KT Tunstall: Expect The Unexpected

Music Features KT Tunstall
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There’s not a lot of room to maneuver in this small New York bagel shop—just one dinky table and a couple of barstools by the window. But even the most mundane surroundings can host the unexpected when Scottish tunesmith KT Tunstall is around.

Grabbing the window seats, she bounds gleefully into a discussion of Drastic Fantastic, the new Virgin Records follow-up to her platinum debut Eye To The Telescope. It’s a bit late in the day, so few folks venture into the deserted little joint. Except one: a tall, shaggy-haired ?gure in rumpled clothes with a huge black-widow tattoo on his forearm, who seems to have just woken up. As he orders his coffee, Tunstall gasps. “Is that... is that who I think it is?” she whispers.

Why yes, it is Julian Casablancas, the reclusive leader of The Strokes, who strolls over, says, “Hello,” and reports on his latest doings with a deadpan, “Oh, you know me—I’ve just been sitting around, contemplating the shattered shards of my broken existence.” Turns out he and Tunstall are huge mutual fans. By conversation’s end, they’ve made a pact to someday work together, should their busy schedules ever permit it.

“I can’t believe that just happened!” Tunstall gushes once Casablancas has departed. “It was really Julian! And he was actually smiling! You never see him smiling in photos.” Turns out Tunstall is just getting started in the surprise department. The mention of smiles leads to a discussion of teeth, and from choppers Tunstall segues into one of her typically off-the-wall revelations. “That just reminded me that my mom and I were having this conversation recently, that when I was a child I had to go to the dentist to have my teeth ?led down, because I grew fangs,” she notes, matter-of-factly. “I grew natural fangs, and people were commenting. I was only ?ve, and it was horrendously unpleasant getting them ?led down. But I think I was probably fairly vicious if I got into ?ghts back then—I was aware of my fangs. I didn’t bite anyone directly, but I did some nipping, just mucking around with my brother. But I was actually scaring people, scaring other children.” She pauses, stroking her necklace thoughtfully. “If only the dentist could’ve handed me the fangs afterward—I could’ve worn ’em around my neck like a shark’s tooth!”

Fangs. Shark’s teeth. At points like these, one has to step back and take a long objective look at Tunstall. She looks normal enough: diminutive, 5'2'' frame; hip, but not cloyingly chic, clothes—white jeans, black T-shirt and gold buckle-strapped Converse; pretty, but not overtly made-up features, the result of her Scottish-Chinese heritage; and a chameleonesque way of blending in with the populace that allows her to travel virtually unrecognized through New York. But share a bagel and some coffee with Tunstall, and the truth is as sharply defined as her rapier wit—there’s nothing even remotely pedestrian about her. She’s truly unexpected, and delightfully so.

For example, here’s how the 31-year-old sums up her late-blossoming career: “I was really blown away by Sin City, the Frank Miller adaptation ?lm by [Robert] Rodriguez. And after seeing it, it dawned on me that this is just a total comic-book existence, what I do. Minus the X-ray vision, of course. You go to weird places, you meet weird people, and you end up in totally mad situations. I remember being in Pittsburgh, and we couldn’t get a cab into town before the show, and me and the bass player ended up in this weird old sportscar full of dog hair and tin cans, getting a lift into town with some redneck after playing to 4,000 people in a different city. Or Elton John says, “hello,” at a soundcheck, then I end up in a helicopter ?ying through the French Alps, then ?nish the evening with a cup of tea, staring at the Empire State Building, just going, ‘This really isn’t possible.’ It feels like time-travel—a week feels like a month; a day feels like a week.”

Maybe it was the lass’ curious childhood that set her apart. Hailing from St. Andrews, Tunstall ?rst left Scotland at age three, when her physicist father was transferred to UCLA and the family moved to Encino, Calif., for a year. At 17, she returned to the States, ?rst attending a Connecticut boarding school, then moving to a hippie-ish community in Vermont where she formed her ?rst band, The Happy Campers, and tracked demos at the local radio station. Pro?cient on piano, ?ute and guitar, she relocated to London and booked herself into any pub or club that would have her. The years passed; no industry executive swept down to sign her. Her big break came in 2004, when an ailing Nas begged off his Later With Jools Holland TV appearance, and Tunstall was ushered in as a last-minute replacement. Solo, she stomp-strummed a sprightly original—“Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”—and the show’s phone lines lit up. Who was this stunning young performer? And where could her album be purchased? The originally independent Eye To The Telescope had to be hastily re-released to keep up with the overnight demand. Soon, the album would earn her a nomination for Britain’s coveted Mercury Prize, plus three Brit Award nominations (winning for Best British Female Solo Artist), and even a Grammy nomination earlier this year. Her “Suddenly I See” single—which followed the breakthrough “Black Horse” and its addictive “Whoo-hoo” refrain—was one of ?ve ?nalists for Hillary Clinton’s campaign theme song.

Tunstall hasn’t done anything by the book. A good portion of her “Suddenly” video features her serenading a strangely attentive border collie on a park bench (“Actually, Hokey the dog was looking ever so slightly past me to his owner holding a huge steak,” she explains). And her U.S. breakthrough occurred courtesy of The Today Show, where she was hastily booked on a Tuesday for a performance the following Friday. Rather than drag her backing band along, she showed up with nothing more than her trusty guitar and an AKAI E2 Headrush loop pedal, and proceeded to knock ’em dead. The Headrush—via two ?oor buttons, Record and Play—lets its owner overlay as many as 27 separate loops, thereby creating the illusion of a full backing combo. “First, I did a percussive chk-chk on the strings, then a tap-ring thing, and then I did two harmonies,” she recalls. “And after I ?nished, it was like a big party in the studio—everybody was so excited. Because, to be honest, every time I pull that off I’m f—ing amazed that I haven’t completely ruined my opportunity by doing it wrong. That’s why I call the AKAI Headrush the Wee Bastard—it never gets anything wrong; it never, ever breaks. But I f— up quite regularly, and it captures everything.” God forbid you accidentally punch both buttons at once, she shivers. “Then it turns into a delay pedal, this third weird option that might be something really amazing, I dunno. Maybe next tour I’ll be like, ‘Watch this,’ press both buttons and poof! A wormhole!”

But if it’s a rabbit hole that this Alice has tumbled down, she certainly seems to be holding up well under the pressure, judging by the tea-party-ish experience of Drastic Fantastic. Tunstall kicks off with her stock in trade, a jangly strummer with handclap percussion called “Little Favours,” which segues into the dissonant chiming of “If Only,” the ?rst of many self-examinations/recriminations. “Hopeless” feels like a classic country ballad; “Paper Aeroplane” tacks a funereal acoustic/keyboard motif onto lines like, “This road that I’m on is leading me to hell”; the mandolin-accented “Funnyman” is a punk-chorded powerhouse in disguise; and “Black Horse” fans will rejoice to hear toe-tapping singalongs like “Hold On” and “Saving My Face.” “Someday Soon”—with its eerie National Guitar twang and shufflebeat—feels the most pensive, with its composer making a to-do list of mind-expanding exercises that ends with, “turn myself into the grass, and I’ll grow.”

“I know, it sounds comedic,” Tunstall says of her grass lyric. “And I don’t really wanna turn into grass. But actually, that song was written when I split up with Luke [Bullen, her drummer and longtime boyfriend] for a day. We had this massive argument, and the argument started when he said ‘F— off!’ So I did. I kinda f—ed o?, like ‘Oh yeah? I will f— off, then!’ And he didn’t call me for three days! He was following some kind of ‘Men’s Guide for When to Phone Women,’ and I was like ‘Oh, so that’s it then? We’re done. And that’s how you’re ?nishing it?’ I wrote it in a letter and stuck it under his door, and I thought, ‘I can either stay home and be depressed, or I can go have a beer and write a song.’ So I chose the beer and the song.” By the time Bullen dropped by to apologize, “Someday Soon” was complete. “So we’re also considering splitting up for a few days in the future, just so I can get more songs done.”

Tunstall is staring idly out the cafe window when a teenage girl pauses outside to preen herself in the re?ective glass, oblivious to the artist sitting inches away on the other side. This suddenly reminds Tunstall of another new number, “Saving My Face.” “It’s about old ladies having plastic surgery,” she chuckles. “I’m fascinated by our culture’s reaction to and treatment of beauty. It must be so difficult for young women who grow up ridiculously gorgeous to look in the mirror one day and go, ‘Oh my God, I have a neck like a f—ing turtle!’ Then they have work done, and they look so strange, younger than what they are, but like the Emperor from Star Wars. It’s really weird.” She’s happy to run through other Drastic tracks, too: “Hold On” (“A take on one of my favorite Bob Marley songs called ‘Judge Not’—before you point your ?nger, remember that someone else is already judging you”); “I Don’t Want You Now” (“I was totally let down by someone, but I can’t say who—writing derogatory songs about people is bad karma”); and “White Bird” (“It’s a dove, a city pigeon, that I kept seeing when I ?rst moved to London, a personification of where I was at—a country girl moving to the big city”).

But her music doesn’t address her other passion—the environment. The vegetarian has gone totally green; allied herself with the environmentally conscious Global Cool campaign, and met with then-outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair on its behalf; and she’s partnered with Origins Natural Resources skin care as well as Carbon Neutral, the latter of which has dedicated more than 5,000 new trees in her honor in Scotland’s Carrifran Wildwood. “But it just doesn’t inspire me to write songs about being angry or depressed,” she clarifies. “The crux of it is—the most important thing a musician can do is keep a grip on reality and remember that the people who are actually interested in what you’re saying are only interested because they like your music. They’re not coming to your shows because they wanna hear polemics about whatever politics you’re into, so you have to [raise awareness] in a way where it’s a choice for the people who might be interested. And especially with the green issue, you have to put your own house in order ?rst. You can’t go out and tell people what to do and then be driven home in your Hummer limo.”

After diving momentarily into deeper thematic waters, Tunstall returns to her wacky self. And after a brief discussion of insects and their egg-laying abilities (she’s an obsessive fan of both the Discovery and Animal Planet networks), she’s craving some fresh air, a stroll through New York. Again, no one bats an eye as she shoves her way down the busy sidewalks, happily anonymous among a sea of possible fans. Hence the “Drastic” and “Fantastic” in her new album’s title—the changes in her life lately have certainly been both. “I’ve actually managed to stay out of the tabloid press,” she says. “I don’t get photographed, I don’t get hounded, and unless something very unfortunate happens to you, I think you can still choose whether or not you want that.”

It’s at this precise moment that a heedless vacationing family in a speeding Bronco comes barreling through a red light, literally missing Tunstall by inches, just as she starts across the intersection. “Suddenly I see,” she gasps, parroting her own smash single as she staggers backward. “A deadly S.U.V.!”

Unexpected, to the bitter end.