PHOTOGRAPHY BY PIPER FERGUSON
STORY BY MICHAEL RAVER
The Singer/Songwriter Waxes Poetic With A Whole Lotta Power
She’s not the girl next door. She’s not a folk princess. She’s no diva.
KT Tunstall has always been an artist and a troubadour before anything having to do with her fame. Spending the day with her out and about in New York as she unveiled her latest album, WAX, it’s easy to see how she rocketed to dizzying stardom with the release of her platinum-selling 2004 debut, Eye To The Telescope. Her enthusiasm is infectious. She’s incredibly attentive to her team, generously stopping to take pictures with people and overjoyed to strap on her glossy black guitar and rock out.
But the new album almost didn’t happen. After several major curveballs that came her way, including the death of her father and a painful divorce, Tunstall decided to hit a major reset button on her life. At the end of the campaign and tour for her stunning 2012 offering, Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon, she sold all of her belongings and relocated from London to California. She had intentions of hanging up her rock star duds altogether. She enrolled in the Sundance Composer’s Lab to pursue a future scoring music for film. However, shortly afterward, new pop/rock tunes started percolating in her head and so did a bevy of releases.
Reinvigorated and revitalized, today Tunstall is more the musical warrior than she’s ever been. WAX, the second in a musical trilogy (and the follow-up to 2016’s, KIN), consists of eleven sublime tracks, all an homage to the body. Muscular electric guitars abound against the backdrop of Tunstall’s signature thundering rhythms. The lead single, “The River,” features a glimmering fusion of electronica and snarling riffs, establishing the Scottish firebrand’s rightful place as a power rocker.
Imagista: Did you know what this musical trilogy would sound like when you started making it?
KT Tunstall: The reason that it made sense to do this trilogy is because of “The Healer.” Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon was a real coming-of-age for me, realizing that it takes a long time to write really good, simple songs. I was using really simple chord structures at that time, but writing better songs than I’d maybe ever written. People must have thought, “Oh she’s gotten old and is writing folk music now.” Because of everything that happened with my dad dying and getting divorced and everything else, I was coming at this new music as a completely different person. When the trilogy started, the label suggested that I release The Golden State EP as a reset button so people could understand what I was going to come at them with. “The Healer” was on that. By the time KIN came out and we were touring that with a band, we were closing our festival set with “The Healer,” which was not on the record. The song had excavated something that I had not gone to before. The song was about this extraordinary mushroom journey that I had at Glastonbury in 2015 and playing it live was making me fucking fall to my knees, do back bends and fucking trash shit in the best way. It was a really beautiful feeling of being lost.
KT Tunstall: Yeah. It’s always something that I’ve always struggled to achieve with my music. I’d found it quite difficult to lose myself in my own music. I’d always lose myself in covers but my own material wasn’t offering me that. “The Healer” was, without a doubt, the seed that made me want to make a rock record. My relationship with 60’s and 70’s West Coast rock, artists like Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac, that’s what I’m talking about. There’s an immediacy and rawness and this mixture of vulnerability and strength in equal measure.
Imagista: “Poison” sounds like it could be on a Fleetwood Mac album.
KT Tunstall:Yeah (Laughs). Singing the chorus of “Little Red Thread” makes me feel like I’m in Fleetwood Mac. I still feel like it’s me, but it’s definitely informed by that kind of music. You know, people badmouth singles and are often more fans of the album tracks, but the lyrics to “Free Falling” fucking slay me. The story Tom Petty tells and the way he talks about what he’s observing in L.A. (Laughs) Fuck me!
Imagista: Your own songs don’t get you to that transcendental place?
KT Tunstall: The ballads have gotten me closer. Songs like “Invisible Empire,” “The Beauty of Uncertainty” and “KIN,” have a deeply medicinal quality to them. They’re deeply mediative songs. That said, it’s different when you’re playing something really visceral, really physical; something that’s got teeth.
Imagista: Is it because there’s less ornamentation on the ballads?
KT Tunstall: I don’t think so because “The Healer” is super dumb. I don’t mean that in a critical way, but it’s a little riff over and over again. There’s nothing to it. It’s really the lyrics. It’s that package of where the song comes from and where it takes you when you sing it. I’m so happy that I’ve finally done it with this record.
Imagista: You made WAX with Nick McCarthy of Franz Ferdinand.
KT Tunstall: Oh I love him so much. He’s extraordinarily talented. I’d met him years ago and he was that guy from that super cool, iconic Scottish band that spawned hundreds of other bands. I visited him and saw his garage studio and loved it. There’s a massive Jamaican flag on the wall, there’s a stuffed toy lion in there and the toilet’s disgusting. I thought, “this is amazing.” I don’t like fancy studios. I much prefer something dirty and unkempt. The first week, we wrote songs like “Human Being” and “The Night That Bowie Died.” I realized that I would write songs with him for the rest of my life. The best kind of co-writing is when you forget that you’ve co-written something because it feels so personal. That’s immediately how I felt with Nick. He’s got a similar sensibility of loving very old-school progression and song structure where you just knick it with a knife. So it goes somewhere you don’t think it’ll go just in the nick of time.
Imagista: How has the technical aspect of your songwriting changed?
KT Tunstall: I’m currently obsessed with suspended fourths. I can’t play bar cords because my fingers are skinny and my knuckles are big; so I can’t keep all the strings down. I’ve had to learn and make up new ways of playing chords with lots of open strings. I’m classically trained in piano but I’ve never had a guitar lesson. This record was partly a challenge to me because I wanted to write a record that was going to make me a better guitarist. I was driven to write riffs. I wanted to real, badass riffs to hang the songs on.
Imagista: You’re currently playing with all female musicians.
KT Tunstall: Yeah. Women rule pop and urban. They’re in charge. But I look to PJ Harvey and Shirley Manson. I think Shirley’s incredible. She’s a fucking punk doing her thing. I want little girls to see women doing this as a job. I want them to see rock as a viable way to make a living. That is important to me. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. I’d been guardedly resistant of putting myself forward as a ‘sexy’ musician because I have been worried about being objectified. I think I presented myself the same way a guy would. I’ve not had any problems with men. There’s an innocence to me and don’t get people sexually inappropriate toward me. If someone ever behaved that way toward me, I would fucking fire them.
Imagista: Once upon a time, you were an actor and did theatre. Are you interested in continuing that?
KT Tunstall: Very much so. I actually acted in a short film directed by Chris Turner. He got in touch with me and told me he’d written a film script based on my song, “Carried.” I liked the idea and I liked this character who is almost like a Sliding Doors-version of what could have happened if I hadn’t made it. A destitute musician who’s basically homeless. She ends up on this unwilling journey with her estranged father, played by James Cosmo (Game of Thrones). I would love to do a Hollywood story of some sort. Having directed a couple of music videos and I have a couple of short film scripts that I’m writing, I’d love to make some stuff, yeah. I’m excited to push myself.
For more info on KT Tunstall and to check tour dates, visit www.kttunstall.com