4 Songwriting Secrets of KT Tunstall

KT Tunstall. Photo credit: Shervin Lainez
KT Tunstall on MusicGurus

KT Tunstall: “I pretty much don’t write songs that quickly anymore, I get a little bit more into it.”

With tips taken from her online course on how to become a singer-songwriter, we select four of the best insights

When you listen to the music of KT Tunstall, certain things come shining through. From the way she nimbly uses her guitar as both a way to drive the rhythm along and frame her gilded melodies to her continuing evolution as a lyricist who can be raw, direct, profound and poetic – often in the same song – she manages to be an innovative artist and someone steeped in the traditions of classic songwriting. All of which begs the big question, how does she do it?

Thankfully, through her partnership with MusicGurus and her online course Become A Singer Songwriter With KT Tunstall we now have some of the answers. Over 24 lessons, using her songs Backlash & Vinegar, Suddenly I See and Fade Like A Shadow as the major examples, students are provided with exclusive insights that can be used to improve their own compositions.

Such is her enthusiasm for music and inspiring way of teaching, once we’d finished the final tutorial we stuck on a few old blues records, grabbed a guitar and knuckled down to write some tunes of our own. We’re confident that KT’s word will have a similar impact on your songwriting, which is why we’re offering readers 15% off the course using the code SWKT15.

To get you started, here are just four of the many top tips she shares…

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1. Give Yourself Space

Suddenly I See was one of those songs that just went straight into my brain. When you write a song that quickly it’s more a sensation of remembering something that you already knew. It all feels weirdly familiar and it’s all just clicking into place… It’s not really from your head, it’s a different part of the brain and it does feel like it’s just coming through you. It’s a very odd feeling and I would never purport to be able to explain what the hell that is.

In my experience, those songs really only come when you have a lot of space in your day-to-day life, if you have a lot of space either side of that half an hour [writing time]. So if I’m really busy all the time, it’s really unlikely that I will write a banger in half an hour. I need that freedom either side of that magical half hour. I pretty much don’t write songs that quickly anymore, I get a little bit more into it. I haven’t had a hit like Suddenly I See since then, maybe that’s what I’m doing wrong, overthinking it.

KT Tunstall. Photo credit: Shervin Lainez

KT Tunstall on middle eights: “It’s a beautiful opportunity to bring in a new melody, maybe even a completely new idea.” Photo credit: Shervin Lainez

2. Take A Break In Your Middle Eight

Let’s talk about the middle eight or the bridge. Maybe my favourite aspect of songwriting, because it’s a minute for you to completely change course if you want to or you can just stop, pause somewhere and not move from there, give a breather… It’s a beautiful opportunity to bring in a new melody, maybe even a completely new idea.

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With Suddenly I See, it was a pause, a stop point where I decided to just vamp – you’re just going around the same chord. It gives everyone a chance to go wild in the audience. So the feeling that I want to evoke with this section, because the song is upbeat, it’s full-on, it’s very rhythmic and has been really in your face up until this point… This is really taking a break and stopping. Instead of driving forward, you’re actually taking a look around a little bit. You’re painting a picture, taking a minute to stop and describe something a bit more specific… like okay, let’s get a bit more emotional and give us a chance to take a breath

3. Going Solo

The band bring a lot of dynamics to Backlash & Vinegar… People love hearing stripped back versions of band songs, it’s great to hear songs played in different ways. But for me, with this song, the challenge was the middle eight or the bridge. On the record Wax, I was really interested in exploring guitar solos but I ain’t got no lead guitarist right now because I’m playing acoustic, so you just play around with it. I think it’s an opportunity to look into using your voice in an emotive way, instrumentally, where you’re not using lyrics.

I’ll sing it differently every time I sing it live. But it’s a really good practice as a performer, even if you’re playing at home, to allow yourself total freedom in those moments of instrumental vocal performance to play and sing whatever comes out. It’s about getting rid of your brain and allowing your heart to come through your voice and you just let it happen and see what happens. Letting that happen is also a really interesting way in letting songs evolve, so when you play them they’re sounding different every time, because there’s slightly different things you’re doing and picking up things you like about the last time you played it.

KT Tunstall on MusicGurus

KT Tunstall: “It’s a very odd experience when you write a song that you can’t actually play.”

4. Challenge Yourself

There was a challenge in terms of playing Fade Like A Shadow as well as singing it at the same time, because the rhythm is pretty specific and it’s these open chords that I always use… You’ve got this issue now where you want to keep this rhythm going but you’ve got to learn how to sing at the same time. It takes practice. Actually, it’s a very odd experience when you write a song that you can’t actually play. You’ve come up with the rhythm, you’ve come up with the part and you know you want to put the melody over that and you might record it separately.

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You might play a part that you can play but then, ‘Oh my God,’ you’ve got to sing at the same time. It’s actually really exciting because you’re setting yourself the challenge of improving; by writing something that you can’t actually do. So I had to sort of teach myself and practice. It always seems daunting and I’m like, ‘I’m never going to be able to do it,’ and then I get used to it in five minutes. It’s just about muscle memory.


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