We learn how the singer-songwriter’s Ivor Award-winning hit single was inspired by Patti Smith and written in just 30 minutes
Scottish singer-songwriter Kate Victoria “KT” Tunstall first began performing in her teens, before playing in a 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. 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 No 73 the first time round, the record reached a high point of No 3. This saw Tunstall nominated for the 2005 Mercury Music Prize and laid the foundations for the success of her subsequent singles that year, Other Side Of The World and Suddenly I See.
The latter release would become Tunstall’s highest charting in the UK, peaking at No 12 and spending 26 weeks in the Top 75 Singles Chart, and won her an Ivor Novello Award in 2006 in the category of Best Song Musically and Lyrically.
“I’d signed my deal with Relentless and I’d taken such a long time to get to that point – it was 10 years, all of my 20s, to get to the point of signing my record deal. I actually signed my publishing deal a couple of years prior to that. My mentor in Scotland had been very wise and told me to sign my publishing deal as a writer first, so it gave me a little bit of leeway to sign for records. I thought, as soon as I signed this deal, that’s it we’re going to get a record out and it’s going to happen in a week! And I was a year in. After signing, I was feeling pretty frustrated and confused. The one thing that I’ve seen happen with other new artists too is that you’ve got this incredible momentum when you sign a deal and you’re just desperate for that not to flicker.
“So I was sitting in my basement flat in Gospel Oak. It was the first flat in London that I had, and there were some workmen doing up the flat above who were working from seven in the morning till six at night and it sounded like they were in my bedroom. It was so invasive and awful, but it also meant I couldn’t really do any demos during the day. So I’d got into the habit of not getting much sleep and then working at night – which I did anyway, to be honest! It was about two in the morning, I was sitting in my flat, feeling pretty despondent, just looking at my CD collection and I started staring at the cover of Horses by Patti Smith.
“I’ve seen this album numerous times before – it’s an iconic cover – but I’m just spending that time looking at it, wondering why the image is engaging me so much. I realised that she’s being almost accusatory and she’s so comfortable in her skin. Her gaze is like she’s going, ‘This is who I am, who are you?’ and I was going, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know who I am!’ The overriding emotion in that picture for me is effortlessness and androgyny.
“That was the big thing for me, and I had spent 10 years of my life just desperately trying and trying and trying, and I was really tired. I was really fed up with trying, I just wanted to be doing and being. Anyway, I was inspired by this woman, just being and not trying, and the song is actually on the nose – it’s exactly how I felt about looking at that photograph.
“I think the whole song took me half an hour. It’s so weird because I think about that and it’s half an hour that completely changed my life. These pivotal moments in our lives, good and bad, are a very short slice of time in relation to our lifetime. Completely just kicks the tracks in a completely different direction…it’s really fascinating.
“I had a little setup at home. I was with Sony Publishing and they had this guy come and set me up a little writing studio. I didn’t know how to use a Mac or anything, but he set me up with Logic and I took to it pretty quickly. The funniest part of it was that I bought this keyboards plugin with a template where there were eight tracks: vocals, BVs, guitar and four keyboards tracks, and he just randomly set them to like Rhodes piano or whatever. One of those sounds was the thing that you can hear on Suddenly I See and I put that on the demo.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that was really expensive for a piano package,’ and then I went over to someone else’s house a year later, they double-clicked on an icon and there was like two thousand keyboard sounds on there! I’d spent the whole year doing the demos for Eye To The Telescope and I didn’t know that you could open up a Narnia of keyboards. Actually, I wonder if that kind of saved my bacon, because I think that limitation breeds creativity. He just happened to have programmed me up with a bunch of organic analog sounds, and I’m actually really glad that he did that.
“I thought it was good but I think that after every song. Because if I don’t feel like that I’m not going to use it. I’ve never had major ‘aha!’ moments about singles, and I’m not convinced that anyone else really did, to the extent of the success of that song. I mean, I think people around me and the label knew that it was a good song, but I don’t think anyone knew that it was going to do what it did.
“Of course, Black Horse And The Cherry Tree got all the attention because of Jools Holland…But I had no idea that [Suddenly I See] was going to cosmically connect people’s dots. I have no problem with people saying it was an overnight success. But I don’t think the song would be that successful now. When you listen to it, I think it sounds great, it’s really standing up to time – I mean, it’s 15 or 16 years old now and it doesn’t sound dated. But everyone remembers that time because of the song, it just sounds so innocent – it’s such a fucking wholesome song! It’s a breath of fresh air.”