KT Tunstall uses her chart-topping success to promot the environment
Thanks to the deep impression Hurricane Katrina left on our environs, there has never been a more important time to embrace Earth Day than now. In honor of Earth Day, April 22, and the move toward the greening of our city, New Orleans Living Magazine had a good talk with one of the coolest, wittiest, most environmentally passionate musicians in pop culture today: Grammy-nominated, BRIT Award–winning, multiplatinum Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall, who diligently uses her celebrity status to take positive stands for our beloved Mother Earth every chance she gets.
With the debut of her first album, Eye to the Telescope, released in the United States two years ago, KT has become a legend. She is that rare artist who exudes a pure, organic musical talent that stands out against the multiple globs of bubble gum pop that clog radio airwaves today. Songs like “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and “Suddenly I See” have become chart toppers, and the pop dynamo’s brilliantly crafted second album, Drastic Fantastic, released in September, continues to spawn strong hits, such as the catchy “Hold On” and the dreamy “If Only.” KT is in the midst of a world tour, wowing fans in Europe and North America. But her busy schedule didn’t stop this adorable songstress from taking time out for New Orleans, a city of which she’s truly a fan.
Hi, KT! It is so awesome to chat with you!
Oh, it’s a pleasure to talk to you, too, Christine!
You didn’t really grow up surrounded by music, did you?
My parents weren’t into music. They didn’t listen to music at home. My parents met as mountain climbers; they had a close relationship with natural landscapes, and they loved getting out into the craggy wilderness where they could walk and climb. When we were growing up, our holidays were really kind of lo-fi; we’d always go camping. They weren’t a materialistic couple at all; life for them wasn’t about stuff. We were always encouraged to just go out and play. We went skiing and did lots of traveling as kids. My parents instilled a kind of “thrill of experience” towards life, that it’s an adventure and it’s up to you whether it’s going to be an exciting one or not.
So being musical was probably something that just lurked in your blood.
My innate love of playing instruments is what got me going. Because I’m adopted, they didn’t know what my natural talents were. I was definitely very different from my family. I was very extroverted and loved performing, and they encouraged absolutely all of it. They’d let me get lessons in anything, and they explained to me that it’s really good to try things out and to actually get to a certain level and achieve something. That made me quite competitive and driven. I tried my hand at pretty much everything: fencing, photography, swimming, acting, playing in an orchestra. It was a great childhood.
You were popular in Europe before you got your break here in the States. One thing that really helped was having Katharine McPhee sing your song “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” on American Idol, and another was having “Suddenly I See”—a song you wrote that was inspired by the photo of Patti Smith on the cover of Horses—prominently featured in one of the biggest chick flicks of all time,The Devil Wears Prada. These were strange yet amazing opportunities for your music.
Yeah, exactly! Popular culture changes quickly, so you have to embrace it, move with it and realize that some of the freshest new music is coming to TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy. You have to fight the old stereotypes of what “selling out” means, because there’s stuff I wouldn’t do, then there’s stuff that I’m surprised that doesn’t feel wrong at all. For example, I did a clothing ad in the UK because the whole idea was meant to be like The Devil Wears Prada; it’s about this girl wearing loads of different outfits. But the whole idea wouldn’t work if they didn’t have “Suddenly I See” attached to the movie. And that’s cool; it’s clothes, it’s fun, and it made sense, so it’s opened me up a bit more.
Were you frightened that your song was going to be performed on American Idol?
It frightened me because I’m not a fan of the program or the format. I feel these programs are choking up the little space there is for people writing their own original stuff. It’s frustrating, but at the same time I had a lot of respect for Katharine McPhee for choosing a song that no one knew at the time. I was really delighted that she chose it. There’s been some twisted press that said I was annoyed that she sang it, and that’s rubbish. I was really pleased she sang it, because I thought it was a show of personality in an otherwise totally kind of faceless machine program. I’m sure everyone around her was like “Oh, Katharine, why don’t you do ‘Like a Virgin’ instead, for all the Madonna fans voting!” but I really feel like she did her own thing, and I think that’s great.
What’s wild about you is that you’re selling millions of albums, yet you are a real songwriter-musician, an unmanufactured star. Everyone needs to know that!
Yeah, I’m not quite sure how I’ve managed that! [Laughs] It’s not meant to work, is it? I absolutely relish the fact that I think I’ve got one foot in this kind of crazy, celebrity-obsessed pop world, and the other foot is grounded in real music. Recently I was on the stage in London with this amazing blues guy named Seasick Steve from America—he’s an old man with a big white beard that just got signed, and he plays a crazy old three-string electric guitar, and he calls me to go and sing with him! That’s just a huge compliment. And I’m going to be writing with one of my heroes, Billy Bragg, later this year. These fantastic things keep happening to me which are really all about musicianship, and at the same time, I was nominated for another BRIT Award this year, so I got to wear the fancy frock and go to the party, and it’s really amazing being able to straddle these worlds because I really enjoy existing in both of them. Of course, if I had to choose, every time I’d just want to be a musician.
You’re continually pumping out these really great, snappy, uncheesy songs that everyone’s drawn to. Plus you’re not in that league of wrecking cars while wearing no underwear or smoking crack pipes or going to rehab! If the record companies figure out the science behind you, they’ll try to patent it!
I don’t even have a car to wreck! [Laughs] Nah, it’s just not my thing. Doing this is never ever about getting famous. I don’t know how people handle that in their life! I don’t know why people warrant getting photographed going to buy milk in the morning. It’s a complete mystery to me.
I love your new album, Drastic Fantastic!
Well, thank you very much! There is tons of pressure making a second album. And I’m really proud of what I did. I was a little nervous, but I’m glad I just did what I wanted to do, which was to reflect that the music was going to different places onstage. The venues got bigger and more people got into it, and me and the guys in the band tried to mix it up a bit and make sure that we weren’t just repeating ourselves every night. We tried to get some experimental sounds and some more of a rocking vibe with more electric guitar on it and pump up the tempo a bit. I think of it as sort of an A/B record, where the first half is pretty up there and the second half is a little more down tempo.
Earth Day is soon, and you are highly concerned with the various issues surrounding our environment like recycling, greenhouse gas emissions and renewable wind energy. You’ve greened out things in your life and in your career.
Yeah, I’ve tried. It’s hard. I’ve got a pretty ecounfriendly job, so I’ve had to learn a lot about it to know what to do. You have to keep reading because these things keep getting better, and solutions get more efficient. I use biodiesel fuel in my tour bus, and my CDs went through a green process and are packaged with recycled materials. And a pound from each concert ticket goes toward carbon-neutralizing the fans’ journey to the gig, which is great. And we added a lot of green upgrades to my flat in London, using nontoxic paints, sustainable wood and plenty of solar panels.
How cool! And how cool was it for you to play at Live Earth last year and to be part of that move to combat climate change?
Oh, man, I absolutely loved it! It was such a thrill! It was the biggest place I’ve ever played. Someone before the gig said to me, ‘You know, you are going to have to get a wave going since you’ll playing Giants Stadium.’ And I was like, the audacity and arrogance for me to be the first band on to try and get a wave going! I was like, I can’t do that! And the second song in I was like “Let’s do a wave!” [Laughs] It was just brilliant and such a positive vibe, and I was so pleased to be part of something that was not only important to me but also included me in the American music scene as a musician. That was a big deal to me.
You’ve become an ambassador for Britain’s climate change program, Global Cool, and through it you met Tony Blair.
I did, and it was a bit of a weird one, because I was quite staunchly anti-Iraq, so I felt anger towards him about how that was handled. But I don’t really subscribe to the idea that if you disagree with someone’s politics that it means you don’t speak with them. I don’t think it helps anybody. And he actually made a really good speech about how he felt about the environment, and he used the words “radical action” and he seemed very open to making change. I think it was an important awareness-raising event where we were able to get some press coverage on the fact that the government was doing something, and therefore people would give them a hard time if nothing happened.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we have many green-type issues facing New Orleans.
Yeah, I hope things are getting better for New Orleans. I’ve heard that there were developments about the waterfront being a sort of green area or a park area. New Orleans has this great opportunity now to start again, and that’s a really responsible way to gear things towards the greener side.
You’ve played at the House of Blues here, right?
I did in 2006, and it was such an honor to play there. We had a fantastic time. I can’t wait to come back! We had a night there, and it was just wicked! I love the whole vibe of New Orleans. We went to an amazing restaurant that had real home-cooked food; it was traditional New Orleans fare, and the restaurant had all these rooms, like you were in someone’s house! And it was so amazing! And then we just went down Bourbon Street and drank in this great old bar where there were no lights! It was fantastic, and there was the great guy playing jazz on the piano. Oh, I could spend a long time there!
Being European, you must love the culture and the architecture in New Orleans.
It’s brilliant! It’s so nice to see some old buildings when you’re in America because there aren’t many, and it’s just the most beautiful choice of architecture; it really is! I really want to come back to New Orleans.
Well, you must! And one more thing, KT: I heard you were born with fangs!
Fangs! [Laughs] Well, when my adult teeth were coming through, my incisors were a little sharp! [Laughs] It’s true!
Sounds like you might have some vampire in you! That’ll come in handy on your next visit to New Orleans!
Exactly! A little bit of voodoo witch in there somewhere! [Laughs] I love it!