After her father died and her marriage ended, KT Tunstall felt trapped on the treadmill of pop. But after a three year break the singer/songwriter is back – rejuvinated, happy and in control, she tells Fiona Shepherd
The last time we met, KT Tunstall was in the hush surrounding her beautiful acoustic album Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon when it felt rude to so much as blink, especially appreciating the backdrop of personal turmoil against which it was recorded. Right in the middle of the sessions, her father died and her marriage ended, and sadness suffused the record in ways even Tunstall didn’t understand at the time.
“I sometimes feel that songs can be weirdly savant-natured,” she says now. “The chorus of Invisible Empire goes ‘I want to burn this house but I know I’m going to jump on the fire’ and that is what I did.
“All the things that I thought were the ingredients for happiness – get successful, make some money, have a nice house, get married – I checked off and I was miserable. I was financially free to do what I wanted and definitely carving my own path so how come I carved it wrong?
“When my dad died, of course it was really sad, but there was a massive gift in it as well, as it made me realise there’s not enough time to get it wrong, especially when here I am with all the ingredients to create any life I could want and there’s just no excuse for it not being great.”
Three years on, Tunstall will happily say that her life is great, but the tipping point was a solo tour to promote Invisible Empire which left her exhausted and so utterly disillusioned with the pop game that she went into self-imposed retirement.
I have looked in the mirror hard and seen some stuff I didn’t like about myself and made peace with all of itKT Tunstall
“It just started to feel like this eddy of finding the hot producer, making a record, entering into this totally fictitious competition of trying to get to the top of a chart and get on one of three radio stations and if you don’t get on that station then your label doesn’t give a s*** about you. I didn’t feel excited about doing that again.”
So instead, she sold everything she owned and moved to Venice Beach in California where she spent a year “going to yoga, drinking green juice and wearing hemp”, mingling with the expat music community there and pursuing her ambition to write music for films by enrolling in the Sundance Institute’s Film Composers Lab. It was, and is, she says, “the best thing I’ve ever done”.
But while thoughts of a continuing pop career were banished, her songwriter’s subconscious clearly had other ideas. As Tunstall drove around LA’s wilder environs, blasting out the music it spawned – Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Joni Mitchell – she started composing her own big pop choruses again, reminding her of the unfettered scope of her debut album Eye To The Telescope. Obeying her instincts, she began demoing tracks with fellow Fifer Dave McLean of Django Django, before polishing them up with Beck/Belle & Sebastian producer Tony Hoffer. And so the recently reluctant pop star has returned, ready to embrace the mainstream with KIN, her most unapologetically commercial album to date.
With the benefit of hindsight, Tunstall admits that there has been an element of self-sabotage in her past decisions to embark on smaller, though not inconsiderable undertakings, such as touring with the Jools Holland Rhythm & Blues Orchestra or Robyn Hitchcock’s Floating Palace project, rather than embrace the prospect of moving up to arena level.
“I was just really scared of being the boss,” she says. “I wasn’t ready to be in charge of 20 people who had kids and needed wages and I just felt overwhelmed. But after all the self-reflection I’ve done in the last few years, I’m so grateful to be a woman and a boss and calling the shots and deciding who I hire, and I’m kicking myself that I didn’t go for it back then. But the story’s the story and it’s all for a reason.”
There is no doubting her enthusiasm now. Tunstall recently completed a tour of the Highlands and Islands, bringing her new material – and her new band – to her old stomping ground. “Shirley Manson said recently that one of the greatest things about being in rock’n’roll was being a purveyor of joy, and being able to bring that to people and serve it on a plate on a wet night, that’s enough of a purpose in life to feel like it’s totally worth doing.”
The aspirations to compose for film are still there – most recently, Tunstall contributed to the soundtracks for Winter’s Tale and Bad Moms – and tonight she will perform backed by an orchestra for the first time at Glasgow’s Proms in the Park.
KIN is the first album she has written entirely on her own – with the exception of the James Bay collaboration Two Way – which has sparked a desire to write for other artists too. Having run away from it all only a few years ago, it now appears that KT Tunstall is running towards it all again.
“There’s a song on the record called It Took Me So Long To Get Here But Here I Am and that’s definitely the mission statement for the record for sure,” she says. “I have been through this experience of really hard decisions, faced with the choice of fudging along or properly ripping it up and starting again and that involved looking in the mirror hard and seeing some stuff I didn’t like about myself and making peace with all of it. I’d become such a mature, experienced musician, and I was still a f***ing 18-year-old. I hadn’t evolved very much as a person, and that’s no good as a writer. I’m so grateful that at least I’ve got the ability to turn a big turd into something useful. You can turn s*** into gold!”
• KT Tunstall plays an instore session at HMV Argyle Street, Glasgow at noon today, Proms in the Park, Glasgow Green, tonight and the Alhambra Theatre, Dunfermline on 28 October. KIN is out now on Virgin EMI