KT Tunstall - Interview
Interview with KT Tunstall August 2013
Singer-songwriter and guitarist, KT Tunstall found fame performing as a solo artist on 'Later with Jools Holland' in 2004. The performance was notable as she used a loop pedal (which she would later use live) to essentially become a one woman band, amazing the UK viewers and topping the post-poll on the website for that episode.
Since then the Scottish sensation has released five studio albums ranging from alternative, acoustic pop to a more recent mellow folk sound.
KT discusses her latest album, her appreciation for vinyl and how she is a self confessed movie buff and a massive Game of Thrones fan.
CM: Hello KT, how are you?
KT: Yes, good thank you.
CM: Glad to hear it. Your album Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon has been released in the UK, what's the reception been like?
KT: It's been very enjoyable! It seems to have had a really positive response from lots of different corners. It's quite ironic that it's the album I've chosen not to read any press about because it sounds like it's all been quite good.
From fans certainly, it's been really positive. It feels like the album that people have been waiting for me to make.
CM: Obviously, the lyrical content is very emotional and you've had a couple of traumatic circumstances that we personally sympathise with (KT recently lost her father and went through a divorce with ex-husband, Luke Bullen) have you found music therapeutic?
KT: Yes, I think so. I've always tried to avoid music being direct therapy, and I've always found there's a power when you write something that can have its own interpretation - although I'm not being intentionally evasive.
Despite the songs on the album being massively personal, it was very easy to write, it came very naturally. I think the songs came out with enough push and pull to them in terms of the meaning, where it wasn't all doom and gloom.
For example, the first half of the record was written before anything had happened. I think listening to it, you would totally think that quite a few of those songs are about losing my Dad, which they're not. A few months later these songs had this really strange, precognitive fortune telling aspect, where it felt my subconscious knew what was going to happen. They weren't specifically about those things so it kind of made it easier for me to sing them. They're about broader things rather than specifics.
I've always had a tendency to keep an emergency exit in a song. I can't remember ever writing a song that is completely and thoroughly depressing; there's always been a way out somehow. A sense of hope in song, regardless of the subject matter. I think there is optimism to what I write.
CM: With the album being split into two parts, was the change in musical tone intentional or did it develop naturally through life experience?
KT: It was a really natural occurrence. It completely made sense at the time.
It was two, ten day recording sessions - one in April and one in November. I went out in April without really saying "Right, let's make an album", but Howe [Gelb] and I met in February, on a tour that was organised by Robin Hitchcock. I think he sensed that I was at a time in my life where I really needed to do something different with my music - I needed to approach it from a different angle. I was definitely starting to get frustrated with the formulaic approach to record making, which is easy to fall into on a major label, because you go into a well known studio with a well known producer and you make music that will hopefully compete - which is such a terrible word when you're attaching it to art! I didn't want to make music like that anymore, so Howe was the perfect wingman to work with because he's never been involved with that way of making music, ever. So it was great to have someone who had no attachment to that formula of making music and to leave that altogether.
I made the first half in April, and even then I wasn't sure it was an album - I'd written eight or nine songs in the two months since meeting him. I played them to Nick Burgess at Universal and he was very encouraging from the start. He knew who I was, which was amazing because not many people do over here and he immediately said: "This is the album. This is great" so I was really surprised that he was so into it because it was quite a change in direction in terms of my output in the past.
Everything happened over the summer and I went back out in November. By the time I went back out I felt like a different person.
It would be really interesting to get someone's opinion of the record not knowing that it was in two halves and seeing if they recognise the shift. I listened to the record on the plane back from LA the other day, listening for that reason - "Can I hear that shift?" and I still can because the music changes for me; it goes very widescreen and becomes quite cinematic, the orchestration changes and I'm much bolder with my arrangement and usage of instruments. I think the music itself becomes more emotional.
CM: Are you able to listen to your music from a third person perspective?
KT: I actually listened to my vinyl copy of Drastic Fantastic, because I kind of promised myself I would listen to my older albums more frequently. You've got such an emotional relationship with the making of them and I've not really loved working in the studio until Tiger Suit, so it's always difficult to listen to them. The first two albums were quite a struggle for me to make because I was not massively comfortable singing in a studio. I much preferred live. There was a shift on Tiger Suit which was an adventure - the voice was an instrument like anything else on that album and I got really into being in the studio. So this album was a beautiful merge of the two because it was reel to reel tape - it was all live performance and that was revelatory for me because I'd always struggled to get that performance aspect in because there's no audience, so the tape machine becomes the audience - it becomes the person you want to impress. It's capturing what's happening and you've got to get it right because you can't go in and edit anything.
It was incredibly rewarding to make this album with live takes. Made of Glass was a beautiful one take wonder experience where we were all relaxed, felt good, sat down and recorded it and that was it. I can't really see myself from going back from that process because it changed everything. I was so delighted to come off working on a computer.
CM: The album was recorded in Arizona, what was it like working and living in America?
KT: I've always felt at home in America. Obviously, there's down sides to everywhere - the politics of America can be hard to take but it's not great here either. I really love the country's landscape and I've travelled it many times.
CM: 'Suddenly I See' was used as Hillary Clinton's campaign song, how do you feel about this?
KT: I felt very strongly a democratic government would be good for America. As a non-US citizen it was my way of that happening. My faith in politics is very low at the moment. I'm yet to be persuaded to believe it makes a huge difference to who's in power.
CM: You mentioned owning your records on vinyl. Could the two names of the album also represent the two sides of a traditional vinyl record?
KT: Yeah, for sure. It's definitely homage to vinyl and it was really necessary to me for this record to be released on vinyl, because of it being recorded to tape and the vocals being recorded onto river mics which is a beautiful way of recording vocals which isn't used very often because if you shout into it, you break it. Because this is a mellower album I was able to use them. The sound of it had to be on vinyl.
I've been listening to a lot of vinyl myself and really loving the breather where you turn the record over and end up digesting the record in two halves. I love the fact that you can start with the B side of the record.
I was talking to Dermot O'Leary at Cambridge Folk Festival about how you do often put the B side on first because sometimes you don't even look. We were thinking 'I bet when vinyl was the common way people digested music, artists were really aware of what the first track of the B side was' because it's basically another first track. The first one we looked up was Michael Jackson's Thriller and it was Billie Jean - it was a pretty good example. Mind you, you can't really lose with that record. It was an interesting experiment to go back and look at the first track on B sides.
CM: You described your latest album as having a mellower sound. Do you think this has affected the demographics of your fan base?
KT: Yeah, I think so. This album is definitely my severing of any needs of approval from any particular corner of my life, which was a huge, positive step forward and was very liberating. With this record, particularly working with Howe, it has been a really liberating experience, to not think about that anymore. It's been really great. A lot of older people have appreciated the sound. It's definitely got an Americana soul to it, so it seems to have hit home well in America but certainly I'm getting a lot of messages on Twitter and Facebook from a lot of younger people saying how much they're enjoying it.
I did a concert at Gawsworth Hall in Cheshire the other day and there was a five year old girl singing all the lyrics of the old material and I'm thinking 'She wasn't even born when this was released' and then there's this seventy year old man banging his stick, singing all the lyrics to the new stuff and that was really rewarding for me, I've never set out to be exclusive with what I've written. I've always written for myself and whoever likes it, likes it.
I was really inspired when I sang some backup vocals on King Creosote and John Hopkins tour of Diamond Mine which was nominated for a Mercury. I think that's an absolutely staggering album - it's so beautiful and I took a lot of faith from being involved in those gigs because people were obviously in need of emotional music. It was great seeing people taking in this very gently, crafted, beautiful music and needing it and wanting it and absorbing it. It wasn't necessary to get everybody jumping up and down and sweating.
CM: You've previously performed by yourself and with guest guitar players and a band. What can people expect on your latest tour?
KT: I'm going to be touring solo. I've had a chat with my booking agent and said "This album is destined to play in great spaces, and because it's solo, let's get out of the normal venues and do something excited - let's go for theatres and symphony halls and interesting art spaces" so we're playing in some really cool venues and doing Theatre Royal on Drury Lane for the London gig, which I'm really excited about because I've always wanted to play West End Theatre. So lots of really interesting rooms which will compliment playing that way. I like the idea of getting people into places they may have not been.
CM: You've previously performed with guest guitarists such as Daryl Hall and Seasick Steve. If you could collaborate with any artist, who would it be?
KT: I think it would have to be Thom Yorke. He's my favourite song writer. I'm so impressed by the different things that he's doing and exploring. I went to see Radiohead in London and Paris last year and was just completely, completely blown away. It was the most transporting gig I've been to.
CM: Could you briefly describe the very epic and impressive Invisible Empire music video?
KT: The epic theme of Game of Thrones. I'm a massive Game of Thrones fan.
CM: Was the music video your own, personal idea?
KT: It was my idea, yes. It's been really great with this record. It's been the purest experience I've had where the record company allowed me to be myself and come up with my own idea for things. I'd written the treatment for the video and was looking for a director who could really bring it to life and Chris Turner did exactly that. He really crafted my idea into something really special.
CM: Have you ever considered yourself a possible film maker?
KT: I'd really love to try directing. Certainly, when I think of seeing something on film I have a very clear idea of what shots I want to see, so I think I'd love to have a go at it. I'm going to try and make a couple more films for tracks on the album as a little, film side project. There might be an opportunity to do that then.
CM: Obviously, you've been very busy with touring and album promotion but what do you do on your days off?
KT: I've got very good at relaxing. I'm a big film buff so I'll probably be watching a film. I'm really into my comics as well! I've just revisited my original Frank Miller 300 series which is totally awesome!
CM: Obviously, you've had a difficult era, how would you like to see yourself coming out of it and what would you like your future to hold?
KT: I feel like that's happened. The record has been my vehicle out of something very difficult. It's been a real help to me that it was so easy to make and essentially took 20 days of my time. I'm amazed that I managed to make a record in the middle of it but because it was so easy and quick to make, it ended up being a real strength for me. It's floated me out of it quite effectively where I'm able to express myself and still be involved in what I enjoy doing and getting out there and touring. It feels like a very positive thing - It feels like worth going out and cheering.
CM: Thank you for speaking with us!
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