Scottish songstress KT Tunstall made listeners sit up and take notice with her tune Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, which galloped onto U.S. radio in 2005 with its blend of hard strumming acoustic guitar and dynamic percussive beats. Three years later-and with three additional albums under her belt-Tunstall is currently on the road in support of her latest release, Drastic Fantastic, which includes a stop in Santa Barbara on Sunday, May 4. Last month I caught up with Tunstall via phone to get the skinny on her new record and why she loves the West Coast.
Are you in Britain?
I am. We’re just on tour in the U.K. at the moment actually. And just in a place called Wolverhampton.
I looked at your tour schedule and you’re touring like crazy.
I know. It’s great. (Laughs). This is my dream year. It feels like everything I’ve done for the last four years has led to the gorgeousness of this year.
Because you’re touring around the world?
Yeah. It’s really global this year. We did a bit in America in January, and we’ve just come back from Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, Australia, and we just found out we’re going to South America in October, which is fantastic.
How is it performing a show each night?
Every four or five days I get a day off to rest my voice. But I’m pretty lucky with my voice. When I first started touring I went to see a woman to give me some coaching on how not to lose my voice. And she was just saying really your voice is a muscle so if you’re using it all the time you should actually come back from tour with a stronger voice than you left with. And that’s really how I find it. I’ve been very, very lucky. And I just love it. It’s the only exercise I get as well. (Laughs). I’m no gym bunny, so the two-hour workout every night is very good for me.
That’s good to hear that you like touring, because with such a schedule getting back on the bus and slogging to the next venue can be tiresome I would imagine.
God, I love it. We’re actually going back to London tonight and I’m really gutted. I don’t want to get off the bus:I’ve decided I’ve been born with a gypsy heart. I don’t know how. But I love living out of a bag.
That’s great, because you probably have a lot more to come.
I hope so.
Your new album Drastic Fantastic is doing well then is it?
Yeah. It’s going great. The first one took some time. It was definitely a word of mouth situation.:But the most important thing for me is that it’s sustaining my touring ability. And that’s absolutely great. I mean we’re coming out and doing a tour in May in the U.S. and we’ve just confirmed doing another tour for the whole of August. It’s really great.
With all the touring, when are you going to find time to make another album?
Although I go to these amazing places I hardly ever bloody see anything. You know, you’re in the venue and then you’re doing interviews or whatever:we went to New Zealand for a day and a half. And it’s just like “that’s so unfair” (laughing)–it’s like one of the most beautiful places on the planet. So really I just need a bit of time to travel, have some experiences, get a bit of head space. And although I’m writing all the time it’s quite hard to focus on the songs because you’re constantly being taken out of the zone doing whatever your doing. So [ending the year] in South America is great because it means I can just stay out there [after the tour] for four or five weeks. Maybe go back to New Zealand. I really want to go see India. The end of the year is really the first time off I’ve had since I started in 2004:I was kind of a struggling musician through my 20s when a lot of my friends were doing the backpacking thing and went to see amazing places before they got their jobs or whatever, and I never did that. I didn’t have the money in my pocket to do it. It’s pretty amazing to do it when you’re older as well because you have a different view of the world and you know more. I think I’m more open to learning about the historical and cultural parts as well now that I’m older.
I like your new album and the contrast of poppy songs and the darker songs. “White Bird” is my new favorite.
Oh wicked, thank you. It’s definitely one of my favorites to play and one of my favorites on the album too.
The song reminds me a bit of “Guinevere” by Crosby, Stills and Nash, a few chords before the chorus.
I was definitely quite fascinated and inspired by the old Simon and Garfunkel stuff when it came to the more sensitive downbeat songs on the album. You know there’s this really strange mystique about Simon and Garfunkel, when they use the amazing mandolin and all the percussive stuff. It sometimes sounds very global.
So that’s what you were thinking about when you did the slower songs?
It wasn’t intentional, but every time we recorded, it kept going there and I thought “Oh, here we are again.” It was obviously seeping in.
The pop tunes on Drastic Fantastic are such a contrast to the slower songs.
I was so excited to really just get my teeth into that stuff because “Saving my Face” I wrote about the same time as I wrote “Suddenly I See,” which was just before I started recording Eye Through the Telescope. So “Saving My Face” was a contender for that first album, but it was such an intimate sensitive affair-the first one-a four-to-the floor rock song about plastic surgery just wasn’t going to make it, it just didn’t feel right. This album for me was an opportunity to really use the experience of touring for three years with a band and the theatrical intensity of it and being able to really turn up loud and use the electric guitars, and you know, be a bit glam about it.
The picture of you on the cover of Drastic Fantastic expresses that glam.
It is a little tongue and check because I’m definitely from folk roots and I always will be. But it’s really fun. People are like why are you trying to be like Suzie Quatro on the cover. And I say “What the fuck do you mean why? Because I’m trying to be like Suzie Quatro. (Laughs). And it’s great fun. It all stems from this idea of trying to make my own comic book.
I was going to ask you about that. I read in an interview that you were inspired by the graphic novel Sin City. Is that what informed the inside art of the Drastic Fantastic sleeve?
It did really, yeah. I just love this idea that it’s not superheroes it’s just super reality. Where everything is slightly hyper. Where you don’t have people necessarily super powers but it’s very heightened sense of reality:.There are very strange twists and turns and I just really related to that in terms:even on a more spiritual level, I suppose, of what I’m doing. [My job] is very much like gambling all the time. Yes you get this opportunity to go on this TV show and you have three minutes. And if I fuck it up then I could ruin everything. If I said something dreadful, you know, career over. If I say something amazing then suddenly my trajectory completely changes.
And it feels that precarious?
Yes. It’s this weird tightrope, which I love, but it’s definitely intense. And that’s where the idea for having this comic book [came]. [Plus] the people you meet. You just meet the most amazing characters all the time. And not necessarily celebrities and famous people, just, you know, the guy on the door at the venue can be just one of the weirdest guys you’ve ever met. Or those people who wait for five hours outside a venue in the rain to get your autograph and you’re like, “Who are you and why do you do this?” And sometimes you get some really crazy stories.
It does seem a big commitment to the artist.
But isn’t it weird? I think as well the whole world that me and the band and the crew travel in, you do get this amazingly diverse slice of life when it comes to the people who are turning up at your shows. I think that comes down to what kind of music you make. But I’ll have little kids up to old people. Really great gay following.:It’s just all these different people. You know, you don’t really think about who is going to get into what you do.
Why do you think your music is so popular with lesbians?
Well, I think partly because I am gender specific in a couple songs on Eye Through the Telescope. At the end of the day I’m just really flattered. I know that the homosexual community is still under fire a lot of the time and to have any group of people who experience regular shit in their lives have your music mean something to them is really flattering.
That’s the whole point I suppose, to have people relate to your music.
Yeah. You just want to emote. You hope that it means something because it certainly does to me and it’s very rewarding:One of the nicest thing anyone ever said to me was a mother of a fan who’d gotten into [my music] through her daughter. She said that my music was incredibly healing. And she didn’t look like the kind of woman who’d say something like that. And I just thought, god, that’s amazing.
An interesting thing about your songs is the juxtapositon between bouncy melodies and dark lyrics. Like on “Hopeless” it’s an upbeat tune but the lyrics aren’t quite so.
I’ve never been one to indulge in out and out depression when it comes to songwriting. I’m not really that comfortable, to be honest, singing about my darkest moments. And I think actually it’s something I should look into more. And not because I want to sound depressing, but because I think it’s really important to stay vulnerable. And the more successful you get it’s very easy to come progressively guarded because people want to know about you and people want to know your secrets. Over time I’ve felt that pressure to sort of guard myself and I don’t want to do that. It’s quite a challenge but at the same time I get excited by playing music that makes your blood flow somehow and it doesn’t have to be fast, it doesn’t have to be bouncy but that’s something I think I’ll always do.
That’s what I like about it, you singing cheerily along yet the lyrics are serious and dark.
That’s a brilliant thing that Quentin Tarantino does with his films, when you get someone getting his ear sliced off and there’s a really happy tune playing. And it’s really confusing and I think it’s challenging.
The other album of yours that I really liked was your Christmas album.
Oh, thank you. (Laughs). It was so funny because I hate Christmas music with a passion. So when my manager said hey listen we’ve had this offer come in from Target I was immediately like oh my god this is going to be so cheesy. And he said look, you can record it where you want, you can record it how you want, and you can record whatever you want–and you can do the artwork. As an artist, it’s such a brilliant opportunity. So I thought fair enough. It’s the best challenge to find Christmas songs I really like.
You did a great job.
Oh, thank you. But it was mental because the way that it happened is I had to do it while I was out in New York in July. It was sweltering hot and it was just me and my partner [Luke Bullen]-he’s the drummer in the band-and I was mixing Drastic Fantastic, and then we spent some time making this album. We had five days to do six tunes. And Luke was playing the drums and I had to play everything else. And I’m really not a very proficient bass player .(Laughs). I was saying to my bass player before I left, “Any tips?” (Laughs). He was like, you’ll be fine. But it was so crazy. I was running between the xylophone to the kazoo solos and then the little harmonium piano and it was just so much fun but it was insane.
Well it came out great and your version of “Fairytale in New York” is excellent.
Brilliant, well thank you. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ed Harcourt (who sang on the song) but he’s a really great singer/songwriter. :Ed’s got an ep called Maplewood which is really worth having a listen to. He’s an old friend of mine and it was fantastic to do a song like that.
I love how it became a Christmas song.
Well this is it. It’s the songs you wouldn’t think:like “2,000 Miles” was a last minute “Oh yes, it’s a Christmas tune.” I hadn’t even thought of it as being a Christmas tune.
I suppose you just put it on a Christmas album, call it a Christmas tune and there you have it.
And it says Christmas in it. (Laughs):It was a lot of fun and recording isn’t always fun for me because I find it all a bit to analytical. So it was really good to do something that was really free and easy.
Was Acoustic Extravaganza that way for you as well?
Yeah. I mean we recorded it in a day. We literally just pressed record and played. That’s really I think where I need to go next with my attitude to recording because I can’t do a big fancy recording studio, it doesn’t suit me. I think really I absolutely need to insist that I get this much more immediate experiential thing going on rather than going over and over and over and getting it perfect. Because I don’t actually think that is perfect. I don’t think perfection is technical.
Was Drastic Fantastic a big studio record?
Yeah. Drastic Fantastic was a little hard because I didn’t have any time off so I was pretty burnt out when we started and there was definitely pressure on the second the album. Not for it to be successful but just to make something really really good. And something that I felt surpassed the first one. And we managed it but I didn’t find it easy, I’ll tell you that much.
Are you going to do a live album from this tour?
I very much hope so. Unfortunately my record label is a mess. EMI is in the throes of some sort of titanic doom at the moment. It’s just business. The record industry is in real trouble. So unfortunately I’m a little bit beholden to what they want to do and at the moment it’s making sure that they sort themselves out. So I think for now I’m just going to concentrate on really getting into the studio by next spring and making another one.
How did you end up coming to Santa Barbara on tour stop?
The west coast has always been a fantastic place of support for me. It all started in San Francisco because the niece of KFOG’s [radio station] programmer was traveling in Europe before my album (Eye Through the Telescope) was released in the U.S. in 2005. She sent the album to her uncle and they started spinning it about eight or nine months before it was even signed to an American label and it went to #1 on their listener chart. So KFOG phoned Virgin–because it said Virgin on my CD–to congratulate them, and you know that never happens. The record labels are desperate to get you on radio and here they’ve got a radio station calling them saying well done, your artist is number one and [Virgin] had no idea who I was because I hadn’t signed to Virgin America at that point. It was crazy. So it was absolutely full-tilt word of mouth. And then [KFOG] sent it up to Seattle and Seattle sent it over to Colorado. So San Francisco will always be my sort of spiritual American home really I think because of that.
The first time I ever went there it was for a KFOG children’s benefit [to play] to like 2,000 people and it was me, Aqualung, and Madeline Peyroux back in 2006. I thought no one would know who I was because the record was just out. I was first on and I got a standing ovation from 2,000 people and they wouldn’t sit down. A woman had to come out and say there are other great acts, sit down. (Laughs).
Did that experience just blow your mind?
It is one of the most amazing things that’s happened to me in my career. I usually just stay in the dressing room, but I was peering through the curtains watching all these people going nuts thinking how the fuck do you know me? And how do you know the words. Then I obviously found out about what had happened.
This happened pre-American Idol?
Yeah. Before all of that, absolutely. So it was really great and when it happens like that I think it gives fans such a sense of ownership that you don’t get when it just gets stuffed down your throat through advertising, you know:.This is a really special tour, actually because it’s inspired by the film that we made for the Drastic Fantastic deluxe version. I’m good friends with Alex James, the bassist from Blur, and he has a great farm up in the country in Oxfordshire and he’s got loads of fields. And I said, listen, we want to do a kind of live thing to go with the deluxe version, but I didn’t just didn’t want to do a gig because it just felt kind of boring. So I said, can we come up and have a campfire and we’ll film. He loved the idea so we went up there and it was so special just sitting around this campfire playing together, really close together and back to the roots of it all, no electric instruments. So what we’re going to do, although Drastic Fantastic is obviously a really electric album, we’re just going to basically turn it in to an acoustic thing. It’s called the Campfire Tour and we’re playing theaters, which I’ve never done before, which is quite a challenge, rather than regular standup gigs. I mean we will still be rockin’ it but it’s gonna be pretty intimate.
I like the live stuff of yours that I’ve heard because you really get a sense of passion that goes into your music.
None of the guys [in the band] and me are there to look too cool for school. We’re there because we love it. And I’m a dork on stage so I’m quite happy to just geek out.
It’s a great artist that can produce a good record but then also deliver in a live show.
I think it would be really sad if you just went and replicated your CD on stage, you know. It’s great when there’s a difference.
I think that happens a lot. Sometimes it’s all the production that makes the artist sound good anyway and then you go to the concert and it’s disappointing.
If someone tells me that my CDs are better than my show then I’m going to be pissed off. (Laughs).
That hasn’t happened to you.
It never ever happened, no. But maybe that’s saying something about my CDs, though. (Laughs).
Are you up to your eyes with interviews?
No, it’s not too bad. I’m taking it easy, to be honest. Like I said it just really feels like I’ve put so much work in to get to a place where I can just go on the road and really immerse myself in touring. But obviously I’m so excited about coming out to the states. It’s like “Do you mind doing some interviews.” And I’m like “No.” (Laughs).
What was the most interesting or strange or memorable thing that’s happened to you on tour so far?
Hmm. It’s so hard to say because there are so many little things. You’re doing an injustice to some if you pick one. I did have a really funny thing happen at Live Earth, which I really enjoyed. I had my first proper religious experience at a gig, you know when your arms involuntarily go up and you start wailing. I’ve never had that and I’ve seen people do that at my gigs and I’m always really jealous going I wish I did that at gigs and just lost all inhibitions. And it happened during Bon Jovi singing “Living on a Prayer.” My brother used to listen to it-and I love that song-and they were brilliant.
And as Bon Jovi were walking out [on stage] there were two lanes next to each other. One went from the stage and one went to the front from backstage. And I was going to the front and Jon Bon Jovi and his band came out at the same time so we were basically walking next to each other-you know I was going down the front lane and he was going down the backstage lane. But we were next to each other with this little crash barrier in between us. And this little girl jumped out of nowhere, got her camera out and took a picture of me. (Laughs). I was like sorry Jon. (Laughs). And he’s like getting ready to go on stage. And it was just a really funny moment going oh my god the girl picked me over Jon Bon Jovi.
I know it made me feel very special. It was very funny.
KT Tunstall storms the Marjorie Luke Theatre (721 E. Cota St.) on Sunday, May 4. Call (800) 594-8499 or visit kaneproductions.com for details and ticket information.