At a recent media showcase in London, KT Tunstall offered an unusual description of the songs from her forthcoming third album: "Like Eddie Cochran working with Leftfield," she told the assembled press.
And indeed, while "Tiger Suit"-due Oct. 5 on Virgin in North America and Sept. 27 internationally on Relentless/Virgin-still plays to Tunstall's strengths as a tunesmith and perceptive lyricist, it does feature more contemporary ingredients than her previous work. Several tracks harness electronic beats to her acoustic guitar, with standouts including the whistling chorus of "Glamour Puss" and the glammy "Madame Trudeaux."
The album follows a rare period of downtime for Tunstall, who worked almost nonstop from her word-of-mouth breakthrough, 2004's "Eye to the Telescope," and on into 2007's "Drastic Fantastic."
"I don't write on tour, so it was essential that I took time out," Tunstall says down the line from a promo stop in Minneapolis. "I'd started my time off by traveling through the Arctic, South America and India, so I had locked into a very primal, indigenous spirit by the time it came to recording."
The album's range is demonstrated by the different lead singles on either side of the Atlantic. In the United Kingdom, the reflective "(Still A) Weirdo" will be released as a single Sept. 27, while the United States goes with the more upbeat and urgent "Fade Like a Shadow," a choice that should play better at U.S. radio, according to EMI North America executive VP of marketing and promotion Greg Thompson.
The song is climbing Billboard's Triple A chart, rising 23-20 this week, and debuted at No. 42 on Rock Digital Songs, moving 7,000 downloads in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The video premiered on Yahoo Aug. 31.
"I just heard 'Fade Like a Shadow' in the restaurant where I was eating sushi, so the signs are good," Tunstall says. "I may lose some fans of the old stuff, but I get the feeling I've already made a few new ones by embracing a bit of experimentation."
"It feels really good," says Virgin U.K. president Shabs Jobanputra, who has worked closely with Tunstall throughout her recording career. "When you change things up, it's effectively like bringing a new artist to the party, which is more and more what you need to do as a returning artist.
"There's been a sonic change in the market; everything's more rhythmic and electronic now," Jobanputra continues. "So it was important that KT wanted to take it on to something different. It's almost like a shop getting a new window, like, 'You know I'm really good, we just need to spice it up a bit.' "
Nonetheless, early U.K. radio airplay has come from a longtime Tunstall supporter, national AC station BBC Radio 2, which made "(Still A) Weirdo" its record of the week for the week beginning Aug. 21. Jobanputra hopes that track will also "synch a lot. You need new ways of coming into the market."
Indeed, while "Telescope" has sold 1.3 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and 1.6 million in the United Kingdom, according to the Official Charts Co., follow-up "Drastic Fantastic" struggled to make the same connection. The sophomore set has sold 234,000 stateside and 280,000 back home.
"Sometimes if an artist doesn't sell more records, it's [seen as] not a success," Thompson says. "KT sold a lot of records and concert tickets, she has a substantial fan base in the U.S., and [the second album] further developed her as a career artist."
Tunstall herself is more blunt.
"There's a load of soulless shit out there that sells much more than many of my favorite artists," she says. "If someone considers lower sales a failure, they're entitled to that opinion. My own bar is set to fulfilling a drive to create music that means something to me, and then playing it for people."
She's already played the new songs at events varying from an Aug. 21 Fresh in the Park show on Long Island put on by AC WWFS (Fresh 102.7) New York to some tiny gigs in Scotland in June. ("I liked the Twa Tams gig in Perth, when a girl on crutches started climbing on top of the sound engineer's desk to get a better view," she says with a smile.) Worldwide tour dates are being finalized for the fall-the start of a tour that will extend well into next year's festival season.
"I definitely feel ready for the journey," she says. "I'm still loving it."