October 15, 2010

An Interview with KT Tunstall

She first honed her craft as a folk musician, but with such infectious pop hits as “Suddenly I See” and “Black Horse and The Cherry Tree,” KT Tunstall is certainly no stranger to rhythm.

On her third and latest release, Tiger Suit, the Scottish singer/songwriter shifts from the more organic sound of her previous efforts, Eye to the Telescope and Drastic Fantastic, to delve into dance music, exploring the rich sonic textures of techno and electronica beats.

Recorded at Hansa Studios in Berlin — where tracks for such innovative works as David Bowie’s Heroes, Iggy Pop’s The Idiot, and U2’s Achtung Baby were laid down — Tiger Suit is a reflection of Tunstall’s ambitious, experimental curiosity.

What inspired the dance-oriented songs on the album?

When I was coming to make this album I felt like I had a bit of a mountain to climb. It was partly to turn myself on with what I was doing, because I’d been touring solidly for six or seven years. We finished up in South America with this really great, explosive tour, which I loved, but it did feel like the end of a chapter. I knew I was going to have to come up with something fresh to get me back out on the road again. So I just had to dig deep and work out what was really pushing my buttons at the moment, in terms of what I wanted to make and what I was hearing. It just kind of sparked off this re-ignition of my passion for dance music. I’d been very into Left Field and the Ninja Tune label and a band called Lamb. I’d really enjoyed all that electronic kind of stuff. I’ve always been a huge fan of Beck... I just never really allowed myself the kind of platform to try this stuff out.

In comparison to your first two albums, was this new direction at all a jolt for you insomuch as the songwriting was concerned?

There’d been a slight sea change, very subtle. I think the structure of the writing and the arrangement of the writing is actually pretty similar on this record, but there was definitely a sea change in terms of what I felt I was able to do. I didn’t feel like I had to stay the same. I would only stick to the same formula of songwriting if it was exciting me. One of the early songs I wrote for this record was “Push That Knot Away,” which is really quite different from anything I’ve done before, where there basically isn’t a chorus. You’ve just got this big riff in the middle of it, and it’s more of a puzzle, really, than a structured song. And [with] songs like “Lost” and “Difficulty” — “Difficulty” is actually my favorite track on the album — we could have very easily gone down a road with them of just being very run-of-the-mill ballads, but it just wasn’t exciting to do that. It wasn’t the natural impulse to do that.

Another part of that, too, is that the new songs would hold up with just you playing them on a guitar.

When we were making the record I was very worried about that, actually, because I’d decided to play a bunch of pubs solo to start it all off. I was thinking to myself, Shit, there’s so much stuff on these tunes; is this going to work? And I was really relieved when it did.

“Lost” feels a bit reminiscent of “Heal Over” from your first album.

Yeah, there’s a real spirit of the songwriting that was behind “Heal Over” on this record where I think that I really embraced more of a feminine… There’s a femininity in it that maybe is not what I would’ve branded “femininity” a couple years ago, because I would always think a female album would be quite whimsical and gentle. In a kind of ironic way this is the fiercest, most empowered record I’ve made, but it also feels more female for some reason. I certainly haven’t shied away from allowing my voice have a beauty to it. It’s not all about attitude and rawness.

In the same way, I love Tarantino and the fact that you’ll be watching this scene that’s got a complete juxtaposition, musically, in the soundtrack. It really confuses you, how you’re meant to feel, but I think it makes you question how you’re feeling more than if you were to watch a sad scene in a movie and it had a sad song. The way that he does it, where he’ll surprise you with his choice, I think that can happen within a song itself where your subject matter is at odds with how it sounds. It’s playing with people’s impulses, and you can end up being a lot more open feeling stuff when you’re challenged like that.

What was it like recording in Hansa Studios?

It was a great choice and it was a very deliberate choice with the direction that I wanted to go in, because it’s a fantastic nucleus of electronic music in Berlin, a real hub. And the city itself was just so unselfconscious and so progressive-feeling. The studio really hasn’t changed much since. The main control room where all that Bowie and Iggy Pop stuff was recorded is pretty much the same. It’s a total trip to see those pictures and then you’re in that room recording. It’s very, very cool. And I felt personally that the legacy of the place definitely made me up my game. I think I played better from the energy, [like with] a kind of teenage competitiveness where you really want to be as good—

You wanted to be Iggy Pop, nothing wrong with that.

I wanted to be Iggy Pop, exactly. [Laughs] So I just got in there, stabbed myself in the chest with the mic stand, topless. I think it worked.