Eyes to the Skies
by Jay S. Jacobs
Is it possible that the next big thing in music is a thirtyish woman from Scotland? An adopted daughter of a scientist who had no real interest to speak of in music? An iconoclast who became a figurehead of a local music scene where lack of commercial success was considered a badge of honor? A busking guitarist who played guitar on streets all over Europe and once got a quid from a member of then British supergroup Take That?
Welcome to the fascinating life of KT Tunstall. The initials don’t mean anything, by the way. She just thought it looked better than her given name Kate, which Tunstall felt was too reminiscent of English roses and Dickens novels. Tunstall never imagined music as a vocation until her mid-teens when she went to boarding school in the US, but she has been making up for lost time ever since.
Tunstall started her first band when a student in Connecticut. Then at sixteen, she got a rail pass and decided to travel around Europe to see the sights and play her guitar. She first really popped out on the music scene back in her homeland. Tunstall became a respected indie artist and lived with then-boyfriend Pip Dylan while they tried to release artistically relevant music that the world probably would never get. There was an unofficial competition in the scene to get the lowest sales – it proved that you were willing to suffer for your art. However, Tunstall finally realized that while it was romantic to be a starving artist, she really wanted to be able to eat and pay rent, so maybe she should take the idea of getting her music heard more seriously.
She has had several near misses as far as label signings before – in fact, Sony honcho Tommy Mottola was on the verge of signing her when he ended up leaving the label in the dispute. However, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and Tunstall kept on keeping on, not listening to the people telling her that younger girls are the ones that get signed. Good thing she didn’t pay attention, because she finally connected with a label and had her opportunity.
Her major-label debut album, Eye to the Telescope, was originally released in late 2004 in Europe. It had a slow burn, quietly working its way up the charts. Suddenly Tunstall was everywhere – she had hit singles with the amazingly hooky and unique songs “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” “Suddenly I See,” “The Other Side of the World” and “Under the Weather.” Then Tunstall won the Brit Award (the UK equivalent of the Grammys) as Best British Female Solo Artist. (Tunstall insisted on stage that is should be shared with fellow nominee Kate Bush.) Ironically, at the Awards she ran into former Take That member Mark Owen and reminded him that he had given her the pound when she was out there busking. He laughed and said that if his comeback doesn’t work out, he may have to get it back.
Eye to the Telescope finally made it to the US in late 2005 – with a new cover because the European cover had Tunstall wearing some quirky rainbow suspenders that she found and liked, only later to be told that they were a signal of lesbianism. Tunstall respects and loves her lesbian following, but she is in a long-term relationship with her drummer boyfriend Luke Bullen.
Like in Europe, the album has had a slow burn but is gradually ingratiating itself into the American conscious. The first single, “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” is currently firmly entrenched in the US Top 40 and there are a few potential follow-ups just waiting, particularly the nearly perfect folk pop ditty “Suddenly I See.”
Her music is making inroads on other levels than the record stores and radio, too. Television has embraced her music. American Idol finalist Katharine McPhee performed “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” twice on the impossibly popular talent contest. This exposure certainly helped; “Black Horse” was already on the way up the charts, but it exploded into the top 30 when it was on the show. The producers of the smash doctors’ melodrama Grey’s Anatomy picked up on “The Other Side of the World,” using it conspicuously in a recent episode of the series.
As Tunstall’s album and single rocket up the charts, she took the time to talk to us about her life as a breaking star.
How did you originally get into music?
Well, it didn’t take much effort. (laughs) I was purportedly just addicted to anything that was playable at a very, very early age. Then eventually I persuaded my parents to get me a piano when I was around six or seven. They bought me a second-hand piano and it got put in my room and I started lessons. The proper start of getting into music was classical training, really.
I’ve read your parents were not particularly musical – at least as far as in their professions. Was it a musical household?
No. We didn’t listen to music. They still don’t have a stereo system. They’ve got a tape player and a CD player for playing my album, but they don’t have a record collection. Listening to music wasn’t a big part of growing up for me at all.
Could you ever imagine when you were growing up in St. Andrews your life going like it has?
Well, the thing was I was really into theater. There was a little grass roots theater group run by a local couple. A local composer would write musicals for us. There was like twenty kids in it. I could hold a tune, but I wasn’t a little singing prodigy or anything like that. I loved to perform. I loved acting. I was doing well, you know, I think, as far as the acting side went. I was sticking out a bit and getting some main parts. I started that when I was eight. So, performance was immediately a very addictive thing to me.
For many years you were out busking and having near misses as far as signing a recording contract. In the past slightly over a year, you’ve had several hits in Europe. You won Best Female Artist at the Brits. Now over a year on from the original release of Eye to the Telescope you are breaking out in the US as well. How surreal has your year been?
It’s been magical. It’s just been the most incredible year of my life. But then, in the same breath, it’s taken me the best part of ten years to try and get somewhere with it. So much of the feeling is one of vindication and just feeling like all that time spent trying was worth it.
Do you feel more ready to deal with the whole stardom thing now than you would have when you almost signed with Columbia years ago?
Oh, yeah. If this had happened to me when I was young; A) I don’t think I would have made as good a record and B) I’d just be a mess. I think it would just be too much. You get to thirty and you have a much better idea of what you want – and just as importantly, what you don’t want. It’s a real relief to me that it’s taken so long. (laughs)
Is the title of the album a tribute to your childhood and your father?
It is, yeah. My dad was a physicist. He used to take us to the local observatory when we were kids and show off astronomical wonders through the telescope. (laughs) It was just an analogy, really for what the album is about. Just focusing in on these small things and revealing how big they actually are.
In “Under the Weather,” you sing in the chorus, “feels like home…” to show comfort and satisfaction. What feels like home to you?
Just friends, basically. Wherever friends and family are. I’m not really that into astrology, but my star sign is remarkably apt, actually. I’m a Cancer, but I’m right at the beginning of the sign. So, I’m part Gemini. Someone was explaining this to me. Basically, Cancerians love nesting. They have to have home. I very much relate to that. I feel if I didn’t know I had my little flat back in London, I would be very unhappy. It’s really important to me that when I go home, I walk in the door and that’s where I belong. It’s familiar. It’s grounding. At the same time, I have this Gemini thing, where one minute I’ll be wanting to stay in with my pajamas on and the next minute I’ll want to be out clubbing until five in the morning and drinking whiskey backstage with boys. I have this definite duplicity to my personality.
In your music in general when the songs turn to love, I noticed a lot of the time the relationships are positive, like “Under the Weather,” “Through the Dark,” “Heal Over” and “Black Horse.” It’s funny, but in general it seems writers tend to spend more time on relationships that are in trouble or dying…
Well, part of that is it doesn’t excite me to write morose, shoegazing songs, in general. If I’m going to write a song like that, then it’s got to be really, really special. It’s much easier to write a sad song. I don’t know, it’s just I’m allergic to clichés. I think that in itself can be a cliché, just writing a depressing love song. I don’t enjoy playing them. I’m not interested in airing dirty laundry for the sake of it. For me it’s got to have a window and it’s got to have a light at the end.
I read in an interview that you said the production of the album was far from your more traditional early sound. Why did you decide to make that leap in your sound?
Well, I think what I’ve ended up sounding like; I wouldn’t describe it as more slick and more commercial. I would say that it grew up, because basically I was playing picking folk stuff when I was younger. I was hanging out with some quite eccentric folk musicians in Fife, where I’m from, and in St. Andrews. I kind of realized I wasn’t writing weird folk music. What I was writing was more accessible and more upbeat. So, I moved to Edinburgh, and I set up a music night and I got a band together – a three-piece rock band. That wasn’t really reaching its potential either. I was feeling stuck, so I packed that in and finally went to London. Meeting Steve (U2 and New Order producer Steve Osborne) and working with Steve is a huge part of it, because we listened to a lot of old blues when we were working on the record. It was an incredibly frugal setup. We recorded the album very, very cheaply. It was made for a fraction of the cost of your usual big deal album. We took a lot of inspiration from these old blues guys – Bo Diddley and that kind of thing. Listening to it just being stripped back and simple and not just throwing in pads of sound. You know, I think there’s strings on one tune. It’s on “The Other Side of the World.” Steve basically injected this… he was the first person I worked with that allowed me to be aggressive on the guitar. Before, people, when I did demos they said, “you have to carom down on your guitar to let the other instruments out.” Steve’s like, “no, no, no. You carry on doing what you’re doing. Make it play for you, you know?” Really it was in the post-production of the album that it got mixed so that it sounded much more expensive than it actually was. (laughs)
As far as airplay, you’re sort of lucky that you live in Europe. In the US, radio playlists are so regimented these days. It’s surprising nowadays when a song like “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” breaks through, but you used to be able to hear rock, pop, country, and soul on the same station and that just doesn’t happen anymore. Do you think that can make it tougher for a band to find an audience?
Yeah. I think that the competition is incredibly fierce today. So, I imagine that the amount of effort that has to be put in trying to break through is much greater than perhaps you had ten years ago. Because the market is absolutely saturated with people desperate to try and get through. Now you’ve got these TV reality shows that are taking up a large percentage of the space that used to be taken up by people that write their own stuff. And, like me, spent a long time trying to get there. So, it’s becoming even more difficult now to get through, because you have so much money marketing and promoting these TV acts and taking up a lot of the space. Really, I think the most important thing is being sure it’s about being a vocational musician. It’s not about being famous and it’s not about being loaded. It’s about getting yourself into a position where you can play gigs and people will come. That’s all I wanted, so the actual level of the success the album has enjoyed is quite surprising. It wasn’t necessarily intended. (laughs)
On the other hand, there are a lot of new ways for music to get out there – the internet…
Yes, the internet is amazing…
Also, I’ve heard “Black Horse” on commercials for that show Pepper Dennis, and I noticed a bump up of airplay for the song when Katharine McPhee performed it on American Idol.
Yes, that’s right.
They also used “Suddenly I See” on Windfall and “The Other Side of the World” on Grey’s Anatomy. Do you think these alternative avenues can help open up the audience?
Yeah. Yeah. Oh God, yeah. Obviously. Television is the messenger these days. I mean, I don’t have a television anymore; I haven’t had one for about three years. I forgot how incredibly far-reaching television really is. As a new artist, it’s amazing – to be able to play to 200 people in February and then to be able to play to 2,000 people in April. All these people. I’ll do these album signings and meet and greet things and they’re like, “Oh I heard your song on this, or I heard it on this, or I saw it on Desperate Housewives… And I bought the album and I love your album…” It’s become a really, really good way for a new artist to be heard.
I’ve seen your influences sited in different stories as such diverse artists as Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Ella Fitzgerald, and the Beta Band. Do you think this wide taste makes it easier or harder for you as an artist?
To what extent?
To give you more of a palette to work with as far as styles and genres?
Yeah, I think it probably [does]… The good thing is because I didn’t get into listening to music until I was quite a lot older… I was seventeen, sixteen… I mean I was obviously aware of music on the radio and the television and stuff like that. But I wasn’t a big fan of anything until I was a bit older. I think that’s allowed me to explore and hasn’t hemmed me in. It’s not like I’ve grown up addicted to Northern Soul. That’s obviously going to affect what you create yourself. I started out with a pretty blank page which is good. There’s often something really good, creatively, about being isolated from stuff.
Another influence I read for you is Tom Waits. I wrote a book about him…
So, I always like to ask people I interview what they think of his work. What do you think of him as a fellow songwriter and performer?
I think Tom Waits is really great. He’s just the King of independents. He’s just an absolute bastion of purist music. I have to say I’m not as militant as Tom Waits. I also don’t write stuff as experimental as Tom Waits. But I’m just so delighted that we live in a world where he is a widely, very celebrated man. In a world where this industry is becoming more and more controlled and less and less creative, it seems [nice] that he’s still increasingly popular. One of the first records I bought for myself was Bone Machine. I bought Bone Machine and I also bought Blue by Joni Mitchell at the same time. I’m trying to create the bastard offspring of these two albums. I always want to try to get this lo-fi masculinity to the music if I can. Because I love that sound.
I saw on your website a tease that you’re releasing a CD/DVD called Acoustic Extravaganza. What’s that going to be?
Yes. Well, that’s out now, actually. It was just something I really wanted to do. We’d been playing the record for about a year in the UK and still very much enjoying it. The band and I are very keen to allow the material to mature. So, it’s not like we’re kind of desperately bored of playing the same shit again and again. We do kind of progress with it. But I just really wanted to do some recording live. Just get together, I think probably just to ground myself just a little bit and really get back to basics. Enjoy just playing together. Also, because we hadn’t been a unit as a band when we made the record. We’ve become something very solid through gigging the record. I wanted to document that. So, we went to the Isle of Skye, which is just off the west coast of Scotland – one of my favorite places in the world. A friend of ours has a studio in the basement of his house. We set up in his living room and he drilled a hole in the floor, and we set the multi-core up through the floor. Then we all just sat and played. We recorded it in a day. My good friend from college who’s a filmmaker came up and made a little DVD. It was really a brilliant experience. I’m very proud of what we did.
Well, you were saying earlier about how great the internet is. I was reading your tour diary on your web site. Do you like the fact that you can find out what your fans think through things like your site or bulletin boards or Myspace or whatever?
Well, that’s exactly it. It’s just knowing what your fans think. I set up that website well before I had a record deal and it’s changed very little. It’s just got more traffic. I hate that word traffic when you’re talking about people visiting web sites. I mustn’t say that. Other people say that. People visiting web sites. (laughs) No, but it’s very important to me to keep a handle on what people are making of what I’m doing. Not that it would necessarily change what I do, but I think – you know, it’s easy to just disappear up your arse. It also just leaves a handle on how much it means to people. That’s great. I really get a lot from keeping in communication with people who are into what I’m doing. It’s a great source of confidence, apart from anything else.
In the end, in the big picture, how would you like people to see your music?
Just honest. I just do what comes out and I don’t fight it. I make sure I’m just doing the best I can. It’s important to me that people see it as sincere, I suppose.
Copyright ©2006 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: May 27, 2006.
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