“This is like the highest busking I’ve ever done!”
Scottish singer/songwriter KT Tunstall is performing at the top of New York’s Empire State Building, with nothing but the guitar strapped around her chest and a tambourine underneath her foot for accompaniment. She’s here to perform “The River,” a new single off October’s WAX album, as well as the two songs that everyone in attendance definitely already knows — the omnipresent mid-’00s top 40 hits “Black Horse and Cherry Tree” and “Suddenly I See.”
“I’m gonna need your help because there is no sound system!” she pleads with the crowd, but good luck — this concert is so intimate that a single backing “Woo hoo!” from the crowd during her “Black Horse” performance carries with conspicuous volume, making attendees too self-conscious to participate. Still, even though Tunstall’s surroundings — in which seemingly the entirety of New York City is visible at once from all angles — occasionally overwhelms her ability to remember her own lyrics, she’s never needed anyone’s help to be a full concert experience all by herself, and by the time she digs into “Suddenly I See” (ad libbing “You’re like Anne Hathaway! Walking around New York!” in a cartoonish Big Apple accent), the crowd can’t help but at least mumble along.
While those two hit songs have long outlived Tunstall’s own stardom in the States — “That song wasn’t a cover, that was mine,” she clarifies after performing the reality competition audition favorite “Black Horse” — she’s remained a vital and ever-evolving artist in the decade since, with exciting album-length excursions into Berlin-recorded electro-rock (2010’s Tiger Suit) and mournful acoustic country-folk (2013’s Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon) that have kept her a constant presence on the U.K. charts. WAX is the second chapter in a planned “soul, body, mind” trilogy Tunstall has planned, and she considers the leaner rock set to be her most visceral album to date.
“I feel like I’ve cracked something on this record — where all my career I’ve had people coming up to me after shows like, ‘I love your albums but your show was fucking amazing’ — and I’ve gone, ‘DAMN. Why? What?‘” she says the day after the Empire State Building show, chuckling. “I also wrote songs [this time] that can deliver that rock and roll spirit that I have, which maybe I haven’t aligned in my songwriting until now.”
Tunstall talked to Billboard about the unglamorous recording of WAX, the economy of being a touring singer-songwriter in 2018, being a progenitor to Ed Sheeran, and of course, the shadow still cast by those two classic ’00s hits. Read our conversation below.
Sounds like you’ve had a pretty busy week this week.
Yeah, it’s been amazing. So the record came out on the 5th and I was in the U.K. and I decided to do a really great band-based thing before the record came out — which was, I put a band together, and did three shows before the record dropped of us playing the new material for fans, and they were just really small, sweaty rock clubs. So like 500 people or something.
Is that you in your element?
I love that, and I think fans miss that probably with artists that they like, who kind of graduate to bigger venues. Usually if I’m playing a smaller venue, I’m gonna be solo so it was great to have that full production show in little rock clubs.
This upcoming just gonna be you and your drummer, right?
This American tour is just me and Cat [Myers, drummer]. It’s interesting, I was just on the Instagram coming over here, responding to an incredibly angry fan who was saying I’m not paying for VIP shit tickets — and I’m like, that’s fine because you don’t need to buy them.
The truth is, I can’t afford at the moment to tour a band in America as a British artist. It’s just too expensive. And it’s stretching it to take a drummer and a lighting engineer. And I really want to offer a slightly more augmented show than just me on stage with my fucking loop pedal and the house engineer, you know.
That’s sort of an established thing for you, though — you’ve been doing the loops since day one.
Exactly, and just to be able to do that — it’s just an interesting debate. I think people do not understand how fucking extortionate it is to tour. It’s like 20,000 pounds to rehearse that band before for five days, it’s crazy. And so it’s an interesting time, because it’s like total Wild West out there, in terms of like, where the money’s coming from, how you make money as a business as a touring musician, but also how you craft what you do. And I’m really enjoying it, I’m more in control of it than I ever have been.
So this tour, it’s really fun, we’re doing like a White Stripes-style two-piece. I’m working with Roland quite a lot, so we’re using quite a lot of triggering, and I’ve got a bunch of their pedals and I’m using a sampler, and a TR-8 drum machine, and there’s a lot of textural stuff going on, which is very cool. So sometimes the adversity can actually lead to being quite creative in how you present something.
Is it interesting for you to see how the loop thing takes root with so many performers these days? Like, Ed Sheeran is playing stadiums with just a loop pedal.
I really want to like, bring Ed Sheeran into my rehearsal room: “Ed, I would like you to meet your real mother.” [Laughs.]
Do you feel that you were kind of responsible for that?
Yeah, I think I’ve enjoyed basking in certainly being labeled as a pioneer with that. Particularly as a female musician — you don’t see female musicians with tech that much. I think that was the other thing that kinda popped people’s cherries — it was a girl using a gadget, which is like nerd heaven. I really enjoy tech, but I’m not voracious — I’ll find stuff because I want to use it, not because I’m interested in what’s out there. It’s a sort of necessity relationship.
But the good thing about looping, which I find really funny, is it’s just completely self-regulating, that you can’t do it if you’re shit. It’s also why there isn’t actually that many people… considering how many people are using this setup to try and get somewhere, there’s not that many people getting through. Because the setup is just as important as being able to work it — it’s really fucking boring watching someone build a loop for three minutes. You need to get the loop done, and then sing the fucking song.
Have you seen Tash Sultana?
I have. I didn’t even know who she was and then I saw something online where she’s selling out Brixton Academy. I was like, “How have I missed this girl who’s doing amazing looping?!”
I mean, for me, I want to make sure that the gig is not always about looping. I’m not interested in it, like, being impressive. I’m interested in enhancing my delivery of a song that I’ve written.
How’s the response been to the album so far?
I’ve been over the moon actually, and it’s just been particularly nice interacting with the hardcore fans — and many of them saying it’s their favorite record so far. It’s my favorite so far, definitely.
There’s something visceral and punk rock about the shows that I’ve always done — excluding Invisible Empire, which was my funeral album — but there’s an energy to my live show that I haven’t been able to recreate on record. And it’s partly a lack of experimentation perhaps, in the studio, a lack of time to make records. Not being in a band makes a difference as a solo artist who doesn’t have a regular band — you don’t have that tightness and communication with other musicians all the time. Like, you’ll have it at the end of the tour but not at the beginning. It’s much better to tour an album and then record it.
But this time around, it was just pure 1970s approach to making a record, with [producer and Franz Ferdinand guitarist] Nick McCarthy. And of course he’s got his own indie rock influence on the process. But he’s just got this amazing garage studio, and it was me and him and [drummer] Danny Weston Jr., and we played the whole record live as a three-piece. The guitar amp was in the toilet, the bass amp was in with the drums, I was in the control room with no headphones on, with the desk turned up — and that’s how we recorded. Live, playing and singing at the same time.
I also wrote songs that can deliver that rock and roll spirit that I have, which maybe I haven’t aligned in my songwriting as much until now. So it definitely — more than any other record — I’m finding that I’m getting lost in playing. And I think that translates to an audience.
Did the visceral feel to it come out of this being the “Body” manifestation of your “Soul, Body, Mind” album trilogy?
Yeah, it was a really fortuitous convergence of elements where I knew I wanted to make a rock record, I come up with this trilogy idea — it fit so well with making the body album. It fit so well with the idea of having made the soul spirit record [KIN] about transcendence and about survival, and a kind of augmented wisdom from a more spiritual point of view — to then being slapped on the ass with the fact that you have to drive a meat car at the same time. And it’s that great Kurt Vonnegut quote — there’s no escaping the dumbness of being a human being, whilst having the capacity to doing incredible things. You still have to take a shit. You know, it’s never gonna be different.
And at the end of it all, I suspect that the afterlife is gonna be surprisingly great. My dad was a physicist, and he was always about that — nothing’s new, it’s all recycled, energy doesn’t stop, it goes somewhere. And you go back to this cosmic soup, and who knows what experience that is. But I’m all for it, I feel pretty good about it.
Was there one song that clicked the entire record into place?
Yeah, “Human Being.” Each record for me has got a mission statement song that kind of has an overview of what the record’s about, and “Human Being” — I mean it’s in the title obviously, it’s just that feeling.
It’s this threshold, where you’re presenting something to someone, to have them think a certain way of you. And if you want that relationship to get deeper, you’re gonna have to show them everything else. And the more you show them, the deeper the relationship will be, and the more dangerous it’ll be for your feelings, but the more glorious that relationship can become. And so much of it is about trust, and it’s up to you how far you wanna take it and how far you wanna go, but it’s that balance of vulnerability and strength.
Now that you’re done with this album, do you think the third album of the trilogy is kinda gonna flow from there?
I think so. I’ve come to really respect the effect of pressure on my creative mind, and use it as a tool deliberately. Where on KIN for example, I just booked this studio time — there was no pressure on me to make an album at all — but I booked the studio time for January 11th, and I was still five songs short at Christmas. So I took myself to Joshua Tree, went to New Mexico, fucking built fires and wrote five songs.
And I know now, and I can trust and lean back a bit that that’s how my brain works. And so part of the trilogy too is that I’m fed up with it being three years between albums, and it’s just the momentum — letting the momentum go is exhausting, and then trying to get it going again. Especially now, where the music market is just so completely saturated. It’s like, you leave a year, and it’s a comeback. It’s turning into dog years, you know.
Well, I saw on the midweek charts that you’re headed to the top 10 with WAX in the U.K.
I hope so. I’m definitely up against it, with John Lennon [and his Imagine reissue as competition] — which is no bad thing, I’m O.K. with that!
It’s really nice to score on charts. I pay attention to it, because I’m a signed artist, and it’s part of the conversation with a label. But it’s not something I take personally — there’s a very different landscape out there, in terms of what people are buying, how they’re buying, when they’re buying. And I used to have my face glued to the TV every Thursday waiting for when Top of the Pops came out. And I don’t even look at the chart anymore. But it’s always nice — it’s like a little party popper. But at the end of the day, it’s whether people are engaging with your material and coming to see the show.
Is it strange looking back now on the period where you were heavily involved in the U.S. top 40?
I mean, I was an accidental visitor to the charts, anyway! [Those two hits] were just these absolutely omnipresent global champs, that had their arms in the air going through finish line tapes wherever they went. And they’re still doing it, and it is literally the gift that keeps on giving, writing songs like that.
It’s just really funny, because the songs completely transcend people having any idea who wrote them. I’m like, opening up for Simple Minds in Europe last year, and it was a seated tour. So there’s people sitting in their seats, and I know that many of them had never been to my shows. And I’m playing, and they’re really getting into it, and I get to “Black Horse” and I see people like nudging each other like, “It’s her!” and in the middle of the song I’ll be like, “It’s really me!“
But I’ll always quote this, from my friend Kevin Devine, he took me to a party once in New York, and I met this girl who was like, “Oh, what do you do?” And I was like, “I’m a singer-songwriter.” And she was like, “Oh, should I know you?” and I was like, “Well I have a song at the beginning of the movie Devil Wears Prada.” And she goes, “You’re on my iPod!”
Does one of the two songs get mentioned by fans more than the other these days?
I would say it’s pretty balanced, but I know from my accountant that “Suddenly I See” is the song that has motored the most. I think when you really look at it, there’s such as aspirational, thematic, in-your-face message with “Suddenly I See” — whereas “Black Horse,” I still don’t know what that’s about. It’s definitely something to do with Robert Johnson being at the crossroads, but otherwise I’m not completely sure! It was very much an exercise in automatic writing, that song. So I’m glad it resonates.
You’ve had such a long and successful career — Is it ever frustrating to be primarily known for those two hits? Do you feel like those two songs don’t necessarily represent who you are as an artist?
I mean, you feel like such a dick complaining, ever. But I think one thing that’s been a challenge has been representing the broader spectrum of what I make. But who am I to criticize anyone giving a shit about that? I’ve just gotta make what I make, and if people like it they like it, and people who follow what I’ve done know that I’ll go from the sparsest, most emotionally heart-wrenching ballad, all the way to “The Healer” on the new record, which is a headbanger. And at the end of the day, having two hits is just never unhelpful.
I think it’s a bit like a photograph from when you were in your teens. There can be times where it’s a little cringe-y. But at the end of the day, they’re pretty good photographs — they still sound good, they still all sound original. And the thing I’m really proud of is that you still don’t hear anything else that sounds like it, it still sounds pretty singular in a sea of music. I still think that [one of the songs] comes on, and you’re not like, “Oh, is that someone else?”
Do you think there is a place for singer-songwriters with guitars in the top 40 landscape?
It doesn’t seem so! [Laughs.] It’s just the lava lamp of zeitgeist, of what goes on. But yes, of course, I think there always is. And it’s always gonna come down to songs, and I think Adele is a beautiful example of that — that it doesn’t matter what is going on, if someone like her comes along… and someone like Taylor Swift, although she’s always experimenting with different sounds, I think at the core of it, she’s always gonna be a singer-songwriter.
I did a TV show, Sunday Brunch, the other day, and I really enjoyed how they said, “On next week’s show, we’ll have singer-songwriter Charli XCX!” That, for me, was actually really cool. Because I see PJ Harvey as a singer songwriter, I see David Bowie as a singer-songwriter — I’ve never really enjoyed “singer-songwriter” being a genre of describing this kind of fucking therapy, confessional, wet version of [music]. And there’s not to say there isn’t beautiful, emotional material… but everybody who sings and writes is a singer-songwriter. So “acoustic music” is maybe better [phrasing]?
There is, like, really hard hitters out there who are playing acoustic-based music that totally deserve to be up there. But whether it’s being hard at the moment..? Because it’s rap and urban and pop’s time at the moment. And I’ll also bitch about how there isn’t anyone saying anything powerful, but it’s because I don’t listen to hip-hop, and that’s where it’s coming from at the moment.
Is there anyone under the surface you take inspiration from the newer generation?
My favorite record of this year is Caroline Rose’s Loner. I’ve just been really relieved to hear a new artist that is completely locked into great melody, and that’s something I’ve been really missing with this new release stuff, I love MUNA. I’m looking forward to seeing what they do next. When things get too cool for school, it’s a shame, because chord progression and melody tend to really suffer.
And the problem with that is, the songs then don’t tend to have amazing staying power — because there’s something about that sewing together of an emotional experience with a melody line that you can sit and sing and hum and have it go around your head. Not many people will sit there with a beat or a weird synth hook and allow that to be an emotional experience, when they’re sitting alone having something go round and round in their head. Whereas a lyric with a melody is medicinal, I think, and it’s a mantra. So I think Caroline Rose is doing great.
I know you’ve been very active in talking about global warming and the effects of that, and that’s a subject that’s been in the news a lot recently. Are you glad to finally see people taking attention to it?
[Pauses.] I struggle with it. Because it’s too late. And we would have to go through some sort of extraordinary hive mentality shift for us to be able to preserve the majority of beauty on the planet. And species, I mean the species extinction rate is looking really really rough.
I love surrounding myself with people who give a shit about it, because I find it very positive. I try and do what I can, and being pessimistic about it certainly is not me saying that we shouldn’t make an effort. And I will continue to do things to try and help. But we’ve fucked it.
I remember I was in India — I love traveling in India, I’ve been several times — and I was in Kerala, with a good friend of mine — Supi, she runs a botanical sanctuary in an upper mountain in Kerala, because a lot of the tea farming has annihilated the indigenous flora and fauna. So she and a bunch of women up a mountain in Kerala are basically training rare orchids to live in an elevation that they aren’t naturally meant to live at elevations so that they can preserve them, because they’d disappear. So it’s really an amazing place.
We were walking around the sanctuary, which is an ever-growing area of land, and there’s elephants living there, and amazing birds and animals and so many beautiful trees and flowers. And there was this one tree that was maybe 10 feet, and the bark was, up to about 3 feet, totally chewed off. And from 3 feet upwards was completely intact. And I was like, “What, is there some rodent that can only reach this part, and it’s eating the tree?” And Supi says, “No, it’s a deer — and the deer is, at head height, taller than we are — but it knows if it eats more than that the tree’s gonna die.” And I was like, “Oh, a deer, with a brain the size of a fucking walnut can understand that if it rapes and pillages over that amount, it kills itself.”
It’s just woeful. It’s really strange to see our behavior. But as I said, there are incredible people doing incredible things, and let’s just hope for the extraordinary hive mentality tipping point where we all realize [what we’re doing]. It could happen.