TRACK REVIEW: Kate Tempest - Holy Elixir



Kate Tempest

Holy Elixir





The track, Holy Elixir, is available via:


Hip-Hop/Spoken Word


London, U.K.


30th May, 2019

The album, The Book of Traps and Lessons, is available from 14th June, 2019. Pre-order here:




NOW that I have sort of branched out...

on my own regarding reviews, it has given me the chance to sweep the genres and artists who are near to the mainstream. To be fair, I should be outside in the sunshine – I will get there later – but I have been compelled by Kate Tempest’s latest track. Her new album, The Book of Traps and Lessons, is out in a couple of weeks and it looks set to be a belter! I will talk about Tempest’s latest single in a bit but, before then, I will address the songwriters/thinkers we need in music right now; a bit on the evolution of songcraft and how artists like Tempest have evolved; wordplay and the importance of building imagery; the consistency of artists who continue to dazzle and amaze – I will look at Tempest’s future and where she might go from here. Let us think about the state of music right now and what artists are addressing. There is still the mainstream and, by and large, artists are not straying too far from the tried and tested: they are discussing love and all its machinations. That is all well and good but (many artists) do so in a very ordinary and unimaginative way. There are other songwriters tackling the big issues of the day and what is happening in the wider world. Kate Tempest is someone who has always been aware of the struggles around us and, in her poetic and striking way, she has managed to articulate our thoughts. Now, on her latest album, there is some of that but there is more of the personal. Her last single, Firesmoke, was a gorgeous and beguiling track to her girlfriend. It was tender and impassioned; a beautiful and intelligent paen to their love and commitment. I have not heard a track as beautiful and direct for some time and, compared to her previous work, it was a chance to see under the skin and in the soul. Tempest’s 2016 album, Let Them Eat Chaos, was, as you’d imagine, about the sense of dislocation and madness around us.

Not that she has abandoned that path but, in 2019, it seems her heart and desires are playing an important role. The reason I mentioned how Tempest is an artist we really need right now is because of the way she can describe that sensation of desire. She not only talks about love in a very striking way but her poetry and delivery is sublime. On her forthcoming album, we will get a mixture of the personal and political. I tend to find artists are either divided between the familiar and safer – writing about love and their own lives – and those who address politics and something a bit bigger. Kate Tempest investigates both camps and she can mix up the intensity and urgency of modern dilemma and beautifully compose a song that comes straight from the heart. I do not think there is an artist as varied and accomplished as her; one that can easily and naturally step into both camps and come off as such a complete writer. Tempest is keen to address what is happening in this country but she is in love and wants to put that onto the page! One can admire that and I feel Tempest is that ‘ultimate artist’ who can provide endless quality but, at the same time, endless depth and intrigue. You only need listen to her in interviews to realise there is no ego and, in fact, there are very few as real and relatable as her. Many artists have this chip on their shoulder or they come across as inaccessible and dethatched. With Tempest, here is a woman who has that common touch and her music, as such, is much more powerful and popular. I love her sound and style and how she can switch it up between releases. Let me move onto another topic and something else that has struck me about Kate Tempest. It seems that the young songwriter has evolved and changed quite a bit; made a few changes and has moved to a new stage in life.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Alex Lake for The Observer

That might sound vague but, as I said, I was struck by her visions of love and dedication on Firesmoke. I wanted to bring in a couple of interview snippets from a couple of years back. Not only (do these clippings) express Tempest’s mindset and view at the time but they sort of prove what has changed since then. When speaking with The Guardian, Tempest talked about when she wrote and the conditions conducive to composure; how the state of the nation weighs on her mind:

 “When Tempest is awake at that hour, she finds it peaceful. “There is something really magic about the couple of hours before dawn,” she says. “You’re recharged, the day before is gone, but there are no requirements. You don’t belong to anybody, to anything. That time lends itself to lyricism because of the repetitive nature of insomniac thoughts.”

She talks about her creativity as something exhilarating and powerful, but also very fragile, liable to damage if she doesn’t handle it with care. “You work your whole life to build up integrity and you lose that in seconds if you allow yourself to do the done thing, or not listen to an instinct because someone in the industry has got an idea about who you might be for them. You’re defined by your choices so you have to be aware of that.”

“I’m not interested,” she says. “We’re in a terrible situation in this country and I don’t think any of us are quite prepared for what the next few years might bring. I think that the artist’s role is to be observant at all times and do their best to create and feed back. In terms of party politics, I feel like we’ve gone too far now for I’m right and you’re wrong. And I think if you align yourself too closely with a system that you find completely flawed then you’ll probably end up living to regret it”.


In a separate interview, she expanded on that idea of living in the city and how the pace of life can impact you:

 “If you live in a big city, the impact that will have on you is pretty relentless,” Tempest says, to the soundtrack of blaring traffic and buzzing market stalls. “I understand the kind of toll it takes on people to be so surrounded by life. And obviously the coping mechanism is to exclude as much as you can from your field of vision, so you can focus on the things that you’ve got to do. But I think it’s making people pretty unwell. Just look again. Remember that all of these people are human beings, they’ve been through a hell of a lot that day, that week, that month, that year. Reinvest yourself with a sense of empathy that extends beyond your exhaustion, your particular panic.”

For Tempest, the downside to capturing so much anger and frustration in this kind of vivid detail is having to explain it further in interviews. The way she describes making music, it sounds like a primal process, something that just happens. Looking back on these songs, tracing steps and delving deeper is far from her idea of fun, to say the least. A couple of times, when pressed to explain the meaning behind one thought or the other, she seizes up. “It’s so useless me even talking about this,” she quips, midway through describing people’s reaction to the Syrian refugee crisis. It’s not that she’s being hostile, more that she’s pointedly aware of how broad statements could be taken out of context.

“People – especially journalists – seem to be hankering after a political statement or stance. But if you’ve just made a whole album that expresses some quite nuanced views on a given situation, the last thing you want to do is sum that up in a couple of sentences that will come nowhere near to expressing the scope and the complexities of how things feel at the minute”.

This painted a picture of someone who, in 2016/2017, was quite on the edge or aware of how anxious modern life is. The Book of Traps and Lessons does not stray away from the pains and challenges of modern-day Britain but, at a time when we are at our most stressed, Tempest seems to be in a different place. You can tell how much her girlfriend means and I get the sense of someone who, whilst not entirely calm, seems to be in a better place right now.


 PHOTO CREDIT: Perry Curties

It is clear that Tempest has developed and added something new to her music in 2019. We listen to her previous work and there is an edge and physicality that is hard to ignore. The soothed and devoted Tempest that presented herself on Firesmoke adds welcomed dynamics and colours to her palette. I urge people to buy her upcoming album because, as you will see, there is a unity of her past sound and something different; fresh and tender strands that are divine and wonderful. Kate Tempest is a sensational artist because, when it comes to language and how she paints, there is nobody like her! Able to cut to the core with a straight and no-nonsense line or buckle the knees with a couplet borrowed from the heavens; here is someone who has devoted her life to literature, words and the pursuit of language – to embrace it in all its forms and see just what is possible when you open your mind. Tempest is someone so in love with language and words and you can hear that in her songs. I am not suggesting other songwriters are lazy or average when it comes to lyrics but there is something extra-terrestrial about Tempest and her skills – not quite on the same plain as those who, at certain points, can turn the head. Look back at albums such as Let Them Eat Chaos and Tempest beautifully takes us inside the walls of flats and through streets. It is a narration of modern Britain and all is various sides. Earlier on, on 2014’s Everybody Down, there were stories of workaday folks and the variety of emotions and scenes one could see on an average day in London – albeit told with such authority, passion and dazzle. Tempest is a poet and playwright (and author) so she keeps her pen sharp and wet. I do wonder how she spends time away from music and, when not hanging with her girl, one suspects a pile of great books are never too far away!

 PHOTO CREDIT: Karen Robinson for The Observer

The rich, scent-filled and near-mystical words she puts onto the page can move the senses and enflame the soul. I tend to find that a lot of modern songwriters are too obsessed with love and, whilst that is okay, the way they document their passion is quite cliché and, a lot of times, downbeat. Tempest realises how her life has sort of fallen into place and how things are working out. She expresses that thanks and sense of comfort but the artist is aware of what is happening in the world right now and is unwilling to abandon that. Listen back to Tempest’s past work and just immerse yourself in her songs. There is so much detail and wit; conversations and clashes that are amazing and take you by surprise! There are very few artists in the modern world who have the intellect and range of Kate Tempest. That linguistic talent is matched in the back. Her compositions are as diverse and fascinating as the words she sings. Her music is so complete and stunning and, for that reason, I feel she warrants a lot more respect and attention. For sure, Tempest has her fans and loyal crew – in music and in the literary and theatrical worlds – but I feel like there is a whole world waiting. Maybe radio stations do not know such a good thing when they hear it – I think Tempest is one of the finest songwriters in the world and is an inspiring human. I will talk more about that in the conclusion but I am always stunned by Tempest’s work and what it does to the senses. I keep mentioning the soul and senses because Tempest’s work goes deep and strikes hard. I am keen to address Tempest’s current single, Holy Elixir, but I wanted to finish off this section but thinking about the sheer consistency and workrate of Tempest. It is staggering thinking about Tempest and what she achieved in her life so far.

The thirty-three-year-old is an award-winning writer and she has released two huge solo albums so far – the third is a matter of days away. Her collections of poetry – such as 2013’s Brand New Ancients and 2018’s Running Upon the Wires – are sensational and you need to check out her 2016 novel, The Bricks That Built the Houses. Tempest’s plays – such as 2013’s Wasted and 2014’s Glasshouse – are hugely popular and it goes to show what an exceptional and broad talent Tempest is. She stunned years back but has kept that quality high since then. I find a lot of artists start out strong and then dim a few years down the line. Maybe they get stronger over time but it can be quite a tenuous start. In the case of Kate Tempest, she came out of the blocks charged and ready and there seems to be no signs of her slowing or losing that magic. There is something inherently familiar and wonderful about Tempest’s work. She can write fantasy and detach herself but it is the reality she portrays and the innate way she can speak for us that makes her so amazing. Even if her background is different to some of her fans, we can all extrapolate some truth and wisdom from her words. That mix of imagination and grounded reality makes her one of the most important and relatable writers in the world. She is only in her thirties so I wonder where she can go and just how good she can get. With a new album just around the corner, Tempest will be busy – but I hope there is another novel or a collection of poems in her sightline. I hold so much love and respect for what Tempest is doing and how busy she is. Not only has she penned these great poems, plays and songs but Tempest has curated festivals and given talks. She is this modern-day polymath and genius that holds endless ability and brilliance but is able to resonate. She is just the same as us and never pushes people away. The fact we can all connect with Tempest and understand her words so clearly means she will always be popular and loved.



Whereas Firesmoke – her previous single – started with a tenderness and did not stray too far from the delicate and sensual; here, we have a song that begins with more intensity and mood. Holy Elixir begins with curious words and thoughts. Tempest casts herself almost like a Creator-type figure; animating “tree gods” and giving life to animals. Given the song’s title, it is unsurprising that religious imagery should present itself but, such a stark departure from Firesmoke, we go from the intimate and deeply devoted to something that, literally, takes us back to the beginning of time – well, technically, God doesn’t exist so that is wrong; I just mean we are talking about creation and all life rather than a tender and personal love story. Tempest, it seems, is taking us through the development of man and time as she discussing (us) catching food and scrawling on caves. In the back of my mind, I sort of know where she is heading from the early stages – I think I do, anyway! I get the sense that, when talking about the primitive nature of life at the start, she is sort of mirroring that to the modern day. One gets the sense that, covertly or openly, Tempest is making comparisons to the savagery and simplicity of the earliest humans to where we are as people now – maybe I am reading too much into it; Tempest can forgive my curious and wandering imagination! I love how, like so many of her songs, the composition is a constant yet it never intrudes. Rather than throwing so much into the mix, there is a simplicity and consistency that gives Holy Elixir a strange groove and hypnotic focus. If Tempest’s previous albums were more intense and packed, now it seems Tempest is more restrained in terms of energy but that has also allowed her words to breathe more. With all Tempest songs, language is at the fore and she packs so many words together.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Jenna Foxton

The narrator discussing us setting fire to lands and reducing things to ashes; the way we have burned and burnished beautiful things and conquered worlds. She never explicitly alludes to modern politics but one feels, as she guides us closer to the modern time, there is a comparison between our earliest ancestors and the supposedly more evolved people of today. As the song continues, you are left dizzy by the pulsing electricity of the composition and the words Tempest delivers. Her wordplay is amazing and, whilst her vocal is quite tender and soft, the potency of the words is incredible. Tempest casts herself in this image and talks of a girl that walks over her. Tempest is this holy elixir and, as she offers prophecy and truth, there is that unity of the biblical past and the modern times. There is, as Tempest says, scripture now but just a modern equivalent. The switch between the development of mankind and religious rules transform into the codification, guidelines and treaties of our time; the ridiculousness of modern politics and how our elected are unwilling to bend and accept any derision. This is where I felt the song was heading and, when it does arrive, the effect is stunning. Tempest never gets too angry and loses control but you can feel the anger and disgust bubbling and festering. Keeping control but still able to get her words out loud and strong, Tempest talks about someone/the people keeping their heads down and exhaling fumes; this constant repetition and sense of anger working in the skin. The composition never intrudes and, as the song goes on, it seems to gain more traction and weight – even though the sound and pace has not changed at all! Tempest talks about, I think, leaders and how the soul is a “closed system”; wisdom has been vanquished and, what they hold in their fists, is all that there is. These words are oblique but direct at the same time.

Each listener will imagine their own story and cinema but I get the impression that, with every heartbeat, Tempest is talking about politics today and the intentions of politicians. Holy Elixir goes much deeper than that and it takes a few listens before everything sort of unfurls and comes into the light – the sign of a truly rewarding and intelligent track. “Your loneliness is the symptom/not the sickness” Tempest decrees; her voice firm and resolute and, as those words are delivered, they conspire all kinds of images and thoughts. I have loved everything Tempest has put on record but I think she is at her most powerful and impressive here. One will find plenty of charge and force on her new album but there is a more level head and sense of composure, even though her words are still as powerful and potent. In many ways, this means her words can cut deeper and have more time to explore and expand. Lyrics are Tempest’s strong suit and you find yourself engrossed by her incredible wordplay. Maybe that is a dismissive terms for what she is about: ‘poetry’ is much more apt and respectful! As Holy Elixir comes to its end, Tempest takes us to the garden (whether Eden or more of a Joni Mitchell/Woodstock sense); she has led us here and notices that the soil is bare and blind – that we need to start sowing and planting seeds. In some ways, this is a literal image of degradation and neglect but, in a wider sense, it is a commentary regarding the poverty around us and how the planet is faring – whether that is political impotence or the all-too-real climate apocalypse that awaits us! Tempest is always firm and controlled whilst never preaching and attacking. She can portray so much wonder and powerful without yelling and getting aggro: instead, the beauty of her words create these fertile scenes that will be ingrained in the psyche for many weeks to come. If the rest of The Book of Traps and Lessons is as wondrous and memorable as Holy Elixir (and Firesmoke) then there is no doubt Kate Tempest is the artist to beat in 2019!

 PHOTO CREDIT: Alex Lake for The Observer

Sorry if I have rambled on and repeated myself. I find artists like Kate Tempest are so impressive and amazing that it is hard to get everything down in words; to summon up the right words and get to the heart of the matter. I hope Tempest continues to reign and shine in music as we definitely need her around. Tempest releases her new album, The Book of Traps and Lessons, on 14th June and it will be good to see what sort of reception it gets. I have only heard bits of the album but it is amazing. There is a mark of Tempest’s older and familiar sound but, as I said earlier, there is more of the passionate and personal this time around. Maybe this indicates that Tempest is in a happier place and is able to feel calmer and anchored because of a strong relationship and sense of safety. I encourage people to get The Book of Traps and Lessons when it arrives and play it in full. Tempest has signings and in-stores coming up this month so make sure you keep your eyes peeled and, if you can, get down to where Tempest is appearing and throw her some love. Holy Elixir is a fantastic track that is so nuanced and deep that it has taken me a few spins to really get to the bottom of it.

To be honest, Tempest is someone whose songs are stirring when you first encounter them but, like flowers blooming, everything sort of unfolds and stretches the more time goes on. It is an amazing thing and another reason why she is so loved and respected. The U.K. is in a pretty sorry place right now and I do think that it is hard to make sense of all the crap and division around us. Tempest has not shied away from this on her latest album but I do like the fact that the importance of love and her feelings are being expressed. Like many of her peers, one can find sweetness, hope and deep affection: so many are eager to express pain and unhappiness without providing any light and relief. Let’s leave things here and I’ll let you spin Holy Elixir one more time. I cannot for The Book of Traps and Lessons and I am already predicting it will be one of 2019’s best and brightest albums. Make sure you dedicated some time to investigate Kate Tempest and, as I said, if you can get down to one of her signings, make sure you do. She is simply wonderful and, in a music world where there are so many similar and familiar faces, she is someone who…

IMAGE CREDIT: @residentmusic

STANDS in a league of her own.


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