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The Ties That Bind: KT Tunstall Explores Spirit, Body, and Mind with Album Trilogy

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine’s Summer 2019 Special Pop Edition

Connection has always been a defining factor in KT Tunstall’s career—from the universal appeal of her debut hits “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and “Suddenly I See” [Eye to the Telescope, 2004] to her latest, “Little Red Thread” [WAX], and its accompanying video, which tells the story of an imaginary thread joining all human hearts.

WAX is the second part of an album trilogy that explores spirit, body, and mind. It began in 2016 with KIN, although Tunstall didn’t set out to create a concept series. Instead, the process happened organically. Following the release of KIN, she instinctively sensed a logical pattern—everything from themes to album covers.

Over the course of 15 years, Tunstall has released almost a dozen albums and EPs. The music, a unique acoustic/electric hybrid that showcases her as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist, has earned scores of nominations and awards, including the prestigious Ivor Norvello Award from the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors for “Suddenly I See,” as well as a wide range of placements—everything from film soundtracks to political campaigns.

Guitar Girl Magazine communicated with KT Tunstall via e-mail at the start of her U.S. tour. 

WAX is the second part of a trilogy exploring spirit, body, and mind. Can you tell us a bit about how that concept came together and the process of assembling the pieces of each piece—that is, the songs comprising each installment of the trilogy?

I actually came up with the idea for the trilogy after the first installment, KIN, was already out. It was all about the soul and spirit rising, and I knew I wanted the next album to be centered around electric guitar and be all about the body.

The idea all came to me at once: soul, body, and mind, all three-letter titles with corresponding artwork, and I knew that challenging my creative mind in that way would be really interesting and fun, but also spark really prolific output from me, which it has.

Does writing with not only one overarching theme, but also three pieces of that theme, in mind present its own set of unique challenges? If so, can you please tell us about those—for instance, how they push you creatively, or how you overcome “writer’s block,” if that’s a factor. Or perhaps we’re completely off base in that writing any album is, in fact, writing with a theme!

My creative brain loves puzzle pieces, so it was partly a decision made through knowing that it would create a really great body of work. I think it’s partly also a middle finger up to the idea that the album is “dying,” that people are more interested in single songs these days due to streaming.

I don’t really deal with writer’s block, thankfully. If I’m not writing anything, I do something else. There are so many films, books, and people to talk to [and] to get inspiration from, so I just do something else instead until I’m ready to write.

I don’t think my other albums have a theme necessarily, but they are snapshots of a certain time and place.

You’ve stated that you knew at the onset that Wax would be an electric guitar album. Did you also know which guitars you were going to use, or did the songs determine the gear as they were written and developed?

That’s a funny story, actually. I had the album cover shoot booked in on a weekend, and I went to see a Jack White show on the Thursday beforehand. I’m watching him and suddenly realize I have NO guitars in L.A., they are all in London, and I need one for the shoot. So I go see my friend David Jenkins at Truetone in Santa Monica, this awesome guitar store, to borrow something last-minute. I see this super-cool white electric on the wall by Supro, I’ve never heard of them, and this guitar is basically plastic, and I LOVE it, but I have no idea if it’s any good.

The very first shot the photographer takes of me with the guitar is the cover shot. But I HAVE to have the guitar, right?! I end up buying the Supro (a dual tone) and then discover Bowie played them, and I absolutely love playing them, not least because they are so light and my deep-tissue massage bills have reduced by about 80 percent!

One of our go-to questions for artists is to select the track of their choice from their latest album and have them give us an “applied lesson” as to how it was created. Could you please select a song and take us through those steps?

“The Mountain” was a really interesting process and unusual for me. I wrote the song with Nick McCarthy, who also produced the album. We are working in his garage studio, a really cool, very DIY-feeling space with a big mixing desk, a ton of guitars, and old analogue synths. We’ve chosen to work on this chord progression, and I’m sitting, trying to come up with lyrics. Usually, I would write the song before coming into the studio, but this is just how it’s working out with this one. I can’t think of anything; my mind is a blank. We’ve added guitars, bass, percussion; it’s all going on.

Then Seb, the other producer, mutes everything apart from the drums so he can do some work on them. At the same time, Nick absent-mindedly walks over to this big Yamaha keyboard and presses one single, really low note, like a drone. It sounds amazing, and I just shouted, “DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING! KEEP THAT NOTE GOING!” and all the lyrics just poured out in about 15 minutes. It was crazy.

The chorus lyrics were particularly satisfying because I needed something very simple and powerful, and I came up with the line “You will find me / On the mountain / Where the ground is / Welcome in the sky,” and it was exactly the vibe I needed.

It’s definitely more challenging to fit words to existing music, so I was extra proud of that one.

Did you know early on that “Little Red Thread” would be a single? In addition to being part of the “physicality” piece of the trilogy, do you also see its “connection” theme as a statement for our current times?

I always hoped it would be a single, but I could only hope that there was consensus with the team around me. It’s important to at least listen to the advice of your radio person, your label, and my radio guy was thankfully gung-ho about it. I think it’s an important message to share, and it’s also a strong way to open the album, considering the theme. The connections are there, good and bad, simple and hard, joyful and stressful, and these threads take on pressure. I had an amazing moment at my recent show in Detroit, where I started talking about the song, and hand after hand started raising up, holding red threads. It was really moving.

With two parts of the trilogy complete, are you already thinking about Part 3, where to take it, and where it will take you?

Absolutely! I’ve already decided it’s all about the mind, so that creative decision will play its part. I have quite a lot of material written for it and still have some writing sessions to go, but I feel like it will involve a lot of patterns and rhythms.

When you look at the timeline of 15 years and six albums, and all the milestones along the way—which are many—what do you see? Who were you then and who are you now? How have all of those experiences shaped and defined you?

It was interesting to realize that my growing stack of catalogue is like this very long soundtrack to my life. I love making albums and the adventures and relationships that go along with it. My enjoyment of the studio has really deepened over time, and I just love it now, whereas it was just a means to an end for me at first.

In closing, do you have some words of wisdom, advice, and/or caution for young women who aspire to work in the music industry?

I think the best advice would be to really try and understand as many aspects of the business as you can, from engineering and production, to management and label, as well as the touring side of it. If I could go back and have a word with my younger self, I would tell her to be more of a businesswoman; that it’s an exciting prospect to be the boss of your own business and not something to shy away from. Learning music software has been incredibly freeing for me also (I use Logic), and I would highly recommend getting familiar with a way of getting your own ideas into demo form.

Alison Richter

Alison Richter interviews musicians, producers, engineers, and other industry professionals.

Alison Richter
Alison Richter interviews musicians, producers, engineers, and other industry professionals.

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