KT's primal urges
KT Tunstall has a dream, not of being a multi-platinum-selling superstar, for that’s a reality, but of a wild cat—which is why she bares her teeth on her new album TigerSuit, finds EamonSweeney
KT Tunstall is bracing herself for an extremely hectic period. "Right now, I'm sitting on a bench in my garden soaking in the loveliness before the madness begins," she remarks in a tone of voice that's somewhere between a laugh and a sigh.
The multi-platinum-selling Scottish singer releases her third studio album today, entitled Tiger Suit. "The title is based on a recurring dream, where I walk out into my garden and there's a tiger there," she explains.
"I stroke it and it's only afterwards that I'm completely seized by the fear that I've been killed. I can't work out why I was so stupid to go out and meet this thing. It started to occur to me that perhaps I'm disguised as a tiger myself and that's why I didn't get killed. You don't really see yourself in your dreams. You don't even know if you are human."
Tunstall sees this dream-like blurring of identity as central to the process of assuming a persona. "I always wanted to adhere to the idea that I take to the stage as myself, as much as I love many artists who adopt characters," she says. "I kind of realised that's bullshit and people don't really want that.
"There's always a persona. A switch comes on that doesn't when I'm at a party and someone gives me a guitar, which can be a mortifying thing. In a situation where there's an audience, I definitely turn into someone else. You put on the Joan of Arc armour and go out there and be a warrior."
Despite the weight of expectation that comes after a debut album that sold 1.5 million copies, and won her a Brit and an Ivor Novello award, as well as a Grammy nomination, KT didn't feel any pressure during the making of Tiger Suit. "My attitude changed quite profoundly because I really, really enjoyed making the record," she explains. "I had a really exciting creative relationship with Jim Abbiss, who had also done Arctic Monkeys and Editors and Temper Trap. He's very good at honing in on what makes somebody an individual and what is recognisably them.
"When we got together, I explained that I really wanted to get out of my comfort zone and be someone I hadn't been before. He warned me that he had worked with a couple of people in the past who had said they wanted to do something different. Then, they ended up chickening out halfway through and ended up with half a good album."
Tunstall admits that the volume of her sales and fan base continues to surprise her. "If I'd thought about the people who'd been to my gigs compared to people who'd bought my records, there's a massive difference," she muses. "I couldn't work out a ballpark, but it's certainly a small percentage of people who bought the record. If I didn't know how many people had bought the record, I wonder would it change things in any way.
"Linda Perry said to me: 'You've got the songs, attitude and personality. The only problem is that you give a fuck what everyone else thinks.' It was really precious advice at the right time and I think I've made better music as a result.
"The whole experience just blossomed for me making that record, as I progressively cut ties with giving a shit what other people thought. I stopped getting worried about how it would be perceived, what the fans would think and whether the label would like it.
"For the three weeks we were in Berlin, the label completely left us alone and let us get on with it, which was also a very new experience for me."
The core band behind the album features Tunstall's husband Luke Bullen on drums, Seye Adelekan and Jamie Morrison, of the Noisettes. "The four of us just got sweaty and ripped it up in an amazing studio in Berlin playing live. You had the legacy of Bowie and U2 in that studio [Hansa]. If we got stuck, one of us would come up with an idea. It was very collaborative and a great laugh."
One of the catchiest moments on Tiger Suit is a wonderful stomper entitled Glamour Puss. "It's based on a friend of mine who is a glorious hustler," she reveals. "She's an intense character and I haven't met anyone like her. At first, I'm trying to give her some kind of wisdom on how to live her life, but then there's the realisation that it's based on this attitude and that I've nothing to add. She's a very acerbic and provocative person, and fascinating to know.
"It also turns into a comment that glamour is no longer a traditional aesthetic. It's really transcended into an attitude, and modern glamour is very different to what it used to be. It's almost like the word gay. It's left its home and turned into something else."
Tunstall will forever be associated with her breakthrough performance of Black Horse and the Cherry Tree on Later with Jools Holland. "As a musician, it's certainly a holy grail to do that show because it's not exclusive and not catering to one corner of the market," she says.
"A lot of TV shows go for 16 to 24-year-olds who listen to Radio One, but Jools will pull in a disparate bunch of musicians together, so you're able to see Tinariwen next to Goldfrapp. It's the equivalent of being at a festival where you happen on stuff that you normally might not see."
Tunstall has fond memories of the episode that almost single-handedly turned her into a star. "I was on the road with The Earlies when I got the call," she recalls. "None of the guys in The Earlies even knew that I did my own stuff. I just told them I had to go to London because I'd got this spot. A few days later, we're all crowded round this telly in a bar in York. I shat myself more watching it than doing it in the first place. I almost had a panic attack thinking that I'd fuck up.
"It's really weird. I'm a better performer under pressure. If it's not live, I'm more likely to make a mistake and that was on my side. It was a very wonderful, serendipitous lining of stars that made it all happen at just the right time. I was ready for it. One of my favourite sayings is luck is being ready, because there's no point having opportunities if you farce it up."
She certainly didn't farce it up, and went on to bigger and better things. "I know this sounds really cheesy, but I really feel that the achievement is in the progress," she reflects. "On this album, I got really primal and archaeological on my own ass, and I really dug deep at what turns me on. I've found my indigenous self with this record, which for me is really being alive.
"Hopefully, people will turn up to the shows, but I'll play them regardless."
Tiger Suit is released today on Virgin Records