‘Music isn’t who
I am any more’

A year studying film scores in LA helped KT Tunstall recover from musical burn-out, says Kevin Bourke

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We’re backstage at Cambridge Folk Festival and KT Tunstall, sporting a very un-folk looking pair of leather trousers and just minutes away from launching her high-octane new album Kin, is telling me that she now lives and works full-time in America. At that very moment the air-conditioning unit mysteriously falls off the wall and she laughs so hard about the “gremlins of Cambridge not wanting to hear that” that she nearly spills wine all over said trousers.

Clearly she’s a very different and much happier woman now from the person she’s just been telling me about, who two years ago “was utterly burnt out and didn’t want to do it any more”.

Back then, the tenth anniversary of the release of Eye To The Telescope, her multi-platinum debut, had just rolled around, but she was in no mood to celebrate. She’d spent that decade playing everywhere from the rooftops of splashy Las Vegas hotels to Giants Stadium, been nominated for a Grammy, won a Brit and an Ivor Novello Award, and seen her songs used everywhere from opening credits of The Devil Wears Prada to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign theme.

“It was inevitable that either a controlled crash or a very uncontrolled one was going to happen with everything that had happened in my life – losing my dad and getting divorced, life being just inside out and upside down,” she says now.

“I was so completely consumed with being a musician I hadn’t spent any time maturing as a person. I was still like an 18 year old, you know! I was, of course, married to my drummer, and Luke and I played in the band for a year before we got together as a couple, so it was always impossible to untangle our personal lives from the music.

“I sat there when my father died actually thinking: ‘What if I can’t sing any more? What if something happens to my hands and I can’t play any more? Who am I without music?’ I didn’t know. And that was wrong.”

The record she’d made throughout that happening, Invisible Empire//Crescent Moon, had been, she recalls, “an anomaly for me, almost a folk album and a very singular mood record. Usually I’ve tried to bust the edges out and have the biggest, most bombastic pop song right next to a gentle ballad. When I went out touring it I was wearing a beautiful Dior cut suit and playing solo for the first time in lovely, seated theatres. It was very emotional and very meaningful but it was kind of exhausting and as an artist I feel like I died.”

So she “cut the umbilical cord. I sold everything, left the country and went to Venice Beach, Los Angeles.”

“I just felt a sense of ease and a sense of tranquility that I desperately needed in my life.”

Idyllic as it may be, that wasn’t a place she’d picked at random, even if, she laughs, “pretty much every time I’d been there in the past I’d been on the Sunset Strip getting wasted until five o’clock in the morning”.

“Then I had some work in Santa Monica where the film studios are and I borrowed a pedal bike and rode along the beachfront. I saw dolphins from the pier, went to Venice Beach and found the canals. I just felt a sense of ease and a sense of tranquility that I desperately needed in my life.

“It was the only place I’d ever been where it just felt like doing nothing was a professional art any day of the week. It was obviously quite an unconventional bohemian community with a lot of amazing musical history too. I’d heard all the stories about Tim Buckley and The Doors and it was really exciting when I actually went to record in Sunset Sound where The Doors had made their first record.”

Not coincidentally, Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors had met there as film students and it also moved Tunstall significantly closer to her dream of writing film scores, having had a glimpse of that life with so many of her songs being used in film and TV soundtracks.

“So I moved there and really didn’t think I was going to make another pop album for five or even 10 years. I was going to get into scoring and that was going to be me for a while.”

She got accepted to the Sundance Film Composers Lab and went up to George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch, where major players such as James Newton Howard and Allan Silvestri are among the tutors.

“They did know who I was, actually,” she laughs in answer to my obvious question. “And, no, they don’t often take well-known musicians on in case they take the course and then bugger off and make a pop record again.

“But I absolutely have a deep intention of making film scoring a part of my life. It affects completely different creative muscles for me. I can do much more subversive and much less structured writing, orchestral or choral arrangements, which I find really stimulating but which don’t often translate into a career as a pop singer.”

Determined to pursue her new career, she quite happily lived a quiet, contemplative life for the better part of a year in her small house on Venice Beach. But, unexpectedly, the urge to rock began to return.

“As I was driving through the canyons and getting to know LA – hiking in Topanga Canyon, driving along Mulholland Drive – listening to Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, you understand immediately how that music is just intrinsically linked to that place.

“I can now choose to make music, play music and share music, then go home – and I didn’t have that before.”

“As I was listening to these classic albums, as well as more psychedelic new stuff like Tame Impala, Django Django, or Devendra Banhart, songs and choruses started coming. Knowing that I didn’t need to feel defined by the need to actually make albums and that I could do something else was a huge liberation to me and was really important in me coming back to it as quite a different person.

“Those last three or four years spent in pretty deep self-reflection have brought me to a place where I can now choose to make music, play music and share music, then go home – and I didn’t have that before.

“I realised too that I just really need to have a very physical experience when I play. My body was telling me that what I should be doing is sweating onstage, and getting that energy return from the audience, like closing a circuit.

“It’s funny, isn’t it? That was what I thought I didn’t like, and of course it’s nothing to do with that. It’s to do with your state of mind, like most things, and it turns out that if I can’t do that then I’m just like a racehorse in a stable.”

But, she concludes happily, “music isn’t who I am any more; it’s what I do”.

Kin is out now. KT Tunstall plays dates including Albert Hall, Manchester, 27 Oct and O2 Academy, Liverpool, 1 Nov (kttunstall.com)

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