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Q&A: KT TUNSTALL

KT Tunstall_Tiger Suit.jpg

With few exceptions, musicians hate having labels attached to their music.

Not KT Tunstall. In fact, she’s is in a league of her own: Instead of waiting for someone else to categorize her music, she goes ahead and does it herself.
Tunstall uses the phrase “nature techno” to describe her third album, Tiger Suit (Relentless/Virgin), and by that she means the sound features a mix of organic instrumentation and electronic textures.

“What I really wanted to do was make a record you can dance to,” says Tunstall.

She’s succeeded with Tiger Suit, which follows Eye to the Telescope (2006) and Drastic Fantastic (2007). The Grammy Award-nominated singer/songwriter/guitarist recently talked about the role whistling plays on her new album, collaborating with Linda Perry, the different locations she used in the recording process and more.

Medleyville.us: Thanks for coming up with the term “nature techno.” It suits the blend of the organic and electronic very well, and it’s better than anything music journalists would have come up with.
KT Tunstall: “Oh, thank you. Obviously it’s hard to come up with something that describes the whole album, but it fits the spirit.”

Going back to the disco days of the 1970s, anytime the word “danceable” has been used to describe a song, people automatically think of it as disposable.
Tunstall: “Yeah, that’s true.”

But it hasn’t always been that way — before disco, there was the good Motown stuff, the soul stuff.
Tunstall: “One of the things for me in terms of what I was trying to pinpoint what I wanted to do was ‘C’mon Everybody’ and ‘Summertime Blues’ by Eddie Cochran. He’s always been a great inspiration for me, a real idol. So I thought, ‘What if Eddie Cochran was working with Leftfield?’ I really didn’t know if it was going to work, but I was delighted when it started to.”

As far as some of the organic aspects of Tiger Suit, it doesn’t get much more organic than whistling, and your new album has a couple of songs with whistling. At what point did you decide that whistling was better than playing the melodies on an instrument you could hold in your hands?
Tunstall: “Whistling is just always a very quick and easy guide tool for a melody. Certainly with ‘Glamour Puss’ — I’d actually whistled the melody into my iPhone. And then when I was working on the song with Greg Kurstin, he said, ‘I actually really like that.’ He’s a keyboard player with Beck, and that was what it was reminding me of — a really raw, organic sound like that is very much something that Beck would use. It automatically breaks barriers between the listener and the performer where it feels very personal. In a modern pop world, to bizarrely strive for this, it’s a good antidote to that.”

On the new album, you once again collaborate with Martin Terefe and Jimmy Hogarth, but you also work with Kurstin and Linda Perry. What do you look for in collaborators, and what was the give and take like with Kurstin and Perry?
Tunstall: “Well, it’s obviously very personal. You have a very intimate window of time with someone where you create songs together. I got to a point where I loved working with Martin and Jimmy and I trusted them, and they knew how I worked.

“One of my major things working with writers is I have to write the lyrics. I just wouldn’t really be comfortable singing words that didn’t come from me. There’s an editing process within that in a collaboration, where someone will say, ‘Maybe you can do better than that there.’ But it’s important that the sentiment and the stories and the emotion are coming from me.

“So with Jimmy and Martin, I felt very safe. … [Kurstin and Perry] were suggested to me, and it ended up being a great time. Linda, in particular, was such an important person on a personal level to me because I had no expectations. I mean, I knew what she had written and produced in the past; I knew that every record label that sends an artist to her probably hopes they’re going to write [another] ‘Beautiful,’ and I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I’m sure she knew that wasn’t going to happen. I walk into her studio, and there’s this massive original print of Led Zeppelin on the wall, and I just thought, ‘We’re going to get on well’ (laughs). And we did. She’s a wonderful, powerful, inspiring person, and she said just at the right time, when I was sort of wondering what the hell to do next, she said, ‘You’ve got the songs, you’ve got the talent: The only problem is you give a [damn] about what everybody else thinks.’ And it was such good advice. It really started me on the path of cutting ties with being concerned about other people’s judgment and expectations.”

Was it any different writing with her as opposed to the others? Was there a female bonding of some kind that’s different from writing with guys?
Tunstall: “Yeah, I would say very quickly there was a strong feeling of sisterhood. And she’s been an artist herself, so she completely understands the pressure and the fear of not coming up with the goods that you think you’re capable of. Her great skill is just telling you to shut up (laughs), to stop being a bag of neurosis and write a bloody song.

” ‘Madame Trudeaux’ is not what I expected to come out of a Linda Perry session, and it’s one of my favorite songs on the album. It’s a song of female rebellion and emancipation, and it’s a real anthem for me. It was a real kind of sense of abandonment that came out working with her.

“Working with Greg was a whirlwind experience. I had six days, and we wrote and finished six songs — it was so prolific. The first time I went to see him, we had a three-day session — three songs, done and dusted. And I went back a second time, and I thought, ‘I’m sure that must have been a fluke,’ but again — three days, three songs, done and dusted. One of which was ‘(Still a) Weirdo,’ which was written and recorded in five hours. I couldn’t better the demo, so the demo’s on the album. That’s really magical for me; there’s this special window of time between a song being written and you knowing it, and you sing it very differently once you know it.”

You made some demos at home, and then you traveled to London, Berlin and back to London to record Tiger Suit. How did each facility and location shape the songs and the sound?
Tunstall: “The majority of the record started in pre-production jamming in London with myself; my husband [Luke Bullen], who’s the drummer; another drummer, Jamie Morrison; and a whiz-kid named Seye Adelekan. He’s 21 and just a ridiculously good guitarist and bassist.

“So the four of us jammed stuff out with [producer] Jim Abbiss. We then went over to Berlin for three weeks, and in those three weeks, we cut most of the album completely live, just the four of us. So there’s no synthesizers at this point, but I think being in Berlin was angling us to play in a way where it was going to work with the synth aspect. It definitely gave the whole live experience an edge in an angular nature that it wouldn’t have had. Hansa Studios was such a fantastic space; Berlin is so great. We went out clubbing one night and had such a great night of abandon and got into some really hard-core techno. Recording in the room where [David Bowie‘s] Heroes was recorded just makes you step up and play better.

“And then we came back to London, and me and [Abbiss] worked on all the synth stuff and the overdubbing, and that’s when it really started to form a landscape. It had that energy of the live [sessions], but then we added this really beautiful, luxurious texture of the snyths.”

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

KT Tunstall on tour (schedule subject to change):

* Oct. 5: The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (performing “Fade Like a Shadow”)
* Oct. 31: Crystal Ballroom — Portland, Ore.
* Nov. 2: The Showbox SODO — Seattle
* Nov. 4: Knitting Factory — Spokane, Wash.
* Nov. 5: Knitting Factory — Boise, Idaho
* Nov. 7: Knitting Factory — Reno, Nev.
* Nov. 8: Warfield Theatre — San Francisco
* Nov. 11: The Music Box — Los Angeles
* Nov. 12: House of Blues — San Diego
* Nov. 16: Ogden Theatre — Denver
* Nov. 18: Epic — Minneapolis
* Nov. 19: The Vogue — Indianapolis
* Nov. 21: Vic Theatre — Chicago
* Nov. 22: The Crofoot — Detroit
* Nov. 26: The Trocadero — Philadelphia
* Nov. 27: 9:30 Club — Washington, D.C.
* Nov. 29: House of Blues — Boston
* Dec. 1: Terminal 5 — New York