KT Tunstall @ 93 Feet East, Wednesday 4th August
Life is treating KT Tunstall well at the moment. Her stock is rising, her fanbase growing exponentially with every performance. “I'm so over the moon with my situation” she says. “It's a fantastic place to be right now. My prospects are however good I want to make them.”
It's been a busy twelve months for the Scottish singer-songwriter. She's recently played at Glastonbury and The Big Chill, toured the UK with Joss Stone, performed to sell-out crowds across Europe and the US with Oi Va Voi, and still found time to record her debut album. The busy schedule doesn't seem to have dampened her spirits though; “Washington and Glastonbury and Israel and – it's been an absolute whirlwind.”
KT's childhood days in the east coast of Scotland all seem a distant memory. “My parents didn't even have a stereo… (they) are real big outdoor lovers so I was just brought up going up hills and sleeping in a tent, that's what we did!” KT's achievements are all the more impressive when you discover that she has never had any formal training. “Ironically, I've had flute lessons to Grade 8, I've had piano lessons to Grade 6 and I've done theatre all my life, but I've never had any singing or guitar lessons.” Instead, KT taught herself guitar from a busking book. As for singing, KT admits that she never really recognised her own talents. “Someone gave me an Ella Fitzgerald tape when I was about 17, and I'm pretty sure she taught me how to sing.”
With a teacher of that calibre, it's no surprise that KT's voice is special. She first caught the media attention, particularly in Scotland, when she recorded and toured with Oi Va Voi. Her stunning, spine-tingling vocals brought their album, 'Laughter Through Tears' to life. New York Times listed it in their top ten albums of 2003, and KT's contribution is impossible to understate, although typically, she shows great modesty, crediting the band. “I was definitely just a guest singer on the album. They wrote the songs.” She appeared on three tracks; on ‘Refugee’ she exhibits an astounding vocal range; on ‘Yesterday’s Mistakes’ she duets beautifully with Steve Levi; and on ‘Ladino Song’ she sings in Sephardic (the language of the Spanish-Jewish diaspora). Live, she displays a power and stage presence, and a voice-box to rival the great soul divas.
KT's love of music really developed from her childhood acting experiences. “I was doing musical theatre as a kid, and I was getting really good parts, but no-one came away saying; 'My God, it's Bonnie Langford.' You know, thank God they didn't say that!”
Having picked up the guitar and the Ella Fitzgerald tape, KT started writing. She described going to Glasgow for a James Brown party as a big turning point, although she doesn't have particularly fond memories of her earliest musical endeavours. “I just started writing these horrendous, crap love songs. I was sixteen, writing about being cheated on and I hadn't even had a boyfriend.”
After spending the last year of school on a scholarship at “a disgustingly wealthy American boarding school”, she went to university in London. On returning to Scotland, she formed Red Light Stylus, a three-piece who received critical acclaim without ever achieving success south of the border. Eventually, she found life in the band restrictive. Her own styles were developing and to enable them to blossom required KT to go it alone.
“It takes a long time, I think, to find your own real personal style and to find out what you really like, what you really want to make…. I'm what I'd call a kind of 'lightning bolt writer' – I'll get a flash and I'll get a song title or a chord progression – usually, actually, when I'm on the toilet.”
KT certainly appears to have found that style now. To stereotype her into a single genre would be difficult, but there are ballads, folk songs, country stomps and more traditional indie guitar tunes in her repertoire. At times she reminds listeners of PJ Harvey; at other times, the great Motown singers; and she can sing a pop song like Mariah Carey (in terms of vocal talent – not style!) She is multi-talented, and she likes to show it.
She recorded her debut album, due out this September with Steve Osbourne, who has previously worked with New Order, U2 and Doves. “It's a real expression of… it's what I've wanted to do for a long time.” She found the recording process enjoyable, and has nothing but praise for Osbourne. “He just did everything – he’s the engineer, producer, chauffeur, innkeeper – he actually invited me to stay at his house with his family during the recording to save money so that we could have more time in the studio. It’s just unheard of. I was so amazed by that. We’re very close and he’s played on almost every track, so he’s kind of a member of the band.”
With the album out in September, KT is spending July and August playing acoustic sets around the UK. “Where I've been playing, they're not high profile music venues. Some of them are coffee shops, some are just bars and so it's people hanging out, having a drink. They are really impressive little music clubs and they're a total pleasure to play in.” She is delighted with the reception that she's been getting. “They're obviously a pretty loyal audience to come along and give you the time of day.”
In September, she will take her band, The KT Tunstall Four out on the road as the album release date nears. From there, who knows what the future will hold? KT has a good idea of what she would like to achieve. “I’d love to collaborate with Beck, to do something with the Flaming Lips…. working with Lou Reed wouldn’t be bad either.”
The success of her performance with Oi Va Voi at Glastonbury has also had an impact on future plans. “We went on stage at about 1pm on Friday afternoon, and everyone was gagging for the festival to start. Usually, you play a gig and everyone goes ‘woo’ and then they stop and wait for the next one. But it was like the ‘on’ button for the crowd in between songs. They just went insane. I got three emails from people saying that they cried, and they promised that it wasn’t the drugs!”
So is it her dream venue? “It would be very special for me to play Shepherd’s Bush Empire. It’s one of my favourite venues. For London, it’s such a lovely site. It’s still got the intimate feel and it’s such a beautiful building. But obviously, the ultimate would be to be back at Glastonbury on the Pyramid stage next year.”
For someone who has achieved so much so quickly, KT is remarkably down to earth. She is incredibly chatty and friendly, she giggles the whole way through the interview. She seems genuinely delighted to be in the position she’s in. That good vibe comes across throughout the gig. It’s a smaller crowd than she’s used to, but her charm and knack for a good story win the audience approval before the music has even begun. “I recently got the worst insult of my life” she tells the crowd, with a big smile on her face. “A guy in Edinburgh came up to me after the gig, so I asked him what he thought. He said my music was ok, but it wasn’t really his thing, so I asked him what was. He answered ‘I listen to pretty much everything, I like loads of stuff.’”
But it’s the music, the song-writing, the vocals that really catch the attention. Set-opener, ‘Miniature Disasters’ sets the tone for an artist who is obviously happiest on stage. She stands alone, but the expert use of her sequencer allows her to recreate the sounds of an entire band – rhythm guitar, lead guitar, drums and backing vocals all contribute to the KT Tunstall experience. Set highlights include ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’, a riotous stomp that has a hint of White Stripes about it. She closes with recent single ‘Throw Me A Rope’, a melancholy number that shows that she has many strings in her bow. With an encore of ‘Suddenly I See’, KT’s off, world domination just a few short footsteps away.