KT Tunstall hits the Fine Line Music Cafe in Minneapolis on Saturday, September 24th. The Scottish singer-songwriter behind hits like “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”, “Hold On”, and “Feel It All” released a new album, KIN, just last week. The Twin Cities Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine caught up with KT to ask about the album, songwriting, and career reflections.
You have a new album that came out September 9th. This being the age of digital production when you don’t have to be physically present in the recording studio to give feedback on mixes and postproduction, when did your direct involvement in the recording and production process begin and end? How does this compare to when you were working on your first albums?
I have no interest in making work that I am not completely involved in from beginning to end. On my first record, my label at the time didn’t include me in the mixing process and I would never let that happen again.
My enjoyment in making music in the studio involves having the songs ready to record, choosing who I get in a room with and where, and then getting into the hard graft of recording…which is usually 12-15 hour days in the studio for however many weeks or months it takes.
I don’t find the mixing process being done remotely a problem. It’s often better not to be hovering over the mixing engineer’s shoulder. Fresh ears at that end stage are essential, and stepping back can be very helpful.
Two of the singles from KIN are titled “Maybe It’s a Good Thing” and “It Took Me So Long to Get Here, But Here I Am”. Are there any musical or extramusical connections between these songs, besides being on the same album?
KT: I like to write albums, not individual songs, so all the songs on this new album are part of that specific collection and story. I’m a huge fan of Beck, and I love that he can try his hand at so many different musical directions, and that’s certainly what I aspire to myself; that each of my albums has a recognizable character unique unto itself. These two songs are both flags in the ground where I have ripped things up, started again, and fought through difficult times to find deep and lasting happiness.
Most songs have a story, sometimes grounded in personal experience and sometimes grounded in others’ experience. Will you say a little about the story behind one of the songs on KIN?
“It Took Me So Long To Get Here, But Here I Am” was one of my earliest demos for the album. It’s the mission statement of the whole album for me. I’d say this record took about 6 months to write, and I was using GarageBand on my laptop to put all the demos together. I had been through a period of hiatus and deep self-reflection, and had come to realize that the best possible state to be in as a songwriter was to be both as vulnerable and as strong as possible for at the same time. The vulnerability came through in the form of being very honest and unfussy with the lyrics; to absolutely say it how it is without dressing it up.
With this song, I wrote exactly what I had experienced, and when it came to the title, I couldn’t think of a better way of saying it. The strength was in the attitude of stating of it so simply.
While playing at the Pleasantville Music Festival, you remarked about how the landscape can have a profound influence on the music that you write and record.
Yes, I find this increasingly so.
It’s not so much that I necessarily produce direct lyrical content from the landscape, but it plays a huge part in terms of my state of mind whilst writing, my ability to focus, and has always provided a mirror to the stories I’m telling.
Where were the songs for KIN written?
I took two very memorable writing retreats to make this album: one to Joshua Tree National Park in a beautiful little cabin in the rocks, and another to Taos in New Mexico over the New Year of ’15/’16. I also wrote a lot at home in Venice Beach, CA.
You worked on the soundtrack for Bad Moms. How was this process different from your normal process of writing for your own albums? Can we expect more soundtrack songs down the line?
For the vast majority of the time, writing film score is not defined by song structure; you are writing to picture, and providing an emotional sonic backdrop to what you are watching, which very rarely involves any sung lyrics.
However, the biggest difference, perhaps, is that with film I am working for somebody else (the director), and adhering to their brief and wishes to uphold their vision. I very much enjoy being part of this kind of collaboration. I will absolutely continue to write for film as much as I am asked to, and time will allow.
You’ve been on a hectic international tour schedule, including crossing the Atlantic for back-to-back performances. In October, I see that you have a whole 2.5 weeks with no performances scheduled between when you wrap things up in Tennessee and take the stage in Bristol. What are some of the things that you’re looking forward to doing during that (relative) vacation?
It’s funny, people see a hole in your touring and think it won’t be insane! Believe me, there will be nothing remotely vacation-like about those 2 weeks. I will be shooting a new video, talking to many good people like yourself about the new record, doing live sessions, preparing for specific upcoming performances, and trying to get some sleep!
There is a slim chance I may get some hang time in with my friends & family, which would be great.
Public images and the reality of show business are often very different (for example, people often underestimate the amount of work and dedication required). What are some of the things that have surprised you during your career as a musician?
Looking back, I’m very surprised that the team around me didn’t focus more on preparing me for the media. You get thrown into shark-infested waters and just have to work it out. It’s also not only what you say, it’s the unbelievable volume of press you sometimes have to do in one day, and it takes time to learn to cope with that. I would recommend any new artist to get some good media coaching before you start!
What’s your pre-performance routine like (e.g., warmups, things you do or don’t do, physical preparation like stretching)?
I warm my voice up. Focus my mind. Give thanks to all the people who have bought a ticket to the show. Take a moment in gratitude for my ability to create and perform. High-five my band, and drink as much water as I can, as I know I’m about to sweat it all out again.
Tuning the guitar: Something you prefer to do, or something that you prefer to delegate to the roadies?
I’m more than happy to tune my own guitar, but it gets pretty boring for the crowd if you’re spending time doing that instead of putting on a show. They haven’t paid to see you tune guitars endlessly.
You’ve written a lot of very catchy songs. What are some songs that get stuck in your own head?
In recent times:
- Beck, “Dreams“;
- Shura, “What’s It Gonna Be“;
- Tegan & Sara, “Stop Desire“
- Alicia Keys, “In Common“;
- and one that was a surprise to me, “Sorry” by Justin Beiber.
If you could give your younger self a few words of advice based on what you know now, what would you say?
You are enough. Don’t waste a minute of your beautiful, precious life on anyone who tries to tell you otherwise
What was one of your most awkward fan interactions?
An air steward on a flight was telling me how much he loved my music and how much it meant to him. He then proceeded to tell me what his favorite song of mine was – which was by a totally different artist.
You did your college studies at Royal Holloway, University of London. Looking back, are there some aspects of that experience that you find especially valuable/useful to you (e.g., notable teachers, activities, resources)?
It was a very safe environment to try out new songs, try out different band set ups, and cut my teeth as a live performer. I played at least once a month at the Student’s Union and in fact my sound engineer also studied there and did the sound at the uni Battle of the Bands, which I won when I was 18! In my theatre studies course, there was definitely a sense of the faculty pushing us to be creatively adventurous within a supportive framework.
What’s next on your list of creative things and life goals to cross off?
I would love to do some acting again. It was my first passion when I was young, and having done a couple of short films in the last few years, I’d be keen to try my hand at it again.
Kaylie Falk contributed to this interview.