Since her breakthrough in 2005 with her two worldwide hits—“Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and “Suddenly I See”—KT Tunstall has been an acclaimed singer/songwriter who has released six studio albums, five EPs and several live albums. This rock/folk artist has been nominated for a Grammy Award, and she won a prestigious Ivor Novello Award presented by BASCA (the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers & Authors).
Originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, Tunstall has been based in Venice Beach, CA (which is part of Los Angeles) for the past five years, although she is frequently on the road touring. She is known as a strong live performer, and she recently completed a tour of the United Kingdom. In 2019, she’ll be playing shows in the U.K., Europe and the U.S.
Tunstall released her latest album, WAX, in October (2018). This album is the second of a three-album trilogy, called Soul, Body and Mind. WAX is a fine collection of 11 songs that consist of uptempo rock cuts, acoustic songs and ballads. Key cuts include the melodic, soaring pop/rock cut “The River,” the high-energy track “Human Being,” and the compelling midtempo song, “The Mountain.” The album was mostly produced by Nick McCarthy and Sebastian Kellig.
For WAX, Tunstall collaborated on three songs with hit songwriter Martin Terefe (who has worked with Shawn Mendes, Mike Posner and Christina Aguilera) and hit writer/producer Angelo Petraglia (Kings of Leon, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Griffin).
Here’s a list of Tunstall’s five previous albums: Eye to the Telescope (released in 2004 and certified platinum in the U.S., U.K. and other countries); Drastic Fantastic (2007, certified gold in the U.K.); Tiger Suit (2010); Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon (2013); and KIN, 2016.
We are pleased to do this new Q&A interview with KT Tunstall. She discusses the making of her album WAX and her songwriting process. She also tells how she wrote her biggest hits, “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and “Suddenly I See.”
DK: I read that your new album WAX is the second album in a trilogy called Soul, Body and Mind. Is that correct?
KT Tunstall: Yes. After making my album KIN in 2016, the idea dawned on me to make it a trilogy. That album was really all about the soul, and overcoming difficult stuff, and appreciating the difficult times as opportunities to grow. The new album WAX is more about the physical side, where no matter how transcendent your soul feels, you still have to do [the physical things]. I was also feeling quite compelled to make a record featuring electric guitars—it has a much more rock feeling to it. For me, electric guitar is such a physical instrument. It’s a powerful tool to play with…you can just rip a hole in space and time if you turn it up loud enough and put it through enough overdrive.
DK: One of my favorite songs on your new album is “The River,” which you wrote with (hit songwriter) Martin Terefe. Can you talk about this song?
Here’s the video of KT Tunstall’s song, “The River.”
Tunstall: I did write it with Martin. “The River” is actually an older song; I wrote it about 10 years ago, around the time I was writing my second record, Drastic Fantastic. It didn’t make that record, but I knew it was a strong song. I just hadn’t got the chorus lyrics quite right yet. I later tweaked the chorus lyrics to make it a much more personal song. It just spoke to me of how I feel about where we’re at at this moment in the world, where you just want to wash yourself clean of all the bullshit and all the negativity. This song has the feeling of being dragged out of your present moment by other things that are going on. And just basically ridding yourself of toxicity.
DK: Besides “The River,” what are some of your favorite songs on the new album?
Tunstall: One of my favorite songs is “The Mountain,” which is really new ground for me. It’s a meditative song about leaving the city and running for the hills. But it was just such a cool place to go for me, where it’s this slow jam of a drone and a beat. Early on, when I was trying to write this song, I hadn’t come up with the lyrics yet. Then there was a moment in the studio where Seb (Kellig), the co-producer, was just mucking about with the drums, and Nick McCarthy (producer) started playing this really low drone on the big Electone Yamaha keyboard. I was like, “Guys, don’t change anything…keep that…just drums and the drone.” And then I wrote the lyrics in like half an hour. They just came tumbling out because it was the right sound and the right vibe.
I think my other favorite song is probably “Human Being,” which is kind of a new grind for me where it’s this really big monster guitar riff, which was something I really wanted from this record. I wanted to push myself to play riffs, because I love them so much and I’ve often not employed them that much in my writing. So it was really exciting to come up with a song that still has the emotional intensity in the lyrics, but has just got this big guitar riff, and you can involve a riff as part of the vibe of the song.
DK: I read that you moved from the U.K. to Venice Beach (in Los Angeles) about five years ago. What made you decide to move to L.A.?
Tunstall: It was after some massive shifts in my life. My dad passed away, and shortly after that, I got a divorce. It definitely made sense to move continents and just have a completely fresh start. It was one of best things I ever did, and it was great to have the beginning of a new life. I was also really interested in working in film music at the time, so L.A. was a great place to be.
DK: Are you working on some new songs for films now?
Here’s the video of KT Tunstall’s new song, Human Being.”
Tunstall: Yeah, I’m working on an indie feature at the moment, which I’m going to be doing some music for. I’m always open to doing film projects…I find it fascinating to work with directors and I love it. I can completely come out of the usual side of what I do, and do something very different. There was one short film I did that the soundtrack was completely electronic, which is just so great to flex completely different muscles.
DK: I want to ask you about some of your early big hits. I really like “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” which has such a unique title. How did you come up with the idea for this song?
Tunstall: That song was just a perfect example of automatic writing. I didn’t question anything that was coming out. I was learning how to use my loop pedal—that’s where that song came from. At the time, I’d been listening to a lot of anonymous old blues music, which was recorded with just one microphone in the room, and if you had a solo you’d step up to the mic. And so it was about a real rhythm and realness.
I recently did a fantastic Q&A at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where we paired up with Bowers & Wilkins (speaker company). It was called Classic Album Sunday. And we talked about my first record (Eye to the Telescope), and then we all sat there listening to it on vinyl through these great speakers. And I was thinking, one thing I really love about this record is that you can equate every single sound to someone playing it. There’s no tricks, there’s no layers, there’s no kind of atmospheres. It’s all something played by someone and you can hear it immediately. And actually, “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” was recorded with just me and a drummer, and I played a little bit of bass on it. But it was very simple…a very small production. It was just the creative process of making stuff sound original, rather than using computer tricks to make it happen.
Lyrically, “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” really draws upon that old blues, standing at a crossroads idea where you’ve got two ways you can go, and which way are you gonna choose?
DK: Another terrific song is your hit, “Suddenly I See.” What inspired you to write this song?
Tunstall: Writing “Suddenly I See” was a pretty amazing experience for me. I had just moved to London, I got my publishing deal, and I was writing songs for the first album. It was 2:00 in the morning—I was sitting in my tiny basement flat, looking at my record collection. And I was looking at (the album cover of ) Horses by Patti Smith and just looking at the photograph on the cover. It was so inspiring to look at this cover, because it’s just this woman…she’s not trying, she’s just being and she’s doing. And her gaze from that amazing picture by (photographer) Robert Mapplethorpe picture…that was something that really spoke to me. I had just spent so much of my time just trying…10 years trying to get somewhere, to get my record deal. And so it was this photograph—this promise of getting to a place where you’re just being, and that’s entirely what this song is about. And I wrote “Suddenly I See” in just half an hour, from start to finish. But it was a very good half hour of my life.
Here’s the video of KT Tunstall’s hit song, “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.”
DK: Currently, are you on tour in the U.K. Is that right?
Tunstall: Yeah, I’m just finishing a U.K. tour. It’s been an intense few years of constant touring, and I’ve got a headline tour in the U.K. in March and in Europe in April. I also have some U.S. touring in May, plus a few festivals. Then the rest of the year will be dedicated to making the next record.
DK: Thank you KT for doing this interview. Is there anything else that you’d like to mention for this article?
Tunstall: It would be nice to say that I’ve embarked on a great writing project with (pop/rock legend) Suzi Quatro. The two of us met many years ago, and I remember her saying that she felt I was carrying on what she started, which was a huge compliment. And then we got together and started doing a bit of writing and it was sounding great. So we’re working on something that hopefully people will hear before too long. It will basically be a duet album.