KT Tunstall: "My Spirit Dragged My Mind and Body Into Making KIN"

Music Features KT Tunstall
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KT Tunstall: "My Spirit Dragged My Mind and Body Into Making <i>KIN</i>"

When Scottish alt-pop standout KT Tunstall needed closure after a particularly chaotic time in her life, she found it in an unusual, decidedly ironic way. She had just moved from London to Venice Beach, California after the dissolution of her marriage to drummer Luke Bullen, the death of her father and a decision to sell her overseas properties and walk away from a decade-plus career in pop. Strolling down Main Street one night, Tunstall heard music emanating from a little Irish pub. Lo and behold, it was a local bar band performing a rendition of her 2004 hit “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” from her multi-platinum debut, Eye to the Telescope.

Tunstall couldn’t believe it. “I looked through the window and the guitarist looked at me, and I gave him a wink and a big thumbs-up,” she recalls. “But he just curled his lip up at me and turned around—he had no idea who I was! And isn’t that a bit of a dream? I can look, unrecognized, through the window of a pub at people playing my song. It was pretty cool.”

Gradually, Tunstall, who had been busy scoring motion pictures (Winter’s Tale, Million Dollar Arm, to name a few), began writing material that would eventually comprise her recently released fifth album, KIN. It featured sugary pop/R&B anthems like “Hard Girls,” “Run on Home,” “Everything Has Its Shape,” and a duet with James Bay called “Two Way.” “The album is a sonic exclamation mark,” she explains of its all-caps title. “It’s coming out of my heart and punching you in the face.”

Below, Tunstall expands on rediscovering her inspiration to write, prioritizing self-care in Los Angeles, and finding love again.

Paste: So you actually hit a brick wall in your life and decided to change everything?

KT Tunstall: I don’t know if I would call it a brick wall, actually, because it felt like it was totally possible that I could have carried on. I just wouldn’t have been enjoying myself. So really, the decision came as to whether I wanted to just carry on against what felt good for me or just rip it up, basically. And it was a really interesting mirroring of what had happened in my personal life, where basically I didn’t really know myself. I’d checked all the boxes of the things that are meant to make you happy—I had a career, I had a husband, I had two houses. I had a car, I had all of it. But at the end of it all, I was miserable. So it just completely imploded, and there was a mirroring of that in my creative life, also, where I just need to throw everything on the fire, because it felt stagnant and it felt wrong. I think that my last album (2013’s Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon) was in some ways like this soundtrack to my own funeral. Where something died and I really needed it to die, so that I could have this sensation of starting again. So I sold everything I owned and left the country, and I moved to Venice Beach, which was exactly what I needed. And I found this carefree and unselfconscious excitement that I had never had before about making music again. So this album feels like such a kindred spirit to the first one, because I’m just enjoying making music again. And sure, I’ve had a lot more experience in these 12 years. But KIN weirdly feels quite connected to where I was coming from on the first one.

Paste: Well, your earliest televised performances featured just you onstage with a looping device, creating the sound of a full band.

Tunstall: Yeah. And I think you can easily fall into the trap of thinking, as things get bigger, that everything needs to get bigger. At the height of my commercial success, I was running two tour buses, two trucks, a big production and a ton of crew. And I ended up adding backing singers to the band, so there were seven people onstage, and it sounded great, but it didn’t feel right. And now I have the smallest band I’ve ever had—there’s only four of us onstage, including me, and I just feel like we sound like eight people because we’re making such a great sound together. So it’s really just about being creative. But it has taught me that running a tight ship is a really rewarding way of doing it.

Paste: And you were living in London when all this went down?

Tunstall: I was. But it was really interesting because I’d never really lived in London. I had a place in London, but I also had a really nice place outside of London, in Berkshire. I bought this beautiful old gatekeeper’s cottage from the 1870s, a pretty big place with an acre of land. And I just found that I was hiding away there and growing tomatoes—I was becoming obsessed with my gherkin plants. But it was all just a process of hiding away from the fact that I wasn’t very happy.

Paste: Had the songs stopped coming altogether?

Tunstall: No, it wasn’t that. I had started that last record before the shit hit the fan, and then right in the middle of the recording my dad passed and my marriage broke up. And I went back and finished the second half of it, and then I toured that record for two years—and mostly solo. So it was a very emotional show, because it was a very emotional folk record. And it was seated venues, these beautiful old theaters, and I was wearing a bespoke Dior suit. It was very well-behaved, and as much as I loved sharing those songs with people, I just got completely burnt out, but I didn’t really realize it until later. But I just wasn’t having a physical experience, and I realized that I just really needed to sweat and be physical when I’m playing. So I found it quite difficult just playing a show to everybody sitting down.

Paste: But instead of jumping into your next record, you enrolled in the Sundance Institute’s Film Composers’ Lab?

Tunstall: Yeah. So after all that went down, and I just didn’t feel the buzz of touring that record, I didn’t feel the depth of enjoyment that I have in the past. So it was such a major sacrifice to go on tour that it just wasn’t worth doing it unless you’re absolutely loving it. So I decided that I would take time out. And I had always wanted to write and score for film and get more involved with film music. So yeah, I applied to the Sundance Film Composers’ Lab, and I was accepted as one of six fellows for that year. And it was an incredible experience, the biggest learning curve of my adult life. I absolutely loved it.

Paste: You wound up composing for movies like Winter’s Tale, Million Dollar Arm, About Ray, and even Disney’s Tinker Bell and the Legend of the Never Beast. What did you learn there?

Tunstall: Well, first of all, it was really about understanding that film scoring is a skill, and it’s separate from songwriting and separate from making your own music. You’re working for someone else, for a start. So it’s understanding the subtext and nuance of what you’re actually communicating through the music. So we talked music with Hollywood directors who came for lectures, like Alan Silvestri and James Newton Howard, and then TV composers sometimes. And sometimes with what you’re seeing and hearing, the music is providing a subtext to what you’re actually looking at, and it can really cleverly guide your emotions. I studied classical music in college, so there was also that idea of themes and variations on recognizable melodies in films. And I love thematic music—Star Wars being a perfect example—where each character basically has their own theme. So I was working on songs for movies—end-credit songs and songs in the body of movies. And I’ve recently done some vocal-arrangement work for that new Mila Kunis movie Bad Moms, and I was able to do it on my laptop on the tour bus, wherever I was. So it’s all in tandem with doing my own thing with my solo album, and that’s so exciting to me.

Paste: What Los Angeles routines did you settle into? In N Out Burger, of course?

Tunstall: [Laughs.] Only once a month! As a pop star, you can’t keep going in there. But my god, it’s some kind of nirvana in that place!

I fell into the routine of just being really good to myself. I took time off and I just lived. I’m a musician—you don’t get the weekends off or your birthday. So I would just be sitting in Hyde Park on a Wednesday and have lots of people giving me dirty looks because I had the day off. And I was feeling bad about it. So when I went to Venice for the first time, it was the only city that I’ve ever been to where there was a professional level of just hanging out, any day of the week. There are not a lot of people living there who are doing conventional 9-to-5 jobs. Like, man-who-wears-red-metallic-nappy-with-horns-glued-to-his-head doesn’t have the same hours as everybody else. So I just fell in love with it, and I felt like I could just be there, and enjoy my time, enjoy my life, and just get to know myself better. Mostly, I was just chilling the fuck out in one place—I didn’t travel, I got into yoga and I’d get up in the morning and make myself breakfast, all healthy food.

Paste: Well, what you emerged with, musically, feels like a vintage Katrina and the Waves album.

Tunstall: Oh my god! That is the best compliment ever! Thank you! The lyrics are very, very heartfelt. I haven’t written such vulnerable, open lyrics, ever. Certainly not after the first record, because I became a much more observational writer just to protect myself on all the follow-up albums. So I look back, and now I realize how important it is to still remain vulnerable as an artist—it’s such an important part of the job. So it feels really great to come full circle and find this skill of being vulnerable and strong at the same time. And that’s my goal in life—to be able to balance those two.

Paste: Your philosophy winds through all of the songs, too. What is it, exactly?

Tunstall: Well, I wouldn’t say I’m a Buddhist, but I’m definitely a believer in a bigger power. I’m not into any organized religion—my path leans more toward the spiritual. So it’s basically about understanding and accepting being human, and that life is not about avoiding the shit, because the more you try and avoid it, the more it will bed down in every cell of your body and turn into a hernia. So it’s about just accepting that this shit is going to happen to you, and actually using those experiences as the strongest tools in your emotional toolbox to live your life. So you’ll ultimately be able to find joy at the end of any tunnel.

Paste: Who “Turned a Light On,” as the song title says?

Tunstall: I have a new love in my life, and it would be almost disrespectful to not talk about it. I have found the love of my life, and it’s such a transformational experience to be part of a team, which I certainly haven’t experienced really deeply until now. So it’s just incredible when you’re with someone who’s really lifting you up and helping you, every day. So he’s certainly a muse for this record. So it’s a brand-new chapter. If my life is a book that’s in two halves, this is the beginning of the second half.

Paste: But that doesn’t necessarily explain the use of power chords on this album.

Tunstall: Well, my spirit dragged my mind and my body into making KIN. Because I was really intent on not making records for a while and taking a break. But I got into hiking, and I’d be driving to find a particular canyon, over the Hollywood hills, over Mulholland Drive and through Laurel Canyon. And my favorite place to listen to music is in the car, so I’m driving these amazing canyons at dusk, listening to Fleetwood Mac and Neil Young and Tom Petty and Joni Mitchell, and it’s where this music was made. And it deeply seeped into my bloodstream, and I understood the relationship between this place and this music. So I just started writing big pop choruses, with fully formed backing vocal arrangements. And at first I was like, ‘Aw, come on, man! You’re taking a break!’ But the choruses kept coming, and they were so strong and so pop, I was like, ‘I can’t ignore this. This is really, really strong material.’ There was an energy to it, an assuredness and confidence and renewed mojo. It was crazy for me not to respect that and just go with it.

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