Singer KT Tunstall Breaks Out Her 'Tiger Suit'

British singer and songwriter KT Tunstall burst onto the American music scene with her album "Eye to the Telescope" and won even more fans when her hit, "Suddenly I See" appeared on the soundtrack for "The Devil Wears Prada." Now the singer returns with her new album, "Tiger Suit." In an encore broadcast host Michel Martin talks with Tunstall about what it's like being in the spotlight and the new album.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now a musical treat to end our President's Day program. Our next guest is a grown woman in a field filled with younger and younger girls. She's a full-throated singer with powerful lyrics and a layered sound who came of age in a time when pop princesses were all the rage. And although she tours constantly, she refuses to give her life over to the tabloids in an age when the comings and goings of celebrities fills the headlines.

Who else could we be talking about KT Tunstall? Her album called "Eye to the Telescope" was the first many Americans heard from the British artist and her song, "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

(Soundbite of song, "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree")

Ms. KT TUNSTALL (Musician): (Singing) Woo hoo, woo hoo, woo hoo. Well, my heart knows me better than I know myself, so I'm gonna let it do all the talking. Woo hoo. Woo hoo. I came across a place in the middle of nowhere with a big black horse and a cherry tree. Woo hoo, woo hoo. I felt a little

MARTIN: This song earned Tunstall a Grammy nomination and that debut album sold millions. She followed up with her 2007 release, "Drastic Fantastic." And now she's back with her third album. It's called "Tiger Suit." She was kind enough to stop by and visit us when she was on a whirlwind tour back in the fall.

(Soundbite of previous recording)

MARTIN: Thank you for joining us.

Ms. TUNSTALL: Thank you. Lovely to be here.

MARTIN: You're in awfully good spirits for somebody who is as jetlagged as you have to be.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: I think - you flew in from the U.K., you were in L.A., you're headed to New York. How do you stay so good humored?

Ms. TUNSTALL: This is partly what "Tiger Suit" is about, actually. I'm wearing tiger suit 'cause I'm actually in a really bad mood.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUNSTALL: I've been in a bad mood all day.

MARTIN: You hide it well if you're in a bad mood. But what do you mean by a tiger suit? You say that's why you call it "Tiger Suit?" What is your tiger suit?

Ms. TUNSTALL: It's kind of like a metaphorical armor 'cause I always felt that I went onstage as myself. I'm not a musician who has a character. But I acknowledged that when you go onstage, I want to go on as a warrior. I want to go on and be who I want to be. And something happens when you do that. And I realized I kind of got to the stage where I was wearing this armor all the time. And when it comes to writing songs, I've got to take it off. Because it's not - it actually can be quite obstructive not being able to access your vulnerability and your rawness.

MARTIN: You did talk about kind of wanting to be a warrior woman and you told my colleague, Scott Simon, a couple of years ago that you wanted to, as a performer, avoid the stigma of being the girl with the guitar. I'm wondering what you meant by that. I think a lot of us think of, you know, Phoebe in "Friends." Like, la, la, la, la, la...

Ms. TUNSTALL: Exactly. It's a little different over here because you guys have just got such a deep well for singer/songwriters to draw from. I mean, you have blues and you have country. And we in Britain haven't got them. They're borrowed. So our culture for singer/songwriting can be full tilt therapy session, you know. And here I've always found that it's a little more positive and there's a kind of - there's more colors to choose from, really, over here.

MARTIN: Obviously, people really do appreciate what you have to say and the way you have to say it. And I'm wondering if you have a sense of what it is that people are responding to.

Ms. TUNSTALL: I can't really analyze it too much because it would just make me go crazy. All I know is that I dig deep and try really hard to impress myself. And once I've done that, I want to take that material, go out and have a really good time.

MARTIN: Well, speaking of that, let's hear something from the new album. I think you're going to play "Weirdo."

Ms. TUNSTALL: I am.

MARTIN: "Weirdo." OK.

Ms. TUNSTALL: I'm going to play a song, "Still a Weirdo." It's quite kind of something upbeat album, and this is like the little runt of the litter. This is the little fragile guy in the corner.

MARTIN: OK. Here it is, "Still a Weirdo."

(Soundbite of song, "Still a Weirdo")

Ms. TUNSTALL: (Singing) And I will know I took for granted that thing, you're always going away. I want it. I was going to be a treetop, a sea, a boat, a rock of ages.

I don't always get it right. I see it in a different kind of light. Pay my lip service. Keep it eloquent, optimistic but never quite elegant. Still a weirdo. Still a weirdo, after all these years.

I'd always thought it's automatic to grow into a soulless static. Here I am upon the same spot attempting to lift off into space.

I don't always get it right. But a thousand different ways, and I just might. Pay my lip service. Keep it eloquent, optimistic but never quite elegant. Still a weirdo. Still a weirdo, after all these years. Still a weirdo. Still a weirdo, after all these years.

Pay my lip service. Keep it eloquent, optimistic but never quite elegant. Still a weirdo. Still a weirdo, after all these years. Oh, still a weirdo. Still a weirdo, after all these years. After all these years.

MARTIN: I'm thinking of so many people, like, sitting in their bedrooms listening to this and feeling, OK. I'm not so - I'm going to be OK, you know.

Ms. TUNSTALL: Kind of it's-going-to-be-OK song for myself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUNSTALL: It was just a rare moment, where I think that as human beings, we have this habit to kind of justify who we are by telling ourselves who we are all the time. And it's almost like a security thing to be able to define ourselves that way. And sometimes, you can get stuck in something that you don't actually believe anymore. And it was kind of one of those moments where I just kind of got a look under my hood, if you will, and went, OK. Well, I'm actually not what I thought I was, and - but it's OK.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking with singer-songwriter KT Tunstall. We're talking about her new album "Tiger Suit."

And I was thinking about all the ways that people can feel that they're not OK. And, you know, ethnicity does sometimes play a role in that. I read in an interview that you have a very interesting background, which you talked about some. You are adopted. You're multiracial, raised in Scotland but you know that your birth mother is Chinese. One of the things that you said in an interview that I was very touched by was that you said, you know, you have talked about this, but you don't talk about it a lot because you don't want to wind up hurting someone.

Ms. TUNSTALL: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Is it because if you sort of plant your flag in one country, then it kind of leaves out all the other countries and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUNSTALL: It's politics - all politics. No, it's more that it's such a sensitive issue, and I think that certainly as an - I mean, I can't talk directly on behalf of my parents, but, you know, I can only imagine what it's like bringing up an adopted child and, you know, making them feel as loved as you possibly can. But there's always going to be that slight disconnect, where I'm not going to understand what it's like for them to adopt a kid, and I'm -they're never going to understand what it feels like to be adopted.

But I think the thing that I've noticed, which I didn't realize, was it never becomes that much less sensitive. You know, we've all got very deep, fragile feelings about this issue and - although we're a very, very strong family. And I did make contact with my birth mother about 10 years ago. It was very fulfilling. It enriched my life. But it's not plain sailing, and that's all I'll say. It's...

MARTIN: Was she nice?

Ms. TUNSTALL: Yeah. She's a good person. But it's just something that I'm dealing with all the time myself. So it's not something that I'm actually qualified to be able to talk to people I don't know, because it's just - it's very private and very sensitive.

MARTIN: But I am always fascinated by the question of an artist who, by definition, plumbs the depths of things that are very difficult for the rest of us, often faces things that often the rest of us don't want to face, how much you share and how much you keep to yourself. And how do you make that decision?

Ms. TUNSTALL: Yeah. I mean, well, exactly and people might question, you know, why is she talking or why did she tell anyone in the first place? And it's like, well, that is an important part of me as a creative person, because no one else in my family is musical at all. So there is this wild card in me that doesn't really make sense unless I say, well, actually, maybe this is part of why.

MARTIN: Let's have a little bit more from the new album, if you like.

Ms. TUNSTALL: Yeah. Absolutely.

MARTIN: I think we were going to play "Fade Like a Shadow."

(Soundbite of song, "Fade like a Shadow")

Ms. TUNSTALL: (Singing) Fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade. Fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade. Fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade. Fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade.

You grew wings on your heart. But you let it out your ribcage, and it flew into the dark like a ghost, just like a ghost. And it flutters by my window when I need my sleep the most.

So I choose my weapon, choose my way. It's easy saying nothin' when there's nothing to say. I'm thinking about you everyday. I'm starting to notice there's two steps and one step back. I'll make up in love for what you think I lack. You've got a vampire on your neck. Everybody knows what happens next.

You fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade. Fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade.

So I choose my weapon, choose my way. It's easy saying nothin' when there's nothing to say. I'm thinking about you everyday. I'm starting to notice you fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade. You fade like a shadow. Fade like a shadow. Fade.

MARTIN: All right. That was KT Tunstall. And "Fade like a Shadow" is on her new album, "Tiger Suit." It's kind of harsh, you know, now that I'm sitting here...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: ...I'm listening to the lyrics. That's kind of harsh.

Ms. TUNSTALL: It's a harsh song.

MARTIN: It's harsh.

Ms. TUNSTALL: And I'm a big Tarantino fan, and I love when you're watching his movies that he'll show you a scene, and it might be a really disturbing scene and he could put some really disturbing music with it, and you would just be disturbed. But instead, he'll give you, like, this real juxtaposition of music with the scene that really questions how you think about something and questions how you feel about something. And I really like that this is a pretty dark subject.

I basically, someone I met really had a negative effect on me, and it was like I was being haunted by them. And I just thought, OK, I'm just going to write this really upbeat song of empowerment to get - to exorcise this person, basically. And I do like that. I do like kind of using opposing feelings and putting them together.

MARTIN: Yeah. It's funny, because I was listening to it in the car. But then I'm listening to it with you, and I'm thinking whoa, whoa.

Ms. TUNSTALL: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: How has the fame thing been working for you? A lot of people will have heard your music, even if they're not sure that - even if they don't know that it's yours, you know? You know.

Ms. TUNSTALL: I really want to tell you a funny story.

MARTIN: Yeah. Sure.

Ms. TUNSTALL: The last time I was in New York, I went to a party. And I met a friend of a friend, and she was a really fashionista, a beautiful girl. And she said, oh, what do you do? And I said, I'm a musician. And she said, oh, what do you play? I said I play guitar and I sing. And she said oh, what's your music like? And that's like a really hard question, because what you say? How do you sum yourself up like that? And she's really fashionable. So I'm thinking I bet she's seen "Devil Wears Prada." You know, I was like, so have you seen "Devil Wears Prada"? She goes, I love that movie. I said well, that's me. The song that at the start. She was like I've got you on my iPod.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUNSTALL: It's like, it's so funny...

MARTIN: That's it.

Ms. TUNSTALL: ...that you bought my music, and like here we are talking, and you had no idea.

(Soundbite of song, "Suddenly I See")

Ms. TUNSTALL: (Singing) Suddenly I see. Suddenly I see. This is what I wanna be. Suddenly I see. Suddenly I see why the hell it means so much to me. Suddenly I see.

MARTIN: "Suddenly I See" was in the sitcom "Ugly Betty" and in the movie the "The Devil Wears Prada." You know, where the fashionista said, I love it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: That's what we're talking about. But let's have a little bit more from the new album. What should we here as we sadly and regretfully let you go?

Ms. TUNSTALL: Well, I would be rude not to recap and thank you guys for supporting what I've been doing in the past. So I think I shall play my breakout single for you...

MARTIN: All right.

Ms. TUNSTALL: ...which is "Black Horse in the Cherry Tree."

MARTIN: That's awesome. Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Black Horse in the Cherry Tree")

Ms. TUNSTALL: (Singing) Woo-hoo. Woo-hoo. Woo-hoo.

MARTIN: And to hear more KT Tunstall perform in our studio, please go to our website. Go to the Programs menu of npr.org and select TELL ME MORE.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Happy Presidents Day.

Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song, "Black Horse in the Cherry Tree")

Ms. TUNSTALL: (Singing) Woo-hoo. Woo-hoo. Woo-hoo. Well my heart knows me better than I know myself, so I'm gonna let it do all the talking. Woo-hoo. Woo-hoo. I came across a place in the middle of...

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.