KT Tunstall comes out with a roar
By Naila Francis
It just may have been one of her strangest gigs yet.
With her third studio album, “Tiger Suit,” released last month, KT Tunstall hit the road for her fall North American tour in support of the new disc on Halloween. So she took to the stage of the Crystal Ballroom in Portland dressed as Kurt Cobain — and remained in costume for the entire show.
“It was a little bit weird, doing my first gig in the states dressed as someone else. I had my grungy blond wig on and I was, like, ‘There isn’t any opportunity for me to take this off.’ I actually really enjoyed it,” says Tunstall, who brings her headlining tour to the Trocadero in Philadelphia tonight. “Usually, I will do makeup for a gig, and this time, I was covering my face in blood. It was quite nice not having to look pretty for the gig.”
While it was definitely an unusual start to her tour, Tunstall has never been one to court convention. For years, the Scottish singer-songwriter seemed content busking, booking her own gigs and performing in several indie bands before she sassily stomped and strummed her way to attention with the irrepressible “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” as a last-minute replacement for Nas on the popular BBC music television show “Later … with Jools Holland.” The song was from her previous independently released album, “Eye to the Telescope,” which was promptly re-issued, going on to make her a household name in the U.K. before she entered the spotlight in the U.S. when fifth-season “American Idol” contestant Katharine McPhee performed the song on the show.
Tunstall’s career went into overdrive, as she kept up a steady pace of touring from the moment “Eye to the Telescope” hit it big in 2004 (it was released in the U.S. two years later) and well beyond the 2007 release of its follow-up, “Drastic Fantastic.”
“Tiger Suit” came after a much-needed break and in some ways feels like a reinvention. After plying a bluesy folk-rock and pop on previous efforts, Tunstall’s returned with a sound she has dubbed “nature techno,” smoothing out some of her gritty guitar rhythms and raw-edged emotion with sleek electronic beats aimed at the dance floor crowd. The disc was produced by Jim Abbiss (Kasabian, Arctic Monkeys, Adele) and recorded at Hansa Studios in Berlin, which also served as fertile innovative ground for U2’s “Achtung Baby” and David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
“What I really wanted to do was to bring my passion for dance music into the studio. I was writing these songs that would really benefit from some electronic treatment,” says Tunstall. “I’ve always loved electronica. I just never thought it was really going to work with what I did.”
She also never had the time to get comfortable in the studio. Having devoted most of her energy to playing live, she admits that until “Tiger Suit,” recording was just a vehicle to build an audience.
“It was the first time I fell in love with working in a studio and I really utilized the opportunity to experiment and not just be a slave to the way a song comes out,” she says. “This time I went, ‘There’s the song. What can I do to it and where do I want it to take me?’
“Every song ended up having a location for me. What I really wanted was for each song to just grab me by the scruff of the neck, pick me up and plop me somewhere else. I was using sound to suggest these places.”
Oftentimes, the location ended up somewhere between her obsession with rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Eddie Cochran and her passion for British electronica artist Leftfield.
“The idea of nature techno was a useful idea just to keep me on track and keep (the album) coherent,” says Tunstall. “I was also interested in reproducing club sounds organically. I think people often think that electronica and dance music can be quite impersonal and it can be — and some of that impersonal stuff is brilliant — but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to see if that element could be augmented with emotion.”
And so “Tiger Suit” still manages a keen lyricism, exploring everything from the pains of complacency and conformity to the scalding price of fame and celebrity.
Tunstall also proves a champion of hope and freedom from expectation, even while acknowledging that she seems to have become the perpetual purveyor of the cautionary tale.
“I don’t know where that comes from. It’s never something I’ll analyze. I’ll just sit down and write but certainly (‘Tiger Suit’) was deliberately introspective. What I wanted to happen was to take all of the doubt and all of the confidence crashes and basically distill it so it came out as a roar,” she says, admitting that she made a concerted effort to release her preoccupation with the opinions of others after “Drastic Fantastic” failed to generate the impressive sales of her debut.
“I wanted to come out fighting,” she says, pointing to the frenetic, billowing blues of the track “Push that Knot Away” as symbolic of the album’s theme of facing one’s fears instead of running from them.
“My second record I pretty much made on the hoof and had to just do it when and where I could because things were really kicking off. This was the first time I had a chance to step off the fun wheel and breathe for a minute and look at what happened and it was the first time I thought, ‘S—-, a lot of people are waiting to see what I do,’ ” she says. “I think you can choose to accept that pressure or not. And I just decided not to be concerned.”
She took a year and a half off after touring behind her sophomore album and spent about four of those months traveling India, South America and the Arctic. Album opener “Uummannaq Song,” with its throbbing, tribal groove, pays homage to a settlement on the west coast of Greenland, as well as her reinvigorated creativity. Tunstall visited Greenland with a group of scientists and other artists, including Feist, Martha Wainwright and Academy Award-winning Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, as part of a conservation project.
“It was important to me that that was the first song on the record,” she says. “The Arctic was the first trip I made after finishing touring. It was pretty brutal. I loved it; I loved the landscape and miss it very much and, at the same time, I was quite freaked out by being on a boat with all these amazing musicians who were holding mirrors up to my own creativity.
“It was really quite a harsh experience for me but I loved it as well. And I’m glad it happened. It was a kick up my arse.”
Returning to the music scene after what, by today’s standards, can feel like a lengthy absence, has been both humbling and exhilarating.
“It sort of has been a little bit like starting again. I needed to get the fire back in my belly to do it because as much as I love touring, it’s kind of dumb,” says Tunstall. “You essentially are going out and you know what you’re doing. It’s challenging in different ways … but making a record — you’re definitely out in the cold and it’s up to you what you make and you could go any direction. It’s great to be back in that creative space.”
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