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KT Tunstall: Eye of the Tiger

Following the release of her third album, KT Tunstall meets with Grace Murphy to chat about being a weirdo, beards and the difficulties of being a woman in music.

It’s September 2008 and Kate Victoria Tunstall, better known as KT, is headed to Greenland. Following four busy years of recording and touring, the singer-songwriter decided to take some time out and head to the Arctic with climate-change activists Cape Farewell. The trip was undertaken by Tunstall along with fellow artists Jarvis Cocker, Martha Wainwright and Feist, to name but a few.

Although intended to be both a break from touring and an inspiration for her next record, the expedition left the multi-platinum selling artist feeling low and intimidated. “The Arctic was amazing and it actually ended up a lot more influential on the record than I thought it would. It was the first trip I’d done since I stopped touring and I knew that I had this album to make and my confidence just went down the plughole, it was really weird.”

And so Tunstall donned the armour she later dubbed Tiger Suit. “That’s what I needed to do. I think touring, as much as I love it, you can become quite guarded. And that’s kind of what Tiger Suit is about as well – it’s about having an armour, so that night after night, you can go on stage and be fierce and be a warrioress and be whatever you wanna be.

“But at the same time you kind of protect yourself from being judged all the time because you’re just constantly looked at, having people write about how good or bad you are. You’ve just got to be immune to that stuff.”

Tiger Suit is something of an alter ego for Tunstall and it’s something she’s been familiar with her whole life. “It’s just acknowledging that there is a difference between me when I’m on my own in private compared to me on stage with my band playing for people. I guess it’s adrenaline; it changes you into something else.

“I’ve had this recurring dream since I was a kid that there was a tiger in my garden, and I’m outside and I’m stroking it. It’s really friendly, and then it’s not until I go inside my house and look at it through a window that I’m just thinking to myself ‘that was mad, what was I doing, I could be killed’.

“I can never see myself in the dream so I just thought: ‘Am I disguised as a tiger, am I a tiger myself?’ I’ve always enjoyed having the dream. It’s made me think of my approach to life, and music particularly, where I’ll just sort of jump in and worry about it later.”

So she just tends to go with the flow, as it were? “And maybe do some stupid stuff that could really go wrong, but it hasn’t so far. I’m waiting for that. One night I’m gonna have the dream and the tiger’s gonna bite my head off and I’m gonna go: ‘Maybe I need to think a bit more about stuff before I do it’.”

But things have been working out for Ms. Tunstall so far. “I think not worrying, not over-analysing stuff and just sort of being very present in the moment has been great, and it’s really helped me.”

Tunstall decided that in order for this new record to be worthwhile, she would have to dig deep and do things differently. “I did feel like I was sort of excavating myself, like I needed to make quite a lot of effort to find out what I really wanted to make. It doesn’t fulfil me enough to just do the same thing.”

She continues: “It would be easy to churn out records that sound the same, and just do what comes very naturally to me, which is rhythmic folk rock, pop-tinged tunes. The whole record was very liberating; it was all about getting out of my comfort zone and pushing myself to do stuff I hadn’t done before. It meant that I had to get the chisel out and not only push myself emotionally to write stuff that was meaningful, but also really push myself to be experimental and embrace new stuff.”

And experiment she did. Tiger Suit sees Tunstall inventing ‘nature techno’, and attempting to use dance music as a major influence. “I was going back and listening to Leftfield a lot, and particularly Leftism, which is one of my favourite records,” she explains.

“I was just really interested in trying to create dance music with natural instruments as well, and then mixing it with synthesisers and drum machines. It [nature techno] was really just to describe what I wanted to achieve which was kind of describing how I feel with music. I find that I can just get lost in the rhythm of it and it doesn’t really matter what genre it is or what style it is. It’s really about rhythm.”

Nature techno isn’t the only new aspect to this album; Tunstall collaborated with producer Greg Kurstin in order to achieve a more dance, less folk-y sound. “I’d heard really good things about Greg, but also I’m a huge Beck fan and he’s been a member of Beck’s band for a long time.

“I love that sound, so I knew that as a member of his band he was going to have a sensibility of getting those sounds and knowing where I was coming from. We just had an amazing few days writing together where we would write a song a day.”

One of those days produced was ‘(Still a) Weirdo’, the delicate lead single from Tiger Suit. Merging the unlikely triad of intimate lyrics, looped vocals and beat-boxing, ‘Weirdo’ is a song so beautiful that not even Tunstall herself could better it.

It was written and recorded in five hours, and the version that appears on the album is the original demo. “I couldn’t sing it the same way I’d sung it because there’s this really magic little window where just when you’ve written a song, you’re singing it but you don’t actually know it yet.

“It’s funny cause I’d done this really crap beat-boxing on it thinking this is never gonna make the record, this is me messing about. And my label boss was like: ‘I love the beat-boxing’. I think it totally sounds like an asthmatic cat hocking up a hairball. He was like: ‘I don’t care, I love it’. So any asthmatic cat comments I completely take on the chin.” Good to know.

“It’s funny that they went with it for the first single, because I was like: ‘I think you’re mad, that’s like the little runty puppy, the little fragile guy,’ and they said: ‘well that’s kinda why we love it, it’s just emotional’. People have responded to it really well and have really enjoyed it. It’s just a very personal little song.”

The now thirty-five-year-old Tunstall married her drummer, Luke Bullen, in 2008. O-two had to ask if this move affected the band dynamic. “I’ve been playing with [them] for seven years and I married one of them – band-crime! Never ever marry one of your band. Well it’s lead to nothing but good stuff for me, but I’ve heard terrible stories of other people. Y’know Sid and Nancy, enough said.” Indeed.

Another question that o-two felt had to be put to the artist was one involving gender. Just how much does being a woman in a heavily male-dominated business matter? “It can be frustrating. I’d love to be able to tell you that it doesn’t matter. I’d really, really love to get to a stage in my career where I can say: ‘I don’t think it makes any difference that I’m a woman,’ but I think it still does, which is really annoying.”

She elaborates: “And the thing that I think gets my goat the most is about image. You get treated differently as a female artist on the way that you look in a way that guys just don’t get. Wrinkly? Grow a beard! Now doesn’t he look interesting? Wear a hat! Grow a beard! Hide your face, you’re still rocking!

“Maybe I’ll just stick on a beard when I get to a certain stage in my career…I think that there is such a large proportion of the female side of music dominated by women who could easily be models if they weren’t singers. I am absolutely not one of those women, I am five foot two and I would not be on the front of a magazine if I wasn’t a musician, there’s no way.

“So that can be quite a lot of pressure where people have an attitude like: ‘well yeah she’s a good singer, but she’s not much to look at’. Well, fuck off. I don’t want that to matter in the same way that it doesn’t matter to a lot of guys.”

After fuming silently for a few minutes, Tunstall recalls one last anecdote. “I remember when I went to New York early on in my career and I went into Rolling Stone offices. They’ve got a huge corridor with all their covers in frames. There were so few covers of women without their tits out.

“The women that were there – the majority – had not much on. It’s such a shame. I was so concerned with not wanting to be seen as a sex object and judged in that way, rather than being judged as a musician. So I kind of just completely didn’t engage at all with a sort of sexuality as a performer, which is always quite frustrating for me.”

But Tunstall has managed to embrace sexuality in recent times, without having to resort to ‘getting her tits out’. “This album has been really great, I feel like I’ve kinda really got away from worrying about that. I can enjoy being a woman, feeling good, feeling confident. And it’s a real liberation actually, that.

“I really love the hair and the make-up and the photo shoots. I can just feel comfortable and enjoy getting dolled up which I didn’t find easy to do before. I think we can take it as a sign that basically, women are better looking than men. And that’s how it’s gonna be.”

Tiger Suit is out now. Catch KT Tunstall at the Olympia on February 21st.