KT Tunstall interview - the Big Burns Supper, Celtic Connections, new album and tour

The Scottish star is singing for her Supper and back on the road with new album, WAX.

KT Tunstall talks about her new album and tour.
KT Tunstall talks about her new album and tour.

It’s going to be so cool to come to Scotland to do it properly,” says KT Tunstall. “It’s going to be a riot!”

She’s talking about the Big Burns Supper where she’ll be playing in Dumfries on Friday. Burns Night and the prospect has sparked memories of events that may well also have been riotous, but didn’t have the stamp of authenticity bestowed by a Scottish location.

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“I’ve not done a proper one in Scotland for YEARS! I don’t know if I’ve ever really done it!” she says. “I remember when I was living in London I’d have ridiculous attempts, find anyone who was Scottish, or wished they were, and you could have a fake Burns Night. Not that they weren’t fun! One time there was a Kiwi, an Aussie and a South African reading Burns, and a sausage was pressed into service ‘cos we couldn’t find a haggis.”

Another London event was a charity do sparkling with tartan talent such as Ewan McGregor, Chrissie Hynde (who has Scottish roots on her father’s side), Edith Bowman and Sharleen Spiteri.

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“That was the first time I met Chrissie – she was in a tartan jacket – and I was a ridiculous fan girl towards her. I’ve still got a picture of that,” she says, chuffed.

Relocated to LA there was a Burns Supper in a restaurant with Scottish writer Craig McLean wearing his tartan-lined bomber jacket inside out and stabbing at a haggis perched on a bar stool with a kitchen knife.

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“Craig’s a buddy and was over and he addressed the haggis holding this massive kitchen knife with this guy playing the pipes. All of the Los Angelenos were backing away slowly from the nutter with the inside out jacket and massive knife. It was pretty great!”

Ask Tunstall about the enduring appeal of Burns, apart from the excuse to wield kitchen knives at a sheep’s stomach in public to a musical accompaniment, and she hones in on his ability to express universal feelings and experiences.

“He was actually talking about feelings – Scots are STILL still struggling with that!” she says. “It’s impressive, because there would have been pressure to write about certain subjects in a certain way, but what he was producing was very different in terms of artistic output. Maybe he was bucking a trend, showing a vulnerability, and that’s why he’s been celebrated. Yeah, the original Emo Scottish poet,” she says and laughs.

Tunstall is laughing a lot today, more comfortable in her own skin than she’s been in years, with a sixth studio album to promote and an imminent UK tour with her new band. On the cover of the album, WAX, she crouches in skin-tight wet-look jeans and a vest, all tousled hair and direct stare. This is fitting since the album is the second of a trilogy focusing on soul, body and mind. If the first one, 2016’s KIN, was all about the spirit, WAX is all about the body and Tunstall is relishing a new found acceptance of herself in her forties.

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This record is about physical experience, having, as Tunstall puts it “a crazy meat car we have to drive with this transcendent being inside. It’s about being fallible, lusting and having to be vulnerable to open yourself up to trust.”

Back in 2013 when, despite her success she was still conscious of having to earn her stripes as one of the boys in the largely male rock scene, all 5ft 2in of her heaving her guitar from studio to gigs, she declared: “I don’t want to get my tits out. I want to play festivals, tour the world on buses, play my own bloody instruments.” She’s eased up on herself these days, not that she’s getting anything out, but it seems that finally, with two Brits, a Grammy, an Ivor Novello Award and six studio albums, she’s satisfied she got to the top playing her own bloody instruments and singing her own songs without having to trade on tired tropes of female sexuality. She relaxed about who she is and the whereabouts of her tits is no longer an issue.

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KT, aka Katie Victoria Tunstall, has come a long way since she seemed to hit the ground running with a live performance of her song Black Horse and the Cherry Tree on Later… with Jools Holland. That led to debut album Eye to the Telescope in 2004 which went five times platinum and for a decade she recorded and toured, releasing three more hit albums: Drastic Fantastic, Tiger Suit and Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon.

As Tunstall tells it, it wasn’t in fact a story of overnight success, but of ten years of hard slog.

“I didn’t get my record deal till I was 29. It had been my entire twenties, a good ten years trying to get somewhere, then when it did happen, yeah it was overnight, Jools Holland changed everything.”

If Tunstall had her time over, she’d have made more of the opportunities to play big venues instead of sticking to ones she considered more singer/songwriter appropriate.

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“When it really kicked off things were going into arenas and I was really scared of it; it didn’t feel like the right space for my music, and I regret that. I should have tried it because I might have really enjoyed it and now it’s normal for a singer/songwriter to play arena shows. I remember playing one in Aberdeen and I LOVED it! I don’t know what I was so scared of. If I could go back, I’d just embrace it.”

She reflects for a moment and the fast flow of Fife-toned riffing down the phone from her mum’s in Bath pauses. “I think I was freaked out by how successful it had got and I sabotaged it to an extent by going ‘no, no, no, no, no, no, no!’ Everyone join in, woo-hoo!”

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After a decade of success Tunstall was already running on empty when her father died in 2012 and her marriage to her band’s drummer Luke Bullen ended. She did what she knew best and channeled the trauma into Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon, then moved to Venice Beach in LA, and fell apart.

“I just wasn’t inspired to write records at that time and I wanted to do something else,” she says.

Something else was taking a break from the album/tour treadmill and composing soundtracks, as well as therapy, writing journals and overhauling her diet.

“I always wanted to do soundtracks, always enjoyed the slightly more experimental end of making music, but there wasn’t a lot of outlet for it once I’d become successful as a singer/songwriter and performer; that kind of took over everything.”

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A spell at film director George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch doing a soundtrack writing course, resulted in Tunstall songs for The Winter’s Tale starring Colin Farrell in 2014, Disney’s Million Dollar Arm, Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast, and for About Ray starring Naomi Watts, Elle Fanning and Susan Sarandon.

“Skywalker was an AMAZING experience,” she says, “bonkers. Like I was having breakfast and putting my dish in the sink and I heard this voice going (she does a heavy macho accent) ‘what do we do with our dishes?’ And it was Guillermo del Toro!

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“It was an amazing learning curve in terms of music and I’ve done a few scores now, including one for a film called Be As You Wish To Seem which was entirely electronic and quite dark, almost like a horror score.

“Doing soundtracks means I can do stuff that is totally detached from a KT Tunstall record, and that feeds into a creative place where you’re thinking about what you’re doing in different ways.”

Another departure was producing and after co-writing and producing songs for Japanese artist Rihwa, Tunstall wants to do more.

Following her hiatus from the road, she recovered her mojo and was back with a bang in 2016 with KIN, which made the Top 10 and the follow up, WAX, which was released at the end of last year.

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“I worked on it with Franz Ferdinand’s Mick McCarthy and he has that indie rock sensibility, and he’s a fantastic writer too. It took me to a new place as a recording artist and inevitably to a new place to live. WAX feels like a record I’ve been needing to make for a long time, and that’s when you make your best stuff, when there’s a compulsion rather than it’s just a whimsy. You’ve GOT to get it out of you!”

And being KT Tunstall, once you’ve got it out of you, you take it on the road to play to fans who amaze her by ranging from seven to 70.

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“I’ve got this crazy demographic ... people in their twenties saying, ‘I’ve been listening to you my whole life! Oh my God! How is that possible? New generations who are really into it and that really means a lot. It’s a huge compliment, that what I write communicates to them too.”

WAX also sees Tunstall tuning into her guitar driven live vibe and looping it back into the vinyl.

”There’s always been a very rock and roll spirit to my show and to me as a musician but it’s not necessarily translated into my songwriting, so I was really interested in diving deeper into playing electric guitar on this record.

“There’s a track called The Healer that came from a song I put out before KIN. It was a reset after Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon because that was quite a melancholic folk record after a lot of difficult stuff had happened, and I didn’t want people to think that that was me in my forties, making folk music now.” She laughs. “I’m NEVER going to sit down in my shows. So The Healer is a ripper rock tune where I get lost in the vibe of it. It’s the song that makes me want to trash hotel rooms.”

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So has she been trashing hotel rooms? Should Dumfries be worried?

“Er no. But that song gave me the invitation to make this record. And now I’m playing the tour with all women, which is just brilliant.”

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The all female line-up of Hinako Omori on keyboards, bassist Cheryl Pinero, Hattie Moran on lead guitar, Cat Myers on drums and Mandy Clarke (from Scottish ska band Bombskare) on bass, will be playing Scottish dates in Dunfermline, Aberdeen and Glasgow.

“Using all women just feels like a very powerful energy right now. And it’s like it matters and it doesn’t matter. We’re all up there because we’re really good at what we do, and we happen to be women.

“At the same time it’s deliberate that we’re all women. I knew it would be exciting and fun, but I didn’t realise the energy of it. People have really responded to seeing a bunch of women playing rock music and it feels really powerful.”

Tunstall isn’t militant about having an all-female band, she doesn’t have a gender agenda, for her it’s more about normalising an increased representation of women in music.

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“I’m not saying everybody needs to be a girl – I love working with guys, always have – but it’s the mix that’s exciting. Having at least 50 per cent women just happens to be the way I’ve been running things for a long time anyway. You want for it to be completely normal but you’ve still got this situation where festival line ups are predominantly rock and there aren’t as many women to choose from. I found myself going, ‘hang on a minute, I’m an employer, I’m a solution to that problem.’ I think that’s the point, making it normal.”

Born in Edinburgh, Tunstall was adopted when she was only a few days old in 1975, her birth mother a half-Chinese dancer in a club and her father a barman (she found her mother when she was 23 but not her father), and it is the Tunstalls who are her parents. Raised in St Andrews, she begged them for a piano when she was four after her primary one teacher fascinated her playing “this massive machine!”.

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“They said can you not play something smaller? But they got me one anyway and I was a mini Mozart for the first year, then it was a slow downward trajectory until I was 15 and picked up a guitar. I taught myself and no-one was telling me how to do it, which I liked.”

Tunstall regularly finds herself back in Scotland, playing at Sleep in the Park in December, when she helped raise £3 million to combat homelessness and helicoptered into Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee. As well as the Big Burns Supper, she’s appearing at Celtic Connections tomorrow in the celebration of The Beatles’ Abbey Road album.

So Scotland’s always ‘home’, there’s her mother and siblings’ homes now in England, but the home she’s super excited about today is her new one up in the hills above LA, where she’s building herself a studio. Leaving Venice Beach behind she’s moving out of town with all of her guitars, among them her custom Elvis Gibson Dove, dual tone Supros and Mustang bass, “I’ve honestly NO IDEA how many I have. Oh, that’s so rock and roll,” she laughs.

There’s a new man on the scene too, but the usually forthright and loquacious Tunstall becomes a little tongue-tied and vague at this point, heading the conversation off on a wildlife trail.

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“Yeah... I’m gonna move to the top of a mountain,” she says. “A friend of mine lives really high up above Malibu and she showed me a picture of her French doors and there’s literally a f***ing lion, a mountain lion, standing looking through the window. Men-tal! Up in the hills you’re only five metres away from an A-list celebrity ... and a LION!

“That’s the thing about LA you can have so many different experiences. If Twitter was a city it would be LA. It depends on who you follow, the experience you have. Venice Beach has been great, but now I really need to… it’s … yeah…” She pauses again.

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“I’m entering a phase now where I just want to hunker down at home … do some work and …”

She’s holding it in, she’s older and wiser, secure in herself, but she’s still KT Tunstall, the woman who will NEVER sit down at a gig, and she just can’t help letting some of her anticipation burst out.

“Yeah, I’m entering a new phase…,” she says, “And it’s really, REALLY exciting!”

KT Tunstall will play at Celtic Connections, Glasgow tomorrow in 50 Years of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, www.celticconnections.com

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The Big Burns Supper, Friday, Dumfries, bigburnssupper.com: 
KT Tunstall on tour, 7 March, Alhambra Theatre, Dunfermline;
8 March, Music Hall, Aberdeen;
9 March, Barrowland, Glasgow.
See www.kttunstall.com for tickets