With a guitar and an effects pedal, Scottish singer/songwriter KT Tunstall showcased her musical creativity and endearing energy with a breakthrough television performance that helped propel her sparkling 2004 debut album, the Mercury Prize-nominated Eye to the Telescope, onto the global charts. On subsequent releases, Tunstall would incorporate electric guitars, synth production, and even folk influences, while her hook-heavy songwriting remained at the heart of each effort.
Born to a Chinese-Scottish mother, she was adopted at birth by a university professor and his primary school wife in the town of St. Andrews. As a child, her imagination and creative side flourished, especially since her physicist father would take her and her brothers into the St. Andrews observatory to look at the sky, thus fueling her youthful love for space and sci-fi. It wasn't until discovering hair metal through a brother that music really started to become important to her, and when it did, her affection for spacy things was reflected in her favorite album, David Bowie's Hunky Dory. She soon picked up playing piano and flute, learned to sing by listening to Ella Fitzgerald, and began writing her own songs in her mid-teens. At 16, she taught herself the guitar and continued to hone her writing skills with sentimental love songs. A scholarship to the Kent School, a private prep academy in Connecticut, brought her experiences outside of St. Andrews and Scotland. There, she formed her first band, the Happy Campers, and enjoyed going to shows by 10,000 Maniacs and the Grateful Dead. Later, she enrolled in a music course at London's Royal Holloway College before heading back home and immersing herself in the local grassroots scene that birthed bands like the Fence Collective and the Beta Band. Around this time, she was also listening to Billie Holiday, Lou Reed, and James Brown, among others, and soon formed a group with the Fence Collective's Pip Dylan.
Years later, Tunstall returned to London and began writing more songs, many of which would appear on her first album. She entered a backwoods Wiltshire studio with minimal instruments in tow and Steve Osborne (U2, New Order) at the controls. The end result was her wide-eyed debut, Eye to the Telescope, released in the U.K. in late 2004 on Relentless. Highlighting her soulful voice, sassy attitude, and earthy songwriting approach, comparisons to Dido, Fiona Apple, and Kate Melua soon sparked. Following the record's release, Tunstall toured throughout Europe, including shows supporting Joss Stone and singing with Oi Va Voi. Feeling an acoustic guitar was sometimes too limiting, her live show incorporated the use of an Akai Headrush foot pedal that allowed her to spot-record multiple times (loop each section continuously), thus turning her into her own one-woman backup band. This calling card would prove fortuitous when a performance of single "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" on Later... with Jools Holland became a hit that launched her international career.
The buzz surrounding her performance pushed a reissue of Telescope in the U.K., though it wasn't until 2006 that it was released in the U.S. In addition to winning Best British Female Solo Artist at the Brit Awards, she was nominated for a Mercury Prize and a Grammy. Meanwhile, singles "Black Horse & the Cherry Tree" and "Suddenly I See" continued to fare well on American adult alternative radio. The album was later certified multiplatinum and sold millions of copies worldwide. That fall, KT Tunstall's Acoustic Extravaganza was issued; it included acoustic tracks (both new and old) recorded the previous Christmas along with a bonus making-of DVD.
In 2007, Tunstall kicked off another album cycle with her sophomore effort Drastic Fantastic, home to "Hold On" and "If Only." In addition to peaking at number three on the U.K. chart, it also marked Tunstall's highest showing to date on the Billboard 200 at number nine. Three years later, she returned with her pop-friendly third album, Tiger Suit, recorded at Berlin's famed Hansa studio, the same place where Bowie recorded Heroes. Notably funkier and upbeat, Tiger Suit added layers of synth and production effects to Tunstall's sound, heard on tracks such as "Lost" and "Glamour Puss." She followed the set with Live in London, March 2011, and later in the year with an EP titled The Scarlet Tulip, which was recorded in her home studio with co-producer Luke Bullen.
After a break from touring, Tunstall reentered the studio in late 2012 and recorded her country/folk-influenced fifth album, Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon, which arrived in June of 2013. The introspective effort, inspired both by the death of her father and the dissolution of her four-year marriage, marked an inward turn for Tunstall, comprising mainly acoustic and lo-fi numbers such as "Made of Glass" with Andrew Bird and lead single "Feel It All." Her second live album, Live Islington Assembly Hall, was recorded on the June 20, 2013 stop of the supporting tour and included a cover of Don Henley's "Boys of Summer" and a rare deep cut, "Alchemy," from the Scarlet Tulip EP. At the conclusion of touring, Tunstall pressed pause on her solo career and began composing soundtrack cuts for films such as Winter's Tale, Million Dollar Arm, 3 Generations, and Bad Moms.
In June 2016, Tunstall released the four-song Golden State EP, an upbeat affair that included the single "Evil Eye." It was the precursor to that September's KIN, a bright, colorful album produced by Tony Hoffer. The first of a proposed trilogy that centered on the themes of soul, body, and mind, KIN peaked at number seven on the U.K. charts and included "Two Way" with James Bay. The second installment, WAX, arrived in 2018. Focused on the body, the album's physicality and dance-friendly synths came courtesy of producer Nick McCarthy of Franz Ferdinand. ~ Corey Apar & Neil Z. Yeung