KT Tunstall: Songwriting Joy With 'KIN,' Working With James Bay
GRAMMY.com caught up with KT Tunstall to discuss pushing past her musical comfort zone on KIN, teaming up with James Bay on a track called “Two Way,” and what she loves most about writing music for film.
You recently released your fifth studio album, KIN. There was an interesting personal journey that you went on prior to this album coming out. What is the story behind that?
The last record […] was written half before and half after two massive shifts: my dad passed away, and I got divorced. Life turned upside down. I toured for 18 months, mostly solo and in beautiful seated-theaters, which I had never done before. I was completely drained after that experience. I didn’t feel attracted to making another record. It was the right time to try something different and flex some creative muscles.
I didn’t understand how I’d checked all the boxes to be happy and it hadn’t worked, so I sold everything I owned and moved to Venice Beach, California, and it was one of the best things I ever did. I felt like I had found a place where I could involve myself in just being, not doing. The huge upside of LA, too, was suddenly I was in the direct view of some fantastically interesting and creative people in Hollywood. I delved into writing music for film for about a year, which was great and I absolutely intend to continue doing it.
What did you learn from dabbling in the film-scoring world?
It can be very rewarding to deliver a director the song he needs to augment what he’s shot to the point where it hits home and connects with an audience. […] So to be involved in that process, I find really stimulating and challenging. I can work completely outside of my usual boundaries. I feel like, if it has KT Tunstall on the cover and it’s an album, there’s a certain edge that I don’t want to go across because I’m going to alienate people. I can explore the electronic solo bass project with film. I can really go to town and use more orchestral arrangement chops […] that I very rarely use with my own material.
So how did you go from detouring into the film-scoring world to releasing another full-length album?
Because I was in LA, inevitably I’m driving. I was driving the canyon roads listening to Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young – listening to these songs where they were born – and I started writing these pretty, emotional, muscular, big, pop-rock choruses. My mind and body were screaming at me, “Don’t do it! You need a break,” but my spirit won. I would have been a total fool to not respect the inspiration that was coming. My body decided, “OK. We’re making a record now.” The record company didn’t know I was doing it, and I didn’t have a manager at the time, so I began the record in secret just by circumstance. By the time I went back to London and played the demo to my A&R man, his eyebrows just went through the roof. It was the last thing they were expecting from me: a big pop-rock record. It feels like a complete rebirth.
Selling 4 million copies of your first record is good and bad. […] I think I had become less vulnerable in my writing. It was a life-changing process to leave the music behind for a minute and find out who I was as a person, away from making records.
Tell us about the creative process behind the album. What did you do differently on this one versus previous releases?
I started tracking the record with Brian Bender at Motherboard Studios in East LA. I also got my friend Dave Maclean from Django Django – a British band that I absolutely adore, and who were a big reference point for this record. [Dave] came over to help the vibe, and he nudged me in more experimental directions. I got a great new manager in Jeff Castelaz at Cast Management in LA. […] Jeff also manages Tony [Hoffer] and he said, “Why don’t you meet?” I was over the moon because Tony had always been very high up on my list of producers I want to work with. [Beck] is my favorite artist, and Tony had been in Beck’s band, and went on to produce Midnite Vultures and Guero. He has that fantastic dual sensibility of managing to keep something sounding like it can get on the radio, but at the same time really pushing the boundaries of production and instrumentation. He was the perfect partner. It was important to me that there was real joy present in making the record, because that’s what this record is all about.
How did you tackle the songwriting process this time around?
I work well under pressure, so I put that pressure on myself. I booked the studio sessions starting the 11th of January, which was actually the day that David Bowie died. Our first day in the studio was very meaningful, and very sad obviously. We listened to “Life on Mars?” in silence, and vowed to be better at what we did after listening to it.
Over the New Year [holiday], I would get up in the morning, chop wood, sit in front of the fire, and write for 7 to 8 hours a day. I’ve never done that before. It […] really galvanized my belief that going to places specifically to write and retreating to write, for me anyway, is an incredibly valuable thing to do.
You have a duet with James Bay on this album. How did that opportunity come about?
We were both guests on the Jools’ Annual Hootenanny Show, […] and I had read in one of his interviews that he is a fan of mine, which is such a compliment. We got chatting at the rehearsal and he was telling me the gigs of mine that he had been to before he got famous, then he proceeded to completely blow the roof off the place with his performance. It was incredible. We swapped numbers and said bye. A few days later, I was listening to the song “Two Way” – I had a verse and chorus, but I really wanted it to be a duet. I dropped him a line and said, “I know you are busy running the planet right now but do you want to do a song together for a record?” He replied straight back saying, “Yes! I’d love to.” We bounced ideas over email from various hotel rooms, and then he was passing through LA during the recording sessions. It was very low key, just a fabulous day working with a fabulous musician.
You just released a music video for “Maybe it’s a Good Thing.” What’s the goal of making a video in this day and age? Is it still as important as it once was?
It’s very difficult because record companies don’t have the same money that they once did, but they want the same standard of videos. You have to get very creative. For “Evil Eye,” the first release from the EP, I just directed it myself, […] and it got like 350,000 views for next to no money. So for “Maybe it’s a Good Thing,” we did have more of a budget.
In a video now, you either want to be doing something you’ve never done, or something that no one’s thought of yet. There is too much Internet traffic to make something that isn’t going to make people look twice. [‘Maybe it’s a Good Thing”] was about color and performance and energy – something visually stimulating to help you engage with the lyrics.
How do you see yourself as an artist today? Are you finally embracing the fact that you are a pop star?
It was something that I felt very at odds with, to the point where I probably sabotaged how far things got. I look back and I think, “What an idiot that you didn’t trust yourself.” I felt very opposed to that more commercial level of music and touring. I felt like it was going to be hard for me to provide an authentic experience in a place that big. I wasn’t ready for it. I would jump on it now – I’d be like, “OK. We need confetti canons and we need fire and we need lasers!”
I was very resistant to being a boss back then. It felt lonely to be in charge of everything and on my own. Now I’m older and wiser, and I take enormous joy and very deep gratitude, especially as a woman, for being in a position of calling the shots. I feel ready to finally see what the potential is for me as an artist, whether that be pop, alternative, rock… I’m glad to have my feet in different places at different times.