KT Tunstall interview
Keeping it real
The music industry has a habit of grinding artists down with relentless workloads but KT Tunstall has made it through to the other side. Doug Johnstone meets her and finds an artist on the eve of the release of her second album who remains down to earth despite her million-selling, pop star status
Looking around the room gives a clear indication of the reason behind KT Tunstall’s remarkable success. Crammed into the boardroom at XFM Scotland’s headquarters in Glasgow are two dozen competition winners being treated to an intimate acoustic show from the diminutive Fife lass, and they couldn’t have a wider demographic.
Rubbing shoulders are timid teenagers, 20something wide boys, indie kids, young professionals, families, middle-aged couples and people approaching retirement, all of whom are captivated as Tunstall treats them to a few new songs and old favourites, her natural charisma and down-to-earth humour immediately closing the distance between performer and fans.
The combination of Tunstall’s music and persona is key to her success. She blends an unashamedly mainstream songwriting sensibility that can appeal to almost anyone with a refreshingly uncontrived attitude – she’s the millionaire pop star you could imagine being loads of fun over a few pints down your local.
As she chats with fans afterwards, slugging beer, signing things and graciously accepting gifts, it’s pretty obvious this is someone extremely comfortable with her place in the world.
We adjourn upstairs for the interview and Tunstall (first name Katie) remains charming and self-effacing, despite a handful of media types and press people fussing over her. The 32-year-old is beautiful in an unconventional way, her dark eyes drawing you in, and her enthusiasm for life is infectious. I notice she has the word ‘now’ scrawled across the face of her chunky watch in thick pen – maybe when you’re as famous as she is, you never have to know what the time is.
Having won umpteen awards (Ivor Novello and Brit awards, Grammy and Mercury nominations, among others) and sold four million copies of her debut album, Eye to the Telescope, Tunstall’s life has been turned upside down from her days as a struggling musician in Fife and Edinburgh, but she’s still brimming with a kind of naïve excitement at the world she finds herself inhabiting. That said, her success inevitably brings its own pressures.
‘I did a radio interview a while ago and said I didn’t know when the next record was coming out,’ she says. ‘I told them it might not be till the summer or autumn, even though it was meant to be out in the spring. My manager took me aside and said, “Katie, do you mind just saying it’s coming in spring, otherwise the record company’s share price is going to drop”. I said, “Don’t tell me that! I don’t need to know that!”’
It’s just what you don’t need when you’re working on that difficult second album. Happily that follow-up record is here now, a little late maybe, but well worth the wait. Drastic Fantastic is the sound of a musician stretching her wings. While maintaining the unerring ear for melody of its predecessor, it’s a more diverse record, which displays a breadth of sound and atmosphere only hinted at on Eye to the Telescope.
The bluesy rattle and thrum of lead single ‘Hold On’ is just a taster of what’s on offer. Elsewhere there is everything from the full-on pop romp of ‘Saving My Face’ to the slightly proggy and creepy melancholy of ‘Beauty of Uncertainty’, and the beautiful lo-fi closer ‘Paper Aeroplane’.
‘The first album was deliberately more contained,’ she says. ‘I wanted it to be a really traditional old school singer-songwriter record – Carole King’s Tapestry was my aspiration, an album that was open, friendly and inviting. For this album I thought me and Steve [Osborne, producer] would make this gritty, lo-fi, garage-sounding record, but it’s turned out totally the opposite. Having said that, it’s not too smooth – that would terrify me. I think it’s still got an edge; it’s still got crank on the electric guitar. I really feel like I’ve progressed, I’d be so angry with myself if I’d repeated what I’d done already just because it was successful.’
Another factor in her new expansive sound is her band. Tunstall is incredibly adept at solo performance, thanks in part to her loop pedal, affectionately called ‘Wee Bastard’. She demonstrated as much on what became her first big break, a show-stopping rendition of ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’ on Later with Jools Holland. If you need further proof of her remarkable talent, look no further than her jaw-dropping version of The Jackson Five’s ‘I Want You Back’ on YouTube.
For all that solo prowess, Tunstall also now has a hardened touring band behind her. Three years spent on the road with her band have created a more robust sound throughout Drastic Fantastic, which better reflects her on-stage confidence. Although a natural live performer, her skills honed through years of busking and touring as an unsigned unknown, her punishing worldwide tour schedule did take its toll eventually.
‘There have been days on the road, very rarely but a few, where I’ve just been so wasted and tired that when I went on stage the adrenaline didn’t kick in,’ she admits. ‘I just thought: “Oh no, this is bad news”, because the only way you can do all the nodding and grinning and interviews and all that is the pay-off of a gig at the end of it, and if I don’t have that . . .’
She tails off in what is about the only downbeat moment in our interview. Most of the time, though, Tunstall has a ball, touring the world, playing to packed houses and basically living out her dreams. The deluxe version of Drastic Fantastic comes with a fly-on-the-wall documentary made by a friend of hers who followed her on tour. It unsurprisingly reveals her to be a grounded, carefree individual who nevertheless can turn on the pop star charm when she hits the stage.
‘We were at a screening of it, and I got absolutely wasted because I didn’t realise how uncomfortable it would be actually watching me being me, and not me being KT,’ she laughs. ‘I was really freaked out and I was power drinking to get through it.’
I suggest it’s probably a good sign she was freaked out at the idea of watching a film about herself; at least she hasn’t succumbed to the narcissism so common among big stars. She laughs in agreement. Tunstall still very definitely sees herself as a musician first and foremost, and refuses to buy into celebrity culture.
‘That whole megastardom thing is absolutely about lifestyle not music, you can pretty much choose whether or not to get involved with the paparazzi and tabloids,’ she says. ‘I know for a fact that 95 percent of the people in tabloid magazines call them to tell them where they are. I was naïvely really shocked to hear that. If you go and get shitfaced in the same pub every single night, of course you’re going to get tabloids interested, the same as if you go and eat at The Ivy.
‘I didn’t realise that, and I took a friend to The Ivy because I’d never been able to afford that stuff before. We decided to have a really posh night out. I assume the doorman tipped off the photographers. When we walked out and got papped I was really shocked, and I didn’t like it one bit.’
Born in Edinburgh but adopted and raised in St Andrews, Tunstall has always been quick to identify her stable upbringing by her adoptive parents as the reason she remains grounded in the face of the ridiculousness of fame. Nevertheless, lifestyle and tabloid journalists continue to rake over the coals of her adoption, a fact she’s none too keen on.
‘What can I say? Some journalists are just really fascinated by my private life,’ she laughs grimly. ‘But I don’t want to hurt my family or friends, and I don’t want to hurt my biological mother and her family. It makes me feel shit if I say stuff that does them any kind of injustice at all, so I really can’t talk about those things, not because I don’t necessarily want to, but I really don’t think it’s fair. My friends and family are why I’m happy. If I’d sold millions of records but was on my own, it would be totally hollow and worthless.’
It no doubt also helps that Tunstall has been in a stable relationship with the drummer from her band, Luke Bullen, for several years, a relationship she is very open about.
‘It’s great being in a relationship with someone in the band,’ she says. ‘He’s a saint. It’s not easy going out with someone who does what I do, because it takes up so much time and leaves me so fried when I’ve got a day off. There is a lot of tolerance on his behalf. He totally keeps me sane, he helps me to look after myself in what is otherwise a pretty crazy life. It’s the nights when he’s not around, where I don’t care how I look and how wasted I get, that I get in an absolute wreck. You know, horrible car crash evenings where I wake up the next day and I’m so glad he didn’t see me like that.’
She laughs for the umpteenth time during the interview, slightly embarrassed about this admission, but not really, presumably because her relationship with Bullen, as with all her other relationships with family, friends and colleagues, is built on rock solid ground, much like Tunstall’s own endearing character. ‘It’s good to let go now and then, isn’t it?’ she says with a cheeky smile, and you can’t help but agree.
KT Tunstall plays Carling Academy, Glasgow, Tue 16 Oct; Corn Exchange, Edinburgh, Thu 18 Oct. Drastic Fantastic is out Mon 10 Sep.
Number ones and number twos
As KT prepares to unveil her second album to an expectant world it’s worth remembering that an artist’s sophmore set can be their making or their undoing. We take a rifle through the racks of great and not so great second albums in music history
Oasis - (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? Britpop might have kicked off with Blur’s Modern Life is Rubbish back in 1993 and Definitely Maybe remains the fan’s (and band’s) favourite, but this, the third biggest-selling album in UK recording history is Britpop’s defining moment.
Arctic Monkeys - Favourite Worst Nightmare How could they follow the fastest-selling debut of all time? By being bigger, louder and faster. Their debut remains, like Definitely Maybe, the Sheffield band’s creative peak.
The Stone Roses - The Second Coming The Roses’ first album effortlessly defined the baggy era, capturing the highs and the ocassional comedown. To follow it, Ian Brown and John Squire descended into a paranoiac hole for five years and came out with a pretty decent Led Zeppelin album. Not a great Stone Roses album though.
Elastica - The Menace You’d think Elastica would have learned from the mistakes of The Stone Roses. But no, in the five years following their fevered debut Justine Frischmann broke up with Damon Albarn, Britpop died, the band caved in under the weight of class As and they produced this muddled apology for a record.
The Darkness - One Way Ticket to Hell . . . Back The debut: five Kerrang! Awards, four BRIT awards, an MTV music award, a Smash Hits! award, and most incredibly, an Elle magazine award for Most Stylish Band. One million albums sold. The follow up: drugs, debauchery, disappointment and dissolution.
Public Enemy - It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back Coming into their stride after the bombastic but scattergun debut Yo! Bum Rush the Show, Public Enemy returned with this lyrical, musical powerhouse, the most critically acclaimed and celebrated rap album of all time.
Travis - The Man Who After the well-intentioned but poor selling debut Good Feeling, Travis were about to be dropped by their label. They went away, wrote some new songs and returned wth ‘Driftwood’, ‘Writing to Reach You’, and of course ‘Why Does It Always Rain on Me?’ The Man Who became their multimillion-selling masterwork.
Nirvana - Nevermind To many people, Nevermind is Nirvana’s debut. Its predecessor Bleach cost $900 to make and snuck out in 1989 – Black Sabbath riffs wrapped in Beatles melodies. Kurt Cobain would perfect the formula with its follow up. It went down pretty well indeed.