KT Tunstall: Stars in her eyes

The singer-songwriter KT Tunstall has taken the long way round to success. It's been worth the wait, she tells Fiona Sturges
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The world is only just waking up to the charms of KT Tunstall. While her debut album, Eye to the Telescope, may have failed to set the charts alight in the two months since its release, it has garnered glowing reviews and has seen Tunstall compared to singers as diverse as Beth Orton, Christine McVie and Carole King. A last-minute invitation to appear on Later... with Jools Holland last October has also helped to put this Scottish 29-year-old on the musical map, not least because her brilliant performance scored 50 per cent of the viewers' vote on the programme's website for best act. Since then she's been a fixture on the critics' ones-to-watch lists; some have even predicted that she will be enjoying Dido-sized sales by the end of this year.

Tunstall's album may suggest that the singer is a serious-minded woman given to bouts of melancholy, but in person she's warm and loudly cheerful. Looking effortlessly hip in clumpy boots and a knee-length pleated skirt, she points out how she has customised her outfit with sequins sewn on in the shape of Orion's Belt. ("Well I thought I'd better make an effort. I'm an Independent reader, you know.") Indeed, stars seem to be something of a theme for Tunstall.

Her album's title is a tribute to the hours spent looking through a telescope with her physicist father as a child. The family lived just down the road from the observatory in St Andrews, Fife, and her dad had a set of keys. He would get his daughter - then plain old Katie - and her brother out of bed in the middle of the night and take them to look at Halley's Comet. (Later on, she tells me how her father played games with liquid nitrogen to amuse her and her brother. If she weren't 29, I'd call social services.)

While she is delighted to have been compared to one of her "all-time heroes" Carole King, she is less impressed by the comparisons to her easy-listening contemporaries Dido and Katie Melua. "I guess if you make quality music then it has a longevity and it will find its place," she sighs. "I really don't think this record sounds like Katie Melua or Dido, though of course I'd love to sell as much as them. What disappoints me slightly is that I think what I'm doing has a bit more edge than that. The thought that I could be seen as that bland is really quite gutting."

Tunstall talks with an honesty and fervour that is refreshing in these PR-mediated times. While most artists regard promotional duties as a necessary chore, for her the whole process is still something of a novelty. "I'm shocked at how much I can talk about myself," she laughs. "I've actually found it useful to be asked questions about my work. People have asked things that I would never, ever have asked myself. It's quite cathartic."

She is also refreshingly candid about the wiles of the record industry. For instance, when she first went scouting for a record deal she was told that, at 27, she was over the hill. "Can you believe it?" she gasps. "How crap is that? I think it's really sad. Sheryl Crowe puts her first album out at 34 and there she is now, in her forties and one of the top-selling artists in the world. If I'd been signed 10, even five, years ago I would have made some terrible music. It's a shame that when you've actually lived some life and have something to write about, they're saying you're too old to come out and play it."

Just as startling are the compromises Tunstall had to make in order to finally get her album released. "To be frank, the overall sound of the album isn't what I would have delivered had I been left to my own devices," she admits. "For a start, it sounds a hell of a lot more expensive than the record that Steve Osborne [the producer noted for his work with U2 and Happy Mondays] and I initially made.

"On a song like 'Other Side of the World', I was hoping to get a juxtaposition of sweet melody and a rockier-sounding production. But when we tried it, the record company said: 'Well it won't get played on the radio.' Making your first album is a steep learning-curve. I know what I like and I know what I don't like, but I haven't got a clue how to sell a record. The label has been very supportive, though they've made it clear that if I want to make another record, I've got to sell this one first." It is true that a number of songs on the album have a rather over-produced sheen about them, and its in the more stripped down, grittier numbers, among them "Under the Weather" and "Silent Sea", that she really excels, and where her extraordinary vocals can take centre stage.

Tunstall's decision to meet the record company half way when it came to the post-production is perhaps more understandable when you consider that it has taken her 10 years to get to where she is today. In 1993, she moved from Fife to read theatre studies at the University of London. The course was great but she was less than impressed with the music scene - "I was expecting to meet all these exciting people and start this great band, but I found one mandolin player. That's it!"

Three years later, with her degree completed, Tunstall returned to Scotland to "live on a hill with a dog and write some songs". She stayed there for six years, playing gigs on the local pubs, clubs and coffee shop circuit, and occasionally collaborating with local musicians, including Fence Collective (a loose set-up which included Pip Dylan and members of King Creosote and Lone Pigeon), and the band Dogs Die in Hot Cars.

In order to flesh out her sound she invested in a loop pedal which enabled her to sample different instruments on top of one another and use them as backing. It was a gadget that effectively transformed her from the archetypal girl-with-guitar to, as she puts it, "a slightly demented one-woman band".

In 2001, she tried joining a group in Edinburgh called Red Light Stylus, though she found working with other people a strain. "When you're writing all the stuff in a band, you find yourself striving to make the other people feel that it is theirs as well," she explains. "I guess I never properly explored what I wanted to do because I always felt that I had to pander to other people's opinions. I think I have a habit of doing that."

It was a series of gigs at the Edinburgh Festival playing to "pissed-up punters who would have been just as happy with a Bucks Fizz cover band" which finally did for the whole band thing. London's gravitational pull became overwhelming, and Tunstall packed her bags and headed south. Within six months she had got a publishing deal - "12 grand for everything I'd ever written and was ever going to write. Great!" Soon the word got around at the record companies and the inevitable bidding war began. Columbia even flew her to New York twice for meetings. "All my friends were saying, 'Milk it, drink everything in the mini-bar and get them to take you out to nice restaurants,' but it just wasn't for me. When that deal fell apart, I can't say I was all that disappointed. All things considered, I'm happy with the way things worked out."

But there was another reason, after so much procrastinating, that Tunstall took the direction that she did. "What really pushed me to come down to London and try and get a deal and do it on a bigger scale was really accepting the kind of music that I write," she reflects. "I know it sounds weird, but the kind of music I write isn't the kind of music that I listen to, which is quite underground, left-of-centre stuff like PJ Harvey and Tom Waits. Once I'd got to grips with that, I could kind of get on with things."

Certainly, Tunstall's album reveals a songwriter not only with a rich melodic gift but one remarkably in tune with current commercial pop sensibilities. Still, it's quite something for an artist to admit that the music that she writes isn't what she'd buy. When I suggest it's also a mark of a woman who doesn't take herself too seriously, she remarks: "Well if I did I'd probably kill myself. But you know I'd really put it down to having had quite a sheltered childhood, where I haven't been privy to anything particularly subversive. I've been in this lovely bubble all my life."

Tunstall was adopted as a baby, though she knows her biological family is part-Irish, part-Scottish and part-Cantonese. "I knew my real name and who and where my real parents lived. As I was growing up, that really fuelled my imagination, and I would make up these wild stories about where I came from. I think it also gave me license, in a way, to follow my own path. I could say to myself, 'Well, maybe I've got musical blood and this is my destiny.' "

She began listening to music and writing her own songs around the age of 14 - to her eternal shame, the first album she bought was Never Ending Story by Limahl. At the same time, she began writing songs - "awful, schmaltzy, revolting songs about puppy-love". It remains a source of bewilderment that her parents had just one record when she was growing up. It was by the Sixties maths professor turned folk singer Tom Lehrer, who ended up writing the music on Sesame Street. "He's a legend," Tunstall enthuses. "I'd advise anyone to check him out."

At 17, she won a scholarship to an American college in Connecticut. "I had been really disenchanted with school," she explains. "I was also writing prolifically and I knew I wanted to go and have an adventure. This seemed the perfect opportunity. It was this outrageously luxurious place with about 500 kids - I mean, they had an indoor ice-hockey rink and a heli-pad. That's how fancy it was. But I was able to do ceramics and photography, and I even learnt how to conduct. And in the holidays I could just take off and go to gigs and play music."

Now, more than a decade later, Tunstall is finally on the up. Already the PR cogs are beginning to turn and the free clothes are starting to arrive - "They don't even stipulate when you have to wear them. How great is that?" But however her career turns out, she's determined she won't turn into a diva. "Yeah, this time next year I'll be like, 'Sorry, who are you again?' " she giggles. "No, but really, it's taken a long time to get this far but I know I'm really lucky. So many people with bags more talent than me don't even get heard.

"Just two years ago I was sitting on the beach in St Andrews with my friend Craig from Dogs Die in Hot Cars, bringing in the New Year, both of us vowing that in the next 12 months we would make an album. And look - we did it!"

'Eye to the Telescope' is out now on Relentless; the single 'Black Horse & the Cherry Tree' is released on 21 February. KT Tunstall plays The Social, Nottingham (0115-958 8484) on 6 February and then tours (www.kttunstall.com)