Bouncing back

Scottish singer/songwriter KT Tunstall talks about her synth-heavy new album injected with dance music

  • KT Tunstall performs Saturday at the 9:30 Club.
KT Tunstall performs Saturday at the 9:30 Club. (Simon Emmett, Handout photo )
November 25, 2010|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

One performance on "American Idol" can make anyone ubiquitous.

Soon after Katharine McPhee sang KT Tunstall's single "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" on the show in 2006, even soccer moms knew the words to the "woo hoo" song.

You might have also heard her song "Suddenly I See" played over promos for "The Amazing Race" or opening the movie "The Devil Wears Prada," behind a montage of pretty girls and Anne Hathaway getting ready for work. In fact, even her label, Virgin Records, was getting tired of seeing her face, Tunstall says jokingly.

"They said, 'Go write some new material.' It was really refreshing, actually, to have a record executive, someone who would normally try to milk the cow dry, say that."

So she did. After she finished touring with her first two albums in 2008, she disappeared. She didn't tour or appear on the soundtracks of any chick flicks.

"I was really scared at first," she said. "I had toured solidly for six, seven years."

But the time off resulted in the 11 tracks of her new album, "Tiger Suit," which she's promoting with an 20-city tour that will stop at the 9:30 Club on Saturday.

Up until six years ago, Tunstall, 35, had been playing venues of maybe 100 to 250 people. " Tiny, dirty little pubs," she said. Slowly, she struck a nerve with audiences and started drawing bigger crowds.

"It really did feel like everyone was telling their friends," she said. "Same deal in America."

Her debut album, "Eye to the Telescope" eventually sold 1.3 million copies in the United States and 1.6 million in the United Kingdom, according to Nielsen SoundScan. The album's meteoric rise to the top of the charts caught her by surprise.

"I completely didn't digest it at the time," she said. "It was very much about living in the present, not analyzing. It was a good way of dealing with it, just enjoying it. In a way, it just kept me from letting the craziness get out of hand."

When the time came to take a breather a year ago and write new material, it also gave her perspective on the roller coaster ride she'd been on since McPhee sang "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" in 2006 on national television.

"It was interesting, getting this time and getting objectivity, and going bloody hell," she said. "It was kind of good. It made me realize that people would be waiting to see what I was going to do."

During her yearlong sabbatical, Tunstall traveled the world — Chile, Antarctica, India — and the backpacking must have awakened the dance queen in her. The synth-heavy new album was inspired by cultish New Wave bands like Cocteau Twins and The Cure and the '90s prog house duo Leftfield, she said.

"I've always been a fan of electronic music, but I hadn't written anything with it in mind," she said. The new songs, though, "seemed to benefit from the injection of dance music."

Fans might see that as a departure from the acoustic guitar and throaty voice that have defined Tunstall, but she said electronic music was just what was turning her on when she recorded it earlier this year.

"I really wanted to progress," she said.

The show Tunstall has been touring with for the past two months reflects her new attitude. Her band, which includes a keyboard player, a bassist, a guitarist and a drummer, has upended her old songs to fit the upbeat mood of the album.

Though she'll perform new material during the two-hour show, she said, fans might not recognize old favorites at first because of the sonic face-lift they've gotten.

"It's still got the old dynamic. It's got down-tempo moments," she said. "But it's certainly keeping me fit."

Tunstall is aware that overproduction might turn off fans, but she said the new sound might also earn her some new ones. In any case, despite the electronic glitz, she said, her shows aim for the authenticity she's known for.

"Whenever I put a live show together, it's about putting something on stage that's not going to rely on bells and whistles," she said. "It's got to impress from a playing point of view."

If you go

KT Tunstall performs Saturday at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. N.W., in Washington. Doors open at 10 p.m. Tickets are $25. Call 877-435-9849 or go to

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