Since breaking the barrier of international popularity in 2006 with the infectious singles "Suddenly I See" and "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" from her first full-length release, Eye to the Telescope, KT Tunstall has prompted critical and public acclaim for her soulful brand of pop music. Featuring vocals that were alternately innocent and sultry, the songs were assisted by cleverly creative videos that received regular rotation on the video music channel VH1, and the songs appeared on the soundtracks of such popular television series as Grey's Anatomy. "My songs examine and explore little specific emotions or situations or stories," she explained on her website. "They're kitchen table songs, like a conversation between me and one other person. I like the idea of focusing in on things we deem small and magnifying them to life-changing proportions."
KT (an alternate spelling of her first name, Katie) Tunstall was born in 1975, and adopted by a St. Andrews University physicist's family in Scotland. According to Corey Apar, writing for All Music Guide, Tunstall's knowledge of her adoption heightened her awareness of the different directions her life could have taken, and sparked her imagination and creativity. "I grew up knowing I could have had a million different lives," she said on her website. "It reminds you how mysterious life is and makes your imagination go wild." Among the childhood experiences contributing to her creativity were frequent trips to the St. Andrews observatory with her father and brothers. These visits contributed to her love of astronomy and the science fiction genre, reflected in the title of her debut album, Eye to the Telescope. "My dad used to take my brothers and me into his lab when we were little," she said on her website. "He used to take us up to the observatory at St. Andrew's University and he'd get us up in the middle of the night to show us Halley's Comet or Saturn."
When she was six Tunstall began studying piano and flute, and developed an early affinity for the music of American singers such as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. She also recalled to Gillian Telling of Rolling Stone experiences of "dancing around to songs about the periodic table as sung by a Harvard mathematician" (presumably Tom Lehrer). Tunstall also told Telling that she "used to draw pages of musical notes, not even really knowing what they were." In her mid-teens she began writing songs, largely influenced by a newly developed love for the music of David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Tom Waits. She taught herself to play guitar from a book of guitar tablatures, and won a scholarship to the Kent School in Connecticut in the United States. She formed a band named the Happy Campers, and attended concerts by 10,000 Maniacs and the Grateful Dead. She returned to the United Kingdom to attend the Royal Holloway College in London, where she won a campus Battle of the Bands. "I managed to win with just a mandolin player," she wrote on her website. "It was me and eleven Goth bands and I won!"
Tunstall moved back to Scotland to work with Fence Collective member Pip Dylan for six years. The lifestyle was rustic and music centered. During this period she also met the Beta Band. In 2003 she went to London to seek a record deal. According to Tunstall, however, her age worked against record companies' idea of marketability. "I was on the wrong side of twenty-five," she told Telling. "And even though Norah Jones opened the golden gate for female singer-songwriters, most labels had signed their one girl already." She persisted, however, and began collaborating with a variety of songwriters and producers, among them Martin Terefe, Jimmy Hogarth, and Tommy D—who, respectively, had worked with Ron Sexsmith, James Blunt, and Catatonia.
By the time Tunstall met producer, engineer, and mixer Steve Osborne, she had more than 100 songs ready to record. Osborne, who had previously worked with U2, Suede, New Order, and Doves, booked Tunstall in a rural Wiltshire studio. The finished product was released in late 2004 on the small independent label Relentless Records, and took off in sales and popularity the following year after an appearance on the BBC program Later with Jools Holland. Tunstall was called at short notice to replace hip-hop artist Nas, and had no opportunity to find supporting musicians. Therefore, she performed a solo rendition of "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree," and captured the admiration of viewers with her powerful and compelling stage presence.
Tunstall's Eye to the Telescope began to pick up steam with positive notices. One, from Scotland on Sunday, is quoted on her website: "The kind of record you might expect from an established international artist … not a girl composing her first musical calling card. It really is that good, the album Fiona Apple is still hoping to grow into, that Sheryl Crow got too distracted to make, and Lucinda Williams would be proud of." All Music Guide critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine joined the chorus of critical praise heaped on Eye on the Telescope. He declared that Tunstall "reveals herself to be a soulful vocalist, a restless musician, and a serious songwriter." The effort earned Tunstall a Best British Female Solo Artist at the Brits, the U.K. version of the Grammy Awards. The U.S. version of the album was released in 2006, and Tunstall toured North America as a support act for Joss Stone. She followed up Eye to the Telescope with the 2006 release KT Tunstall's Acoustic Extravaganza, which featured acoustic versions of both old and new songs, including a cover of Beck's "Golden Age."
In 2007 Tunstall released Drastic Fantastic. According to Erlewine, "[Tunstall] clearly has gone pop, but she's done so without sacrificing her subtle skills as a writer… a pop album with a songwriter's heart."
Eye to the Telescope, Relentless Records, 2004.
KT Tunstall's Acoustic Extravaganza, Relentless/Virgin, 2006.
Drastic Fantastic, Relentless/Virgin/EMI, 2007.
For the Record …
Born in Scotland.
Released Eye to the Telescope, 2004; released KT Tunstall's Acoustic Extravaganza, Relentless/Virgin, 2006; Drastic Fantastic, Relentless/Virgin/EMI,2007.
Addresses: Little Big Man Booking and Publicist, 155 Ave. of the Americas, 6th Fl., New York, NY 10013, phone: 646-336-8520, telefax: 646-336-8522. Website—KT Tunstall Official Website: http://www.kttunstall.com.
Entertainment Weekly, March 31, 2006.
Rolling Stone, February 9, 2006.
All Music Guide,http://www.allmusic.com, (February 12, 2007).
KT Tunstall Official Website,http://www.kttunstall.com (April 4, 2007).
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