Singer KT Tunstall on finding herself in Arizona

KT Tunstall’s new album has two names, two moods, two seasons, maybe even two lives. It’s sliced clean down the middle like a piece of fruit. Like the year in which she made it.

Singer K T Tunstall

The first half is called Invisible Empire and was recorded in the spring of last year when Tunstall found herself heading on a whim to the dust-caked desert lands of Tucson, Arizona. Why? To make music amongst the cowboys and cacti with a man she had got to know in Glasgow over a bottle of whisky.

The session lasted a fortnight and produced some of the greatest songs of her career. She was surprised. She hadn’t even intended to make an album yet here it was; a handful of sad, spare alt-country songs about death and the death of love, falling out of her as though they had always been there. She returned to London and then, in the summer, was suddenly called home to St Andrews, where Tunstall’s life as a musician began 20 years ago in the East Neuk’s coastal villages, green fields, and creaky old pubs. Her father, an eminent physicist and lecturer at St Andrews University, had just died. Those songs about death had suddenly, strangely, come true.

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“It was really eerie,” she tells me. “It actually spooked me for a while. I felt like it was some voodoo s***, that I had written songs that were coming true in a way I really hadn’t expected. I had written Carried [a song on the first part of the album], which is basically about the place where you die being different to the place where you are laid to rest and about somebody having to do that final journey for you, carry you there… Three months later I’m carrying my dad’s ashes in a backpack on a train to London. Jesus Christ.” She sighs. “I never thought the song was going to have such a literal meaning for me.”

A month later, another seismic shift foreshadowed on Invisible Empire. Her relationship with Luke Bullen ended. He was the drummer in her band. They had been playing together for ten years, married for four, and when they weren’t touring the world they lived together in an eco-mansion with an adjoining eco-studio. Now it was over. And so, in the winter of the same year, Tunstall returned to Arizona to record a second handful of even more personal songs – more introspective, more widescreen – under the title Crescent Moon. She felt like a different person. Everything had changed in the space of a single season.

“I’m actually taken by surprise to be sitting here talking to you about a new album,” she says with an abrupt laugh in that sweet, low, and still undiluted Fife accent. “How the f*** did I do it? I don’t understand how it happened. It would be easy to say this album is a return to my roots, but for me it feels like the first album I’ve made that’s purely me. I’ve always been a fan of simplicity but it feels like it’s taken me 20 years to write a really good, simple song.” This from the woman behind Suddenly I See, a song so massive it won her an Ivor Novello, an American fan base, and was used in the opening titles of The Devil Wears Prada, an episode of Ugly Betty, and was even shortlisted for the theme song of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Anyway, that was then. Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon, made with alt-country genius Howe Gelb (the one she bonded with over a bottle of whisky) and John ‘PJ Harvey’ Parish on drums, is a whole world away from the persistently mainstream pop of her debut, Eye To The Telescope, which sold more than four million copies, and two subsequent studio albums. And it’s all the better for it. This feels like a completely different KT Tunstall, or rather for the first time it feels like it’s really her. Even her voice sounds different: less gravelly, softer, more textured and pure. It sounds like a proper grown-up country music singer’s voice.

“Howe and I listened to each other’s music for the first time when we were on a bus to Newcastle,” she says. “My albums seemed so fast and busy. You could hardly hear my voice. It all seemed so produced, so overcooked. I’ve always seen myself as a bit of a package deal, thought that the reason people like what I do is because of the singing, writing, guitar, pedal, and rhythm. It’s kind of a one-woman show. Now I have faith in my voice. A year ago if you’d asked me what I did I would never have said I was a singer. I would have said I was a musician. But this time I wanted to make an album that was all about my voice. I guess it has always been there, I just never used it.” How did it feel to sing like that for the first time? “Medicinal,” is her quiet answer. “This whole album has been a healing experience for me.”

Tunstall is in the offices of her London label. She comes across as relaxed, warm, funny, and very smart, entirely in keeping with her reputation for being one of the nicest pop stars in the business. Presumably that’s what comes of cutting your teeth in the East Neuk’s Fence Collective: the staunchly independent, bearded folk scene from whence she came. Still, it comes as a surprise. It’s only the day after her divorce was finalised and it’s been splashed all over the papers. ‘KT Tunstall’s divorce from husband of four years finalised in just 80 seconds on grounds of her unreasonable behaviour’, bleats one tabloid headline. ‘KT Tunstall “homeless” after divorce’, squeals another.

“I’m still in London and I’m still good,” she says. “Everything’s quite intense at the moment but I’m taking my time and keeping my eyes and my heart open to what’s going on.” Is she being left alone? “I never get any s***,” she says breezily. “I’ve never been doorstepped. I’m just not that person.

“Look, I’m still going through it now,” she sighs. “I’m still finding my way and experiencing all these different and strange stages of emotion. But I’m in a really good place in my life.” We talk about the extremity of change and how it can feel good even as it frightens you. “You end up standing in this metaphorical white room,” she muses. “You can fill it with what you want, come and go when you want. The slate is clean. I can decide how I want life to be.”

She won’t talk about her relationship, because “there are two people involved and he doesn’t have a chance to speak”. However Tunstall does tell me that she and Bullen will no longer work together. And that he only played on the Invisible Empire half of the album.

She is 37 now but still looks every bit the doll-faced, dimpled rock chick. The one who appeared on Later... With Jools Holland because of a last minute cancellation in 2004 and blew everyone away with a barnstorming performance of Black Horse and the Cherry Tree. She sang her heart out, slapped her guitar to make her own rhythm, and stamped on a loop pedal to record it all. It was an impressive start.

Today, as on the cover of Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon, her image has changed and she is wearing a suit. “I’m not massively into fashion,” she admits. “I like nice clothes but it’s never going to be an important part of my life. It wasn’t like this door opened, everyone gave me free stuff, and I was like oh my god, this is amazing. I was more like oh my god, I’d never wear that.” She laughs. “ I never knew what I wanted to look like. I never had a vision. This album is the first time I’ve had a really clear sense of how I want to look.”

It turns out she wants to look like a cowboy. “It was about embracing androgyny,” she says and then we both start laughing as her phone starts up. Her ringtone is, rather aptly, an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western theme tune. “It was almost about wanting to be a man,” she continues. “I wanted to enjoy my male energy, which has always been very strong when I perform. I’m not some strong-headed warrior-ess all the time but I do feel that way on stage. And it gets you a lot of lesbian fans too.” She chuckles. “With this album I’ve really embraced that image and the irony is that for the first time I now feel like a woman when I play. I’ve grown up.”

In the past, under the constant pressure that comes from major labels when you’re a platinum-selling artist, she never enjoyed the way her image was “managed” for her. “It’s basically hundreds of people in a room trying to make you look better,” she groans. “It’s so f***ing boring. And it’s bollocks. It’s not saying anything about anything. But I could never be arsed fighting it because it wasn’t that important to me. I needed to save my energy for the battles about the music.”

Tunstall was born in 1975 to a half-Chinese mother living in Edinburgh who put her up for adoption. Her birth father was an Irish barman whom, to date, she has never met. When she was 18 days old, she was adopted by a couple in St Andrews – a physicist and a primary school teacher – and grew up with two brothers. It was a happy childhood, though interestingly one without music because one of her brothers was deaf and noise interfered with his hearing aid. Nevertheless, by the age of four, she was demanding a piano.

“I was really drawn to performing though I like to think I wasn’t too Bonnie Langford about it,” she laughs. “I was just desperate to play instruments from an early age and started piano lessons at four. It was something in me. My parents didn’t listen to music and neither did I until I was a teenager. I wanted to make it rather than hear it.” Tunstall was classically trained on piano, learnt the flute, and at the age of 15 picked up her first guitar. A year later, she played her first gig in the back room of a pub in St Andrews. And that’s how she met Kenny Anderson, aka King Creosote. “I had asked a girl I knew to come and she worked with Kenny at the Woollen Mill. He basically came because he fancied her, not because he wanted to see me.” Anyway, Anderson was impressed with Tunstall’s voice and invited her to sing backing vocals in his band. “He’s been my lighthouse for the last 20 years,” she says. “I worried that because they were all so serious about remaining independent that they wouldn’t appreciate me going off. But they never judged me.”

It’s often said that the Fence Collective was too small for Tunstall, that steely ambition and a desire for fame drove her south into the arms of major labels. Not quite true. The fact is she was writing pop songs, not folk songs. She never truly fitted in to the leftfield DIY folk scene. Not that the world of mainstream pop was a natural home for her either. Did she worry about selling out? “God, yes,” she says. “Signing my record deal was one of the darkest times for me. I felt sick. I was terrified I was signing my soul away. And the fact is to some extent you do sign a pact with the devil when you sign with a major label.”

Then came the glory years, or as Tunstall puts it, “the black hole of success”. She was nominated for the Mercury Prize, won a Brit Award for best female solo artist, and secured millions of sales. She saw the world, flew by private jet to support The Eagles, played to tens of thousands in stadiums the world over. “I disappeared and didn’t see anyone I knew between 2004 and 2009,” she recalls. “I stood with Justin Timberlake and Mary J Blige at 5am in full make-up, getting my photo taken at the Grammys. Look, it was amazing, none of it was bad. It’s just that I don’t want to live like that all the time. I’m much happier having a little less attention.”

She realised she was becoming the cliché – the rock star who has everything and is still unsatisfied. “At the height of my success it felt like when you get a really expensive laptop and in fact all you want to do is send emails and look at photos,” she says. “I had a life that other people could have made much better use of… all I wanted to do was play gigs. I didn’t want the parties or the friends who own boats. I just wanted to keep it simple.” Now, with Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon, she has finally found that simplicity.

We talk about her father, a tenacious and adventurous man who was diagnosed with cancer and given six months to live 20 years ago. The day before he died he walked to the local shop to buy a paper. “A lot of adversity was chucked at him,” she says. “You know, he was an old man and very ill. He lasted a very long time.”

Was she there when he died? “I was able to be with my mum within a couple of hours and I had seen him very recently,” she says. “Everything was said. We knew we loved each other. And the thing is, it’s not bad to die when you’re that ill. When my dad died there was a relief. Of course there was. He couldn’t feed himself. And so I haven’t been crushed by it. In fact, I’ve found it quite liberating to understand that it’s our attitude to death that’s bad, not the thing itself. We are horrendously bad at death in the West.”

It’s been a monumental year, and out of it has come Tunstall’s best album yet. “The future is an open book for me,” she says. “I’ve no idea what comes next.” Isn’t that scary? “No, it’s liberating,” she replies. “For 20 years I’ve felt completely defined by my music. Ironically, now that I no longer feel that way, I’m churning out the best music I’ve ever made.” She laughs loudly. “That’s the thing. All this time I’ve been trying so hard. Finally, with this album I could let go. I didn’t need to try any more.”

•Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon is out on Monday (Virgin). KT Tunstall plays Oran Mor, Glasgow on 19 June (returns only) and the Wickerman Festival in Kirkcudbright on 26 July (tickets from £40) returning to Scotland for a solo unaccompanied tour to Glasgow’s O2 Academy on November 21 (tickets from £17.50) and Horsecross, Perth, November 22 (tickets from £22.50);