“The most important part of this job is to stay vulnerable…” - hmv.com talks to KT Tunstall
A lot has changed for singer-songwriter KT Tunstall in the three years between her 2013 album Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon and her new LP KIN which hits CD shelves today (it can be previewed and purchased on the right-hand side of the page).
After completing her touring commitments, Tunstall, who was newly divorced, decided to relocate to California, leave her pop career behind and commit to a life of scoring films. But, luckily for us, a clutch of new songs brought her back. She explains why, why she worked with Beck producer Tony Hoffer and her plans to balance a life in film and music…
How did making KIN compare to making Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon?
“It was a completely different world. I made half of the last record right before my Dad passed away and I got divorced, I went back after those things had happened and finished it, which meant that I used the album as an escape from all that, but it had a big effect on the songs and made it this downtempo folk record, built from a life that was falling apart.”
“Something really died, my whole life changed, I sold everything I owned and moved to California. I really wanted to change and cut the umbilical cord, I didn’t want to do another cycle of writing, recording and touring, so I enrolled on the Sundance Institute’s composers’ course and threw all my energies into that.”
So what brought you back to your solo career?
“I was driving around California listening to all this wonderful pop music like Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty and more modern psychedelic stuff like Django Django and Tame Impala, it all seeped into my bloodstream, as did driving around LA and soaking in all the sunshine and positivity. I started to write these big lovely pop choruses, the kind I’d not written for a long time, so in spite of thinking I was over all that, my spirit seemed to want me to follow up on all these songs, so that’s what I did.”
Had you stopped writing completely? Did you find it difficult to get back in the groove?
“I stopped writing completely for a year and a half. It was a bit frustrating actually that it was what my subconscious wanted me to do, I was ready to immerse myself completely in film. I never write on tour and I toured hard, especially that first record, so long periods away are nothing new for me, but it was definitely a surprise.”
When did you decide to work with Tony Hoffer?
“I really wanted to push the boundaries and go beyond what you’d expect from a traditional singer-songwriter record, but at the same time still deliver something that you can get on the radio. Tony is a genius, he’s so good at mixing experimental production while keeping what made the artist popular in the first place, he’s always on the edge of both. I’m a huge Beck fan too and Tony’s worked with him a lot.”
How did he compare to the producers you’ve worked with in the past?
“I love the artist/producer relationship, I’d never make a record without a producer, it’s a fantastic thing, sometimes it’s wonderful, sometimes it’s difficult, but you always learn so much. Tony is the king of mischief, we laughed our way through this record, he’s an incredibly good musician and so easy to trust. I listened back to all the demos the other day and it’s not that different, it’s just like listening to them after you’ve done magic mushrooms, it brings it all into technicolour. It was such a joyful experience.”
Did you work with any co-writers on this album?
“I’m very proud that this is the first album I’ve written almost totally by myself, I’d never done many co-writes, two or three for each album, but I really wanted to do this on my own, co-writing can be really soul-destroying and forced.”
You’ve got James Bay on the album too, how did that come about?
“I met James as we were both playing Jools Holland’s Hootenanny and we got chatting. He’d said in interviews was that he was a fan and he told me about going to see my shows when he was younger, so we had a great chat and swapped numbers. I had this song that I thought would be great as a duet and I text him and said ‘I know you’re busy owning the world right now, but would you be into this?’ and he replied and said ‘Absolutely’. He recorded this demo in a hotel bathroom and sent it to me and it sounded incredible, so good that he probably needs to spend more time recording in hotel bathrooms. Then he came to LA and we hung out and we laid it down. He did an incredible job.”
What kind of album is this lyrically? Has the way you choose your words changed?
“The records I did after Eye Of The Telescope became quite observational, I fell into a common trap in that I wanted to protect myself and became all too aware of the fact that millions of people would hear my music so I didn’t want to be too vulnerable. But the most important part of this job is to stay vulnerable, the trick to doing it well is to be vulnerable and be strong at the same time. This album is a total phoenix out of the ashes from the last one, it feels quite close to the first record, a kindred spirit, it’s from a very positive place, I won’t do music unless it's fun.”
When did you decide on the title of KIN?
“It’s called KIN because it’s about coming through all these tectonic shifts in your life and understanding how it all comes together. If all the huge things that happened to me hadn’t I’d never be here now and I’m much happier. These events give you more humanity, so KIN is a reference to all those people who think like you do, who see the world in the same way.”
How’s your live set shaping up now? You’ve got a lot of material to choose from…
“I know! I totally understand how Bruce Springsteen plays for four f**king hours now! I want to play everything. I’m very excited to get out and play the new songs, there’s a different energy to this record and people are really responding to it. All the hits will be there, I think they’d bar the doors if I didn’t play ‘Suddenly I See’ and ‘Black Horse And Cherry Tree’. I check all the forums and see what fans are saying before I pick it each night, so there'll be a good spread across the tour."
Is your film scoring career on hold while you tour this album? Or can you do both?
“No, it’s been a fantastic process understanding of how to work remotely. I actually worked on Bad Moms, the new Mila Kunis movie, I did some vocal arrangements, for that I worked on my laptop with a microphone and it’s great, it’s very good for me to do both.”
Do you think what you learned at Sundance has fed into the new record?
“The film score that made me want to do it was Mark Mothersbaugh's Life Aquatic score, it’s this incredibly quirky and creative score and it’s one of my favourite records now. I always go back to Ry Cooder’s Paris Texas soundtrack, I love the space and I’ve learned a lot about how instrumentation can produce so much emotion. Music shouldn’t just be a backing track for the lyrics.”
“The dream is to do a full-length film score and to write songs just for movies. I love doing that, it’s like solving a puzzle, it’s brilliant to push you right out of your boundaries, I don’t need to be KT Tunstall at all.”