As she prepares for her hotly-anticipated Boisdale debut, KT Tunstall speaks to Jonathan Wingate about her long journey from poverty to stardom, and why it’s just the music that matters
By Jonathan Wingate
February 14 2023
Nobody could have imagined what would happen when KT Tunstall found herself drafted in as a
last-minute replacement for American rapper, Nas, on Later…With Jools Holland back in Autumn 2004. Armed only with an acoustic guitar, a tambourine and a loop pedal, she performed a show stopping folk-blues stomper, ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’, which mixed her gutsy, soulful vocals with an infectious melody and a Bo Diddley beat, immediately catapulting her to stardom.
“I don’t have a problem describing it as an overnight success, but it took 10 years to get to the place not only where I was invited on the show, but where I could really kill it,” she explains, sitting in the immaculately pristine kitchen of her house in Topanga Canyon, Los Angeles. “I was 29, although I looked about 18 because I had such chubby cheeks. I was on tour in the UK with Half Cousin, my weirdo punk-folk friend from Orkney, playing to a handful of people each night. I had to jump straight on a train back to London, so I didn’t really have time to think about anything.
“It was just one of those ‘10,000 hours’ moments where I’d done it so many times that it would have been incredible for me to screw it up. I was definitely aware that this was the moment that was likely to give me an opportunity to change my life. I’d always believed that if only I could find an audience who would actually listen to me, they’d really love my music. Unfortunately, as a struggling artist, it’s extremely difficult to find those audiences who will listen and really give you a chance.”
Her debut album, Eye to the Telescope, quickly became a huge international hit, eventually going on to sell four million copies. Having been nominated for a Grammy and named Best British Female Solo Artist at the BRIT Awards, she won a coveted Ivor Novello Award for her third single, ‘Suddenly I See’.
Katie was just a few days old when she was given up for adoption by her half-Chinese mother, who had been working as a dancer in an Edinburgh club when she fell pregnant after a relationship with a bartender. She grew up in an academic household in St Andrews, Fife, where her mother, Rosemary, taught at the local primary school, and her father, David, was an eminent physics lecturer at the university. The title of her debut album was a tribute to the many hours she spent staring through a telescope with her father as a young girl.
Although she begged her parents for a piano when she was four, she didn’t even pick up a guitar until she was in her mid-teens. There was no television and precious little music played in the house as her younger brother, Daniel, was profoundly deaf, so her parents wanted to avoid anything that could interfere with his hearing aid.
After studying drama and music at college in London, she returned to Scotland and joined a succession of indie folk bands before going solo, often playing gigs for little or no money. “It was definitely extremely challenging,” she recalls. “I’d sometimes steal vegetables from the next-door field. I was living this kind of off-grid existence, and there was absolutely no impetus to get rich and famous. The goal was to just be a musician and not need to get a job. It gave me a certain fortitude, but I think it also led to me not becoming successful until I was much older.
“The good thing for me as a songwriter is that I had stories to tell because I’d had that decade of struggling to get somewhere throughout my 20s. It was difficult, but it was an amazing adventure. I was playing on the street in America in the summers, meeting crazy people, taking mushrooms, going to Grateful Dead shows, and then coming home and working odd jobs. I really enjoyed this very frugal existence, which I think is a great skill. Living your life without loads of stuff, learning how to make pasta sauce with milk and tomato ketchup. As long as you add a lot of garlic, it’s pretty good.”
With a string of huge-selling critically acclaimed albums under her belt, KT Tunstall became one of our biggest homegrown stars. “Fame sometimes felt like living in Disneyland,” she giggles. “It’s nice when you get an award or you’re on stage and people really love your music, but I’m not enamoured with fame in any way. I’ve experienced some amazing moments – whether it’s meeting Jimmy Page or having dinner with Stevie Nicks – but I still don’t feel comfortable with fame.”
She was happily married and had millions in the bank courtesy of a long run of hit records on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Suddenly I See’ was used for the opening sequence of the 2006 film, The Devil Wears Prada, and her songs seemed like permanent fixtures on numerous television blockbusters including Grey’s Anatomy and Ugly Betty.
Then everything changed within the space of a few months. Midway through the recording of her fourth LP, Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon, in Tucson, Arizona, her marriage broke up and she returned to Britain following the death of her father. Depressed and unsettled, she got rid of most of her possessions and relocated to Los Angeles.
“I really woke up to some difficult truths about life,” she recalls. “I’d read about it being called a ‘satori’ moment [an awakening] in Eastern religion. I’d been delusional, I hadn’t done things that I wanted to do and I hadn’t ended up where I wanted to be. I’d had all this success, so it was even more frustrating because I was the boss. Nobody was telling me what to do – I was screwing it up myself. Even though I had all the trappings and all the stuff I thought I wanted, I realised it couldn’t be what I wanted because I was miserable.
“I felt very viscerally that it was a moment where you either paper over the cracks and pretend you’re OK or you absolutely just start again. My identity had become my work and I knew that was really not healthy, because your work can be taken away at any time by a multitude of incidents and accidents. I had to take stock, go to ground and allow myself to remember who I was without work.”
She has spent the last year installing a recording studio in the basement of her house, working on what will be her seventh album and adjusting to life after suddenly losing the hearing in her left ear midway through a US tour in 2018.
“After the deafness occurred, I was in utter shock,” she explains. “I played a gig in Nashville via absolute muscle memory, yet fans were saying it was one of their favourite shows. They couldn’t believe that I was dealing with 50 per cent deafness for the first time. My hearing hasn’t recovered since, but I’ve been really proud of just not allowing it to rule my psyche. The specialists don’t know what caused it – they said it was some freak viral inflammation within my inner ear, and it just went over the course of 48 hours.”
Perhaps the key to the enduring appeal of KT Tunstall’s music is the fact that she has always been unafraid to mine her own life for songs as personal as diary entries, yet there is a universality at the core of everything she writes.
“I’m always pushing myself to be more personal, yet my music definitely has a universality to it. At the back of my mind, I’m always thinking, ‘Make sure that someone else can get something from this song.’ It’s bringing somebody into your world so they can experience your pain and joy through your story. John Lennon said, ‘My role is to try to express what we all feel, not to tell people how to feel.’”
How would she describe her life in Los Angeles? “I’m in the Canyon, which feels like living up a tree,” Tunstall laughs. “There’s coyotes, owls and mountain lions. I’ve seen snakes just outside my house that I’ve paid money to see in a zoo. The very high-octane, incredibly intense life of a musician is countered by living somewhere calm and having a sanctuary. I’m really not a city person. I live a very simple, healthy lifestyle these days, so I like being outside and eating good food. And I just can’t get enough of the weather here. I’m a real Cali girl.”
After putting the finishing touches to her new album, she is touring the US with the legendary Hall & Oates before flying back to London to play her first Boisdale show. “I love the challenge of bouncing between huge arenas and really intimate venues,” she beams. “I don’t want to be bored by doing the same thing every day. It’s going to be a special show, because Boisdale is such a gorgeous environment. My last gigs were 18 months ago, so I’m really excited. We’ve all missed intimacy and the human connection of live music.”
Boney M & Mi-Soul DJs | Christmas Special
6 December 2023
Wayne Hernandez | Soul & RnB
22 December 2023
Boogie Wonderland | Funk & Disco Classics
23 December 2023
Shakatak | Jazz-Funk
11 January 2024
The British Collective | Soul & RnB
12 January 2024
Muddy Waters Jnr - Mud Morganfield
17 January 2024