Friday, June 04, 2021

The artists that time forgot: KT Tunstall

Breaking through to the musical mainstream has never been easy. And even for the fortunate few who make it, there’s still no guarantee of a lasting legacy. In this series, we look at some of the acts that once made a big splash in the music scene, but ended up as a minor footnote in pop history.

In the pre-Netflix era, terrestrial television used to matter.


A lot.


For KT Tunstall, an unexpected appearance on Later… with Jools Holland in October 2004 provided the touchpaper to ignite the Scottish singer-songwriter’s career and set her on the way to rapid international stardom.


Tunstall wasn’t even supposed to be on the bill that night. She was a hastily recruited stand-in after Nas pulled out of BBC 2’s flagship music programme at the 11th hour (ah, those pesky rap superstars!). Yet her mesmerising solo performance of ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’ was so well-received that the record company took notice. Within a few months, a relentless media blitz was underway – mass advertising, blanket radio coverage, TV, videos, festival slots. All of a sudden, KT was everywhere.


Between 2004 and 2008, Tunstall would rack up album sales of almost five million, win an Ivor Novello songwriting award, receive Best British Female Solo Artist at the 2006 Brit Awards and even score a Grammy Nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.


However, declining album sales, record label pressure and personal difficulties quickly took their toll. And despite several subsequent ‘relaunches’, today Tunstall finds herself back on the other side of the music world – diligently ploughing her songwriting furrow as though her collision with superstardom never even happened.


So what did happen?


From obscurity to omnipresent


KT Tunstall’s debut album, Eye to the Telescope, came out just two months after her appearance on the BBC. A closer look at its chart trajectory tells you everything you need to know about Tunstall’s rapid rise to prominence.


Originally released on 13 December 2004, the album did nothing sales-wise and sank without trace (although not before one of my cousins had bagged me a copy for a Christmas present). However, once the media blitz began, it began to climb up the charts, eventually reaching number seven – not bad for a debut effort from a hitherto unknown female singer-songwriter on a middling indie label.


And this was just the beginning. Critics had taken to the album, and Tunstall would soon receive a nomination for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize, causing Eye to the Telescope to rise in the charts once more, this time reaching number three and remaining in the UK top 20 for months. She ended 2005 with the seventh best-selling album of the year, underpinned by the strong performance of singles ‘Other Side of the World’ and ‘Suddenly I See’, both of which had gone top 20, and of course, ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’, which Q Magazine proclaimed the year’s Best Single.


KT was on a roll. She had begun the year playing gigs at venues such as Nottingham’s Bodega Social Club and The Joiners Arms in Southampton. She ended it co-headling Edinburgh’s huge Hogmanay celebration alongside Scottish pop veterans Texas before embarking on her first US tour early into the new year. Just one month later, in February 2006, she was performing ‘Suddenly I See’ in front of a television audience of millions at the Brit Awards, where she was awarded Best British Female Solo Artist. A year of bigger venues and further North American recognition was to follow, and it appeared to all the world as though KT was now part of the musical establishment. Further success seemed all but assured.


Reaching the middle of the road


By this stage, I’d lived with Eye to the Telescope for over a year, and, if I’m honest, it had long been filed away mentally as ‘pleasant but forgettable’. ‘Other Side of the World’ was delightful; the rest of the songwriting was serviceable and occasionally charming. But in the main, it was all just a bit safe. Tracks like ‘Another Place to Fall’, ‘Miniature Disasters’ or even, dare I say it, ‘Suddenly I See’, could have belonged to any of a dozen different singer-songwriters of the same vintage. Without the live energy, the guitar thumping, the moans and the growls, even ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’ sounded formulaic and pedestrian.


And herein lay the fundamental problem, one largely passed over by critics at the time. Eye to the Telescope just didn’t sound anything like Tunstall’s original, bolshie performance on Jools. The live performance had edge; the album was all smooth veneer.


With approximately 4.5 million sales of Eye to the Telescope recorded, one might argue that the quantitative evidence rather pours scorn on my critique. But ultimately, the problem with an artist playing it so safe is that they risk rendering themselves indistinguishable from every other MOR singer on the market.


What’s more, the people who buy ‘safe’ music – comfortable sofa music – don’t especially care about things like guitar looper pedals or songwriting credits. And, when all’s said and done, they don’t really care which artist they’re listening to, which is why MOR artists tend to find themselves quickly replaced by whoever emerges next on the scene, before being subjected to endless label-led image reboots.


And speaking of reboots…


Difficult second album syndrome


In September 2007, just months after her Grammy Nomination for the vocal performance on ‘Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’, Tunstall’s second album, Drastic Fantastic, hit the record stores.


Both the title and the album artwork served as a signal of intent: black horses, cherry trees and the whole alt hipster vibe were ditched in favour of sparkly glam chic. A tribute to Suzi Quattro? Perhaps, but to the more cynically-minded amongst us, Tunstall’s makeover appeared more like an act of strategic repositioning: KT as the glamorous global superstar; big tunes for big arenas.


In fairness, the first two tracks lived up to the rebrand – ‘Little Favours’ is more propulsive and adventurous than anything on Eye to the Telescope; ‘If Only’ is Tunstall’s catchiest chorus bar none. Thereafter, however, Drastic Fantastic pulls its punches, returning to its predecessor’s sounds and musical stylings, with similarly forgettable results.


KT has spoken recently of her difficulties handling ‘overnight’ success, the pressure she was put under by her label, and even her attempts at career self-sabotage. In a recent podcast, she explains that, “I wanted to make a scrappy rock ‘n’ roll live band record. But because the first record had so much success, there was zero support for this… Writing the first album, no one knew who I was. On the second album, I had my manager telling me I can’t delay putting the album out because Sony’s share price would go down.”


Drastic Fantastic certainly appears to be a peculiar misrepresentation of Tunstall as an artist. The music belies the glittery star power depicted on the album cover while simultaneously replicating the shortcomings of Eye to the Telescope. ‘I Don’t Want You Now’ and ‘Saving My Face’ provided further evidence that there was a decent songwriter locked up somewhere in the studio, but the finished recordings didn’t spark into life, and this sophomore effort would go on to sell a fraction of her debut, despite Tunstall picking up another Brit nomination for Best Female at the 2008 awards. 

A detective with no lead


The editors’ notes on Apple Music tell us that Tunstall’s third album, 2010’s Tiger Suit, is ‘a technically thrilling album based on layers of sound and brilliant electronic manipulation’. These words would surely be enough to strike fear into the heart of KT Tunstall’s remaining followers were it not for the fact that they are patently untrue. Yes, Tiger Suit was recorded at Berlin’s legendary Hansa Studio, where David Bowie made Heroes and where U2 eventually emerged with Achtung Baby. But the choice of astudio alone does not guarantee musical reinvention and innovation. Lest we forget, Snow Patrol have also recorded at Hansa.


I am being deeply unfair on Tiger Suit. It is infinitely superior to every Snow Patrol recording. It’s arguably her best album. ‘Difficulty’ is great; so is ‘Fade Like A Shadow’. The track that follows it, ‘Lost’, is not only fantastic but also appears to offer KT’s own insight into her predicament.


“Following the passage of least resistance / Following the pack just to pass the gate /

It’s a little late for a change of plan / Don’t you think.”


But for all of its powerful moments (and there are plenty), Tiger Suit is nevertheless the sound of an artist still searching for their musical identity. The cover artwork all but gives this away – KT is barely recognisable. She sounds keen to experiment, just as she had been with ‘Black Horse and the Cherry’ six years earlier, but the confidence and self-assurance are no longer on display. She is, as she puts it in ‘Lost’“Following my nose / A detective with no lead.”


Invisible empire


The Hansa Studio experience did not reinvigorate Tunstall’s career, commercially speaking. Her follow up album, Invisible Empire / Crescent Moon, inspired by her experiences in the Tucson desert of Arizona, was disrupted first by the sudden death of her father and then the break-up of her marriage just a few months later. Despite the dual nature of the album (two sides and two themes to reflect her double trauma), the album is surprisingly coherent and surprisingly rich in folksy charm.


Channelling latter-day Emmylou Harris, Tunstall gives understated, sun-kissed Americana her best shot. While the album is perhaps a little too folksy in places (someone in the studio really ought to have counselled against the whistling on ‘Made of Glass’), this country/folk effort is more endearing and more enduring than much of her earlier work. Several critics picked up on this; sadly, the public did not, and the album failed to match the heights of its predecessors.


Tunstall had missed out on being up-and-coming due to her instant, television-fuelled surge to prominence. Now she was down-and-going, despite delivering some of her most accomplished material to date. She responded by leaving her home in Edinburgh to move to LA and begin a stint as a soundtrack composer, achieving moderate acclaim for ‘Miracle’ (Winter’s Tale), ‘We Could Be Kings’ (Million Dollar Arm) and ‘Fit In’ (3 Generations). Having failed to see these films, I can’t comment on how her efforts land in a cinematic context, but the songs themselves are back to being pleasant but forgettable.


An unexpected legacy

Fast forward to the present moment, and KT can still generate headlines. She’s also had to battle deafness in one ear, a problem that she has addressed publicly to try and raise awareness about hearing issues. Despite this challenge, she’s diligently working away on the final record in a trilogy of albums exploring body, mind and soul. As far as the previous two are concerned, KIN has some good moments – ‘Turned A Light On’ and ‘Everything Has Its Shape’ are both excellent – while WAX has ‘Little Red Thread’, a worthy addition to the Tunstall canon.


She’s no longer the superstar she once attempted to sabotage. In fact, despite having six studio albums to her name, along with more than half a dozen official live recordings, she’s probably better recognised by the comfy sofa brigade as a former musician who tracked down her long lost blood relatives on ITV than she is a contemporary singer-songwriter. But most pertinent to this story, KT seems at ease with herself and her career trajectory.


‘Suddenly I See’ came on while I was in the supermarket the other week. It’s that sort of song, and KT Tunstall has become that sort of artist. If you recall the song while you’re browsing Tesco’s whisky selection, you might briefly wonder what became of her. If you don’t remember the song, you’ll probably be too busy trying to locate the plant-based food aisle to pay it much attention.


Ironically enough, the next track on Tesco FM was Tasmin Archer’s ‘Sleeping Satellite’, a great song from another former Brit Award winner who broke through to the big time, only to disappear without a trace, ten years before Tunstall’s own rise and fall.


Tunstall is a better artist than Archer, and although it looks increasingly unlikely that she’ll be remembered for her music, we shouldn’t underestimate her impact on a generation of solo musicians and composers. There she was, a lone female performer on national television with nothing but a guitar, pedal, tambourine and her imagination for backup. It was an inspiring moment, and in the year that followed the Later… with Jools Holland appearance, practically every soloist on the live music circuit went out and bought themselves a looper pedal.


Admittedly, most of these performers were dreadful, as is often the case with copycatting, and the thought that Tunstall may have inspired Ed Sheeran is truly terrifying. But she nevertheless deserves credit for popularising such an empowering and occasionally exhilarating approach to solo performance, not to mention shining a light on the composition process in a way that few artists have managed before or since. Whether they realise it or not, many of today’s singer-songwriters still take their cues from KT and that magical moment when she filled in for Nas and briefly set the world alight.


Tom Kirkham / @finestworktom

Image: KT Tunstall in October 2005 - Wikimedia Commons

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