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Band Interview: KT Tunstall

Grant Walters Grant Walters Band Interview: KT Tunstall
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With new music on the horizon for later this year, the Scottish native returns to Columbus July 11 with the Barenaked Ladies and Better Than Ezra on the "Last Summer On Earth 2018" tour ticket

  • Sumo

Author’s Note: This article is the first of a three-part series profiling each of the artists on the tour. Stay tuned for interviews with Better Than Ezra and the Barenaked Ladies over the next week. 

The last time KT Tunstall and I spoke was in February 2017, when she was on her way to Columbus for a headlining show in support of her fifth studio album, KIN — a project that resurrected the Scottish-born singer-songwriter’s relationship with making records after she’d considered giving it up altogether to compose music for the silver screen.

“Yeah, I think I realized that film scoring would always be there for me,” she reflected in a phone interview last week. “And I had some exploration to do in terms of making records.”

I joined the sizable audience at A&R Music Bar a few nights later and watched in awe as Tunstall’s set unfolded. She built a veritable symphony orchestra as she layered hand claps, finger snaps, yelps, and whistles on a loop track that bubbled underneath the chug of her black-and-white rhythm guitar, which she played with joyful ferocity. Once she poured her soulful pipes over top of the mix, I was mesmerized. She was engaging. She was funny. She was stunningly creative.

She was a force.

If you sadly missed that performance, there’s good news as the Barenaked Ladies have perspicaciously recruited Tunstall, along with New Orleans alt-rockers Better Than Ezra, to join them on their Last Summer On Earth 2018 tour, which has a scheduled stop at Express LIVE! on Wednesday, July 11.

“It’s been a blast!” Tunstall exclaimed of her time on the road thus far with the recent Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees. “I was just saying you can tell when an artist is nurturing audiences that are really into music, being opening act, you know, sometimes you’re a bit nervous about how it’s gonna go down and whether you’re just the backing track to a beer and a hot dog, or whether somebody’s actually going to get into it. [laughs] And, you know, the Barenaked Ladies, obviously, we share an ethos that it’s really about appealing to people who love their music. They’ve just been so generous and gracious on this tour. It’s been awesome.”

I want to ask you a little bit more about how you use loop tracks to build your acoustic show, because it was so incredible watching you essentially construct a live band every time you start a new song. How much time have you had to spend learning and experimenting with the technology to be so comfortable with it? It seems like it’s second nature to you.

“Well, you know, the funny thing is that the foundation of all of it is that you just have to have good timing. And if you have good timing, the rest of it falls into place really easily. If you don’t have good timing, you’re done for! It’s not gonna happen! I had a really funny experience where this woman came up to me after the show and said, ‘KT! I have a bone to pick with you!’ And I said, ‘What?! What I have I done?’ And she said, ‘I bought one of those loopers for my husband and it sounds shitty!’ And I said, ‘I don’t understand!’ And she goes, ‘It sounds terrible! It’s all outta time!’ And I said, ‘Babe, I really don’t think that’s the looper! I think it might your husband!’ [laughs]

In terms of nailing the kind of foundational elements of using that loop pedal, as long as your timing is good and you can put down the stuff, you can basically put anything on top of it. It’s just building from the foundation. I’ve actually got a really fantastic relationship with Roland who, you know, make all the loop pedals and effects pedals. It’s an absolute playground for a musician in working with a company like that. They’ve been super supportive helping me build a really original setup.

What I have now is that I’ll use a tiny little keyboard, and I use this fantastic machine called the HandSonic, which is all sampled sounds and it’s even got a sensor called the D-BEAM on it, where I just use my hands and it will trigger sounds without me even needing to touch anything. And that’s super fun because I’ll do a big bass drop with my hand and everyone goes, ‘Ooooooh!’ [laughs]

It’s kind of magical looking, you know, and for me, so much of my show is visual. And that’s how I’ve built my whole career is by people seeing what I do, not only hearing it. When I was on Later With Jools Holland and The Today Show, people were actually seeing me create the sound live, and the visual part of it’s so important. My setup’s steadily growing, and that’s because I have to keep myself excited and keep challenging myself to keep it fresh. When I come back to the States in October, I’m going to be touring to support the new record — and that’s just going to be me and a female drummer. And we’re actually gonna each have loop pedals that are linked together so they can feed into one loop. And I haven’t seen anyone do that before, so I’m super excited to get that together and see what we can do.”

Watching you work was so fascinating, and it was so fun, especially those moments when you had to start again because they were just as compelling and memorable from a creative perspective as the ones that went off without a hitch.

“I know! It’s just as fun when I fuck up. You wouldn’t believe how many people come up after the show and say, ‘My favorite part of the show was when that song went wrong!’ It’s also knowing that people are getting a live, one-off experience, and something that happens that night may never happen again, you know?”

When we talked last year, KIN had just been released after a lot of major transition had happened in your life, and you were just sort of settling back into the idea of writing and recording as an artist. And I believe you’re in the process now of recording the follow-up, which, along with KIN will be a part of a trilogy, correct? What path have you taken this time around?

“So, I’m happy to say that part two is absolutely done and dusted. I recorded it in London and it was produced by Nick McCarthy, who’s a guitarist, multi-instrumentalist, and writer for Franz Ferdinand. He’d…left the band [to get] into creating his own stuff and producing. I loved the band and loved his sound, and he’s an absolute musical magician — he’s brilliant. And so we actually co-wrote, I think, four or five songs for the new record. It’s a very rock record, it’s all about the body, and I knew that I wanted this record to be more about electric guitar.

And so it’s very visceral and very…it’s a low chakra record, is what I’m saying. But I’m very excited about it. I’m going to be working with all female musicians live on this record. And each record [of the trilogy] will have a three-letter title. I haven’t announced this one yet, but it will be a three-letter title.”

I also want to talk about the cover of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” you recorded with Mike McCready from Pearl Jam. I know Tom’s music was really important to you, so I can only imagine how much you felt that loss. What made you and Mike decide to record that specific track?

“It was a very painful one, yeah. Mike and I met a few years ago and had wanted to do something together, and with the passing of Tom Petty — both of us are just such, such big fans of his work and the legacy he leaves behind and we wanted to honor that. But also, you know, this song that was written in the 80s that is still so…it’s such a perfect anthem for what’s going on now. And so we wanted it to be this sort of soundtrack shout-out to everyone who was spending their time going to peaceful protests and marches all over the world.

There’s definitely a sort of feeling of what went on in the 60s where people are really galvanizing to try and get things changed, which feels very positive. And we were really delighted as well because Tom Petty had gifted one of his guitars to Mike when he was still alive, so we were able to play Tom’s guitar on the track, which was really cool.

I should also say that Mike was really keen to sing, because he doesn’t really sing with Pearl Jam. And he was kind of wandering around the house and kept singing, and I think he was sort of auditioning to see whether I thought he was good enough! [laughs] And I said, ‘Mike! You’re in! You’ve got the job! You’re definitely doing the background vocals!’ It meant a lot to him to sing on the track and he did an amazing job.

But the video was really emotional because we’d asked fans to submit photos and videos of them at protests and marches. And I was so proud to be in the video myself back at the women’s march in [Washington,] D.C.”

And I love that you chose to preserve that sort of persistently staticy classic Jeff Lynne drum beat. 

“Yeah! Exactly! The drumming was by brilliant Leah Julius of Thunderpussy. She’s actually the bass player for [the band], but she played the drums on this track. Wonderfully talented girl.”

I noticed you were recently involved in the BBC Scotland radio special, The History of Scottish Pop. You’re certainly a critical part of that fabric, so what in your mind makes Scottish pop so distinct?

“I’m just really proud to be part of this unstoppable wave that’s come out of this tiny country. And I think people who aren’t from the UK don’t realize just how small Scotland is…I don’t know, is it maybe like six million [people] or something? It’s a tiny, tiny country. It’s a completely disproportionate amount of phenomenal, classic, iconic artists that have come of out Scotland, you know? Franz Ferdinand is a great example. They were one of the early 2000s bands that absolutely set a new standard for indie rock. And you’ve got Garbage with Shirley Manson, this amazing female-fronted unstoppable indie rock band. And then you’ve got Annie Lennox, and you’ve Liz Fraser, one of my favorite vocalists of all-time, with Cocteau Twins and then singing with Massive Attack and This Mortal Coil. And you’ve got Teenage Fanclub, you’ve got Belle and Sebastian. It’s not just one certain type of music, it’s absolutely across the board.

It’s such an impressive, long list of music. And there’s that fantastic mix of Celtic culture that goes into it, but then there’s also something I think we’ve got in common with Iceland, which also has a ridiculously high output of impressive music, where the weather plays such a big part. We’re in pubs, we’re in bedrooms, we’re in backrooms, we’re having to keep ourselves entertained while the storm rages outside for the majority of the year! [laughs] And it’s dark at three in the afternoon in the winter, you know? There’s an introspection that naturally comes with that culture, and we’re a drinking culture as well. So all these factors have just made for this alchemical process where so many people are making really original, very exciting music.”

“I had a really funny conversation — I should tell you. Are you familiar with Robin Hitchcock? The British musician?”

Yes, for sure.

“Yeah, he’s a good friend, and when we first met he said [mimicking] ‘KT! I want to see the bottom of your left shoe!’ [laughs] I said, ‘What?!’ And he said, ‘Show me your left boot heel!’ So I lifted up my leg and showed him my boot and he said, ‘Yes! Look! You are Scottish! Every Scottish musician I’ve ever met’s had a worn-down left boot heel from stamping on the floor on every single beat!’

And I think that’s actually a really profound way of describing Scottish music. I was talking about that with someone the other day — because of the Celtic music style, I think Scottish musicians are much more used to hearing a 4:4 beat rather than the kind of normal one-and-three down beat, and it has an effect on the pulse of the music we make.”

KT Tunstall joins the Barenaked Ladies and Better Than Ezra on the “Last Summer On Earth 2018” tour, which stops in Columbus at Express LIVE! on Wednesday, July 11. General admission tickets (the show is outdoors) are $39.50, plus applicable fees and taxes, and are available via Ticketmaster. More information about KT’s music, including downloads and purchase links, can be found on her official website.

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