KT Tunstall Savors the Life 'Fantastic' With a soaring career and a marriage on the way, the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter is having a really good year — and it's only January. The Scot stops by to sing a few songs off her new album, Drastic Fantastic.
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KT Tunstall Savors the Life 'Fantastic'

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KT Tunstall Savors the Life 'Fantastic'

KT Tunstall Savors the Life 'Fantastic'

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(Soundbite of song, "Hold On")

Ms. KT TUNSTALL (Singer and Songwriter): (Singing) I felt a change a-coming, I felt a change a-coming soon. Hold on to what been given…


We've all heard about The Beatles on "Ed Sullivan." Comedian Steven Wright's career was launched when David Letterman liked his act so much, the host invited him Wright back the very next night. But in today's multimedia, million-channel world, it's increasingly rare that a single TV performance has that much impact on a performer's career.

Two years ago this week, Scottish musician KT Tunstall appeared on the "Today Show" with nothing but an acoustic guitar, a tambourine and an array of foot pedals on the floor in front of her. Folks on her message boards are still competing to find the highest quality video of that single performance.

Add in her music's inclusion in the film "The Devil Wears Prada" and she was off. Her debut album "Eye to the Telescope" went on to sell four million copies worldwide. Her sophomore effort "Drastic Fantastic" debuted in September at number nine on the Billboard charts.

But what seemed like an overnight success story is actually the result of more than 15 years of hard work. And there are, most likely, many more chapters to be written in that story. And KT Tunstall joins me now in the studio. Hey, there.


MARTIN: Thanks for getting in.

Ms. TUNSTALL: I'd like of a copy of that, what you just said, and just play it every morning.

MARTIN: You love it?

Ms. TUNSTALL: When I wake up, I'm like…

MARTIN: It'll boost your ego.

Ms. TUNSTALL: …yes. I'm great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUNSTALL: People love me.

MARTIN: So I remember when I first heard your song "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree," which is now this very popular single. I heard it on a friend's iPod a couple of years ago. And then it was like magic, like, instantly, it was everywhere. And you were everywhere. And it seemed to me like it happened very quickly. People say things like overnight success. But when you kind of sit back now and reflect on the last couple of years in particular, what - how do you characterize your rise? Luck? Determination? Skill? Beauty?

Ms. TUNSTALL: It's like doing 10 years training to do one ski jump.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Ms. TUNSTALL: And you do the ski jump, you're like, woo…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUNSTALL: And that end thing happens really quickly.


Ms. TUNSTALL: You know, when it - there's no guarantee it's going to happen at all. There's no saying how it's going to be. It might be this really beautiful undergrowing, simmering that goes on for the rest of your career. And I would have been delighted with that had I been an artist that had a great fan base that meant like you drive around the states in a camper van and play venues like Joe's Pub, you know?

MARTIN: You would have been happy with that?

Ms. TUNSTALL: Yeah. Yeah. That was what I expected. That was what I was - that's what I was working towards, was trying to just be a self-sufficient traveling musician.

MARTIN: I want to ask you about the process of going from a really uber-successful first album to the second. And what is going through your head when you sit down to kind of craft and cull from your works, music and songs into this second effort. Do you think, okay, people know me, they currently like me. I'm just going to go with that and cement my rep and just give them more of what they want, or do I feel secure enough now that I'm going to take some risks?

Ms. TUNSTALL: Well, actually, a hybrid of those two things. I felt people know me. I know that a lot of people like what I do. And I trusted that they liked me doing what I want to do. And so that's what I did. So I take the first part of the first bit, the second part of the second bit and just went with it. And I know that - I mean, it's the same with any band. And it's certainly with -the same with bands I've loved. You don't love every album to the same degree. But you always appreciate - well, me, anyway, with an artist that I love -someone like Beck, for example, that he'll do something very different on the next record. But I usually appreciate him doing something different, even if it's not - you know, "Midnight Vultures" was - I didn't like as much as "Odelay". But I was really glad he did that. And it made me more of a fan that he would do something bold.


Ms. TUNSTALL: So - and with hindsight, I really had to just shut the shutters and try and ignore any pressure and any worry and just try and make the second record that I would have made anyway, without all of it.

MARTIN: Let's get to some of the music. What are we going to hear right now? You going to play something for us.

Ms. TUNSTALL: I'm going to play you a song that I wrote a few years ago, and it was a contender - because I'd written it just at the time as "Eye to the Telescope" was being recorded. But "Eye to the Telescope," for me, was my attempt at a kind of Carol King singer-songwriter record that was really meaningful. And it was on a plate. It wasn't exclusive. It was for anybody, and very kind of singer-songwriter tradition. And a (unintelligible) kind of disco pop tune by plastic surgery didn't really fit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUNSTALL: So I kind of knew that "Saving My Face" was going to get on to "Drastic Fantastic" and maybe be a big part of it. So…

MARTIN: Okay, let's hear it.

Ms. TUNSTALL: Ready?

(Soundbite of song, "Saving My Face")

Ms. TUNSTALL: (Singing) See the look on my face from staying too long in one place. And every time I try to leave, I find I keep on stalling. Feel like a big old stone. Standing by a strength of my own. And every time the morning breaks, I know I'm closer to falling.

I'm all out of love, all out of faith. I would give everything just for a taste. Everything's here, all out of place. Losing my memory, saving my face. Saving my face. Saving my face. Saving my face.

I'm listening to what you say, even though I look the other way. And you will never understand the feeling of what I'm needing.

I'm all out of luck. I'm all out of faith. I would give everything just for a taste. But everything's here, all out of place, losing my memory and saving my face. Saving my face, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, yeah, yeah, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, yeah, yeah, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh.

Leave it all to me, I will do the right thing. Maybe I'll be everything I need. Leave it all to me. I will do the right thing. Maybe I'll be everything I need. Leave it all to me, I will do the right thing, do the right thing.

I'm all out of luck, I'm all out of faith, I would give anything just for a taste. But everything's here, all out of place, losing my memory and losing the best of me. I'm all out of luck, I'm all out of faith, and I would give everything just for a taste. But everything's here all out of place, losing my memory and saving my face. Saving my face. Saving my face. Saving my face. Saving my face. Yeah. Yeah. Saving my face. Saving my face. Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: That was KT Tunstall, performing "Saving My Face." I want to ask you about the importance of rhythm to you. I hear rhythm in all kinds of ways in your music, and it's isolated. You know, you do this really cool layering thing. You've got this awesome machine here, your pedals. And we're going to do a special Web exclusive where you're going to demonstrate for us how you really do this.

Ms. TUNSTALL: Yeah. Sure.

MARTIN: Rhythm seems to be such an important part of your music. What is it about layering your songs that's important to you?

Ms. TUNSTALL: Well, it was funny, because I have been really appreciating how important it was until I came to record in a studio and I haven't - I'm not a kind of musician through the years who dabbled in recording.

Recording, to me, was very much a way of just letting people who came to gigs take something away and get them into the music enough that they'd come back to the next gig. It's always about the gigs for me and playing live. So it wasn't until I had to kind of pick apart the songs to see which pieces I wanted on the recording, and that was - and Steve Osborne, my producer, was a huge part of discovering that. And what had happened in the past when I recorded was because I played solo for long and I busked - which just playing on the street for cash.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Yeah. To put it bluntly, yeah,

Ms. TUNSTALL: Yeah. Begging.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TUNSTALL: But with talent, apparently. And I suppose I developed this very aggressive and all encompassing guitar rhythm style - that rhythm guitar style - because I wasn't playing with other people, so I would be trying to play the drums and the bass and everything on the guitar.

And also, you want to be loud when you're playing on the street, so I was playing pretty hard as well. And everyone I'd worked with up until meeting Steve - you know, I'd tried out working with a few people. They'd say your guitar playing is mental. You need to calm down. You need to leave space for other instruments.

And Steve was the first producer, he said, no way. This is the heart of what you do. And if you have a band, then they need to play to you. You don't play to a band, because then you don't sound like you anymore. And as soon as we did that - I think it was on a song called "Miniature Disasters" from "Eye to a Telescope" - it suddenly sounded like Bo Dudley. You know, it got this jungle rhythm and this syncopation and this really recognizable feel. And that, I suppose, at that point, became my style.

MARTIN: Your family - you grew up in a family of two academics, right?


MARTIN: And in a household…

Ms. TUNSTALL: Fierce academics.

MARTIN: …fierce academics - in a household without that much music.


MARTIN: You have a brother who has a hearing impairment…

Ms. TUNSTALL: Yeah. He's profoundly deaf, ironically.

MARTIN: How did that affect your career choice?

Ms. TUNSTALL: Well, it was very, very good for my creativity, because I wasn't copying anything. And so - but there was this very, kind of, basic urge to make music and write things and make things.

MARTIN: Do you think about how your brother can hear it?

Ms. TUNSTALL: Yeah, well…

MARTIN: …or experience it?

Ms. TUNSTALL: …the great thing for Daniel, my younger brother now, is that before he'd be coming to pub gigs, and he couldn't hear that - he could - I mean, most of the people in there couldn't hear because it's in a pub for a start, and the sound system's rubbish and everyone's talking and then drinking.

And now I'm playing great venues with amazing sound systems that are belting out. And so he can hear much more than he used to be able to and really enjoys it, and does have songs he prefers. And it's interesting we were talking about the rhythm, because we were in a supermarket over Christmas, and he recognized my song playing over the speakers in the supermarket.

MARTIN: From the rhythm.

Ms. TUNSTALL: From the rhythm. We were like, how do you know that's me? And he said, no, I heard - it was "Hold On," I think, and he said he recognized the rhythm and he could hear that…


Ms. TUNSTALL: …and that was amazing.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, we want one more song out of you.


MARTIN: What do you got?

Ms. TUNSTALL: I'm going to play you a song which is one of my favorites from the album - the new album, and it's called "If Only."

MARTIN: Okay, let's listen.

Ms. TUNSTALL: Two, three, four…

(Soundbite of song, "If Only")

Ms. TUNSTALL: (Singing) Walking around in a daze, out for days now in space. Talking it up as amazing, a maze that I'm in. Looking at the stars for the answers, but all that I found was silence and dirty ground. If only you could see me now.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) If only.

Ms. TUNSTALL: (Singing) If only you could hear me out.

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) If only. If only, if only.

Ms. TUNSTALL: (Singing) If only it was only me now.

MARTIN: That's KT Tunstall. She's performing her song "If Only." It's from her new album "Drastic Fantastic." For information and tour dates, follow the link on our blog. We'll also post some video of this performance. And remember, we also have this very cool Web breakout. KT is going to explain to us how she works her loop pedal, the thing that gives her that layering effect for her music that's built through songs on. So good check it out. Watch it at npr.org/bryantpark.


I'm Alison Stewart. That's Rachel Martin.

Thanks for being with us today. We're always available at npr.org/bryantpark.


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