Within 10 minutes of meeting KT Tunstall, it’s easy to forget she’s one of Scotland’s most important musical figures.
She’s relaxed, chatty, and more than happy to take the conversation off on the strangest tangents.
Listening back to the recording, it sounds more like eavesdropping on friends who are talking about music and laughing about the fear of exposing bare feet after the winter, rather than a formal interview.
She came relatively late to success at the age of 27
There’s absolutely no pretension about the 39-year-old, who was raised in St Andrews and, by today’s standards, came relatively late to success at the age of 27.
That came with the watercooler moment in 2004, when she appeared on Jools Holland’s Later. Just KT (which is simply short for Katie), a guitar, a tambourine, and her loop pedal – creating the 21st century version of a one-man band. That performance of Black Horse & The Cherry Tree catapulted her to overnight success.
Of course it wasn’t quite as easy as that. She had been working with bands and performing throughout her 20s. However, she says, “To be fair, when I look back, it was the human cannon moment for me. It certainly felt like an overnight success.
“There’s no point in getting an opportunity like that if you mess it up”
“I always think luck is being ready. There’s no point in getting an opportunity like that if you mess it up.”
She didn’t and the album Eye To The Telescope became a multi-platinum seller around the world (over four million copies at the last estimate).
“I can’t believe that it will be 10 years since Eye to the Telescope was released. What freaks me out is, when I started there was no YouTube, and now I have 20-year-olds on Twitter saying ’Eye To The Telescope was my first record – I’ve been listening to KT Tunstall my whole life!’”
She begged for a piano at the age of four
Adopted as a baby into a rather academic household, she says she begged for a piano at the age of four, and then played flute up to Grade 8. At the age of 15 or so, she picked up a guitar, and with that substantial musical knowledge in place, taught herself. Crucially, she also started to write songs at that young age.
So by the time she was 27 and appearing in our late-night living rooms with Jools, there had been years of refining her writing, playing and live performance. So, she was ready for the luck.
More than good fortune has propelled her through the past decade and two further albums, Drastic Fantastic and Tiger Suit, and the new Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon – something she calls the “accidental album”.
There was no plan to make an album. With a track record of collaborating with other musicians, KT was enjoying a tour called The Floating Palace put together by Robyn Hitchcock in February, 2012. This featured Martin and Eliza Carthy as well as Krystle Warren and Howe Gelb, the man behind Tucson band Giant Sand.
Life was good. She had toured the world in 2010 when Tiger Suit was released, she had been married to Luke Bullen (also the drummer in her band) for three and a half years and there was no need to rush into any other big projects.
“Howe Gelb and I really hit it off,” she says, “mostly over a bottle of whisky at the Glasgow gig, actually. His band is Tucson desert punk… laid-back punk.” She laughs. “He had heard a mini-Christmas album that I did, which had a different sound to the more produced material. He thought that I would enjoy coming out and recording in the studio in Tucson that he used.”
“I’m a believer in exploring things that come your way”
Still with no real plan, KT decided to go out for 10 days and see what happened. “I’m a believer in exploring things that come your way,” she says, “whatever happens. At that point I had no songs at all and started to write. Between February and April I wrote eight or nine songs. They just came all at once, which is really unusual for me.”
The experience was a revelation – the dry, desert heat of Arizona and the relatively technology-free approach of Howe Gelb and the chosen studio. No computers, just the band recording straight on to reel-to-reel tape.
“It’s all about sounding authentic”
“No computers means you can’t fix things, which is great. It’s so important that you’re absolutely ready. It also helped me as I never enjoy singing in the studio – singing live is a completely different feeling. As I knew it was going straight to tape, it felt like the recorder was my audience so I was in the best emotional state to sing. All the songs on the album are one take. There might be some mistakes, but who cares? It’s all about it meaning something and sounding authentic.”
Apart from the alien studio culture, the Arizona desert was also an inspiration for the girl who grew up on the cobbled streets of a small north-east Fife town, particularly as her last album was recorded in Hansa Studios in Berlin when it was January and -10 degrees.
“Tucson is near the Mexican border so there are a lot of different cultures, all so different from mine. There are such massive landscapes and skies – it’s quite profound and shuts you up. It really allows you to let go.”
That was even more important when she returned later in the year to complete the album. In August 2012 her father died suddenly, and this life-changing event was followed the next month by the break-up of her marriage.
“I’d always had this yearning to crack open my ribcage and be able to let everything out,” she says, “and then last year led to it all happening without even trying any more. But you know, the first half of the record was written before any of that happened, so there is a kind of weird savant quality to it.”
KT’s record company were supportive through what was a difficult period but also of the direction she had decided to take. “I was fantastically left to my own devices to express myself without intervention. Being my fourth album, I think I’m slightly trusted to know what I’m doing, but I was supported in this much more lo-fi approach.”
Filming a video for a single from the album, her greatest concern was her bare feet filling a whole frame.
“I knew if they were going to be in close up, they would need some attention. I suppose when you’re Scottish you forget about your feet. Not much need for sandals most of the time!”
The images on her album were taken by her friend, photojournalist Jane Mingay. “She’s usually in a war zone but asked if she could do photos with me. It was fantastic. We just drove out into the desert and did everything ourselves. No stylist, no make-up artists. It was the most enjoyable photo shoot ever.”
“I still absolutely love Bon Jovi”
The past decade has taken her across the globe and although she is now based in London, she has happy memories of growing up in St Andrews. “It’s funny, there wasn’t a lot of music. I was really influenced by my big brother who was into Bon Jovi and Van Halen – I still absolutely love Bon Jovi. You couldn’t stop me going to a Bon Jovi gig ever. It reminds me of great times.”
She plans to go to see Jon and the boys when she is “home” in the summer. “London doesn’t feel like home. I haven’t felt an attachment to anywhere yet. Maybe home will always be in a bag – I do love the freedom of that.”
Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon is available now. Go to www.kttunstall.com for upcoming show dates.
- Born in St Andrews, June 23, 1975
- Mum and Dad didn’t own any records!
- “KT” is simply short for “Katie”
- She was adopted shortly after birth
- The singer has won a Brit and Ivor Novello award