It’s no surprise that KT Tunstall has a passion for culture. Growing up in England with Irish, Scottish and Chinese blood, Tunstall was instantly and independently drawn to musical performance at a young age. In 2004, her debut record Eye to the Telescope spawned worldwide hits “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” “Other Side of the World” and “Suddenly I See.” Following further success with 2007’s Drastic Fantastic, KT has returned with her third effort, Tiger Suit. We caught up with KT and talked about her confidence crisis, recording in a legendary studio and the inspiration behind this eclectic and organic new record.
OS: Growing up in a family with no musical background, what caused you to learn several instruments and eventually pursue a career in music?
KT: It was pretty freaky! It was a weird, very innate thing, where I just gravitated to music straight away as a little kid, and nobody else in my family really did. It’s kind of funny because my mum found a diary that she kept of when I was a baby and she said when I was six months old, she found this diary entry going, “I’m really worried because Kate screams louder than anybody else’s baby.” (laughs) But no, I was asking for piano lessons by the time I was six and playing a bunch of instruments when I was quite young. It was just always something that I found really natural and an easy way of communicating, through music. It’s just always been there.
OS: Tiger Suit is the title of your new record, and refers to a recurring dream you’ve had when you were younger. How have you interpreted the dream and how does it relate to your music?
KT: Well, it’s a really cool dream where there’s a tiger in my garden and I go out and I start stroking it…and I’m a kid in the dream. It’s not until I come inside the house and look at the tiger through a window that I’m really afraid, and think, “What the hell was I doing? It could have eaten me.” And I can’t see myself in the dream, so I thought, “Am I disguised as a tiger? Am I also a tiger?” But there’s something going on where I am able to commune with this beast and it’s not attacking me. And I suppose that, even now, as an adult, makes me feel how I feel about music. A lot of the time…where I’ll just jump in and do something and not really think about it, and then afterwards, just go, “Oh my God, that could have gone so wrong!” But also, the title is kind of referring to when I go on stage. I go on stage as myself. I’ve never had, like, a character. But I suppose after six years of touring…I think this last year, I had to write and stuff, it just made me realize that I’ve got this kind of armor and it’s this kind of, Joan of Arc warrioress, “I’m gonna do what I fucking want,” armor (laughs), and I get on stage and be who I want to be. And at the same time, I’ve got to take that off when it comes to writing and I’ve got to be as vulnerable and as real as possible. It’s a protective thing, but also a really fierce thing…I’m a huge fan of Where The Wild Things Are, the movie that just came out, that was my favorite book as a kid. Max wears his little wolf suit and I was just convinced that if he wasn’t wearing it, he would just be eaten in about five minutes. He’s got his magic suit on that keeps him fierce.
OS: You have called your new music “Nature Techno.” Can you explain what that means and how your sound has evolved since Eye to the Telescope and Drastic Fantastic?
KT: Yeah, it was kind of a concept of what I wanted to try out…I haven’t like, made a house album. But it was really just about the fact that I’ve realized I’m a huge blues fan. I love up-tempo blues as well, more rockabilly stuff…Eddie Cochran being one of my favorites. And it just made me realize when I was digging deep to kind of find out what was going to turn me on the most in terms of making a new album, I really rediscovered my passion for dance music. I’ve been a big fan of Leftfield and DJ Shadow, The Chemical Brothers and a band called Lamb…and I realized that that music makes me feel quite similar to when I’m listening to up-tempo blues music. It’s got this really primal, four-to-the-floor pulse…I just find myself getting lost in it, in the rhythm. When I’m dancing around a campfire, I end up feeling pretty similar to when I’m dancing in a club. I just really wanted to mix those two together and see what happened. And I think the big difference with this album is it’s the first time I’ve gotten quite experimental. It’s been quite traditional instruments up until this point and this was the first time we kind of used electronica, synthesizers, drum machines and that kind of thing. I also feel like there’s just a wilder streak to this album, where I’m not too worried about technical perfection in terms of my singing and it’s more just about being a bit freer and expressing myself a bit more.
OS: Between records, you took an international trip that had a huge impact on you. Can you tell us more about the trip and its effects on you personally?
KT: Yeah, the first part of the trip was to the Arctic, to Greenland, which was a really incredible landscape that I dreamt about for many years and wanted to go and see. I went with this group called Cape Farewell and they took 20 scientists and 20 artists on this boat. So I’m on this boat with Jarvis Cocker, Martha Wainwright, Feist, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Vanessa Carlton, Robyn Hitchcock, Laurie Anderson, all these amazing artists….and because it was right in the beginning of starting to make a new album, my ego just attacked me with a huge machete and just went, “You suck! You’re not nearly as good as these people, you’re never going to make an album that’s going to excite you as much as you want to excite yourself.” I just had this big confidence crisis where I felt like life had become quite complicated. I was in this beautiful place where the Northern Lights come out and there’s whales in the water and icebergs floating that are the size of skyscrapers and I just felt like, “I could really just get off the boat and stay here for awhile.” And that was really what that song was about,”Uummannaq Song.” It’s the first song on the record, which has got that very tribal feel to it. All of the places I visited over my travels had this very strong indigenous culture, and I also felt there was a real, rooted musical culture. I traveled South America, went to New Zealand and went to India and heard incredible music. I think traveling just basically really fired up my imagination in terms of, with this album, I’ve sort of given all of these songs location. I think they’re set in places in my mind and what I saw and experienced in my travels really helped fuel that.
OS: You recorded Tiger Suit in the famous Hansa Tonstudio in Berlin, Germany. What was that experience like?
KT: It was awesome. It was so cool. I’d recorded most of the demos at my place in England and it’s really cool, but it’s quite small, so I wasn’t really going to be able to make the record there. And so I went to Berlin, and it’s just this amazing legacy, where Bowie recorded Heroes, U2 recorded Achtung Baby and Iggy Pop recorded there. It’s got this energy for me that I just felt like I wanted to play better. I recorded with a live band for the first time and we recorded vocals live and we were just so energized by the history of the place. It looked so cool and Berlin’s an amazing city. Very vibrant.
OS: You released two different singles in the UK and America, “(Still A) Weirdo” and “Fade Like a Shadow.” The songs are very different from each other. How have the two been received in their respective countries?
KT: It’s been really interesting because I’ve not had that happen before, releasing different singles. “Fade Like a Shadow,” for me, was really good…I understood the record company going, “Yeah, let’s go with that,” because it’s so upbeat and it’s quite urgent. It’s about exorcising this ghost of someone who’s still alive, who’s haunting you. It’s got that electronic influence on it. And then in the UK, “(Still A) Weirdo” is such a strange choice for a single, I thought, “What are you doing, putting that out as a single?” It’s like the weird little runty puppy on the album, this very eccentric little fragile song. But they said, “it’s really emotional. It’s very different from a lot of what else is out there and it makes people feel something.” And I think it’s the same for “Fade Like A Shadow” as well, it’s a pretty emotional song. But they’re going great, I’m really pleased. They seem to be popular, as far as I can tell.
OS: You’re heading out on tour, first to the UK and then across America. Will your stage show be different this time around to accompany your new sound?
KT: Well, I have a slightly different band. I don’t know if any of you guys remember a British band called Ash, they were quite big. They had this girl guitarist called Charlotte Hatherley. She went off and did her own thing but she’s joined the band for this tour. So we have a girl on lead guitar, which is so cool. And we have a Welsh rock ‘n’ roll boy on bass, but I have the same drummer and same keyboard player. But it’s basically quite full tilt. Rehearsals were like, going clubbing, for awhile. We play a lot of beautiful, really down-tempo numbers as well, and I’ll play some stuff on my own. I always like to keep it quite diverse. I also have an awesome backdrop being painted with UV paint, which I’m very excited about.
Check out KT’s fall tour throughout the UK and the US:
10/19 Cambridge, UK – Junction
10/20 London, UK – O2 Shepherds Bush Empire
10/21 Manchester, UK – Ritz
10/23 Glasgow, UK – Barrowland
10/24 Wolverhampton, UK – Wulfrun Hall
10/31 Portland, OR – Crystal Ballroom
11/1 Vancouver, BC – Commodore Ballroom
11/2 Seattle, WA – The Showbox SODO
11/4 Spokane, WA – Knitting Factory
11/5 Boise, ID – Knitting Factory
11/7 Reno, NV – Knitting Factory
11/8 San Francisco, CA – Warfield Theatre
11/11 Los Angeles, CA – The Music Box
11/12 San Diego, CA – House of Blues
11/16 Denver, CO – Ogden Theatre
11/18 Minneapolis, MN – Epic
11/19 Indianapolis, IN – The Vogue
11/21 Chicago, IL – Vic Theatre
11/22 Detroit, MI – The Crofoot
11/23 Toronto, ON – Phoenix Theatre
11/25 Montreal, QU – Club Soda
11/26 Philadelphia, PA – The Trocadero
11/27 Washington, DC – 9:30 Club
11/29 Boston, MA – House of Blues