'The Hard Core Life of KT!'
Since exploding onto the UK music scene in autumn 2004, KT Tunstall has emerged as one of today's most remarkable new artists. Eye to the Telescope, the Scottish singer/songwriter's dazzling Mercury Prize-nominated debut, showcases her provocative sonic mesh of heartfelt pop, bona fide electric blues, and left-field alt. folk.
Songs like the album's smash singles, "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" and "Other Side of the World" amply display Tunstall's idiosyncratic vocal gifts and distinctive guitar playing, along with a flair for imaginative songwriting, alive with gripping lyrical bite and rare emotional power.
But it was back when Tunstall captured the UK's attention with a showstopping debut appearance on the BBC's Later with Jools Holland that things really first began to change. Asked to step in as a last minute replacement for hip-hop superstar Nas, KT blew the roof off the studio with a stunning solo performance of "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree," beguiling the nationwide audience with her compelling vocals and powerful acoustic guitar work, looped to create the force of a full backing band.
Released soon thereafter, Eye to the Telescope reaped unprecedented critical approbation from the notoriously hard-to-please UK press. KT followed the release of 'Eye to the Telescope' with a year of nearly non-stop road work, with sold out headlining shows, festival appearances, and support stints alongside such artists as Joss Stone earning her critical applause as a astonishing and resourceful live performer.
By Summer 2005, KT and 'Eye to the Telescope' had become a full-fledged phenomenon. She scored a third consecutive UK top 10 single with "Suddenly I See" and saw her now 2x-platinum-certified debut included among the shortlist for the annual Nationwide Mercury Prize. In September, Tunstall made her US live debut with a pair of New York City performances, scheduled in conjunction with the annual CMJ Music Marathon. Upon her return home, Tunstall was honored at the annual Q Awards, receiving the Napster Best Track prize for "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree."
With her brand new follow-up CD Drastic Fantastic now in stores, KT seems set to continue focusing her substantial energies into making great music. Chatting with the lovely Scottish singer and songwriter, I first asked her if she believed that her Brits Award statement had helped girls like Amy Winehouse and Lilly Allen to break over here in the States? KT Tunstall - "Itís really hard to say, itís really hard to say. I mean, Iíd love to think so, Iíd love to think that. But I was responding to a kind of tide that had already begun to change anyway, I think. It felt like the time was neigh for some and for there to be more of a female presence in the music scene. But certainly Lilly Allen and Amy Winehouse and Kate Nash are some of the real focus of female talent in Britain at the moment, but itís very, very different from what I do."
"You know, itís all pretty diverse stuff and I think thatís the best thing that could possibly have happened. It wasn't just a bunch of girls with guitars playing folk music or whatever. Itís been this
really great diverse wave of girls that are taking up as much space as the boys and I think thatís fantastic. Iím really relieved and Iím just glad itís happened."
"I got some good props from people for that. It wasnít something I
thought a lot about beforehand. Youíre British, so you obviously
have The Fast Show? So it was just that qote, 'Ladies, know your limits.' You know, thatís hilarious that that can spark right off like that."
What was it like growing up in St. Andrews? "It was gorgeous. I mean, it was a completely idyllic place to grow up. They actually did a poll recently in Britain with the best places to grow up as a child and I
think that St. Andrewís came out number one. It really is a fantastic place, because even though itís very secluded and in a very, very beautiful part of the countryside, itís very cosmopolitan. Because itís got the university and the golf course and whatnot. So,
thereís lots of different type of people from different places and a very high standard of education ... and so just a beautiful place to grow up. Iíd just constantly be down on the beach in
the summer and skiing in the winter. Iím very close to my family so it was lovely."
Indeed, being that you are adopted, what was it like growing up part Asian in Scotland? "Well, being adopted the Chinese part of my heritage is kind of fairly hidden from me. I met my birth mother about eight years ago and sheís very, very Chinese looking. I looked more Chinese when I was a kid. And my parents just really taught me to use it as something that was special rather than something that was, you know, detrimental to growing up in Scotland. But, certainly, it was
a mostly completely Caucasian environment I was in and I did look a little different. And I knew that there wasnít that many people that looked like me. But it never caused me any problems. And now Iíve always been pretty grateful for it, to be honest."
After growing up in an academic household, how do your parents feel about your musical success? "Well, my parents are very cool with it. As Iím a successful musician now," she laughs. "But they were definitely not down with it when I was an unsuccessful, unemployed musician. Yeah, I mean, it was mostly out of worry but also out of the fact that education was a huge thing to them, you know. As a physicist and a teacher they felt I have this great education and I was just potentially throwing it away. When in fact it really all led to what
Iím doing. I feel like Iím using everything Iíve learned really, which you donít often do."
"So I grew up just knowing that I loved playing musical instruments and my parents really encouraged it. I think also the fact that they werenít completely into me being a musician, it was good for me to have something to kick against and have someone to prove to that theyíre wrong. It definitely got some fire in my belly."
Who did you listen to growing up? "At first the stuff I remember listening to was like the Stone Roses album. I got into Ella Fitzgerald also. Someone gave me an Ella Fitzgerald tape ... and so she was certainly the first female singer that really moved me. I was amazed at her voice. I consider her my singing teacher really, because I listened to that tape a lot when I was
starting to sing at like 15. And then really the two albums that influenced me the most was
when I went to college and I bought 'Blue' by Joni Mitchell. And at the same CD sale I bought 'Bone Machine' by Tom Waits. Theyíre just two albums that represent kind of what
Iím trying to do. Theyíre kind of the beautiful
nature of the female voice. But you have this real kind of junkyard bandstand and keep it
rolling, stripped down."
How have you grown between the release of your first and second albums? "I think, well I really wanted to progress on the second album. I
wanted to make something that I felt was the next logical step. Not just a repeat of the first one. You know, I think itís an easy trap to fall into just because youíve got a successful first
record that you just do the same again. Because you think itís going to be successful. I didnít
want to do that. A big difference was the fact that Iíd been on the road with the
band for three years, so that really found its way into the second record. And itís got a lot more live energy I think, then the first one might have. Which is
much more fitting for this album than the first one. The first one is much more an intimate affair. And, I think I definitely kind of scrutinize more than I did when I first
started because when you know how many people are waiting to hear what youíve done
and are kind of into like what youíre doing. Itís like 'Oh my God, thereís so many people
looking at me!' It can be a little weird and that can kind of do your head in a little bit now and
then. So itís definitely a different experience with the second album."
As there were last minute issues with the cover art for the first CD, were there any such troubles with 'Drastic Fantastic's, perhaps? "There certainly were! It was the same old story. This amazing artist that did all the brilliant pictures for the sleeve, the comic strip artist, his nameís Robin Fitt. He had done this amazing painting which you can find on the inlay of the deluxe version of the
"Itís a beautiful color painting, and that was the plan for the cover. It was to do an illustration. And when he got there, I mean, I loved the painting with a passion itís absolutely gorgeous, but it didnít quite have the edge that I felt the album did. And you have to make these decisions as a team with the label, my manager. And so there was a
general consensus that it wasnít quite right. bUT I knew that there was ways to still use the painting. So at the end of the day, yeah we had to go and find a photograph again!"
"And so the front cover was just from a photo shoot I had done with a guy from Peru. It was a picture that I put out for the tour as a press photo and all the fans had gone wild for
it and said they loved it. And we just thought, well, it really kind of captures something and
itís memorable. And being memorable is really the big deal for me with an album cover."
In truth, you look a bit moody in the shot! "Iím pretty bloody moody on the first one as well," she laughs. "Itís basically when it comes to album covers itís like your label is your parent and you are a five year old child and theyíre telling you to smile. Youíre like, I donít want to smile."
When you play live is there a difference between your American fans over your British fans? "I think I have to say, and my European fans are going to kill me, but the American audiences are just so uninhibited. And when I first came over here as a teenager and I was doing some open mic nights in bars and that kind of thing, you know, in Britain theyíll cross their arms and turn to the person next to them. 'What do you think? Well, I donít know. Are you going to buy it? I donít know, but if you buy it Iíll buy it.' And then here, if they like you, people get up and dance on tables, you know! Thereís no holds barred.
And Iíve always appreciated that reaction and that support. Itís just, itís a riot playing for
American people! They love it. They love flag music."
Let's talk some more about your live shows and your love for the headrush foot pedal "Yeah, good research. Well done. So the headrush pedal came about because Iíd made the first album, but as nobody knew who I was I couldnít pay a band to come play around with me! So I just had to go out on my own. And couldnít face the thought of going
out with just a guitar after making this album. It just didnít make sense. I wanted to make more noise as I had a diversity to what I was doing."
"And Iíd seen a couple of
people ó particularly this Canadian guy called Son of Dave, heís an amazing blues
performer - use this pedal. And he doesnít play an instrument, he just playsÖ well he plays everything. He and uses a shaker and beat boxes, and then sings blues over the top. It was just fantastic. And so I got hold of one and just phoned my technical friend and worked out how
to get my voice and my guitar to it. And in a moment of genius in a sweaty rehearsal room on my own, I just thought if I bash the hell out of my guitar, surely Iíve got a drum machine in there somewhere to add. And that was basically where 'Black Horse' came from was
realizing that that actually worked!"
When people see you live it really gives the impression that there are many more people on stage! "Yeah, I know, itís a very cool little gadget. The reason I still really love using it is because itís so easy to get it wrong. Iíve done the Today Show maybe two or three times now, but I don't think anyone understands how hideously wrong that could go live on national American morning television," she laughs. "And it went really wrong the last time! I didnít record my beat. I
hadnít pressed the button properly, so when I pressed the button to play it, it played what Iíd recorded in the sound check!"
"Live on TV," she laughs once again. "And thankfully I got away with it, but I mean I could have been like shouting hairy Polish builders bum and that could have been repeated on the
Today Show. I was like, oh my God!"
Please tell us more about your new Target-sold-only CD "Yeah, I have a little Christmas EP out which I did for Target. That was such a laugh, because I hate Christmas music! And it was like the greatest challenge of all. I had to find some Christmas tunes that I liked and I did! '2000 Miles' by Pretenders, 'Fairytale of New York' by the Pogues, 'Mele Kalikimaka' by Bing Crosby. It was just wicked fun!"
Finally, whatís the best and worst thing about being KT Tunstall?! "Well, the best thing about it is not feeling like I just donít have to do a job. I do what I love doing and itís afforded me the life of being a musician and I couldnít ask for more. I love being a nomad, I love living out of a bag, I love meeting people, and I feel more at home on stage than I do anywhere else. Itís the
biggest thrill for me, getting on stage and playing a show and communicating with people Iíve never met before. Itís great."
"And then the worst thing is ... itís a hard question. Iím a pretty
positive person and Iím a die-hard optimist. So the worst thing would probably be regularly having to get up at like f**king four in the morning to get plane flights somewhere. Or like, you know, get myself from A to B and then be incredibly nice all day. Life is hard core!"
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
'Drastic Fantastic' CD Purchase Link
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