your own terms, that hasn’t been forced down your throat that you haven’t been told that you’re not going to understand. When you find a piece of work on your own terms that way, that’s when the real magic happens.
Your own work straddles many art forms and a unique range of audiences. What drives you to experiment in this way?
I just follow the ideas. I think that the more we try and isolate and bracket ourselves, the less clearly we can negotiate where our ideas, are leading us to. This idea that anybody can be easily understandable by placing a convenient bracket around them, is actually a particularly British idea, and it’s just not workable for me, it doesn’t make any sense. I am in love with language and lyricism - this is my first love - but if I had stopped there then I wouldn’t have been being true to everything that lyricism taught me which is about pushing and understanding and just trying to cultivate new skills.
Do you think that kind of cross art form approach is something you can uniquely explore at arts festivals?
Well especially Brighton Festival because it is everything - you’re programming everything so you have this opportunity to bring people in and break down some of those boundaries. So I am really excited about it. This whole thing about high and low art or divisions between different forms - it’s all nonsense, and the minute you allow yourself to see through that nonsense the closer you can get to your experience of art as a human being - doing the thing that makes us the most human in my opinion. Because the way the world feels is very inhuman, everything is synthetic - it doesn’t feel real. And then you get this opportunity to experience poetry or music or rapping and rhyming or watching an orchestra - whatever it is - there is this connection to humanity that is much broader and bigger than, ‘I am a poet and I deal with spoken word.’
And finally, recent political events such as the Brexit vote seem to have highlighted divisions between generations and society more than ever before. How do you feel about the vote personally, and how do you think the arts can help us understand and challenge the world today?
Well, I think that the purpose and the point of art is uniquely cultivating empathy and in creating community, because we are isolated - we are divided from ourselves primarily and so from each other. And, because of these divisions, it is very difficult for us to engage with any sense of community or nationhood or pride in our communities. I think it’s more important for me to talk about what joins us than what divides us. Politics is all about which side of an argument you stand on so that means that somebody is always right and somebody is always wrong, but actually the things that connect us become more important when there is so much to divide us. And, in the face of rising nationalism and all these kind of faceless fears about others that seem to be rearing their heads, it becomes more important than ever that we remind ourselves that there is no ‘other’, it doesn’t exist. And the only thing that can really, really make that tangible, I think, for me anyway is music, literature, poetry - these things that bring us together to experience something together which is not about saying anybody is right or wrong.
Kate Tempest is Guest director of Brighton Festival 2017. Her album, Let Them Eat Chaos is out now. Enjoy the trailer...