Poised behind a mic in a cliff-top, open-air amphitheatre at the bottom end of Britain – the waves crashing below, the seabirds hooting above – KT Tunstall surveys her surroundings, and her audience, and declares: “I'm glad the scenery is amazing 'cause the gig might be shit.”
She's smiling as she says this but this is not the Scottish singer-songwriter's usual stagey self-deprecation. Tonight's solo show at Cornwall's 750-capacity Minack Theatre, four miles from Land's End, is the debut public performance of songs from the Brit Award-winner's new album. And, again, she's displaying more than just simply first-night nerves.
Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon is a collection of songs birthed in the most wrenching personal circumstances – the death last August of Tunstall's father, followed, weeks later, by splitting from her husband. As Luke Bullen was also the drummer in her band, and its musical director, the separation catalysed both personal and professional upheaval for the 37-year-old.
“It really isn't a break-up record at all,” Tunstall insists of a spacious, beguiling beautiful album recorded in two bursts in the Arizona desert with alt.country legend Howe Gelb (Giant Sand), one session either side of her twin losses. And even though, “it was such a seismic shift for me last summer”, she acknowledges, none of the songs on her fifth studio set directly reference her split from Bullen, whom she had married in 2008.
That said, she admits to a sense of “foreboding” as she began writing early last year. The title track of the first batch of songs is “probably the most relevant song in terms of what was going to happen”, she says of “Invisible Empire”, the album opener that features lines such as: “I wanna burn this house, I know I want to jump into the fire…”
For reasons both legal and respectful, Tunstall can't talk in much detail of the circumstances surrounding her divorce. But that song “was definitely illustrative of the whole thing, where I had definitely built this fabricated city… Anything that looked dodgy I just put a façade on it, and that was what I chose to look at.”
And now, here she is, alone on a mild, late spring evening, unveiling these songs. She's snazzily dressed in jaguar-print jacket and trousers and is working hard to entertain. She breezily introduces “Invisible Empire” as a song “about when you build the most fabulous reality in your mind. Then you realise it's… total rubbish.”
For the next 90 minutes or so, she doesn't let up, neither with the pithy banter (“I have to warn you: this album has some death songs…” she chirps. “If you come to a gig in two months, it'll be slick,” she apologises) nor the invigoratingly affecting songs.
Fifteen minutes after showtime, as her mum waits for her outside, Tunstall is alone in the dressing room beneath the Minack's breathtaking, granite-hewn stage.
“Holy fuck!” she exhales with a laugh. “That was intense. It was nerve-wracking. And the only time I get nervous is when I don't know what I'm doing. It's been such an intense run-up to this first gig, so I've not had a lot of time to dedicate to preparing. Apart from that,” she grins. “I'm shit at practising.”
She admits that she was extra apprehensive because, as she had said on stage, these new songs are “so emotional” and are the sound of a “rite of passage”. And, of course, there was a stark visual reminder of the “new page” on which she now finds herself: she was alone on the stage. No band was there…
“…and Luke isn't there,” she acknowledges quietly. But, I say, she did look freed up there, just her and her songs, as it had been in her formative years performing solo on the Fife folk scene centred on The Fence Collective and her friend King Creosote (Kenny Anderson).
“Well, I felt it, very much,” she agrees. “But I am quite glad the first show is now over. There is an added investment in this stuff because it is more emotional than anything else I've done, and more stripped back.” She had deployed her winning guitar-pedal-and- looped-beats trick on the rendition of her breakthrough hit, the rammy-nominated “Black Horse And The Cherry Tree”. But otherwise “that voracious rhythm that's been on everything else, pretty much” was absent from the haunting, transporting set. Even her version of Don Henley's “Boys Of Summer” sounded like a lament.
Did she feel lonely up there? “Yeah, I suppose there was definitely…” she begins. “In the past, gigs have been… basically really good fun. It's like a natural pill getting onstage. And it's a different flavour with this stuff. In some ways I'm giving out more than I was, not for want of trying before but just because of what's happened naturally with the new material. So I guess there's a feeling that I'm opening up more. And I'll have to wait and see if that has a cumulative effect.”
This summer, Tunstall is playing festival shows with an all-new band. But beyond that, she'll be touring as a solo performer. Just her, her guitars, her memories, and the most honest, emotive set of songs she's written. It might, she realises, take its psychic toll.
“Taking this album out is going to be a process of its own. And it's gonna change. And for all I know, it might end up getting too much – I might wanna just quit at Christmas, and go, no, it's too much. And move on… But,” she adds, brightly, “I'm just very open to whatever happens, happens. I don't feel any pressure to try and turn this into a huge commercial success. I don't feel the need to milk the cow anymore. But if I am really enjoying it, then great, I'll carry on.
”But talking to you now, I am still processing how it's going to feel playing this stuff. 'Cause right now I definitely don't feel entirely normal!“ laughs this whisky-loving woman who can party with the best of them, who can bring the hootenanny noise at the drop of a plectrum. ”I certainly don't feel the way I would usually feel after playing a gig.“
'Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon' is out on Monday
*This article appears in tomorrow's print edition of Radar magazine