When KT Tunstall shouts “Hey!” at the beginning of “Hard Girls,” the opening track of her splendid new album KIN (Caroline), it’s an effective way of getting our attention and saying, “I’m back! Listen up!” The dance-break in the middle of the song is also an efficient way to reel us in and get us moving. If you’re looking to dance along to Tunstall, you may do so to “Maybe It’s A Good Thing,” “It Took Me So Long To Get Here But Here I Am” and “Run On Home.” Tunstall’s also known for her sensitive and insightful side and it comes through on “Turned A Light On,” the James Bay duet “Two Way,” “Love Is An Ocean” and the lovely title tune. I had the pleasure of speaking with KT about the new album, her career and more in August 2016. [Tunstall performs on Sept. 21 at House of Blues in Chicago and Oct. 3 at The Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles.]
Gregg Shapiro: KT, I’d like to begin by thanking you for not quitting music professionally as you considered doing a couple of years ago.
KTT: [Big laugh] It’s turning into my very great pleasure.
GS: Good! So you feel like you made the right decision?
KTT: Yeah, definitely. It was a very bizarre sensation of the spirit instructing the body and mind. At first, I was sort of reluctant, because I just felt a bit done in with the eddy that you can get caught in making records and promoting them and going on tour. One of the main reasons that I love doing what I do is because it’s unpredictable and I don’t know what’s coming next. It had actually become strangely, weirdly routine and repetitive. I didn’t like it. I wasn’t being excited by that. Of course, these things are really just a state of mind. Especially when you’re creating work, it’s up to you whether it’s an exciting experience or not. Really it was a state of mind and divorcing myself from the feeling that I had to do it, that it was an obligation to make these records, I think is the thing that freed me up and allowed me to do it again.
GS: Looking back, would you say that you were you prepared for the commercial and critical response that you received for your 2006 debut album Eye to the Telescope and subsequently for the hit single “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”?
KTT: No [laughs]. I think there were two sides to it, which was really interesting. First of all, I was called an “overnight success,” which I did feel like. It was an absolutely extreme change from complete anonymity to being quite well-known in a very short space of time. I remember standing on Waterloo Bridge in my mid-20s. I had been partying and I was on the bridge at six o’clock in the morning with friends and I remember looking out over the Thames as the sun came up, thinking “Every single person waking up this morning knows who Madonna is and I wonder what that feels like.” I remember having that thought and not being able to imagine what that was like. It was obviously in my mind, wondering what that would feel like. There’s some sort of intention there. During the time of “Black Horse…,” I may not have come as close as that, but there was certainly a ubiquitous nature to those songs to the point where I realized that songs can transcend artists. I would meet people at parties and I would tell them what I did. They would say, “Would I know any of your music?” I’d say, “Did you see The Devil Wears Prada? That was my song at the beginning.” They’d say, “Oh, my God, I have you on my iPod!” People are buying your music and they don’t even know who you are.
GS: So, in a way, you did get to experience that.
KTT: Yes. It reached an echelon which I really didn’t expect. I always imagined myself having a band and going on a tour bus and hopefully travel the world and do some gigs. It was a whole other rung up the ladder that I didn’t expect. Having those big hits is sort of like having a set of skeleton keys in your pocket that opens the weirdest doors – playing at the Nobel Peace Prize (ceremony), singing solo with Ray Davies (of the Kinks) on a stage and playing these crazy private events. But then on the other hand, I was 29. I wasn’t 18 or 19. I often forget that myself; that I’m quite a bit older than some of the other girls who came through at that time. I had been trying for 15 years to get somewhere. There’s a vindication as well, where you think to yourself, “I’ve been working to try and make this happen for a really long time. I’m so glad that it’s paid off.”
GS: Like you said, you were an overnight sensation…after 15 years.
KTT: [Laughs] Yeah! I certainly hold no grudge against anyone who describes the rise as that, because it really was. It wasn’t a gradual rise. It was a meteoric one.
GS: On to your new album KIN. I love the dance-break in “Hard Girls”…
KTT: Awww…thank you!
GS: Also, there’s a similar rhythmic energy to “Maybe It’s A Good Thing.” If a remix of either or both songs became a hit in the clubs, how would you react to your change in status from diva to dance diva?
KTT: I feel that these songs, more than anything I’ve ever written, really lend themselves (to) and flirt with that world. I’m a huge dance music fan. I love Leftfield, The Chemical Brothers, all the Ninja Tunes artists. I remember when I was 15 totally loving Technotronic when “Pump Up The Jam” came out. I’ve always enjoyed dancing and going clubbing. I’ve always been interested in electronic music. I dabbled with it a little on my third record Tiger Suit. I would love more than anything to see my music mutate into something that would be played in clubs. For sure.
GS: We gays love our dance divas, and divas in general. Are you aware of a following within the queer community?
KTT: Of course, from day one! It’s been an amazing support for me as an artist. There’s always been a really strong queer following and fans. Usually the gay girls are in the front row [laughs]. They’re just amazing. I remember this incredible night in Belfast where I played a really late show at midnight and it was just carnage, a couple of thousand people. These two gay girls were having the best time! They kept shouting at me, “KT, KT.” I was like, “What?” They said, “You’re a lesbian!” [Laughs] I was like, “You can’t say that [laughs]!”
GS: Maybe they meant you were an honorary lesbian.
KTT: I didn’t know what to say. It was such a weird thing for someone to shout out at me at a show. Of course, no one else in the hall heard me. It’s midnight, everyone’s wasted. I said, “These two girls think I’m a lesbian.” Everyone erupts, the place goes wild; we’re just laughing. Anyway, I carry on with the gig and these two girls are still trying to get my attention. I’m like, “What the fuck? Let’s just get on with it.” They throw a paper airplane at me and I ignore it. At the end of the gig, my guitar tech comes upstairs with the paper airplane and says, “I think you need to read this.” It said, “We were saying ‘legend’ [big laugh].” We’ve had a lot of fun about that over the years. As an artist, any community of people who are up against difficulty in their lives, which the queer community always are, unfortunately, I think it’s a deep compliment that any community under fire from any angle finds joy or solace in your music. It’s speaking to them and somehow providing them with some kind of strength towards dealing with any shit they have to face.
GS: James Bay not only sings with you on the song “Two Way,” he also co-wrote the tune with you. How did the collaboration come about?
KTT: The two of us played Jools Holland’s Hootenanny. My career is like a Jools Holland love story. I did the (program) Later…With Jools Holland and it was like this circus-style cannon rocket launcher that I got fired out of on that show. That really kicked off my career in the UK. People still talk to me now about seeing that performance and how it important it was. I’m so grateful to have had that opportunity. Last year we played his New Year’s Eve Hootenanny show and James was on it. I was reading an interview with him and I was flattered to see that he was a fan of mine. We got to chatting during rehearsals. It was just lovely. He was telling me that he had been to shows of mine before he was well-known. We hit it off really well, he’s the loveliest person. He blew me away with his performance. He’s an incredible musician. We swapped numbers and then a few days later I had this song that I had half-written for the record and would love to be a duet and he would be perfect for it. It’s a kind of boot-heel, `70s rock song and it was perfect for him. I thought he was so busy blowing up the world, but I just emailed him and said, “I know things are crazy right now, but would you want to do this song.” He emailed straight back and said, “Yes, absolutely!” We sent emails back and forth with clips of music. He was singing in a hotel bathroom and sending me the recording. Then he came through LA during recording sessions. He came over one Sunday afternoon and we hung out for a couple of hours and played with the song and then laid it down. I think he did three takes. He’s a firecracker, that guy.
GS: Is there someone to whom you are specifically singing when you sing about not being sure who you were and how you were given a reason to hold on in “Turned A Light On”?
KTT: Yeah, I have new love in my life. That’s a very important part of this record. It’s called KIN because it’s about going through all the shit you have to in your life and coming away better rather than worse. The way you can do that is connecting with people who handle these situations in the same way. Of course we all break and we all cry and stumble. It’s whether you allow the negative experiences to define you or shape you and make you become who you are in the best possible way. You use them as tools. I find that through going through some really heavy shit in my life, it’s an amazing recalibration process of realizing who you actually want in your life. I have less people in my life than I used to and I have the best people. It’s an amazing process. Having new love is like this Phoenix out of a shit-storm of ashes [laughs]. I’d also like to pay respect to that. Finding love with the right person is an amazing kind of transformative thing.
GS: As someone who’s been with the same guy for 24 years, I have to agree with you.
GS: Thank you.
KTT: You found him!
GS: You mentioned the song that was in The Devil Wears Prada. Does your interest in soundtrack work, such as the music you wrote for the movie Bad Moms have anything to do with the positive reaction you have experienced from having your songs featured in movies and TV shows?
KTT: It’s a little chicken and egg. I’m a huge film fan. I think I would enjoy contributing to projects such as that, regardless of any feedback. I love being a solo artist and having creative control. But it can be very nourishing and informative and flex very different creative muscles to work for someone else. You are essentially employed by the director. I love the challenge of that. Directors are amazing characters, fascinating people. They tell you what they want, what feeling they want, what result they want from people listening to this music while looking at their film. I love the challenge of trying to deliver them that successfully. I love movies. But yeah, there’s nothing like hearing your music coming out of a fucking enormous cinematic sound system. It’s such a thrill.
GS: Hillary Clinton used your song “Suddenly I See” during her 2008 Presidential campaign. Eight years later, Clinton is running for President again and, if elected, would be the first female US President. Do you have any thoughts about the current election season?
KTT: It’s fucking crazy [laughs]. I’m not American, so I don’t have to deal with that. But all of us have to deal with it, right? I live in America now, I live in Venice Beach. As much as I am involved, it’s also easy to hide in the bubble of Venice Beach. I would say that I think it’s a very positive thing, looking at the potential of having a female president for the first time. Pretty much regardless of the candidate, there’s something powerful in that. I was happy for Hillary to use my song back then because I always love to see a Democratic party in America. I’ve heard people’s reservations about the situation between choosing between Hillary and Trump. It just seems that you can’t have this man in that position. It completely confounds me why anybody would want such a hateful person in charge. It doesn’t make sense to me as a human being. I don’t know enough about it to give you a political answer. But there is an interesting situation where we currently have – albeit unelected – a female Prime Minister in the UK. As a Scottish woman, I’m proud that we have an absolutely kick-ass political leader in Nicola Sturgeon at the moment. There are these pictures of Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon shaking hands on the steps of 10 Downing Street. These are the people in power. We’re looking at a possible female President in the US. Wouldn’t that be interesting, between Britain and America, having women in charge? I think it’s a very interesting dynamic to see how they will fare. It’s never happened before.