It’s tough to remain creatively fertile and commercially successful. KT Tunstall has done it for years, some years more successfully than others, but she continues to produce work of solid craftsmanship that swims the mainstream. Her back catalogue is perhaps richer than most think and she’s currently touring it solo, with a stop in Warrington this week. We had a gab. By Alan O’Hare.
Death and divorce change lives. I wouldn’t presume to know that they changed KT Tunstall’s life, but they certainly changed her music. “I’m grateful that I’m a songwriter, as you can turn the shittiest circumstances into something meaningful and precious,” she tells me. “There’s a saying that everything good comes from pain and I’ll always be thankful for the circumstances that allowed me to grow.”
We’re talking specifically about her 2013 album, ‘Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon’. Tunstall wrote the record before, during and after the death of her father and whilst separating from her husband. “Yes, it was basically a soundtrack to that shift happening in my life,” she says. “Making records often feels like a process of reacting in the moment to me and I don’t necessarily see the bigger picture at the time of recording… I always find I’m completely absorbed in the close-up nature of making an album.” It certainly worked with ‘Invisible Empire… ‘.
It’s an album I was obsessed with. Still am, if truth be told. Because it’s an anomaly you see… not in the fact that it’s so good, as everything Tunstall has ever released contains moments of brilliance, but more when you realise the records immediately before and after it are cut from the same cloth as each other – but not that one. “Yes, I think so… the goal in making both ‘Tiger Suit’ and ‘KIN’ was to have fun,” she reveals. “I wanted to capture that energy in the recording. Another similarity was spending a lot of time listening to my absolute favourite songs and asking why they got to me so much – it could be rhythm, lyrics or melody.”
Rhythm, lyrics and melody is a great way of describing the indie pop Tunstall has been recording and releasing for nearly fifteen years. ‘Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon’, however, had a magnificent melancholy that set it apart from all that came before and since, but it sits ominously in a catalogue that the Caledonian singer and songwriter is bringing to Warrington this week as part of a UK tour in support of fifth album, ‘KIN’.
Everything about ‘KIN’ feels fresh; the sound, the look. Is it a rebirth?
I called it my ‘Joy Phoenix’… where the previous album had felt like the soundtrack to a funeral – not only my father’s, but also the death of something within myself – ‘KIN’ was a very unexpected and strong resurgence of celebratory energy. It was like it rose up out of the ashes without warning. I’d come through all this emotional hardship and found I was a better, happier person for it at the end of it all. And I wanted to dance and cry all at once.
You worked with Tony Hoffer (Beck, Air) on this album. Tell me about him…
I very affectionately refer to him as ‘King of the Imps’… he is hilarious, the worst prankster. He is an exceptionally talented musician, a brilliant and supportive producer, and is somehow able to straddle the two worlds of a very experimental/indie approach, while at the same time keeping a keen sense of what might still get played on the radio.
That’s important to you, isn’t it?
It’s a masterclass in itself just listening to a good record and often an amalgamation of all of the things that make a great record help to find some sort of perfect balance within the emotion and message of the song.
Amen to that. You’ve also worked with another uber-cool producer in Howe Gelb… how was that?
Howe is a truly experimental musician and it’s interesting making a record with another artist. He would push me to try things that didn’t make any sense (to me) whatsoever – but we would always end up somewhere more interesting. He got me hooked on effects pedals for the first time: reverb, delay, tremolo and distortion… but not only on my guitar, also on my voice.
Like I say, your work together on ‘Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon’ is astounding.
Thank you! We recorded that whole album live to tape and just before we would record a take, Howe would suddenly swap my guitar for some old amazing vintage one that I’d never played before! It lent the whole experience an unpredictability that I found uncomfortable at times, but ultimately very rewarding.
Speaking of rewarding, this tour finds you solo again. Do you prefer that to working with a band?
There’s no doubt that there is something very unique about playing solo. I remind myself that it’s not something that everyone can do and that I should always appreciate the value in it. It’s very powerful to stand on stage completely alone and deliver a great show. But, having said all that, I absolutely love playing with a full band, there’s nothing like it.
Do the diminishing returns of today’s music business come in to play?
There is a business element to it as well, for sure. It’s extremely expensive as a solo artist to tour with a full band – sometimes, everyone else is being paid apart from you! It’s still a huge buzz, though.
Tell me what touring is like these days…
When everything kicked off, I thought I would want to live on a tour bus for the rest of my life, but it turns out there’s lots of other things I want to do! I still love touring – and sharing my music live will always be something that feels intrinsic to my time here on Earth – but it can be difficult and stressful at times to keep it afloat. The older you get, the more of a sacrifice it is to leave home. But my favourite thing in the whole world is still to travel and I don’t think I’ll ever, ever get enough of it… I certainly don’t feel ready for the pipe and slippers yet.
Speaking of your feet, it seems every troubadour is toting a loop pedal now! What did you start?!
I think there was something to be said for the fact that perhaps people hadn’t seen a girl using ‘techy’ music gear before and that was quite exciting. I think it’s important not lean on these things as crutches, though, and instead for them to just enhance your basic craft. I’m not sure that the modern, touring singer-songwriter is particularly different from the vintage, touring singer-songwriter – other than we now tote around amps, effects pedals and loopers.
You still need something else, though…
In the end, it all comes down to writing strong material.
Friday, May 26th 2017, 7pm
Parr Hall, Warrington
Pic courtesy SJM