Now more than ever, career longevity is an elusive phenomenon for most recording artists. However, there have been some who have broken through and maintained a consistent breadth of attention among the music buying public. One such artist is KT Tunstall.
Bursting onto the scene with her bluesy-pop smash “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”—and its accompanying album Eye to the Telescope—in 2004, Tunstall has rarely relented during the fourteen years since her initial breakthrough. A stream of accomplished follow-ups—Drastic Fantastic (2007), Tiger Suit (2010), Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon (2013)— have come in quick succession, building on the strengths of each previous effort. Then there is Tunstall’s sterling reputation as a live performer; she maintains the energy and pace she projects on her records into a live environment with an unparalleled ease.
Tunstall’s most recent release WAX is the second installment of an ambitious album trilogy that got its start just two years ago with the gorgeously melodic KIN (2016). Amidst the busy promotional calendar for WAX and setting off on the American leg of her new record’s corresponding tour, Tunstall generously devoted time to speak with me about a wide range of topics spanning spiritual rejuvenation, the idea of tempo, how WAX came to life “on the wax” and much more.
Quentin Harrison: Congratulations on WAX! Was it always your intention to do an album trilogy, connecting WAX with your preceding album KIN? If not, what caused WAX to evolve and become that second conceptual step?
KT Tunstall: I’d basically gone through a lot of soul searching and a lot of healing due to my dad passing away, getting a divorce, selling everything I own—just completely restarting my life. So, KIN was a bit unexpected, I thought I wasn’t going write a record for awhile, but I did. It was a real “phoenix from the ashes,” a real triumphant record about the spirit and the soul transcending the shit in your life. You know, you end up grateful for the difficulties (in your life) because it all teaches you so much. I ended up with a connection to gratitude for simple things because you’ve felt what it’s like to be in peril.
After releasing the record, meditation was definitely part of the process of preparing myself while I was on the tour for KIN. And so, this was in the early days of the tour that I’d gone out and sat in the sunshine in Nashville at Centennial Park, and I spent half an hour under a tree meditating. Then, I opened my eyes and had this very, very strong vision that this (KIN) was part one in a trilogy. That I should make three records, all with three-letter titles and they should be about soul, body and mind.
And the other thing was that I felt this frustration about the length of time between records and that it had always been three years between releasing records. That’s kind of too long for my output, I write quicker than that. The momentum just gets lost when it’s that amount of time and it’s quite exhausting to get the machine working again leaving that long between.
So, I was actually thinking, ‘why don’t I just spend the next few years motoring and take the pedal to the metal and make a lot of work?’ In some ways, although it’s a lot of work, it’s sometimes easier than that rollercoaster ride of “dip and height” with separate albums. And I love trilogies! I love getting a deeper, longer view of an idea. I also work well under pressure, so giving myself deadlines or setting up a challenge actually ups my output, which worked brilliantly with WAX. It was probably the quickest record I’ve ever written.
QH: Tempo is central to your work as a writer, vocalist and arranging your album tracklisting sequences. How do you strike this balance in your output so well?
KT: I’ve never struggled with live setlists, but I’ve always struggled with album tracklistings. For some reason, I find an album tracklisting much harder than making a setlist. It’s certainly very important how the tempos sit next to each other on a tracklisting and on a setlist. But, regardless, I want to take you on a journey, I want to challenge how you feel and how you respond. I want a record to shift you, where you kind of get on the ride and it takes you somewhere. It’s also an effort to not allow a record to just be background music.
Now, I think tempo for me when I’m recording is an exceptionally important part. You usually don’t take that long to get it “right,” you just play and play and play and make sure that the verse and chorus are both feeling right at the time. If not, I just let it go where it wants to go. Tempo is such an intrinsic part of getting a song right.
QH: Talk about working with Nick McCarthy, your producer, on WAX.
KT: I knew with this record that I wanted to make something very visceral and very raw. There are situations in the studio when you’re working with a producer where you’re actually going to have to work quite hard to keep it raw, as the producer is going to do what they do to make it “professional,” if you like. So, I knew I was going to have to work with someone who was going to stay really true to WAX being, basically, a garage record. You know, it has been augmented, but that is the spirit of it, so Nick McCarthy is a brilliant indie-rock musician himself and I knew he’d have that sensibility.
I went to see him at his studio and his studio was a garage [laughs], it’s just full of old synthesizers, vintage guitars and there’s graffiti all over the bathroom! And I was like, “Yep! This is where I need to make this record!” I called him one morning and said, “Do you want to make a record?” he said, “Yes!” and I said, “I’ll see you in a couple of weeks!”
We recorded it totally 1970s style. It was just old school playing live, fantastic! And then we took those tracks and added some textures and other bits of interests to them. It was a fascinating process in completely staying true to this recording we’d done live, but then, just this augmentation which was just as beautiful and brought the record into a contemporary place.
QH: How do you plan to bring WAX to the stage that might differ from how it translates on the record itself?
KT: WAX is definitely a rock band record. What we did in the UK, it was really exciting. We did a full, five-piece band show. We did three small, really sweaty little club gigs before the record was released and played all of the new stuff. It was so exciting playing new songs for people before they’d heard them on a record. It was just kicking and that, for me, that is the best way to do this record.
Unfortunately, it was just too expensive for me to take a band with me all the time. People would shudder if they saw the bill, just tens of thousands of dollars to rehearse before a tour, before you even sell a ticket. Especially as a solo artist. You’re paying for everybody you’re working with, so I have to do what I can do.
But, with this American tour, I’m doing it as a two-piece, White Stripes style, with an incredible drummer named Cat Meyers. It’s fun, it’s kicking, it’s a new way for people to see the music. It’s been really fulfilling. I did decide after recording this record that I’m using a female musician on this tour. It’s the right time and the right record to do this, as I’ve been moaning a lot about there not being enough women in rock music.
QH: Okay, last question! What are your five favorite albums of all time?
KT: Oh man! [laughs] Let’s see. Okay! Number one, Hunky Dory by David Bowie. Number two, Immunity by Jon Hopkins. Rumors by Fleetwood Mac. Blood on the Tracks by Bob Dylan and then…oh man! Oh God, it’s so hard! I think, today, I will go with, can I go with Singles by Pretenders?
QH: [Laughs] Yes, we can put that in, that’s no problem!
KT: I was just on tour with them, they’re absolutely amazing!
QH: I totally agree!
SEE KT Tunstall on Tour Now | Dates