By Mark Guarino
High on the list of Things You Did Not Know About KT Tunstall:
She is a Deadhead.
Blame Vermont. Tunstall was 17 when she left St. Andrews and her “little provincial house by the sea” and arrived in Connecticut to spend her senior year at Kent School, a boarding school full of “full-time pot smokers.” She soon met friends who introduced their new European friend to the secret garden of American jam bands. She obsessed over this new music. She learned a popular band named Phish lived one state away. She formed her first band and called it the Happy Campers, a name chosen because she refused to call it THC.
On spring break, Tunstall bee-lined to Burlington, Vt. and “met a hippie friend and totally fell in love.” They moved in with his family. His mother was a woman Ralph Nader might break out in a cold sweat for: She built her own house in the mountains, she ran it with an electric generator, and she lived by the belief that “it was really uncool to have new stuff.”
Tunstall stayed in the U.S. a bit after graduation to contemplate this unusual subculture that she was certain didn’t exist back home. That summer she went to Chicago and made friends with a local graffiti artist who took her on bike tours of the city. She attended the second-to-last Grateful Dead show at Soldier Field where she witnessed frustrated Chicago cops ordering Deadheads to unload their containers of nitrous oxide. Considering that Jerry Garcia would die one month later, the moment was sweet and innocent: People dancing in a circle, trying to breathe in the uncorked gas with everyone — police and hippy — getting very high and talking very funny.
“It was a lifestyle thing that hadn’t occurred to me. People gave up jobs and played in bands and didn’t get on the ladder. It really resonated with me,” she said. “It never really left, honestly.”
Seventeen years later, Tunstall is still trucking. Eye to the Telescope, her debut album of glossy folk pop, sold over a million copies in the U.S. alone. Following a fluke appearance on a British television show, she was soon plucked from obscurity, awarded a record contract and sent on an unwieldy media and touring trails across the world. Which was not without its curious left turns. Like when Hilary Clinton was considering using Tunstall’s song “Suddenly I See” as her campaign theme (Celine Dion won the honors) and when Katherine McPhee chose to sing “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” Tunstall’s brisk country blues hit, on “American Idol.”
“A beautiful moment of irony,” Tunstall remembers today. “I got an email and said ‘oh my god, this is a nightmare’. I am never polite about ‘Pop Idol’ shows. I hate them.”
She considers Telescope a baptism by fire, a process that paved the way for Drastic Fantastic, her latest. It is a more reassured album, with mellower songs that dare to avoid easy answers. There are pop songs with breakout choruses that can fill entire sports stadiums (“I Don’t Want You Now,” “Little Favours”) and others ragged popcraft like “Hold On” — a natural bookend to “Cherry Tree”— that keeps her inner hippie lit.
There is also the unexpected: Tunstall’s more experimental side channeled both through quiet but illuminating chamber pop (“Paper Aeroplane,” “Beauty of Uncertainty”) and dense, fuzz rockers (“Funnyman”). Three years ago, Tunstall’s brooding, tough vocals seemed like a strange match, on these songs they sound perfectly aligned to the songs.
“My spirit has been fortified, my whiskey has aged,” she said. “I think a lot of it has to do with confidence on many levels. I didn’t need that album to sell four million copies, that wasn’t really a plan, I just needed to get the music out … What that massive success has afforded me is confidence. I feel really brave. That is always good for making music.”
Life helped. Tunstall is adopted and was raised by a pair of academics, a mother who teaches primary school and a father who is a university professor of physics. The daughter they adopted was partially Chinese and they “used it as a creative ticket,” she said, especially since her ethnic features were largely invisible in their remote part of Scotland.
“It was something they used to make me feel very special,” Tunstall said. “They would say, ‘you have different blood in you’. They used it in a way that was mysterious and exciting.”
She felt no connection to her heritage until she viewed the Mike Leigh film “Secrets and Lies,” his 1996 Cannes winner about a black woman who seeks out her biological mother, who is white. Tunstall found her mother, learned about her ancestry, and enjoys the relationship they share today. “I didn’t want to get into my forties and find they passed over me,” Tunstall, 32, said.
Unfortunately, the search ended up short for her father. “He disappeared,” she said.
Tunstall realizes that returning to the media spotlight to promote a new album in 2007 is much different than 2004. She is releasing an album in the midst of an explosion of brash new British singers like Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen, artists whose tabloid presence is almost as significant as the music they make. Although she says she’s a fan of both, she points out the obvious differences: “They’re ten years younger than me. They also make loads of effort to wear fancy clothes.”
For her new album, she has simply one goal. It connects, not just to her days busking on the Burlington mall, but to her childhood when her parents took her and her brother on long camping adventures, giving her an appreciation of what it’s like to be a nomad where life is taken one day at a time and something new is always around the corner.
In the world of music, it looks like this: “get on a bus, Bob Dylan-style, and never go home.”