No sophomore jitters for songwriter Tunstall

By | July 30, 2007 at 2:06 AM

KT Tunstall’s apparently tireless capacity for work makes even her laugh. “I feel like a camel,” the Scottish singer-songwriter says with a giggle. “Because I had 10 years of nothing, it does give me an enormous capacity for embracing what’s going on and remembering all that time when I was really wishing things would happen.”

That’s why, after two straight years of touring and promotion behind her multiplatinum debut, “Eye to the Telescope” — first released in the United Kingdom at the end of 2004, although its U.S. release was not until February 2006 — Tunstall is, eagerly, right back in the eye of the storm.

Her follow-up set, “Drastic Fantastic,” will be released September 10 internationally and September 18 in North America by Relentless/Virgin. The album’s lead-off single is “Hold On,” which will be commercially available August 27 in the United Kingdom and is already off to a strong start there on radio.

Not that the new album’s predecessor is ready to go quietly. “Telescope” has worldwide sales of nearly 4 million units, according to EMI, including 1.5 million in Britain and 1.1 million in America, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And even with the sophomore album on the horizon, it just keeps selling.

Tunstall’s July 13 appearance on NBC’s “Today” spurred a 60 percent hike in U.S. sales of “Telescope” and a 173-101 jump in its 73rd week on The Billboard 200. Digital sales of her signature singles “Suddenly I See” and “Black Horse & the Cherry Tree” immediately rose by 80 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

After a decade of knocking on doors that stayed resolutely shut, Tunstall, who turned 32 in June, wasn’t about to risk losing her hard-won success. “I feel like I’ve done the new album just in time,” she says in answer to further inquiries about her extraordinary stamina. “If I’d taken any time off, I might have missed a bit of a window.”

STAR-MAKING MACHINERY

The confident but self-effacing musician, who’s wearing a vintage Van Halen T-shirt, jeans, neon-pink nail polish and some artfully applied eye makeup, nevertheless admits that she had to dig deep into her energy reserves.

“When it came time to make the second album, I was completely fried,” she says. “All the promo, it really interferes with your creative juices. That’s why modern success is a lot more difficult, creatively speaking, than, say, back in the ’70s. Led Zeppelin never did an interview, those bastards.”

When she finally carved the time to start recording “Drastic Fantastic” in the middle of last year, Tunstall had made an important discovery. “The one major change for me was that on the first album, I did find recording my vocals very difficult. We learned this time around that I can’t really sing if I’m not playing.

“I basically taught myself singing and playing guitar at the same time, so all of my phrasing and breathing disappear if I’m not playing. We were coming up with ridiculous ideas where

I’d stand on a ladder in the room downstairs and have my head through the floor of the vocal booth so that I could play and sing and (producer) Steve (Osborne) could get his separation.”

“Telescope” was released December 7, 2004, in the United Kingdom, but far from getting buried in the Christmas avalanche, it sold steadily amid word-of-mouth about the artist’s outstanding live performances. By the time Tunstall was collecting her BRIT Award for best British female in February 2006, “Telescope” had spent a solid year on the U.K. chart and risen to quadruple-platinum (1.2 million shipments).

By contrast, the U.S. breakthrough of “Telescope” was helped by key placements for its songs, from performances on “American Idol” to the appearance of “Suddenly I See” on the silver screen in “The Devil Wears Prada.” “Black Horse & the Cherry Tree” then received a Grammy Award nomination for best female pop vocal performance.

“It’s weird,” Tunstall says. “I’m writing these songs and they’re like little oompa-loompas. They go into the world and I keep getting these postcards from them, saying, ‘Guess what? I’m in a Meryl Streep film.’ I’m like, ‘Well done, haven’t you done well.”‘

THEATRICAL BENT

Tunstall had always enjoyed creative encouragement from her family and developed an early passion for performance, but she might have ended up treading different boards altogether.

Adopted at birth into a tight-knit family of four, she grew up in the seaside town of St. Andrews on Scotland’s east coast.

Her physicist father and teacher mother provided musical instruments at an early age, enrolling her in the local theater group and letting her spend a year at a Connecticut boarding school at the age of 16.

“Up until then, I was pretty adamant that I was going to act,” she recalls. “Then I went to do this project with the

Royal Shakespeare Company and I saw this catty, competitive, back-stabbing side of theater. It was just when I started writing music, so I was spending a lot of my time writing.

“At the end of the course, we had a performance cabaret where everybody did a skit and I thought, ‘F— it, I’m going to play a song.’ And everyone said it was good. I was like, ‘No girls here play guitar or write songs, but they all want to be actresses. Hmmm …”‘

Tunstall made the decision there and then that music would be her path. After college, she gigged around Scotland for some six years, gaining in self-esteem what she lacked in financial reward.

“I was unemployed for a long time and I didn’t have any money. But it was a choice. I could have gone out and got a job,” she says. “It was exciting to go out and perform while being myself, not having to be a character. And I still feel very strongly about that. I want to be the same person I am onstage when I’m off. Performing is the closest thing I get to meditation, where I’m not thinking about anything else. I’m just completely in it.”

Tunstall introduced some of her new material at the United Kingdom’s Glastonbury Festival in June and played the U.S. leg of Live Earth. In the States, Virgin will issue a standard and a deluxe edition of “Drastic Fantastic,” the latter packaged with a DVD.

She’ll be at the United Kingdom’s V Festival August 18-19 ahead of a 10-date U.K. tour in October, with plans to return to the U.S. in November and December, for radio shows and a few concerts in select markets. A full U.S. tour is planned for spring 2008, after which Tunstall heads to South America.

All of which is ample proof that Tunstall has achieved the goal that drove her during those underemployed years in Scotland.

“I wanted to do this as a vocation,” she says, “and actually be able to turn up (in) America with my passport saying, ‘Occupation: musician.”‘

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