With autumn rolling in, Sodajerker sit down and talk songwriting with one of the most recognisable songwriters of the noughties
nce again our friends at Sodajerker have struck gold, taking in an interview with one of the UK’s most notable folk-rock songwriters. KT Tunstall first began performing in her teens, before playing in slew of indie bands during her 20s’- including Red Light Stylus,Tomoko and Elia Drew. It was as a solo artist though that she would truly step into the spotlight, with a performance on Later…With Jools Holland placing it upon her. Replacing NAS at just 24 hours notice, Tunstall played an attention drawing rendition of her song Black Horse And The Cherry Tree. Such was the interest following this, that her debut solo album Eye To The Telescope was re-released, and having entered the UK chart at number 73 first time round, the record reached a high point of 3. This saw Tunstall nominated for the 2005 Mercury Music Prize.
Her second studio album Drastic Fantastic – with KT Tunstall’s Acoustic Extravaganza (2006) sandwiched in-between – was released in 2007 and equalled her UK high point of three, while providing her with her only US top ten album (No.9) to date. Though it sold less than her debut, the record was well received, and saw Tunstall entrench her position as a pop songwriter of poise and skill. In keeping with her penchant for three year gaps between records, album three – Tiger Suit – was released in 2010, with her most recent LP Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon arriving last year.
With work writing music for film now coming her way, KT Tunstall continues to demonstrate why she’s one of the mid-early noughties most enduring songwriters – one who has retained her high watermark throughout her career. Not bad for someone whose formative exposure to music was listening to Jon Bon Jovi – an artist whose place as a magnet for American cameras she would take away – through her big brothers bedroom door.
It’s been just over a year since the release of Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon. That was a real turning point in your career, where are you at now as a songwriter?
“I have no idea! It was a very profound shift making that record. It was a completely different writing experience, because usually I’d write over the course of a year. The analogy I use is of the crank operated horse racing game you have at a fair. It was like that, with these ten horses all going at the same time; I kept starting things and I just wasn’t finishing anything. I was really worried that I kept starting these songs and not finishing them, and I was worried that I wouldn’t end up with anything. Then I just finished them all at the same time and it was only in the course of two or three months. Then I just had these ten or eleven songs all come in at once, and that’s never happened to me before. I’m sure it was to do with a massive seismic shift that was going on in my life at the time.
“Since then I’ve been writing a lot for film. In July I was accepted onto the Sundance Film Composers Lab, which takes place in California – at Skywalker Ranch! It’s George Lucas’ audio pad, and is utopia for anyone looking to make music or do sound design for film, and it was just a completely new branch of music for me. I’d been interested in making music for film for quite a long time, and I think making Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon was a really strong precursor, because it all got a lot more cinematic and a lot more experimental than I had done in the past. So it felt like quite a natural progression.”
When you started out was it the piano that you gravitated towards?
“Yeah, I started having piano lessons when I was four. My mum found some drawings of guitars I’d done when I was two, and ironically I didn’t touch a guitar until I was 15. My music teacher Mrs Kingsley, who looked like a Gary Larson character – she had pearls and purple hair and Dame Edna glasses on a chain – she was brilliant, a very uptight Scottish lady. She taught me piano and I think it was just seeing someone playing something, I got very excited and went back and asked ‘can I learn the piano?’
“So my parents got me this really nice second hand piano and I was like Mozart, a mad little prodigy. At five years old I got two marks off top point on grade one, and then it was this very steady decline over the next twelve years of just getting worse and worse at piano, and I never really mastered it. The pianos great, it’s the mother ship of music. Learning the chord structures and the shapes and the intervals and the practice of all that is incredibly valuable, it can set you up for picking up another instrument and just being able to play it. But I had absolutely no dedication. I’ve never been a very precise musician, and I think precision as a pianist makes it much more enjoyable for other people listening to what you do. So I ended up packing it in at 15, which is the same time that I picked up the guitar for the first time.”
I’VE NEVER BEEN A VERY PRECISE MUSICIAN
Was the guitar the first instrument that you started writing songs on?
“It was the first instrument that I started writing good songs on! I started trying to write on the piano, but just wasn’t versatile enough as a pianist. It was really funny when I first started writing music because I didn’t really know much about it. My parents didn’t really listen to music, so I learnt about it by listening to Bon Jovi and Van Halen through my big brothers door. He would play his music on his crap tape recorder and I would record it through his door, onto an even more crap one, and I would have to edit the tape where he was coming out and going ‘get away from my door!’ So when I started writing songs I had no idea what I was doing, and it was all kind of pastiches from things I’d heard around me from TV and the radio. When I picked up the guitar my dad has just got a satellite dish, and before that most of what I really knew was Wham and Whitney Houston. So when we got a satellite dish we got MTV, and I saw Loser by Beck and just couldn’t believe it. It was boy music and all I’d been hearing was girl music. That changed everything.
“I saw Bon Jovi play in America with my brother when I was playing a gig there, and it was one of my favourite moments in my career. It was at the moment when I was just about to break America and no-one really knew who I was. I was just over the moon to be playing there and I was the first act on. As I was going out to watch Bon Jovi, I walked out at exactly the same time as Jon Bon Jovi, and he was walking off to play and I was walking to the VIP area to watch him but we’re walking side by side. Then this seven year old girl jumps out from the crowd with her camera and takes a picture of me! I was like ‘oh my god, I can’t believe it! I’ve made it!’”
The chorus from Suddenly I See has an aspirational quality to it. Was that something you did to communicate with listeners who felt that way?
“No. I can’t remember ever coming from a place where I say ‘this will be this’, when I’m writing. It’s entirely selfish when I’m writing and Suddenly I See was a very particular spark of inspiration. I remember I had a very expensive, rubbish flat on Gordon House Road in Gospel Oak, London, and I’d just moved down – it was where I did the demos for the first album – and I was just listening to some music.
“It was 3am and I put on Horses by Patti Smith. I was listening to the music and I look at the cover and kind of looked at it in a completely different way, and got utterly obsessed with this Robert Rutherford photo of her. So I’m looking at this woman who looks like a man, and just looks like she doesn’t care what anyone thinks, but at the same time is completely styling it. And it made me think a lot about relationships, because would anyone else been able to get that photo of her other than him, because she trusted him? But it was really just the attitude in that picture, and the whole song is about that picture.”
‘SUDDENLY I SEE’ I FINISHED IN ABOUT HALF AN HOUR, THE MOST SUCCESSFUL HALF AN HOUR OF MY LIFE
You’ve said that you can write quite quickly when you get going. Does that still apply?
“Not so much now. Suddenly I See I finished in about half an hour, the most successful half an hour of my life! But I think I’m much more of a crafter now. I didn’t used to enjoy taking the time over it before, I think it was bravado and machismo in the notion that I could write a song in half an hour, and I really liked that I could do that. It was also having a more elastic brain, which I had when I was younger. Now though I really enjoy the crafting; I really enjoy writing something and thinking about it and then coming back to it. I always have this thing in the back of my head though, something that Neil Young said about not trusting changing something and that he feels he should trust the first output, and at the bottom of it I do believe that. I think there’s something fairly sacred about what comes out of your subconscious first, because there’s a reason that it’s coming out like that. But there will be times when I’ll allow my cerebral brain to overrule that, and I’ll deviate from my first thought.”
Internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool-based duo Sodajerker, who now have over 50 episodes under their belt. Established in 2012 by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 60-minute interview with KT Tunstall – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker, or download the podcasts from iTunes.