KT Tunstall: Second album blues

For the follow-up to her multi-million-selling debut, KT Tunstall had to return to 10-year-old songs, she tells Nick Duerden
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The "inevitable breakdown", KT Tunstall says now with the clarity of hindsight, descended upon her in the latter half of 2005. Her debut album, Eye To The Telescope, was halfway toward its global sales tally of four million, and she had shored up in Milan one night, exhausted from the months of endless promotion, countless gigs and the increasing demands that come with escalating fame, Brit Award wins and Grammy near-misses. She wanted, desperately, to fall into a dreamless sleep.

"I was checked into the strangest hotel I've ever seen, called The Straf, and it was concrete, all of it, inside and out," she recounts, the dimple in her right cheek (her left cheek, curiously, is dimple-less) deepening the more she smiles.

"Concrete walls, concrete floors – like something out of a boy's sexual-prison fantasy, or something. That was upsetting enough in itself. Then, when I finally got into my room with its walls bearing down on me and this huge painting of what looked like clotted blood in one corner, I couldn't find the door to the bathroom because it was cleverly concealed in all this bloody concrete! It quickly became ridiculous, me pushing sections of the wall waiting to hear a click... so anyway, I gave up and went to bed.

"Next morning, I went down to breakfast where a long monks' dirge was being piped through the speakers, and all I wanted was coffee. I desperately needed coffee, but I couldn't find the waiter anywhere. And that's when it happened: I started to cry, tears streaming down my face. I couldn't stop." She sighs now, clearly relieved to be able to recount a war story in which she ultimately emerged with her sanity intact.

"I've learned my lessons from that kind of experience. You know, back then, I was so very eager, saying 'yes' to everything that came my way. I won't be doing that again. If I was moderately young and naive then, I'm old and cynical now!"

Two years later, sitting by the roofside pool of an exclusive East London members' bar and sipping on nothing stronger than sparkling water, KT Tunstall looks fit, healthy and happy. Her second album, Drastic Fantastic, is out soon, and has much to live up to.

"Last time around, there seemed to be such goodwill directed towards me," she says. "I'd be mad to expect it again, but a girl can dream, right?"

She's certainly right about the goodwill. Eye To The Telescope was the dinner-party album of choice throughout 2005, but while other recipients of this unofficial award – artists like Dido and James Blunt – also became recipients of, respectively, derision and open loathing, everyone unambiguously warmed towards Tunstall, this munchkin-sized, part-Chinese, all-Scottish folkie with the acoustic guitar and scuffed motorcycle boots.

Thirty years old and with something like 13 years of comparative musical failure already under her belt, success for her had been a hard-won battle. It was also richly deserved, for hers was a lovely, affecting album with, in its lead single "Black Horse And The Cherry Tree", a winning example of the appliance of musical science. In order to create its aura of stomping hoedown through just guitar and voice, the singer fed a series of taped loops back into her microphone and out again in mounting layers.

"It was, I suppose, a trick of sorts," she concedes now. "And I do remember being proud of myself at the time for being able to make all this noise just by pressing my guitar pedals. But I had no idea it would go on to have the impact it did. You have to understand that I'd been doing the song like that for ages around the Edinburgh pub circuit and nobody ever much batted an eyelid. Sure, they all clapped very nicely when it was over, but then they quickly went back to their lattes. It was only when I did the song on Later With Jools Holland that everybody became transfixed."

It was a "trick" that she was to repeat on television stations across much of the Western world over the next 18 months.

"It was strange, definitely," she grins. "The whole experience was so unexpected and deeply bizarre but also highly satisfying. I'd been waiting for recognition, any kind of recognition, since I was 17. It was a long time coming."

This time last year, with Eye To The Telescope finally coming to the end of its shelf-life, Tunstall had planned to take some extended time off in order to get back to the business of songwriting. But the songs weren't flowing. The material she did deliver to producer Steve Osborne (who had also worked on her debut) were not passing muster.

"It wasn't a great time for me. I really wanted Steve to like what I was doing, and the fact that he didn't – well, it didn't do wonders for my confidence, put it that way." Desperate to avoid dragging the album out for months on end, she panicked and decided instead to plunder her back catalogue. "Not just any old songs, mind," she adds quickly, as if to deflect criticism, "but songs I still thought were great and worthy of release."

To its credit, Drastic Fantastic doesn't sound like recycled goods, and even the very oldest material – the opening "Little Favours" and the closing "Paper Aeroplane" are each over a decade old – seem fresh and alive. There is no "Black Horse" here, nothing that so starkly dazzles (though "I Don't Want You Now" is admirably feisty) but it always pleases and, crucially, never dissipates into easy-listening background .

"What I most wanted all along was to have some kind of definable sound of my own," she says, "and the fact that there are these new artists coming out that critics have been calling the new me [Sandi Thom, Amy MacDonald] rather suggests I have. That's pretty much all I can ask for, really."

Adopted at birth by a physicist and a teacher, and brought up in Fife, Katie Tunstall, as she was then (the KT coming later in deference to one of her musical idols, PJ Harvey), was rarely exposed to music in early life, her parents at one point banning hi-fis from the family home. But her nevertheless prevalent artistic temperament would later prove to be a genetic thing, something she discovered for herself as late as her mid-twenties when, encouraged by seeing Mike Leigh's film Secrets & Lies, in which an adopted woman seeks out her biological parents, she tracked down her birth-mother, a Scottish-Chinese dancer who still lives in Edinburgh. She was less successful in locating her father, but did learn that he was a traditional Irish singer: "So I suppose I was always heading towards performance in one shape or another," she says.

Having spent her teens studying dance, acting and music, she graduated from university with a performance-art degree and promptly drifted off to become part of the so-called Fence Collective, a ramshackle group of wandering Scots musicians, many of them bearded, who took pride in their fiercely anti-commercial stance. EPs were self-funded and released to local stores, where they would rarely sell in double figures.

For several years, she lived quite contentedly like this, only leaving the remote, electricity-free cottage that she shared with her band members to perform at coffee houses for tips and drinks. But Tunstall was ultimately driven by a greater ambition and so, in 2001, finally quit Scotland for London, where she began knocking endlessly on record company doors. "They all told me I was the wrong side of 25," she says. She landed a deal with Relentless, the home to Joss Stone, in 2004 at the grand old age of 29.

Drugs never held lasting appeal for Tunstall, but drink did: "I always was something of a drinker," she admits, "but when things began to take off, I found I was starting to rely on it more and more. I basically spent about two years sobbing over my gin, my whisky, Sambuca – anything. It was simply my mechanism for dealing with it all. A lot of weird responses come when you are successful. It's very difficult to understand it, to get your head around it, and the closest I came to unlocking it all was to drink."

One morning, she woke up on the tour bus in America with the customary hangover and no memory of the previous night. When she shuffled into the kitchen area, her bassist was looking up at her warily, expecting yet more drama. "He told me that I'd spent the entire evening crying wildly and moaning about having lost something of my old life and being terribly upset about it. Apparently, I would get like this often after a few drinks, and although I don't much remember it, it does make a certain sense. In many ways, that's what fame is all about: whenever you gain something in life, you also lose something as well, and I began to realise that I would never be able to play to three people in a pub in Edinburgh again. That depressed me because I loved those gigs. These days when I go into a pub in Edinburgh, people shove mobile phones into my face and tell me to say hello to their cousins. It takes a while to get used to that kind of thing, you know?"

And has she?

A measured breath, then: "I'm getting there."

Something else it has taken her a while to get used to is the sudden financial reward. Tunstall spent much of her 20s penniless, happily so. But she is a millionaire now.

"I've got terrible pop-star guilt over it! I mean, here I am, lucky enough to do what I want with my life, and then on top of it, I get loads of cash! So many people in life work really very hard in their jobs, worthy people like nurses and teachers, and they'll never reap the kind of reward I have these past couple of years. That's unfair, of course it is." She pauses. "Having said that, I am beginning to get used to it. And it's nice."

A few weeks ago, Tunstall found herself alone in New York between promotional duties. Pop stars, she notes, are very rarely permitted time alone, and so solitude has rather become a novelty.

"I realised that I could turn left if I wanted to, or right, or disappear into the bushes if I so chose without anyone trying to interfere, and it was a lovely sense of absolute freedom. It didn't last, of course. My mobile started ringing and – sod it! – I was right back to reality!" She laughs uproariously, and the cheek dimple deepens exponentially. You could lose a finger in it.

'Drastic Fantastic' is out now on Relentless Records