HELLO! Magazine, Issue 16, January 2008
KT Tunstall sets the record straight and tells us why people say she is controversial
By Sophia Goh
“I wouldn’t consider that I’m deliberately outspoken, I’m honest,” says KT Tunstall. “I’m really not interested in going into interviews and nodding and grinning like a puppet and being told what to say. If someone asks me a question I’m going to answer it, so if that’s outspoken then yes, I’m outspoken but I don’t go out of my way to be.”
That kind of attitude has worked both ways for Scottish-born singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, the voice behind songs like ‘Suddenly I See’, ‘Other Side of the World’, and of course, the Grammy-Award nominated hit ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’.
As a journalist, it’s terribly refreshing to talk to an artiste who will give you nothing less than her honest opinion, but KT has been on the receiving end of less-flattering publicity as well – often for those same opinions. Of course, as KT will also tell you, the media loves to sensationalise.
“I think what happens, as you and most people well know, is that if you say anything, if you express your opinion in any way, then it’s hugely sensationalised,” she says, when we ask her if we should believe everything we read about her. “I’ll say so-and-so isn’t someone I listen to on my stereo, and then the headline says ‘KT hates so-and-so’. I’m not interested in bashing other artistes at all and I won’t do that. I’m not going to say so-and-so is bad or anything; there are enough people I like out there.”
Clearly, and thankfully, worldwide musical success has not turned this 31-year-old – who recently released her second album Drastic Fantastic – into a media-wary, public-pandering singer. In fact, quite the opposite. “If someone asks you a question, then say what you think, you know, it really frustrates me when people just nod and grin and say what they think people want to hear,” KT, known to her family as Kate, explains. “Eventually, they’ll just lie and smile, they [say they] love everything and everyone just because they don’t want to upset people. I find that really dull and boring and kind of dumb.”
Having been adopted from the age of 18 days, KT’s upbringing has been anything but dull and boring. She grew up in the Scottish university town of St. Andrews with her parents – a grammar school teacher and a physicist, and a younger brother who is deaf, which meant there was little music in the house. At the age of 16, she left home to hone her craft with a group of local musicians and spent the next few years living in cottages, playing folk music and scraping by a living, before finally moving to London where bigger things beckoned.
“[The lack of music in my childhood] stopped me being cornered by anything,” says the singer who outsold every other female artist in the U.K. in 2005 including Madonna. “If your parents only listen to jazz or folk or something, you’re like one of those trees you see in botanic gardens that have wire frames on them – you grow into that shape. But I didn’t have influences to embrace or kick against.”
You’ve had a lot of success commercially, congratulations on that. How are you feeling?
Thank you. I’m feeling so over the moon. I never, ever expected my career to get to this level; I think with my kind of music it’s never a dead certain that it will ever be. It’s a huge surprise but I’m absolutely loving it, I’m having such a good time.
Do you ever miss being the independent artist traveling on the road?
Oh yeah, definitely, I do miss that. There’s a lot more freedom and time available. When you have a hugely successful record, you know that everybody who is buying tickets to come to your gig wants to hear their favourite songs from the record. It’s not that I have a problem with playing the songs, but I used to always be able to play my new songs, and now if I play a new song at a gig it’s immediately on the Internet. It might not be ready for people to hear it yet, it’s nice to try it out. Also, it can be quite hard, you say something and it’s completely taken out of context and people want to make you out to be a total b****, you know, it can be a little frustrating but nothing that really gets to me.
Well, so much has been published about your “negative” comments on American Idol. Let’s set the record straight on that, what are your thoughts on the show?
I think it’s an excellent TV show but I think, on the whole, it’s very bad quality music. It’s very entertaining to watch, a brilliant concept for a TV show. But as a musician, it’s very frustrating that a lot of new artistes who are writing their own music and who could potentially change the face of our music culture can’t get through because all the channels of becoming a new artiste have been taken up by the people who lost the race on the latest reality show. They’re not even winning, you know, and these record companies are desperately trying to make money out of a TV concept.
The other thing that frustrates me is, just because someone can sing doesn’t make them a star. Lots of people can sing but there has to be a magic, a personality, there has to be something unique. That’s why people who have inspired generations have had the accolades they’ve had, and basically, singing karaoke doesn’t make you a unique star, it just means you’re a really good singer. Some of the people who go on the show really have got personalities and they go on to do really well but a lot of people on this show are just singers. I don’t really watch it but I see a lot of commotion around people who can sing and I think they’re not really interested in having a career, they just like the idea of being famous. I think that’s really dangerous because not only does it take away a lot of the magic for viewers, it also gives young kids the idea that it’s really cool to get famous for any reason and under any circumstance.
But when I was asked by Katharine McPhee if she could use my song, ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’, on American Idol [season five] – first of all, I wanted to break into America so I would have been a total idiot to say no. But also, I thought it was really cool that she chose a song that no one knew. 90% of the American population didn’t know that song at the time, and I’m sure all the arrangers were going, ‘Why don’t you pick that latest song by Madonna?’ But she chose something that she wanted to do and I thought that was cool. So many people come to my gigs and they say, ‘Oh I heard your song on American Idol, I bought your album and I love your music.’ When someone says that I know I definitely made the right choice. I’m really grateful to Katharine McPhee for choosing that song; it did me a lot of favours.
You were also at the writers’ strike in Hollywood. Tell us about that.
I was supposed to do this TV show and of course they’re all cancelled [because of the writers’ strike]. And one of my best friends who I met because she went to university in Scotland was one of the head organisers for the Writers Guild. So on one hand I was getting an email from my manager saying that the TV show is being cancelled, and on the other I’ve got another email from one of my best friends saying they’re on strike and basically, it’s because of her. And she said, ‘Well, you’re coming to L.A. anyway, why don’t you come and support the writers and come and play for them because they’re standing out there for hours? It would be really great for them if you showed your support and played a little show, and it would be great for you because you’re not getting any airtime on your TV show. You could get loads of press if you came down and the Writers Guild strike would get loads of press as well.’
It was really good fun. It’s something I really believe in and obviously a lot of people like the technicians and the staff are out of work because of the strikes, but at the end of the day I’m a writer as well and with what’s happening with the Internet, this could be something that I’ll face very soon, where I’m not getting my share of earnings.
How would you describe your music?
I’d say that my music is folksy but with a punk spirit.
What inspires you to write?
Interesting stories about people, usually. I love stories. A lot of my stuff is autobiographical but I also love the kind of road map of relationships and where they go and how you can behave in ways that you don’t expect when you’re in a weird situation. I find all that really fascinating.
Do you think you’ll be one of those artistes you mentioned earlier who will inspire generations?
I don’t know. It’s not for me to say. I think that comes down to what people think of me. I don’t worry too much about that, I’ve just got to get on with it and do my best.
How has being adopted shaped you as a singer and songwriter?
It’s impossible to say. I think you’re the sum of your parts and everything that happens to lead you to where you are is part of who you are. Certainly being adopted is a big chunk of that for me. I was adopted when I was 18 days old so I have the same relationship with my family as any kid has with their family. We’re a very close family, but it’s just this kind of a very mysterious part of my life where I’m aware that I could have had many different lives had I been adopted by different people, and so that’s quite fascinating. I don’t know how but certainly no one else in my family is musical so I think that the music is something that is very innate, something that I was born with.
There was also a recent review about one of your gigs and it said you were very funny and should be a comedienne, what do you think about that?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I think it’ll be too much pressure to be funny all the time. I’m not funny all the time. I was really funny that night and you know, I really love having a laugh with the audience – it’s a really big part of the show for me and I think for everybody. I love telling stories and that kind of thing but I think that being a comedienne is probably the hardest in the world. It must be incredibly difficult being a good comedienne, I have a huge respect for people who manage it.
What else would we be surprised to learn about you?
I’m a genius at parallel parking. I’m very, very good at parallel parking and fitting the car in a small space. And I’m also a very good skier, many people know. We started skiing when we were about five, we’d go skiing in Scotland and we love it. But it’s really difficult to go now because I’m so scared I’m going to break my fingers. I really miss it, I love it.
There are also reports that you and your boyfriend, Luke Bullen, are going to move to Scotland together. Is that true?
We’ve got such good friends here in London but we’d definitely be up to living there in a few years’ time. It’s a beautiful place to live.
Any plans to get married?
I don’t know. I love throwing massive parties, I really enjoy hosting parties and we’ve been too busy, but when we get married it’s going to be a week-long party. We’d have to have a week free and we don’t have a week free yet. We’d probably get married in Scotland, it’s such a romantic place – the Isle of Skye would be the perfect place to get married.