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KT Tunstall – Eyes to the Skies

KT Tunstall

KT Tunstall

KT Tunstall

Eyes to the Skies

by Jay S. Jacobs

Originally posted on May 27, 2006.

Is it possible that the next big thing in music is a thirtyish woman from Scotland?  An adopted daughter of a scientist who had no real interest to speak of in music?  An iconoclast who became a figurehead of a local music scene where lack of commercial success was considered a badge of honor?  A busking guitarist who played guitar on streets all over Europe and once got a quid from a member of then British supergroup Take That?

Welcome to the fascinating life of KT Tunstall.  The initials don’t mean anything, by the way.  She just thought it looked better than her given name Kate, which Tunstall felt was too reminiscent of English roses and Dickens novels.  Tunstall never imagined music as a vocation until her mid-teens when she went to boarding school in the US, but she has been making up for lost time ever since.

Tunstall started her first band when a student in Connecticut.  Then at sixteen, she got a railpass and decided to travel around Europe to see the sights and play her guitar.  She first really popped out on the music scene back in her homeland.  Tunstall became a respected indie artist and lived with then-boyfriend Pip Dylan while they tried to release artistically relevant music that the world probably would never get.  There was an unofficial competition in the scene to get the lowest sales – it proved that you were willing to suffer for your art.  However, Tunstall finally realized that while it was romantic to be a starving artist she really wanted to be able to eat and pay rent, so maybe she should take the idea of getting her music heard more seriously.

She has had several near misses as far as label signings before – in fact Sony honcho Tommy Mottola was on the verge of signing her when he ended up leaving the label in the dispute.  However what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and Tunstall kept on keeping on, not listening to the people telling her that younger girls are the ones that get signed.  Good thing she didn’t pay attention, because she finally connected with a label and had her opportunity.

Her major-label debut album, Eye to the Telescope, was originally released in late 2004 in Europe.  It had a slow burn, quietly working its way up the charts.  Suddenly Tunstall was everywhere – she had hit singles with the amazingly hooky and unique songs “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” “Suddenly I See,” “The Other Side of the World” and “Under the Weather.”  Then Tunstall won the Brit Award (the UK equivalent of the Grammys) as Best British Female Solo Artist.  (Tunstall insisted on stage that is should be shared with fellow nominee Kate Bush.)  Ironically, at the Awards she ran into former Take That member Mark Owen and reminded him that he had given her the pound when she was out there busking.  He laughed and said that if his comeback doesn’t work out he may have to get it back.

Eye to the Telescope finally made it to the US in late 2005 – with a new cover because the European cover had Tunstall wearing some quirky rainbow suspenders that she found and liked, only later to be told that they were a signal of lesbianism.  Tunstall respects and loves her lesbian following, but she is in a longterm relationship with her drummer boyfriend Luke Bullen.

Like in Europe, the album has had a slow burn but is gradually ingratiating itself into the American conscious.  The first single, “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” is currently firmly entrenched in the US Top 40 and there are a few potential follow-ups just waiting, particularly the nearly perfect folk pop ditty “Suddenly I See.”

Her music is making inroads on other levels than the record stores and radio, too.  Television has embraced her music.  American Idol finalist Katharine McPhee performed “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” twice on the impossibly popular talent contest.  This exposure certainly helped, “Black Horse” was already on the way up the charts but it exploded into the top 30 when it was on the show.  The producers of the smash doctors melodrama Grey’s Anatomy picked up on “The Other Side of the World,” using it conspicuously in a recent episode of the series.

As Tunstall’s album and single rocket up the charts, she took the time to talk to us about her life as a breaking star.

How did you originally get into music?

Well, it didn’t take much effort.  (laughs)  I was purportedly just addicted to anything that was playable at a very, very early age.  Then eventually I persuaded my parents to get me a piano when I was around six or seven.  They bought me a second-hand piano and it got put in my room and I started lessons.  The proper start of getting into music was classical training, really. 

I’ve read your parents were not particularly musical – at least as far as in their professions.  Was it a musical household?

No.  We didn’t listen to music.  They still don’t have a stereo system.  They’ve got a tape player and a CD player for playing my album, but they don’t have a record collection.  Listening to music wasn’t a big part of growing up for me at all. 

Could you ever imagine when you were growing up in St. Andrews your life going like it has?

Well, the thing was I was really into theater.  There was a little grass roots theater group run by a local couple.  A local composer would write musicals for us.  There was like twenty kids in it.  I could hold a tune, but I wasn’t a little singing prodigy or anything like that.  I loved to perform.   I loved acting.  I was doing well, you know, I think, as far as the acting side went.  I was sticking out a bit and getting some main parts.  I started that when I was eight.  So performance was immediately a very addictive thing to me.  

For many years you were out busking and having near misses as far as signing a recording contract.  In the past slightly over a year year, you’ve had several hits in Europe.  You won Best Female Artist at the Brits.  Now over a year on from the original release of Eye to the Telescope you are breaking out in the US as well.  How surreal has your year been?

It’s been magical.  It’s just been the most incredible year of my life.  But then, in the same breath, it’s taken me the best part of ten years to try and get somewhere with it.  So much of the feeling is one of vindication and just feeling like all that time spent trying was worth it.

Do you feel more ready to deal with the whole stardom thing now than you would have when you almost signed with Columbia years ago?

Oh, yeah.  If this had happened to me when I was young; A) I don’t think I would have made as good a record and B) I’d just be a mess.  I think it would just be too much.  You get to thirty and you have a much better idea of what you want – and just as importantly, what you don’t want.  It’s a real relief to me that it’s taken so long.  (laughs)

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