Pop shock

KT Tunstall comes dressed for success
By JIM SULLIVAN  |  October 16, 2007

VIDEO: KT Tunstall, "Hold On"

The UK version of American Idol is called Pop Idol — and that’s left Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall with mixed feelings about the whole notion of having a pop hit. Because, as she explained back in August after playing a short set at First Act Guitar Studio here in Boston, Pop Idol has made “pop synonymous with awful. . . . Why can’t shit music be called ‘shit’ instead of being called ‘pop’? I think back to the fact that the Beatles were a pop band. It doesn’t have to be shit.”

Tunstall is a case in point. Since its release in February of 2006, her Virgin debut, Eye to the Telescope, has sold close to 3.5 million copies worldwide on the strength of two singles, “Black Horse & the Cherry Tree” and “Suddenly I See.” And her new Drastic Fantastic (Virgin) debuted at #9 on the Billboard 200 album sales chart. Despite her folk-troubadour roots, that puts her squarely in the pop mainstream.

It’s something she’s come to terms with. “I’m cool with it now, but for a long time it was difficult for me to go, ‘Yes, I’m a mainstream pop act.’ I’d like to feel I’m a good mainstream pop act.”

She appears to have embraced the role on the cover of Drastic Fantastic, which shows her wearing a white mini-skirt and boots and in full guitar-hero pose. But that’s a bit deceptive. Tunstall didn’t charge out of the gate like a PJ Harvey or even a Chrissie Hynde on her debut. She favors insinuating melodies, and she namechecks Carole King’s 1971 classic Tapestry as a source of inspiration. Yet the rock-shot cover of Drastic Fantastic isn’t entirely ironic. “It’s potentially a rock record more than a pop-folk record,” she explains. And the first single, “Hold On,” reflects that subtle change in tone, with its stomping beat, incessant hook, and lyrics that are meant as “a warning. It’s me telling someone who’s judging me to back off.”

The roots of Tunstall’s rock go back to the first two albums she bought — Joni Mitchell’s singer-songwriterly Blue and Tom Waits’s avant breakthrough Bone Machine. “That’s what I wanted to do — get the feminine, æthereal, melodic, lyrical nature alongside the really junkyard, heel-into-the floorboards vibe. I started as a folk picker. But rhythm is hugely important. It’s something that’s developed over time, and it’s something Steve Osborne — he produced both records — has ingrained in me. I basically went to rhythm boot camp. It was an intense crash course in groove, which I had very little experience with because I had always played on my own.”

Not quite always: Tunstall actually got her start singing back-up in the Scottish folk group Fence Collective. But she’s feeling more and more comfortable with moving on to bigger, bolder, rockier, and, yes, poppier terrain. And she’s looking forward to returning to the US to tour behind Drastic Fantastic in early 2008. “There’s a really beautiful dumbness about touring, where you just become a kid again, where you have a great time and stay up late.”

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