Black Horse

KT Tunstall is back, 12 years after she rocketed to fame

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KT Tunstall gave up on music two years ago. “I had checked all these boxes to have a happy life, and it hadn’t worked,” she told me on the phone last week. Her father had died, her marriage had fallen apart, and suddenly the thing that used to give her an identity—her music—just didn’t seem to matter anymore. “So, I just threw everything into the fire—my life, my work, my habits, everything.” She planned to take three, or five, or maybe even 10 years away from writing albums.

But then the songs were just there. In the middle of the night, the choruses woke her up. She’d never been the main writer on one of her albums and suddenly, here she was in the middle of her “break from music,” accidentally creating a pop album. Kin, Tunstall’s sixth studio album, came out on Friday.

“I feel like it’s taken me four records to write my second album. I think I’ve done some great work,” Tunstall told me. “But this is the first time since the first record that I’ve felt un-self-conscious.”

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For a moment in the mid-2000s, KT Tunstall was one of the most popular names in music. Her debut album, Eye to the Telescope, came out in 2004, and firmly planted her into a mid-aughts fame that made her famous hits karaoke classics. Her album was nominated for the Mercury Prize, a BRIT Award (which she won), and a Grammy. Her hit single “Suddenly I See” became a kind of girl-power mantra that graced The Devil Wears Prada, Ugly Betty, and even Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign for president. But like many stars that shine fast and bright, when her moment in the spotlight ended, the public lost her.

Dressed in high lace-up white sneakers, gold lamé pants, and a cropped white muscle tee, Tunstall looks like a rock star when she took the stage at Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Theatre yesterday. She’s dynamic, punctuating her songs with covers of “Walk like an Egyptian” and “Seven Nation Army.” Even in the pauses between songs, she’s intoxicating to watch. Laughing, she told a story of her revival. It’s one she’s reiterated before in interviews, and even in our phone conversation. It goes like this: KT was walking down the street in Los Angeles near her new home in Venice Beach when she heard wafting from a bar the cover of her song “Suddenly I See.” Feeling welcomed to the neighborhood and recognized, she walked to the window and made a happy “OK” sign at the band, who…did not recognize her.

This could be a depressing story. There’s a version of it where an artist is hungry and sad and dejected and no one knows who they are. But KT Tunstall is not that artist. On stage, Tunstall joked, “it’s quite nice that I can get my royalty checks and still buy my eggs in peace.”

Her album Eye to the Telescope came out in a blissful moment for music royalties. Though it only peaked at number 33 on the Billboard Top 200, it sold more than 600,000 copies in its first year. Add to that number the video royalties from all the movies and television shows that used “Suddenly I See,” and Tunstall probably didn’t have to produce another album if she didn’t want to.

Instead she produced four: KT Tunstall‘s Acoustic Extravaganza (2006), Drastic Fantastic (2007), Tiger Suit (2010), and Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon (2013). None of them hit the same level of fame as Eye to the Telescope and none of them, Tunstall admits now, really felt like a continuation of what made that first album such a smash hit.

“I do feel like my dharma as an artist, my real reason for being here, is I do tend to write uplifting songs,” Tunstall told me. “With this [album], I feel like it’s a fresh renaissance for me in terms of writing music that is very uplifting. I feel like the world can deal with some good right now.”

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In many ways Kin does feel like a kind of return to form for Tunstall. Unlike her previous album Invisible Empire// Crescent Moon, these songs are fast and upbeat. They are pop songs punctuated with rock guitar, screams of joy coupled with reminders that it hasn’t always been this good. At its best (on songs like “Run on Home” and “Two Way”) KT has made California pop that sounds like it could have been made last week, or in the midst of the 1960s psychedelic rock movement. The albums greatest weakness is that it is almost relentless in its happiness.

But on stage, that happiness really works. Coupled with her older songs, and a few covers, Tunstall has made a set that’s dynamic. She jumps around while she performs. She switches guitars. It’s the first night of the tour so inevitably there are a few audio kinks to work out (her vocals are too soft, the guitar too loud, the tambourine slides away from the mic), but KT Tunstall doesn’t look bothered.

In fact, like her newest album Kin, KT Tunstall is downright exuberant. Between songs she makes jokes, and the sound of women’s laughter fills the theater. “It’s funny because I loved turning 40,” she told me on the phone. “It was a really empowering very exciting time for me because suddenly I felt like I could shed this skin about giving a shit. Actually retaining your childhood spirit and feeling.”

KT Tunstall is a damn professional. She plays guitar well. Her voice is always on key, and she knows exactly how to engage an audience. As she sang on that massive hit, “she holds you captivated in her palm.” KT perfected the Scottish singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar and a loop-pedal before Ed Sheeran and Hozier graduated elementary school, and her mastery shows. But there’s something about her performance that’s playful, exuberant, even childlike.

“Every day is Saturday,” Tunstall said to start off her set after asking the audience what day is was. It was Wednesday. “Welcome to Saturday night,” she proclaimed. It’s the same optimism that dominates her newest album, on which she sings lines like “I can’t see what’s coming / and I don’t much care” and “nothing changes / just be yourself.” At its heart, pop has always been a space for cynical optimists—the Joni Mitchells and Carly Rae Jepsens and Stevie Nickses of the world.

During a hard time like the one KT found herself in three years ago, that happiness, that unrelentingly upbeat tone can be exhausting. But KT Tunstall knows darkness, because she’s been there, it’s right there in the verses of her new album. When Tunstall sang the line that made her famous, “Suddenly I see/ this is what I wanna be,” did she really know what she wanted to be? 12 years and five albums later, it seems like she’s finally figured it out.