Roaring in a new direction
For her latest album, 'Tiger Suit,' KT Tunstall changes course
One of KT Tunstall’s new songs is called “(Still A) Weirdo.’’ Need proof?
Consider this: Tunstall, 35, is so smitten with the early-’80s soundtrack work by electronica godfather Vangelis that she felt it necessary to incorporate his vintage gear into the recording of her synthesizer-infused album “Tiger Suit.’’
“My dad had the ‘Chariots of Fire’ soundtrack on cassette, and I just loved the B-side and listened to it all the time as a kid,’’ Tunstall said from a tour stop in Indiana (she plays here at House of Blues tomorrow night at 8 for the penultimate stop of her current US tour). “Then I discovered the ‘Blade Runner’ soundtrack and loved that. We got [the Vangelis] keyboard he used to make those [sounds]. It’s a big bed-size thing, but using it made me feel like I had come full circle.’’
This is exactly the kind of weirdo that a music fan can appreciate. Each of Tunstall’s three albums has a distinct feel all its own, suggesting she is not content to find a formula and stick with it. For all the urgency Tunstall offered on her breakout hits “Suddenly I See’’ and “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,’’ she has equal measures of subtlety. Likewise, her work can be back-to-busker basics or seemingly come flying off the dance floor, though rarely is any one song purely one thing.
“The burning question was ‘What do I do next?’ ’’ she said of how she felt going into “Tiger Suit,’’ an album she knew she wanted to be different from its predecessors. “I knew what I didn’t want to do.’’
Her debut album, “Eye to the Telescope,’’ came out in late 2004 and caught on the following year, netting a cross-section of indie, folk, and pop fans. The Scottish singer was notching hits on both sides of the Atlantic and establishing herself as an emerging artist versus a new component of a scene (insert Lilith reference here; now remove it). Amid cycles of tours and promotional appearances, Tunstall released “Drastic Fantastic’’ in 2007. While her songs matured from first to second album, Tunstall said she was feeling rundown. By the time she was invited to participate in a 2008 expedition that brought songwriters as diverse as Robyn Hitchcock, Jarvis Cocker, Laurie Anderson, and Ryuichi Sakamoto to Greenland under the premise of drawing inspiration from the barren and ecologically threatened “ice desert,’’ Tunstall was burned out and feeling uncertain.
“I was playing a little show, and I was just not up to it. I was not in the right head space,’’ she said, adding that she left Greenland feeling like she had a lot to do to impress herself, not just her listeners
Tunstall and her husband (and drummer), Luke Bullen, spent a year traveling, and she devised ways to incorporate the influences of her new experiences with deep-seated earlier influences.
“This was the first time I experimented in the studio. I never enjoyed recording because it felt like an alien environment to me,’’ Tunstall said. She worked with producer Jim Abbiss, who has teamed with Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian, Adele, and others. The pair dived into music Tunstall always loved but never really played: dance music.
“I turned my back on it as a performer, but loved Leftfield, DJ Shadow, and stuff like that,’’ she said.
Abbiss concurred that Leftfield — with its blend of vocals, electronics, samples and instruments — quickly became a common touchstone. (Bow Wow Wow was another shared reference point.)
“The good thing about all the songs is that they stand up as a simple vocal and guitar arrangement, and this is central to all the recordings,’’ Abbiss said. “How far we took the contemporary soundscaping was whatever felt right for each tune.’’
“Tiger Suit’’ kicks off with “UUmmannaq Song,’’ named after the destination in Greenland where Tunstall had a bit of a reckoning. The propulsive beat and defiant tone reveal the triumph Tunstall feels at rekindling her creative spirit. Whether raging or reflecting, Tunstall finds ways to use beats and bleeps to accentuate her deft wordplay and expressive singing. “Tiger Suit’’ is still at heart a songwriter’s album.
“Fade Like a Shadow,’’ for instance, offers just enough narrative and abstract imagery to conjure an unsettling mood that Tunstall balances with buoyant, throbbing beats.
“I love Tarantino and how he makes you watch such disturbing scenes with the least disturbing music,’’ Tunstall said. “This song is a dark subject, and I’m exorcising some dark feelings. It’s really about putting up a middle finger.’’
These new songs prompted changes to Tunstall’s touring band. Charlotte Hatherley, formerly of Ash, is playing guitar and providing accompanying vocals, and Rej Ap Gwynedd, who did a stint in Apollo 440, handles bass.
“It was a really hard decision to make these changes,’’ Tunstall said. “If I made an album that was arranged similarly to the last two, I wouldn’t have thought about it. But I made a major turn to the left, and reproducing this stuff live required some changes.’’
Before this record and these shows, Tunstall said she feared getting stuck in a rut. Instead this weirdo jumped the tracks and got to where she needed to be.
Scott McLennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.