I’m easily amused. To speak to KT Tunstall, I was asked to ring through a hotel reception desk – more than enough for me to feel like a secret agent. “I know, it’s all quite James Bond,” comes the ratification from the Scottish singer-songwriter who found herself in the countryside for her own covert purposes. “I was the surprise guest for Chris Evans’ Dine & Disco in the New Forest. He raises enormous amounts of money for Children in Need with a little pop-up evening for people. It was brilliant fun, I’d never seen Michael Bublé before and he played last night to about 100 people – amazing. I popped out the back of the stage – Chris didn’t know I was there – and there were a load of confetti bombs. Now I always want confetti bombs onstage.”
Nowadays, she spends her time between London and LA. She moved out to Venice Beach (“a bit Camden by the sea”) a couple of years ago in search of a new start after the death of her father and end of her marriage. Full of “middle-aged guys on skateboards”, west-coast living has done her wonders. “I like it because it’s extremely easy and normal to be very healthy. It’s a very outdoorsy way of life because the weather’s fantastic. It’s basically full of adults who want to be kids.” The move also coincided with a three-album arc, covering spirit, body and mind. The first in the trio, KIN, released in September 2016 was, she realised post-release, “all about spirit and soul and overcoming worldly obstacles and realising you’re much better for going through this shit than if you hadn’t.”
Her sixth studio album, WAX, released in 2018, captures the physical and visceral nature of the source material with punchy electric guitar riffs. “I saw Radiohead headline Glastonbury a couple of years ago. That noise in ‘Creep’ when the guitar comes in – you’re just like, ‘fuuuuuck’. It does something extraordinarily physical to you.” She had a lightbulb moment – “the electric guitar is the most physical instrument, it’s the most human experience. I hadn’t really explored the electric guitar as the centre-point of an album so that was really exciting to me.” Track two, ‘Human Being’ (“a very vulnerable song with a tough riff”) has a music video starring an incredible martial artist she found while on tour with Barenaked Ladies. “We got to know everyone on the crew and [one of the guitar techs] was just like, ‘hey check out my daughter, she’s awesome’ and showed me this video. I was like, ‘does she like being on camera?’”
The girl’s routine is intercut with KT and her band, and it was around that time that she decided to employ all female musicians. “I just found myself complaining the whole time that there weren’t enough women in rock bands. Then I was like, hang on a minute, I’m an employer, I’m the solution here.” The result was a tour with “seven women and three guys and it was just heaven. It was the most joyful tour I’ve ever put together. I knew it would be fun having female members, but it was really powerful.” The fact remains that “there is a fucking huge disparity – we’ve still got this situation where I think it’s like under 20% of festival line-ups have bands with even a female member.” Having been on tour with Chrissie Hynde (“there were tons of them when she was doing it”) she feels the problem is systemic. “Girls need to be making tea in studios. Girls need to be shadowing engineers. It’s not just about the front person or head producer. It’s basically about all these guys who’ve got positions hiring women.”
Last year, she overcame what is surely the scariest thing that can happen to a musician – she lost hearing in one ear. “It was halfway through my US tour. I woke up and felt like my left ear was underwater and then over the next two days it basically died.” Worse than the loss of hearing were the issues with balance – “I just felt like I’d had a bottle of tequila – that lasted about a month. I couldn’t really cross the road on my own and I had to hold the sink when I was brushing my teeth, it was grim.” After the dizziness relented, her brain had to adjust to its new monaural world, restructuring to deal with 100% deafness on her left side. This episode had more gravity as it reflected her sonic journey through her album trilogy. “I mean how crazy is that – I’m making the physical album and I lose my hearing halfway through the campaign. I’m then looking at making the mind album and it’s all about the brain learning a new world, learning your new normal.”
She’s now looking forward to the summer – “I feel like I’m born to play the festivals” – and, take it from me, she smashed her return to Cornbury, which she played on the Saturday alongside Keane and Elkie Brooks. Finishing our chat it’s hard to imagine something she couldn’t overcome. On the subject of obstacles, she relays a joke Michael Bublé told at Dine & Disco: “He said, ‘there aren’t problems in this band there are opportunities. We’ve found out that one of the band’s got a massive drinking… opportunity.’” It’s that kind of wit that has seen KT through the worst of it, and come out of it stronger than ever – from a reinvention, through hearing loss, to a festival stage near you.