I recently interviewed KT Tunstall, in anticipation of her trip to Australia. Here is the version that appeared in Inpress, Melbourne:ROB TOWNSEND TALKS TO KT TUNSTALL ABOUT AMERICAN IDOL, TOM WAITS, NORWEGIAN SPAM AND WHY YOU REALLY HAVE TO SEE HER LIVE
While your experience of Scottish singer KT Tunstall may not stretch much further than humming along to her single, Suddenly I See, during Ugly Betty or The Devil Wears Prada, she is absolutely massive the UK. Perfectly bridging the gap between indie (she writes all her own stuff, plays guitar and uses a loop pedal to spectacular effect in her live shows) and pop (her songs are insanely catchy), Tunstall is admired by chin-stroking critics and commercial radio stations alike. So it is with much fanfare that she rolls into town.
Excitingly for anyone who likes what they’ve heard from Tunstall, the vivacious singer reckons you ain’t seen nothin’ until you’ve taken in a live show. “I would say that the live experience is probably far superior to listening to the album (recent release, Drastic Fantastic),” she chuckles. “Making an album can be quite a painful experience for me. I totally do my best but I’m not someone who is particularly interested in the technical side of music in terms of learning how gear works. A gig is a momentary experience though. You can’t sell a gig. You can sell a copy of it, but I love the fact that you can’t touch it; it’s there and then it’s gone. With an album it’s much more calculated and I’m not very fond of that side of it. I’m working more and more at trying to capture on CD what I do live.”
Considering her adroitness in the live arena, I ask her if she tried to bring the gig experience into the studio for the recording of Drastic Fantastic. “I really wanted to but it would have meant a lot of time rehearsing with the band to get the tunes up to scratch. Unfortunately we didn’t really have a chance for the band to get really, really tight. We would have been trying out new stuff at gigs but I like keeping songs back so that the new album is fresh.” Tunstall goes on to explain the difficulties of playing embryonic material live in an era when the entire audience comes to a show armed with digital cameras. “I really like surprises. I like being able to bring out a song that people haven’t already heard for six months, and the thing which is really difficult these days which I wasn’t faced with five years ago is that you can’t play anything without it ending up on Youtube.” So nowadays, in order to prevent a brand new song getting its first exposure thanks to a distorted, blurry video recorded on a camera-phone, Tunstall keeps her cards close to her chest. “You can’t try out new songs now unless you are ready to have them uploaded, whereas I remember gigging for 15 years, trying out new songs to see how they’d go down and realising that maybe a song needed a different middle-eight. You can’t do that anymore because the song is available on the internet as soon as you play it.”Though this is Tunstall’s first Australian tour, a high billing at Bluesfest and sideshows at some sizeable venues, including Hamer Hall, suggests that her reputation as a dynamic live artist precedes her. This leads me wonder whether she is burdened by a weight of expectation. After all, her success in the UK started in a slow burning, word-of-mouth kind of way, whereas here she is diving straight in at the deep end. “It’s cool. I mean, I’d be worried if I was coming over and playing a venue that was only half-full. But for me it is absolutely brilliant that people want to see me play and are up for the gig. I absolutely relish the opportunity to play somewhere different. It should be great.”
Tunstall’s confidence shouldn’t really come as a surprise, as she has already achieved success in the toughest of all foreign markets, America. For someone who dislikes the more calculated and mercantile side of the industry, her breakthrough Stateside came through an unexpected source, American Idol, when eventual 2006 runner-up Katherine McPhee chose to twice perform Tunstall’s Black Horse and the Cherry Tree. “I’m sure everyone around Katherine McPhee was telling her she should sing Brown Eyed Girl or Like a Virgin, you know, but she sung this weird song that no-one had heard. It felt like a really healthy streak of personality and creative control from her and I was really happy for her to do it.” It was a gift that Tunstall simply couldn’t turn down; while her performance on David Letterman was viewed by two million people, American Idol showcased her songwriting ability to a whopping 40 million. “Apart from anything else, as a new artist who desperately wanted to tour America, I knew that I’d be a fucking idiot to say no.”
Since her organic success in the UK and her American breakthrough, the accessible, melodic nature of Tunstall’s songs has led to her receiving a zillion requests for her music to be used in all manner of adverts and TV shows. In keeping with her wariness of all things commercial, most of them are turned down. “I am incredibly wary of adverts,” she frowns. “The other day I got a request from Norwegian spam, which was just fantastic because I’m a vegetarian. So that was hilarious. I obviously said no. An American high school class said they’d give me $200 if they could use Suddenly I See as the backing track for their yearly DVD. Of course I said yes, but they didn’t have to give me $200.”
During our conversation, Tunstall comes across as quite possibly the nicest person in the whole world ever, making it easy to understand why so many people have fallen for her in such a big way. As we chew the fat about everything from her admiration of Australia’s Howling Bells to whether Tom Waits is better when he is sitting at a piano or “beat-boxing in a wardrobe,” it is clear that, above all, she has an unequivocal love of music, particularly live music, and it is obvious she is never happier than when standing on a stage with a guitar in her hands.
Indeed, given the choice it seems that people seeing her play live is far more important to KT Tunstall than them buying her albums. With a hearty laugh, she says: “If you’re going to do one or the other, I would say definitely buy a ticket to the gig.”
Or maybe you could do yourself a favour and do both.