The last three years have changed me as an artist,” says KT Tunstall. “My bar has been raised. I’ve realized what’s possible through making an album, touring behind it with a band, seeing how that album can turn into something else on stage, and how we can actually make it better.”
It’s hard to imagine how the Scottish-born singer-songwriter, known to her family as Kate, could do any better. Within six months of its February 2006 re-release, ‘Eye to the Telescope’, Tunstall’s gritty, soulful debut, was certified gold in the U.S., and her music — a provocative sonic mesh of heartfelt pop, rootsy electric blues, and left-field alt-folk — became omnipresent all over radio, television, movies, and the Internet. Thanks to the multi-media exposure of its three singles (the Grammy-Award nominated “Black Horse the Cherry Tree,” “Suddenly I See,” and “Other Side of the World”) ‘Eye’ is now certified platinum in the U.S. and quintuple platinum in the U.K., with worldwide sales exceeding 3.5 million copies.
With that kind of success, what does this 31-year-old, who has been hailed as “a folk-rock goddess” by Rolling Stone, do next? “You can’t allow success to become an albatross,” she says. “It’s easy to be too frightened to move on, but you can’t just go out and slavishly recreate what people liked.”
That said, Tunstall’s new album, ‘Drastic Fantastic’, due from Virgin Records on September 18th, 2007, is sure to be something people like. Chock full of powerful lyrics and bold, colorful melodies, the album shows Tunstall’s growth as both a songwriter and a musician. “I wanted to be braver,” she says of her mindset while writing and recording the album. “I wanted to push the musicality. I really enjoyed playing lead guitar for the first time, as well as piano, Rhodes, and ukulele. Also, with the first album, I was so inexperienced singing in a studio that I couldn’t quite get my live voice into the booth. But after three years of touring, I’m better able to tap into whatever underground stream it is inside that provides that magical lucidity. For the first time, being in the studio was like being on another stage.”
A collection of thumping pop songs and intimate, often mysterious ballads, ‘Drastic Fantastic’ has many highlights, including the rollicking “Saving My Face,” (“about 50-year-old women trying to look like teenagers”), the delicate, jazz-inflected “Someday Soon,” the quietly intimate “Beauty Of Uncertainty,” and the frisky pop gem “I Don’t Want You Now,” destined to be a hands-in-the-air live favorite. “I definitely found my inner folk-punk on that one,” she says.
As for the album’s title, it popped into Tunstall’s head as she was writing in her journal on an airplane. “I’d been blown away by the film Sin City; I loved how [creator] Frank Miller’s imagery came to life,” she says. “It made me think how doing this for a living is such a comic-book existence. It’s a bit like the X-Men minus the actual super powers. You’re flying everywhere, you’re down, you’re thrown around, and you’re exhausted to the point where you can’t stand up or speak. It’s not normal. ‘Drastic Fantastic’ sounded like the name of my comic-book life.”
Tunstall knows a lot about peculiar journeys. She grew up in the university town of St. Andrews on Scotland’s east coast, the daughter of a grammar school teacher and a physicist. The family would often take off to go camping or hill walking, and consequently young Kate was instilled with a deep-rooted attachment to landscape and travel. There wasn’t much music in the Tunstall household; her younger brother is deaf and having the stereo or TV on made it difficult for him to join in conversations. Tunstall thinks that the lack of music in her childhood “stopped me being cornered by anything. If your parents only listen to jazz or folk or something, you’re like one of those trees you see in botanic gardens that have wire frames on them – you grow into that shape. But I didn’t have influences to embrace or kick against.”
By age 16, Tunstall had fallen in with a group of local musicians and spent the next few years learning about folk music, living in cottages, scraping a living, and keeping warm by strumming her acoustic guitar extra-vigorously. “It was a very formative time for me,” she says. “Eyes and heart wide open. I learnt about being a musician.” Tunstall’s musical journey eventually took her to Edinburgh, where she hosted her own acoustic nights, dubbed Acoustic Extravaganza (from which she took the title of her 2006 CD/DVD ‘KT Tunstall’s Acoustic Extravaganza’). Finally, after deciding that opportunities for a career in music were passing her by, she moved to London.
Tunstall feels her adopted hometown has “seeped under the door of ‘Drastic Fantastic’.” The album’s first single, “Hold On,” — a thumping hoedown with a fat, ferocious beat that was inspired by the dancehall rhythms pumping out of the car windows in Tunstall’s Northwest London neighborhood. It took Tunstall and her producer Steve Osborne —with whom she also collaborated on ‘Eye to the Telescope’ and ‘Acoustic Extravaganza’ — five months to get the tune right. “We had to fix it or it could have ended up sounding like the cheesy R&B,” she says. The lyrics — “Hold on to what you´ve been given lately / Because the world will turn if you’re ready or not” — were inspired by Bob Marley’s “Judge Not.”
“The song is saying ‘Don’t waste your time pointing at me; look at what you do —maybe you want to spend less time giving me shit,’” Tunstall explains. “It was about an old relationship I was in. When you come out of something difficult, it’s always empowering to keep the parts that have actually helped you move on, rather than that stuff that’s made you feel low about yourself. That’s very me. I’m always looking for that shaft of light in a bad situation.” For more information about KT, video, audio, and more, visit www.KTTunstall.com