Strikes a chord: KT Tunstall and Emma Gillespie talk sexism, scandal and singing in the street

Both KT Tunstall and newcomer Emma Gillespie are 'girls with guitars' who busked their way to record contracts at the age of 27. Except one of them got her break through a reality TV show. So how similar are they really?

By Craig McLean
Sunday 16 January 2011 01:00

The artists known as KT Tunstall and Emma's Imagination are swapping pop video-shoot war stories. "I've just done my first proper one," says Emma Gillespie, winner of last year's Sky 1 talent show Must Be the Music. "I had to lie on the floor from eight in the morning till 11 at night. All my muscles were spasming. It was horrible." The 27-year-old from Edinburgh also had to learn how to sing "really fast while looking really convincing. I felt like a tit," she sighs.

"There's a lot of that," nods Tunstall sympathetically, known to her parents in St Andrews as Kate. For the next single from her third album, the 35-year-old winner of the 2006 Brit Award for British Female Artist is about to film a new clip in which she has to learn to sing her song backwards. "It's totally impossible."

We have brought Tunstall and Gillespie together for a tête-à-tête in central London's Groucho Club. They haven't met before, but it feels as though they should have. Both are Scottish, both are solo "girls with guitars", both signed record deals at the relatively late age of 27 and relocated to London in pursuit of their long-cherished dreams, both have worked with producer Martin Terefe. And both have served an apprenticeship on the streets, busking on the unforgiving pavements of Glasgow. Perhaps that's why, within minutes of meeting, they're chatting like old pals.

Punchily outspoken and a semi-seasoned pro, Tunstall is no fan of The X Factor and its ilk. She is, however, "really interested to know how Emma found the TV show". Wide-eyed but well-travelled, Gillespie wants to hear more about how Tunstall "has fought tooth and nail. It sounds like she's never given up."

On the menu this wintry morning: mint tea and Lemsip, sexuality and selling yourself, Gary Barlow and Shakira, and being over the hill – allegedly – at 25.

Have guitar, will travel

At the start of last year, Gillespie was busking on Buchanan Street, central Glasgow's pedestrianised shopping thoroughfare. Tunstall knows the spot well.

Gillespie: "The worst thing when you're trying to find a spot to busk is when there's bagpipers! Once I had some opera guys set up opposite me. They were amped up as well!"

Tunstall: "I would always be quite fascistic: amps were anti-busker! And people playing backing tracks? Backing track can get a taxi. Busking is proper cut-your-teeth stuff. There's just not any room for being shy about it."

G: "The first time I busked was with a penny whistle in Castle Douglas [near Dumfries] when I was 20. I was just having a go and I was bit too shy to sing. When I started busking with the guitar it was to make money. I loved it – singing, sneaking your own songs in there, see what works. The one that made me the most money was 'The Script's Breakeven'. I actually did one of yours as well. 'Black Horse and the Cherry Tree' – I'd stamp away in the street and go, 'Woo-hoo!'"

Enjoy unlimited access to 70 million ad-free songs and podcasts with Amazon Music Sign up now for a 30-day free trial

Sign up

T: "Busking helped my playing a lot. It definitely made me a more aggressive player. At first I couldn't play standing up, cos you learnt guitar sitting down, hunched over, staring at what you're doing. And my mum used to pop in the pub if I was doing gigs and go, 'Can't you stand up?' 'Shut up, mum!' Now I find it hard playing sitting down."

G: "I was in Carlisle busking and you know you put your 'luck money' in first, a couple of pounds? This cute little boy came up and I was like, 'Aw, nice,' and he bent down, nicked all my money and ran off. I hadn't started and I was already down. I was shouting, 'You're a horrible, horrible boy.'"

American dreams

Gillespie spent much of her early twenties travelling the world, doing a variety of jobs (teaching circus skills, cattle-herding on a motorbike...). In autumn 2009, she visited New York, where she performed at open-mic nights. Energised by the experience, she decided to concentrate on her music. Seven years previously, Tunstall also experienced a New York state of mindlessness...

G: "I loved New York. I was surrounded by like-minded folk, and that lit me up. I went back to Glasgow cos I knew people there. I was gonna chip away at it, do gigs, build up a fanbase. I was quite prepared to spend a few years slowly building it up. I didn't expect the TV show to happen."

T: "I was flown to New York by a label, wined and dined, got taken to some rapper's launch party. There was an airport metal detector to get into this gig in this crazy club, and I'm thinking, 'This isn't going to happen...' It didn't. Then [legendary music-biz exec] Tommy Mottola at Columbia brought me back out and offered me a deal. This was on 22 December 2003. Mottola left a week later, and I was left hanging for three months. In the meantime, all the British record companies get a whiff off that and suddenly you're a smelly option. I couldn't get signed for shit. The Norah Jones thing had just happened, so every record company had their girl singer-songwriter. So I ended up taking the total outside bet with Relentless, the weird, underground Asian dance label – which turned out amazing."

G: "I'd never tried to approach any labels. I did try two different talent competitions. But they were building your hopes up then ripping people off – you had to pay to register, bring your audience, and they had to pay to get in. After those I realised there were no short cuts. You can't just win a competition. I was like, 'I'm never doing anything like that again.' Then Must Be the Music came up."

The extra-factor

One day in Glasgow, Gillespie was going home after a busking session when she spotted a queue of people carrying instruments. It was the Must Be the Music auditions. She knew the judges were working musicians: Sharleen Spiteri, Jamie Cullum and Dizzee Rascal, and that there were "no dodgy contracts. And I might get one of my songs on TV in front of a wider audience." She auditioned, and secured a place in the regional heats. During the competition, two of her live performances reached the top 10 of single downloads. In September 2010, she won the contest. She signed a record deal soon after. Her debut album just came out.

T: "The thing that winds me up about these pop shows is the judgement and the control. And the ironing someone into a generic mould."

G: "See, that was it – they just encouraged everyone to be themselves. I didn't really get any criticism. If the judges said they didn't like something, it was never nasty. You could see where they were coming from. It wasn't about the judges, it was about the acts."

T: "The biggest thing for me is that they weren't making you sign a contract in the queue. You kept ownership of your music. You were making the profits from sales of your music that you're performing. These shows very rarely produce pop stars. What I don't like is them standing there and (a) humiliating a kid, (b) making fucking loads of money out of it, and (c) taking absolutely no responsibility for what happens to that person. In some of these competitions, it's telling so-and-so to look in the camera, take their hat off. Like, why? Where's the rulebook that says that that's what you should do to make it as a musician?"

G: "But this show was so supportive. Even after it was finished, even though there was no record deal, there was an after-care system – the producers had someone literally by my side until I got sorted out with good management, got a lawyer, saw some record labels. I just feel so lucky cos there are so many musicians out there who struggle and fight to swim through all the crap. And I got this amazing lift over the top of it and plonked in the spotlight."


Tunstall adopted the nom de plume KT partly in homage to her hero PJ Harvey, partly to escape the shadow of all the other self-named singer-songwriters who were

around at the time (Katie Melua, Kathryn Williams, Kate Rusby). Gillespie thought her name "was really boring", and she and some friends on the Glasgow scene brainstormed Emma's Imagination.

G: "The label isn't pushing me to change my image. The show did me a huge favour because it was very much me – I wasn't styled. And the label said, 'People obviously related to you as you.' But I don't really wear make-up or make much of an effort, so I think I need to start trying not to leave the house looking like an old bag lady."

T: "For the first two years of things kicking off for me, I was just head down, gigging, partying. I've definitely struggled with the photoshoot and video thing. I've only really got to grips with that now. When I got nominated, weirdly, for Best Pop Vocal at the Grammys in America, cos of the time difference, I had to do a 5am photoshoot in Los Angeles. So you're dolled-up at dawn, and I'm asked to stand in the middle of Justin Timberlake and Mary J Blige. I'm like, 'I'm from Fife! This is wrong! Are people wondering if I'm Christina Aguilera's mum?'"

G: "I've just had to move to London, and all I have is a suitcase of clothes. I've not got anything fancy; I've got one pair of shoes. But then you think, if I wear the same thing to gigs all the time, I'm gonna end up in one of those sack-the-stylist features in Heat. Before Must Be the Music, if someone had mentioned a stylist to me, I'd be like, 'Ach, that's really arsey.' But it's not. You actually need their help."

T: "It's about augmenting yourself. Becoming what you wanna be on stage. And the fact that what you're wearing is a trick. Not as in you're hoodwinking people. But you're missing a trick by not using it as a way of expressing yourself, and as a way of exciting people. When people see you on TV, they don't wanna see you looking boring. They wanna see you looking characterful. But it took me a long time to get that right. Same with make-up – only with this album have I been able to embrace it, enjoy myself, and not think I'm being a vain tart by liking lipstick."

Sexcess all areas

No, says Gillespie, in her six months in the music industry, she hasn't encountered any sexism. Yes, says Tunstall, in the seven years since she was signed, she has noticed the male-versus-female battle lines. Last year, a Scottish tabloid fomented a "battle" between her and Shakira.

T: "I said I was surprised she was shoving her fanny in the camera in the video for 'She Wolf'. I said nothing about her talent, I think she's great, and is obviously a nice person, does a lot of charity work, blah blah blah. But I was surprised at how gratuitous that video was."

G: "You wanna say, 'Has your mum watched that video?'"

T: "Yeah. An artist like her and her label cultivate a young audience. It's like that X Factor episode with Rihanna and Christina Aguilera [doing her routine from Burlesque] – it was just way oversexualised for what is a family show with little girls watching. And that's their aspiration! I mean, Rihanna's basically looked like a lap dance. But anyway, the press made this big deal, saying I'd attacked Shakira. It wasn't my words, and that wasn't really what I'd meant. You've got to be careful of what you say."

'Scots singer in hoo-ha scandal shocker'

Beware tabloid hacks. And broadsheet ones.

T: "My first PR people got me to do a trial-run interview with a Heat journalist. And he just sat down and said: 'Have you ever done heroin? Do you think you'd try it?' I'm like, 'No! Yes! I mean, no! Never! Maybe... What?' And he was like, 'I think you've failed Katie...'"

G: "I'm very aware when I'm talking to the press. They do try to trip me up and try and get me to slag off The X Factor. When I was doing the show, something ran in the paper – 'Busking babe Emma's Imagination is a hit with workies cos she used to be a plasterer... Sexy songstress...' I'm like, 'Oh for God's sake...' It does make you cringe. But you can't avoid it."

My celebrity pals

Gillespie is signed to major label Polydor via Future, the imprint headed by Gary Barlow. They haven't written together, and he's busy with that whole Take That thing. But he's told her that he'd "just love to sit and talk about songwriting". And she's had a cup of tea at his house.

T: "One of my favourite extracurricular moments was standing in [Fleetwood Mac's] Stevie Nicks' bathroom in LA while she told me how the water jet in her bath hurt her thighs. That was brilliant! She said a great thing actually: 'When I'm walking down a corridor, I can decide whether I walk down as Stevie Nicks or not. If I do the walk and I look up, everyone knows it's me. And if I don't wanna be her, I just keep my head down, keep walking, and no one knows who I am.' I thought that was really cool, and just good advice. There is a choice."

G: "That's the thing that kinda worries me. You do things like this interview and people are gonna start to know who I am. I've always valued anonymity, and I do want to keep it. But at the same time, people do need to know who you are. It's a bit scary. I'm shitting myself, honestly. My past is very colourful!"

T: "But I can easily get the Tube from Willesden Junction to Victoria. I've been on the Tube and pulled up next to a poster of my face – and no one recognised me, at all. That's probably something to do with me being a bag lady, though."

In sum, says Emma Gillespie of Katie Tunstall, after an hour of quickfire, animated conversation, "she comes across as a very confident person, through her music and through meeting her. Katie's got substance to her. She's not just a face to the music."

"You seem like you're really similar to me," says Katie to Emma, "in that you wanna be a musician. It's very, very simple, and it's not really to do with much else. And you've got an amazing voice, by the way, totally beautiful."

And finally...

How to survive on the tour bus with smelly boys

KT Tunstall's drummer is her husband, and she has several world tours under her belt. Emma's Imagination has done one three-day mini-tour.

T: "You'll love it. To be honest, the more cramped, the better for me. You've just got a little travelling circus. It's family. That's my ideal world."

G: "I played Glasgow, Edinburgh and London with the band – do you know the two Nicolais and those guys?"

T: "Oh yeah! They're amazing musicians. One of the Nicolais was in my husband's first band. They're not smelly though. They're Danish."

G: "The other Nicolai smells. He farts all the time."

The debut album from Emma's Imagination, 'Stand Still' (Polydor), is out now

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments