Two years ago, KT Tunstall decided she was done making music professionally. Her father had just passed away, she’d been through a divorce, and she was worn out. She swore off the circuit of songwriting, recording, promoting, and touring, packed her bags, and moved to Venice Beach, CA to relax. Oh, and to do a movie scoring lab with George Lucas and Sundance that led to her helping make the soundtrack for Bad Moms.
The Scottish songstress is famous for hits like “Suddenly I See” and “Black Horse and a Cherry Tree” off of her debut album, Eye to the Telescope, which came out 12 years ago in 2004. She’s been busy creating music since, releasing three more full-length records in that time. After taking some time to breathe under the California sun, she’s changed her mind about leaving the music business and is back with an explosive, exquisite fifth record, KIN. But why don’t we let her tell the story.
So what inspired this album?
I’d reached this point in my life where the whole thing fucked up, and I wasn’t happy. And I said to myself, “There’s no excuse. You’ve achieved everything in life you’ve wanted to. And you have the means, you have financial security. How dare you not enjoy your life, when you have all these things.” So I’m working on myself, which is very important to do, and very hard at times, but ultimately just a life-changing process. Admitting failure and seeing flaws that I didn’t know were there. And then finding this unexpected tranquil sanctuary in LA. It was finding joy, and gratitude, at the end of a shit storm, that was the inspiration, and I felt that was something to offer the world.
There’s this theme of: you’re not going to find happiness from a checklist of desires. It’s going to come from peace and happiness with yourself.
Absolutely. I’m playing shows, and I always take just a minute of time to talk to the crowd about joy, and how it’s really the strongest weapon human beings have in the face of adversity, is experiencing joy. Because if you have it you can spread it. If you don’t have joy you can’t spread it. And I think that’s the strongest retaliation to any anger, or hatred, or violence. Because it is infectious. And it will spread.
So the way you found happiness and satisfaction is feeling comfortable and happy with yourself?
One hundred percent. And of course I’ve had happiness in my life, but there hasn’t been a sense of peace in terms of my relationship with myself until now. It’s taken so long to get here, but here I am. If I could have a conversation with my younger self, I’d just say “Fuck the insecurities off!” They don’t serve you. Get rid of them.
Is KIN like your family, or tribe?
That’s obviously the meaning of the word: family, friends, tribe, whatever. But really this record is about finding those people at the end of a journey who lift you up, and you lift them up. When I play a show it’s this community of people who come together, and there’s just this very positive force for that two hours.
There’s a collaboration on the album with James Bay, “Two Way,” and I want to know about that and about what other artists you find interesting right now.
So James I met on the “Jools Holland Show,” and we just got on like a house on fire and swapped numbers, said bye, and a few days later I was going over this song that I wanted someone to duet on, and I just thought he’d be perfect. It was this classic, kind of 70s rock song, and I mailed him and said “I know you’re busy owning the world right now, but if you’re into it, do you want to do it?” Then one Sunday we just had this beautiful day where we hung out for a couple hours, just bounced it back and forth. It was just gorgeous, an amazing performance. And I learned a lot from him as a singer, he’s got an amazing technique.
And other artists?
I definitely went back to those California classics. Joni Mitchell, Neil Young. Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac were two artists that really got the fire burning again. That transcendent melody and rhythm that makes you want to dance and cry at the same time. And new stuff – I’m a huge fan of a British band called Django Django. Groups like Tame Impala.
You’ve also said that you wanted to “find out your potential as a pop star.” Is that the genre you feel you feel most comfortable with? Because there’s definitely some rock and folk things happening too.
I often just feel it’s not my job to give myself the label. Other people can do and say what they want. I’ve always had one foot in a more commercial, pop sphere, and another foot has always been in a much more boundary pushing, very authentic, songwriting craftsmanship world. And it’s sometimes frustrating, because you can often get knocked by the indie side of stuff because you’ve had success, and then the pop side doesn’t want to put you on some list because they think you’re too indie.
So it’s been 12 years since Eye to the Telescope.
I’ve had adults coming up to me saying they’ve been listening to me their whole life. And they’re like, “I got into you when I was 8!”
What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career?
I think I’m most proud of now. That I’ve come through some really challenging times and the experience of being phenomenally successful, and then not so successful, and what I’m most proud of is writing a fifth record at forty years old, and it’s possibly the best record I’ve ever made. And I don’t need people to agree with that – it’s knowing I’ve survived the gauntlet and have the potential to make new or better work.
“Suddenly I See” was Hillary Clinton’s song in 2008. Any thoughts on this crazy-ass election?
Obviously it’s very exciting to consider having a female president for the first time. I don’t get so deeply involved with politics, but I know that in any single universe I would prefer to see her in the chair than this disgusting, bigoted man. I just really hope good wins here, because Trump is bad.