KT and The Sunshine Band
Sun, sea, surf and…well, a host of nubile young ladies wearing not very much at all. The team behind the film, Blue Crush, must have thought they had the Las Vegas formula. The house always wins but it can claim that enjoyment is derived on so many levels. When a female friend bought the film for a dejected-in-love housemate, the intended level of enjoyment was clear from the lilting twinkle in her eyes. The twinkle turned to suspicion when she asked both of us, separately, without conferring, if we’d enjoyed the film. In glorious, time-lapsed synchronicity we replied, “The cinematography was incredible!” No coy glances lace-ward, or blushing erections of pompous critique. “But the ladies?” Well…
“She was great!” exclaimed Chris, having seen KT Tunstall’s Mercury Music Award performance. “The way she used a loop pedal to build the layers of the song. And what a song, what a voice.” Chris introduced me to The Meters. I like The Meters. “Oh,” sagged Emy’s face. “I saw her on GMTV. Girl with a guitar. I couldn’t really be bothered.” Emy introduced me to Captain Beefheart. I like Captain Beefheart. Prior to Captain Plug offering me the KT Tunstall interview, I knew nothing of her apart from the name. Now I was straddling the gnarled divide of two opinions. Unsteady and unsure, unable to reach a record store, I tentatively put my head through the computer screen to graze on the web’s verdant pastures.
Every interview and review that I could find contained a version of Tunstall’s history. Details vary but the outline is as follows. Deep breath. Right. She was born in Edinburgh to a Cantonese mother and Irish Father and adopted two weeks later. Now living in St Andrews, Tunstall experienced a calm existence with her outward-bound parents, often enjoying late-night visits to the University observatory where her father was a physicist. Early on she learnt to play the piano and flute. It wasn’t until she was 16 that she picked up a guitar and an Ella Fitzgerald record. Her first attempts at song-writing soon followed. At 17 she won a scholarship to study at Kent College, in New England. Enthused by witnessing her first gigs, which included The Grateful Dead, she returned to Britain, to take a music course at Royal Holloway College.
Unable to start the band she wanted, she returned to Fife where she fell in with a tight group of musicians. A group that has since spawned The Beta Band, Dogs Die In Hot Cars and The Fence Collective, which includes solo artists Pip Dylan, King Creosote and Lone pigeon. Here she stayed for about six years, living in a cottage with her boyfriend, a dog, no heating and no money. Increasingly aware that her songs were better suited to a mainstream audience, an audience that didn’t exist in Fife, Tunstall moved to Edinburgh and then London. After two years she signed to the Relentless label and in December 2004, released her debut album, Eye To The Telescope.
Her work has since been compared to female artists ranging from Carole King to Dido. Some chasm. I removed my head from the computer screen and played the cellophane-fresh disc. Accusations of Robbie-oil-slick production are not unfounded. But Tunstall has admitted to compromising with the record company on this matter, in order to get the album released. It’s on the tracks that are given room to breathe that Tunstall’s sonorous skills flourish. The melodic pop sensibilities of False Alarm follow a similar vein injected by Radiohead on No Surprises and Blur’s To The End. And on the rhythmic stomper, Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, faint echoes of Odetta’s guitar-crash lament are just discernable. Live, Tunstall could be some proposition…but hang on, isn’t this an interview? Everyone else has had their say, what’s KT’s point of view?
Tunstall has previously stated that, for her, playing live is where it is at, which is a good job as she is about to embark on her fifth tour in under a year. “These will be our biggest gigs as a band,” she comments. “It was only last November that we were playing to crowds of about 100. And we’ve managed to sell out most shows, playing steadily bigger venues. It’s been fast, but organic.” For a girl with a guitar following the winning formula, surely bigger venues are the way forward? “I do really miss the smaller venues,” Tunstall continues. “It’s more familiar than playing a festival crowd. It’s not necessarily difficult, but how do you communicate in the same, intimate way? I’ve learnt to try and stay the same. My brother has helped a lot. He’s a tennis coach and profoundly deaf. I asked him how he managed to communicate to groups of people; you know, he has a deaf voice. And he said that you just need to imagine you’re speaking with one person, someone that you’re comfortable with.”
Tunstall recently performed a solo spot at the Barbican, as part of the Bob Dylan tribute concert. She played Tangled Up In Blue and Simple Twist of Fate, “from Blood On The Tracks, my favourite Dylan album.” On tour she’ll be back with the band. But will it be a case of taking the easy route? “We’ve never really recreated the album live,” says Tunstall. “I think you’ve got to appreciate that people are coming because they like the album so we try and avoid a real offshoot. Arrangement wise we keep everything pretty much the same but there’s a lot more energy. The guys are exemplary musicians but we also have a real laugh. We’re playing longer sets now and it’s got to the point where it would be rude not to offer something new, we want to keep progressing.”
On Eye To The Telescope, Tunstall arranged all of the songs with producer Steve Osborne, who has previously overseen New Order and The Happy Mondays. With thoughts turning to recording new material, she is looking forward to working more closely with her “E-Street band”. But will working on the difficult second album ignite Tunstall’s inner-diva? “Celebrity has never been a driving factor,” she asserts. “I think that to be recognised and celebrated for what you’re doing is as good as doing what you do. But having people prying into your life and all that shit. Unless I do something outrageous the media won’t really know who I am. The only thing that could cause trouble is my mouth, I really tripped over the Dido thing.” Tunstall was less than complementary about the singer in a recent interview. “I don’t like the whole slagging other artists off thing,” she continues. “It was just frustration, constantly being compared and you think, come on, do you have to be so lazy?”
Is she surprised by the prejudice that she and other female performers still encounter (one paper suggested that her Mercury nomination was made merely to bump up the x-chromosome numbers)? “Yeah, it’s still understandable,” sighs Tunstall. “When I played at Glastonbury backstage I think there was Abby from The Zutons, one other lady and myself. I’ve just finished a book by Oliver James called They Fuck You Up, from the Philip Larkin poem. And he argues against nature, he thinks it’s all about the way you’re brought up. Because of the dangers of society girls are kept close to hand so it will be, ‘come here and help mummy in the kitchen’ but for the boy it will be, ‘get out of the kitchen!’”
Image has always been a big hairy hand in the rock and pop works. I guess Tunstall will always carry, to some degree, the girl with a guitar tag. And, she is female and can often be seen carrying a guitar. But there are many more levels on which to enjoy KT Tunstall. Stop gawping and check out the cinematography! KT Tunstall plays Nottingham Rock City on Monday 31st October.
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- June 13, 2006 / 5:17 pm