Last summer, Scottish singer-guitarist KT Tunstall came through town with Barenaked Ladies and Better Than Ezra and delivered a particularly well-received set at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica. During that performance, she spoke about how rewarding it was to hit the road with the two bands.
Reflecting on the experience in a recent phone interview, she still speaks highly of the guys.
“Honestly, it’s absolute family,” she says from a Seattle tour stop. Tunstall returns to town to play at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 10, at the Beachland Ballroom
. “Those guys are so cool. I think they’re quite deliberate with the touring party they put together. They provided such a fantastic touring family atmosphere. They’re really supportive of the bands opening for them, and it was great to jump up in and perform with them during their set. They’re amazing musicians. They cultivated a full show where we all got to interact with the audience. All three bands had some great banter.”
Tunstall, who started playing piano when she was only 4, launched her career with 2004’s Eye to the Telescope
, an album that became a hit after she re-released it with “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” a tune that wasn’t actually on the initial pressing.
“We finished the record, and I was trying to recreate the beat of the songs on the album,” says Tunstall when asked about the genesis of “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.” “I needed more beats for what I was doing. My friend had a loop pedal in his bag, and it changed everything. The Later... with Jools Holland
performance of ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’ changed everything. Since we hadn’t recorded the album at that point yet, I think the first 10,000 copies of the album had the audio from Jools Holland on it. We rush recorded it.”
Then, she had an even bigger hit with “Suddenly I See,” a track that was used in The Devil Wears Prada
. Hillary Clinton even used the track in 2008 as part of her presidential campaign.
Relentless touring and recording followed until Tunstall hit the wall a few years ago.
“At that point, there had been a few moments where I questioned whether this is what I want to do,” she admits. “The most serious moment came in 2012 when my dad died, I got divorced, and I sold everything and moved to Venice Beach and basically started again. I had to ask myself if I wanted to do it. I did, but because I wanted to and not because I needed to. It started phase two.”
She went to the Sundance Film Institute Film Music Program and learned to write music for soundtracks. Invigorated, she returned to the studio three years ago to cut KIN
, an album of “big pop songs.”
“After that record was out, I had this strong vision that I should do a trilogy,” says Tunstall. “I was tired of taking so long to do a record. Trying to keep the momentum going was difficult. I love trilogies. I love that zoomed out, bigger view of something, and I’m much better under pressure, so I started the process of coming up with more stuff. It was this idea of soul, body and mind in that order.”
The second part of that trilogy, the just-released WAX
, stems from “The Healer,” a song that appears on a previous EP. Though a deep track, the song became what Tunstall refers to as a “barnstormer” at her live shows.
“People didn’t really know the song because it was on an EP, but something was freed in writing that song and certainly in playing it live,” she says. “It’s a head banger. It was so affirming and enjoyable. I thought it deserved to be on a record.”
Tunstall connected with Franz Ferdinand’s Nick McCarthy because she knew she didn’t want to cut the album at some “fancy” studio.
“I had done a one-off track with him for a TV show at his studio that was just this garage,” she says. “There’s this big Jamaican flag there hanging from the ceiling. It’s full of analog synthesizers and vintage guitars, and it’s the size of your garage. I wanted to make the record there and with him. I just called him, and he was available. We had a week to do some preproduction. We sat for five days and wrote some songs together, and it was such a joy. [Songwriter] Martin Terefe is the one other person I can sit down and write a song with. Nick is the second guy that I can write a song with and not feel like I’m diluting myself.”
One album highlight, “The River,” starts as a pretty pop number with percolating synths and falsetto vocals. It eventually builds as Tunstall adopts a bluesy wail, and the guitars and drums kick in.
“It’s actually an old song,” Tunstall says when asked about the track. “Martin [Terefe] and I wrote it for my second record. There were two songs we wrote at that time that I knew were really strong. We still haven’t used the other one. I knew it was good, but it didn’t fit anything. It was this big porch anthem and very emotional. At that point, it didn’t have the bite we ended up with for this record. I knew there’d be a time for it, but I hadn’t cracked the lyrics and chorus. The time came, and I knew that song would be great with badass electric guitars on it and we turned into a beast rather than a ballad.”
Moody, dark songs such as “Dark Side of Me” and “Poison in Your Cup” suggest Tunstall had to dig deep for the themes that emerge on the album.
“I think with this album, it’s about the reality of physicality and moving on from the spirit and transcendent soul of KIN
and having to drive through life in a meat car with the desires,” she says. “There’s nothing you can do about it. There are going to be fuckups along the way. It was kind of a revealing of the veil. I’m very observational, and this record feels much more present and in the moment. I also like how there’s a natural progression that takes place with the track listing.”
She also pays homage to the late David Bowie with the semi-acoustic ballad “The Night That Bowie Died.”
“I didn’t really get into Bowie until my early 20s amazingly,” she says. “I always knew who he was. I knew he was obviously brilliant and a genius amongst us. Someone gave me [the album] Hunky Dory
when I was 22. I put it on my boombox at home. I laid on the floor with my chin on my hand, and I played it again and again, and I think I listened to it five times back to back and was in complete wonder at the record. Every single box — and boxes I didn’t know existed — got checked. When he died, it was just one of those moments when the grief is beyond your relationship with his music. It reminds you of everyone and everything you lost. It’s that disbelief.”
Tunstall’s next album will complete the trilogy, and the singer-guitarist says she’s already given it some serious thought.
“It’s interesting because I started writing for it,” she says. “I have one song I wrote with Martin [Terefe] again. It’s very angular. It’s about the mind, so I expect patterns [of behavior] to be part of the make-up of it in various ways. I don’t know how it’s going to sound yet, but that’s exciting.”
KT Tunstall, Maddie Ross, 8 p.m. Friday, May 10, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $25-$99, beachlandballroom.com.
Sign up for Scene's weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.