KT Tunstall is a sparkling new songwriter with Chinese blood, a Scottish heart, great legwarmers and a cool name – “well, it’s got a bit more attitude than Kate which just says farmer’s daughter to me,” she laughs. KT celebrates classic singer-songwriting in the tradition of Rikki Lee Jones, Carol King and Fleetwood Mac with an articulate, accessible, immediate brew of rootsy sass, wistful quandary and after-hours atmosphere. The latest in a line of outstanding contemporary Scottish songwriters including Texas, Fran Healy, Teenage Fanclub and The Beta Band, KT’s unique perspective offers a rare emotionally connecting intensity through it’s gripping lyrical bite and heartfelt melody.
We interview KT Tunstall!
HIP: I hope I have this right—but did you go to school in Connecticut for a short time?
KT TUNSTALL: Yes, I went to school in Kent. It was a very small town. [We shortly discussed where I lived and how close it is to where she went to school] I got a scholarship for a year. It was a really big deal for me as far as my music development because I just started to write music before I went. I had been writing for a couple of years, but it opened the flood gates. I had my first band and played on the streets for the first time and started doing my first gigs.
Was it nerve-racking?
I wasn’t nervous. My family traveled a lot and always kept me on a long leash. I was traveling all around Europe by the time I was sixteen and doing my thing. I was totally read to fly out of the nest at that point.
Then you went back to London to go to school—what was the time frame between that and making the album?
It was about eight years—nine years in fact.
I think a lot of people will think you are a new artist.
People tend to think I’m early 20’s which is great—it’s a sign of good genes. I think it’s really important that I’m this age and I think I’ve made a better record because of it. And I’m more stubborn to remain myself and keep my integrity and not let others make decisions for me.
On top of that you made an album with depth.
At twenty you have the material and experience to write five albums from falling in love for the first time, having sex, and leaving home but it takes a long time to work out how to express yourself and not sound like someone else.
At the same time you can talk about having sex but you are going to say it like that and not express it in a different way.
Some people can, like Kate Bush who wrote “The Kick Inside” at fifteen. It’s just too good for someone that age to have that insight. But it’s rare to find people who are able to express themselves when they are really young.
I don’t know how old Billy Joel was when he started, but he had that.
I don’t know either.
I think his songs were deeper then ten years later.
That is interesting. (Laughs)
I think he wanted to make more money.
That’s the thing I’m told by everyone; that money can change you and to be careful. But I think, as I said, when you get older you are set in your ways and your priorities are different—mine are friends and family. So you have to be aware.
If you were twenty you’d be blowing all the cash.
I’d be a mess Charlie—I’d be in rehab. (We both laugh)
Did you have a record deal when you were making the record?
I started to make the record without a record deal—it was being funded by my publisher Sony. I realized it wasn’t going to work and that I would need a record company to get this thing on the shelf and to make a career and play at gigs. That was the main thing. The main reason I signed a record deal was so I didn’t have to photocopy flyers and pay to get people to come to shows. I wanted to have that done for me. In the mean time I would write more music and put a great show together and work with a band. So yeah, that is what has happened and it was great.
What was the publishing deal?
For a publisher it’s a great thing to sell people’s songs and maybe sell millions of copies. They never asked me to write songs for someone else. It was an important source of confidence.
Did the album get a big kick because the song was American Idol [the song was “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” performed by Katharine McPhee].
People must have searched for it because they didn’t announce the song title—I don’t think.
It was great because more people know who you are. It’s easier to get on a television show in the UK and a majority of people see it. In the states even if you are on a show it only represents pockets of people and you can’t just do America in one sweep. It’s a really big place and coming from a little island it’s hard to fathom.
It can be very daunting for artists that come to the States for the first time. I love UK artists I have to admit. I’ve seen a lot of them in very small venues in the Midwest. I saw Travis in a theater with 100 people.
I love Travis. I just did a track with them on their new album.
That is amazing. I’m curious about the song title “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and where it came from—I don’t care to know what it’s about because I think that spoils a song.
I really appreciate that because I hate to say what a song is about. I love the fact that listeners can form their own idea.
The title came from when I was in Greece, when I was a teenager. I was on a little moped and there was a day when there was really bright sunshine and I was firing through this olive grove and I saw this massive black stallion had broken loose and was bucking and rearing and just going crazy and it was the most apocalyptic image. It was crazy looking at this giant horse and these tiny little trees. I supposed that must have surfaced in a different form. It was a good analogy for good and bad.
The title definitely sticks with you.
It’s a weird title. It’s one where I didn’t analyze it. That is what came out. I got Neil Young on his ass. Neil Young is like “that’s what came out—that’s what it should be.” There are a lot of stories within that song—but it’s really about the devil at the crossroads—and what do you do.
Are you the same about lyrics where you don’t want to know what a song is about?
It changes. You also progress as a writer. When I was younger I did a lot of automatic writing where something would just pop out and you wouldn’t know where the song would go. The songs would just pop out in ten minutes and I would be so wrapped up in the tune and the words came so quickly—but now it’s more important to have a deeper content. I’m still impulsive and there is a feeling that you should respect the subconscious, but at the same time it needs to say something.
Do you see songwriting as magical?
I think it’s magical, definitely. It’s like the songs are there already and ready to be plucked out of the air. Then one day you see one and you grab it.
+ Charlie Craine