Whatever happened to mystery? KT Tunstall wants to know. “People don’t seem to want mystery anymore, and I crave it in every artist,” says the 32-year-old Scottish singer-songwriter. “I don’t want to know who they’re shagging or what bar they go to Friday night. That’s why I love the comic-book stuff—not everything is explained. You have to use your imagination.”
Wearing comfy boots and jeans, sipping tea while curled up on a sofa in a posh Montreal hotel, this folk-meets-rock pop star comes across as smart, real, passionate and powerful. Hanging from her necklace are a trio of delicate silver pendants, each engraved with an 18th-century French profanity. They were a gift from her band, she says, laughing, and she still hasn’t figured out what all the dirty words mean. The necklaces suit her. Like their owner, they’re beautiful and slightly odd, vulnerable yet resilient; and upon closer inspection, they surprise you with playful humour and sly perversion. And, oh yeah, some mystery, too…
Speaking of which, “the comic-book stuff” refers to KT’s album, Drastic Fantastic, which, she found out this morning, opened at #9 on the Billboard 200 chart. (A KT–inspired comic by artist Robin Footitt accompanies the record.) The album has been praised by Rolling Stone for its intelligence and attention to detail. Of course, KT’s 2006 award-winning debut, Eye to the Telescope (featuring the hit singles “Suddenly I See” and “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”), sold four million copies. Not bad for a woman determined to make music on her own terms.
“For ages, I was such a cop-out,” admits Tunstall, who now lives in London, England. “People would say, ‘What are you gonna do in 10 years?’ And I would say, ‘Well, I dunno—I dunno if I want to play music.’ But it was totally me being scared. And now, I hope that in 20 years’ time I’m still getting gigs. The last three years have taught me how important it is as an artist to have total self-belief. Self-doubt can actually stop it from happening.”
Adopted as an infant and raised by academic parents in Fife, Scotland, KT started piano lessons at age seven, which led to the flute, the guitar and the theatre. After a year studying abroad as a teenager, she returned to Scotland and spent years touring with various bands, including, notably, folk outfit the Fence Collective.
Broke but distrustful of the music industry, she didn’t want to sign to a label. But her current manager “saw me play when I was 19, and called me every six months for, like, seven years, saying, ‘Come to London and get a record deal.’ Finally, I thought if I don’t open up to the possibility, I might never be able to do this for a living.”
Having fallen prey to the misconception that one must choose between talent and success, integrity and work, she understands why others are similarly suspicious.
“When something’s ‘underground’, you immediately make the assumption that it’s subversive and it’s alternative. And when something left-of-centre becomes mainstream, everyone’s like, ‘Well, it can’t be edgy anymore, it can’t be interesting.’”
In fact, almost all of her favourite artists are “left-of-centre artists who’ve had big success”. She counts their names off on her silver-ringed fingers as if dropping sugars into her tea: Beck, Björk, the White Stripes, Arcade Fire, Tom Waits, Patti Smith. “I’m too scared to ever meet Patti Smith because ‘Suddenly I See’ is about her!” The song refers to the Robert Mapplethorpe photo on the cover of Smith’s 1975 album Horses. “It’s a very iconic rock image of a woman in a man’s suit, very little makeup, but lots of mystery.”
KT’s long-time boyfriend is musician Luke Bullen, who plays drums in her band. “I bagged the drummer,” she jokes. “He’s a saint … there’s no competitiveness. He’s the first person I’ve been with who’s really independent. I always wanted boyfriends who desperately needed me, so I could wear the boots, but now that I’m more satisfied in myself, I can have a much healthier relationship. It’s a great meeting of points in my life where I’ve had the success, and I’ve also found this relationship where it all fits together.” Mystery solved.
Photo ©2007 Perou.