Music

'It's always a good time for music somewhere': Kae Tempest talks 80s unrest and new drama This Town

Kae Tempest and Dan Carey have written the songs for Steven Knight’s new drama, showing a band forming against the backdrop of unrest in 1980s Birmingham and Coventry

Kae Tempest

Kae Tempest. Image: Henry Lockyer / Bohemia Films

Performer and poet Kae Tempest has recalled feeling a “kinship” with the characters of brilliant new BBC drama This Town, which explores the historic ska and two-tone music scene, saying they recognise a lot of the “turmoil and unrest” from that time.

Tempest and their songwriting partner, super producer Dan Carey, have spoken to the Big Issue about creating the music for the fictional band at the heart of This Town, by Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight. “I loved it. Writing in character takes all the pressure off,” Tempest said. “And being given the purpose of a song before you start is amazing. All the hard work’s done for you!”

The series is set against a backdrop of social unrest in the early 1980s in Coventry and Birmingham. With the UK gripped by recession following an energy crisis and working-class communities bearing the brunt, it is not difficult to see parallels with modern Britain. But just as bands like The Specials tapped into the feelings of the time back then, in This Town, a fictional group of young misfits find their voice and a possible route out of the violence that surrounds them.

Tempest wrote the words from the perspective of poet and dreamer Dante (played by Levi Brown), while Carey wrote the music and worked with the actors who learnt to play the songs for the show.

The band in BBC One's This Town
The band from BBC One’s This Town, who perform music by Kae Tempest and Dan Carey. Image: Banijay Rights, Kudos,Robert Viglasky

The Big Issue: How did you come to be writing the music for This Town – and was it an enjoyable process?

Kae Tempest: It was! I’d been working on something intense with Dan and spent the best part of a week knee deep in the project. At the end of the week, Dan was like, there’s this thing I’m working on and would you be up for trying something.

Dan Carey: They got me on board quite early on to produce the songs, which at the time were going to be written by several different bands. I kept waiting for these songs. But when I read scenes of Dante and Jeannie, where one writes music and the other writes lyrics, it reminded me of the real-life situation with me and Kae Tempest. I happened to be working with Kae at the time. We were writing their next album. So I suggested we try writing the songs, and they loved the idea. I said we should dedicate a day to This Town, to see how it went. And because Kae is a genius, they read the script and managed to identify what Dante’s voice would be.

KT: I was up for it. We gave it a go and wrote three songs that morning. In the afternoon, the producers came round for a meeting and explained what they wanted us to do. And we were like, ‘OK, well we’ve done it.’ They couldn’t believe it. They loved the songs.

I never would have written a song for myself about pelicans. But it turned out one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written

Kae Tempest

TBI: How did you go about trying to get inside Dante’s head to write the songs for This Town?

Kae Tempest: I read a brief outline of the character and a one-page document that told me what or who each of the songs would ideally be about. I loved it. Writing in character takes all the pressure off writing. And being given the purpose of a song before you start is amazing. All the hard work’s done for you! I was looking at this piece of paper being like, ‘OK, he’s got all these words in him bursting to come out. I know how that feels. And he’s written a song about his aunty, she’s called Estella. She drinks too much. He loves her. Got it.’ And off I went.

Was there a pressure for the songs to sound a certain way?

KT: What was great is that they’re meant to be the first songs written by someone who’s just discovered how amazing it is to write songs. So, it’s not like I was supposed to be composing a masterpiece. It’s meant to be instinctive and raw so I jumped in and enjoyed it. I was watching a documentary about Hank Williams the other day, something that stuck with me is that he used to read romance comic books, that’s where he got the stories for his songs. I loved that. Maybe it’s the same kind of thing here that excites me. You get to disappear into someone else’s perspective. Can be easier than squaring up to your own sometimes. 

Levi Brown as Dante Williams in This Town
Levi Brown as Dante Williams. Image: Banijay Rights/Kudos, Robert Viglasky

DC: Kae asked a really good question right at the start. They asked: are the band meant to be really good? Not that we are capable of writing genius songs, but it makes it easier if you have to make it feel realistic, like it could have emerged from that group of people at that time. And they were quite specific about not trying to sound like The Specials. Don’t try and rip them off. Which is right, because pastiche music is shit.

Where did you find your lyrical inspiration?

KT: There was one more to write, so when they left we went to the pub and wrote the last one over a Guinness with Dan singing into his phone for the chords and me writing over the top of him singing. The brief for the last song was it should be inspired by a moment when Dante’s watching a nature documentary about pelicans and relating to them because they don’t fit in. They said it should be about pelicans, or it could be about any other strange animal.

At first I didn’t know how to approach it, but I know what it’s like to feel like you don’t fit in. So I dug into that and had fun with it. I never would have written a song for myself about pelicans. But it turned out one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written. When it flows like that, writing lyrics is honestly the best thing in the world to do.  

DC: Then they asked for one more song. For them to play in the club at the end. We’d slightly moved on, but I had this Casio keyboard with a built in drum machine and I just played a few chords and sent it to Kae and they smashed the lyrics straight away. The song is called This Town and it somehow sums up the whole show.

The Trailer for This Town, which starts on BBC One and iPlayer on 31 March.

Do you see any parallels between the time, the place, the politics of when you started writing and where the characters in This Town are coming from?

KT: I see loads of similarities. I felt real kinship with the characters and I recognised a lot of the turmoil and unrest, and also the joy of being in bands and singing lyrics in the face of the chaos all around you. I think it’s testament to Steven Knight‘s writing how well he writes about now by writing about then.

How was it working with the actors so they could play the songs for real?

DC: That was so fun. It was a completely different experience for me. Once it was cast they all came over and had varying levels of skills. That was in summer, after we wrote the songs. Ben, who plays Bardon, is a great guitarist and singer and in a band anyway. Freya is a really good bass player and weirdly, she almost ended up in a band that I had worked with several times so we had friends in common. And Levi’s just very natural. A really good singer, was up for learning the guitar, and got so good. Everyone practised so hard. They got Shyvonne a drum kit to practice on and she was amazing. Eve was like, I’ve got to be honest, I can’t really play the keyboards. But she worked out this system and by the time we came to record it in February, she nailed it.

Everyone was adamant it had to be the actors playing when we recorded it. It looks wrong if someone’s miming to someone else’s track. So by the time they started rehearsing together, in a weird way they actually turned into a band. Me and Kae went up to watch them recording the last song live in front of an audience in Birmingham, which was really fun. Kae took Ben and Levi aside and gave them some great advice on how to perform lyrics in a meaningful way.

Is there music from that period you particularly like? 

KT: I love roots music from the early 80s. The Gladiators and Max Romeo and Black Uhuru. And I love the Clash and Joy Division. And obviously, I love the Specials. It was a good time for music. As it always is, somewhere.  

This Town begins on BBC One on Sunday 31 March and will be available as a box set on iPlayer.

Read our feature on This Town – including interviews with Kae Tempest, Dan Carey, Steven Knight and rising star Eve Austin in next week’s Big Issue magazine.

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