KT TUNSTALL – EYE TO THE TELESCOPE
Before KT Tunstalls gritty, rollicking debut album Eye to the Telescope was even released in the U.S., American critics could tell that the Scottish-born singer-songwriter had significant star potential. In January, The Los Angeles Times included Tunstall in a round-up of U.K. artists to watch in 2006, calling her a born live performer. Needless to say, she made good on the early prediction.
Within six months of its February release, Eye to the Telescope was certified gold in the U.S. and Tunstall was hailed as a folk rock goddess (Rolling Stone) who was clearly going places (People) thanks to her strong voice that in the same chorus can rasp like a blues mama and giggle like a giddy kid (The New York Times). Her music ” a provocative sonic mesh of heartfelt pop, rootsy electric blues, and left-field alt-folk ” became omnipresent all over radio, television, and the Internet. Eyes funky, foot-stomping first single, Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, spent four weeks at Number One on Triple A radio, and ten weeks at Number One on HOT AC radio, 15 weeks in heavy rotation on VH1, and was featured in the finales of both Will and Grace and the FOX juggernaut American Idol. When runner-up Katherine McPhee performed the song twice on Idol in May, online sales of Eye went through the roof.
Other album tracks, including the effervescent second single Suddenly I See, the melancholy Universe and U, and the lilting ballad Under the Weather, have been used in various films (The Devil Wears Prada) and television shows (Greys Anatomy, Ugly Betty, Brothers & Sisters). Tunstall has been invited to appear on every late-night talk show (The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Show With David Letterman, and Late Night With Conan OBrien), the major daytime shows (Today, Live with Regis and Kelly, Ellen DeGeneres), and will perform on PBSs renowned Austin City Limits in December. Thanks to the multi-media exposure, Eye to the Telescope is now certified platinum in the U.S. and has sold more than 3.5 copies worldwide.
So what does this 30-year-old daughter of a physicist father and schoolteacher mother, who grew up in the beautiful but sheltered university town of St. Andrews in northern Scotland, make of all this? By nature, Im quite an insouciant person, she told Billboard. But whats happening has been truly mental.
Perhaps even more so because Tunstall didnt even start listening to pop music until she was 17. Her younger brother is profoundly deaf, so the family didnt keep a stereo or television in the house because the noise interfered with his hearing aid. But Tunstalls parents, who informed her at an early age that she was adopted at birth, indulged her desire to study classical piano and flute. Being adopted, I grew up knowing I could have had a million different lives, she says. It reminds you how mysterious life is and makes your imagination go wild.
She began writing songs, then took up guitar, teaching herself from a buskers booklet of basic chords. She received a scholarship to the Kent School in Connecticut, where she formed her first band, the prog-folk-jazz combo Happy Campers, and became a regular on the local open mic night circuit. After graduating, Tunstall returned to the U.K. to study drama and music at the University of Londons Royal Holloway College, where she got her first taste of success in the campus Battle of the Bands. I managed to win with just a mandolin player, she says with a laugh. It was me and eleven Goth bands and I won!
After receiving her degree, she returned to St. Andrews and immersed herself in the towns burgeoning alternative folk scene, a grassroots musical movement that inspired such freewheeling songwriters and artists as the Beta Band, James Yorkston, and the Fence Collective. She took the name KT (I needed to do something with my name to stick out of the crowd), performed frequently, and continued her musical education by absorbing the work of artists such as James Brown, Lou Reed, Billie Holliday, Johnny Cash, and Tom Waits.
Eventually, Tunstall moved to London where she began to vigorously pursue a career in music. With more than a hundred songs in her notebook, she teamed up with legendary producer Steve Osborne ” known for his studio collaborations with U2 and New Order ” and set to work in bucolic Wiltshire recording her debut album.
Having become obsessed with the lo-fi crackle and hiss of primal blues recordings, Tunstall felt an organic approach was necessary to capture the visceral sound she heard in her head. Its when you have to be inventive that you get interesting music, she explains. Tom Waits says if you want something to sound like a boot hitting a cardboard box, then hit a cardboard box with a boot.
The individualistic sonic tack serves as an ideal foil for Tunstalls earnest and inventive lyrical designs. Tracks such as the albums poignant third single Other Side of the World survey private emotional terrain ” loneliness, conflict, regret ” yet ultimately achieve great beauty and genuine catharsis. My songs examine and explore little specific emotions or situations or stories, she says. They’re kitchen table songs, like a conversation between me and one other person. I like the idea of focusing in on things we deem small and magnifying them to life-changing proportions.
Soon after the sessions were completed, Tunstall captured the UKs attention with a showstopping debut appearance on the BBCs Later with Jools Holland in 2004. Asked to step in as a last-minute replacement for hip-hop superstar Nas, Tunstall blew the roof off the studio with a stunning solo performance of Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, beguiling the nationwide audience with her gutsy vocals and powerful acoustic guitar work, looped to create the force of a full backing band.
Released in the U.K. soon thereafter, Eye to the Telescope reaped unprecedented critical approbation from the notoriously hard-to-please British press. Scotland on Sunday called it the album Fiona Apple is still hoping to grow into, that Sheryl Crow got too distracted to make, and Lucinda Williams would be proud of, while The Guardian trumpeted Tunstall as having a megawatt charisma of her own. She may be new to the ranks of stardom, but shes not going to stay that way for long.
Indeed by the summer of 2005, Tunstall had become a full-fledged phenomenon. Eye, which is 5 X platinum in the U.K., was shortlisted for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. She won a Brit Award (the U.K. equivalent of the Grammy) for Best British Female Solo Artist, a Q Award for Black Horse and the Cherry Tree, and an Ivor Novello songwriting award for Suddenly I See.
Now that Eye to the Telescope is also a bona fide hit in America, Tunstall is set to continue focusing her substantial energies into performing and writing her second album. Im not exactly sure what has driven me so hard, she says. I’ve never questioned it. Ive never had a back-up plan. I was never going to do anything else.