Heartache Gives KT Tunstall's New Album A Split Personality

Aug 4, 2013
Originally published on August 4, 2013 11:39 am

Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall made her latest album in Arizona, of all places. Working with musician and producer Howe Gelb, she recorded the first six songs in the spring of 2012, and the last six in November. But a lot changed for Tunstall in the months between.

"I lost my father. He was a Parkinson's sufferer, but he was taken a little early due to an accident — so although he was declining, it was still quite unexpected," Tunstall says.

The singer's 10-year relationship with her husband ended that summer as well. Though she says she'd found her way back to positivity by the time she returned to Arizona, the shake-ups in her life had a profound effect on how the later songs sounded — and caused the earlier ones to take on some new meaning.

"Songs can have a very weird, precognitive nature to them where they're almost fortune telling for you, and at the time of writing you don't know what they mean," she says. "Then a few months later, you're like, 'Oh, okay. This is what it means.' It's like your subconscious is ahead of you."

KT Tunstall joined NPR's Rachel Martin from the studios of the BBC in London to talk about why her fourth album, Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon, has two titles. Click the audio link to hear more of their conversation.

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Award-winning Scottish singer KT Tunstall is known for creating a highly produced, big, rhythmic sound. But her latest album has a more laidback feel.


MARTIN: KT Tunstall's new album is called "Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon."


KT TUNSTALL: (Singing) I'm going with the sea, rain's been falling on me. I can cover the (unintelligible), I've been (unintelligible) it down...

MARTIN: She recorded it out in the Arizona desert and found that the music and lyrics she had already written took on new meaning when her life took a dramatic turn.

TUNSTALL: I just had a really enormously tumultuous summer, which was just tectonic shifts in my life, massive, massive changes. I lost my father. My personal circumstances were turned upside down.

MARTIN: We should say he passed away.

TUNSTALL: He did pass away, yeah. My father was a Parkinson's sufferer but he was taken a little early due to an accident. So, he did, although he was declining, it was still quite unexpected. And by the time the dust had settled and I decided to go back out to Tucson to finish the second half of the record, it was November. And I've really found a positive place by that point. So, I have this really strange album where the first half where songs can have a very weird precognitive nature to them where they're almost fortune-telling for you. And at the time of writing, you don't know what they mean and a few months later, you're, like, OK. Is this is what it means? And it's like your self-conscience is ahead of you.

MARTIN: Can you point to a song on the album that demonstrates that?

TUNSTALL: Yeah. "Invisible Empire" is a perfect example, where it was a song about a relationship in my life where I suddenly saw it for what it was.


TUNSTALL: (Singing) I thought the candle was gonna go out, the wind was blowing and the door was open but the candle never went out, never went out. The wave found its way to the shore, I thought it was a ripple and nothing more. But the wave found its way all the way to the shore. Oh, I wanna burn this house. I know, I wanna jump into the fire. Oh, I'm gonna tear them down, pinnacles of my invisible empire...

MARTIN: So, that song and others took on new significance to you in that second session.

TUNSTALL: Yeah, very much so. And the strange thing was that that first half was very pensive and introverted and breeding lots of questions in the first half of the album, and that was before anything had happened. And then the second half, kind of ironically, is a bit of a phoenix from the flames. It's quite joyful, the second half, which is maybe not what I would have expected.


MARTIN: Do you mind talking a little bit more about your dad?

TUNSTALL: No, sure, sure.

MARTIN: Was he musical?


TUNSTALL: Not in the slightest.

He was - I won't say he was tone-deaf. He had a couple of good cassette tapes but my parents didn't listen to music. My dad had a Tom Lehrer tape. He was a brilliant Harvard mathematician-turned political satirist who played the piano.

MARTIN: Your dad was a physicist.

TUNSTALL: He was a physicist. And so I was Tom Lehrer's "Table of Elements," which is a brilliant song, but definitely not kind of the same as listening to the Beatles, kind of thing. And a bit of classical. Apart from that, no, he was very much a get-a-job-dad for many years until I actually managed to get somewhere with music. And then he was a very proud dad.

MARTIN: Yeah, I imagine. Did he have a particular song of yours that he liked hearing you sing?

TUNSTALL: Him and mom both were really attached to this song I used to sing - I've never recorded it properly - called "Parachute Man." And they used to come to the local pub sometimes to watch me play and they'd always be quite embarrassed, you know, that their daughter was not earning any money and playing music and not getting a job. But for some reason they liked that song. But I do remember my dad saying that when he saw me on Jools Holland that first time, I did "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree," that was the first time he got it, he understood what I did. And he said he got out of his chair and danced around the living room shouting she's done it.


MARTIN: So, speaking of performing, I mean, you are known for being a really high-energy performer. This is an album which has a different vibe.

TUNSTALL: It does.

MARTIN: Is there a song on here that is just maybe too hard to perform?

TUNSTALL: After the last record I did, "Tiger Suit," which is a real foray into electronica, as different as you can get from this one, I found it quite frustrating that because it was a such a layered album it was actually quite difficult to just sit and play the record with a guitar or with a piano. And so I really relished the idea of making a record that could be played completely on its own just with one instrument. And so, no, they're all playable, which is great.


MARTIN: I imagine it also exposes new vulnerabilities. It's just you, it's just the sound of you.

TUNSTALL: It's very pure. It's very, I think there's very spiritual about singing where you're making this sound and you're delivering this feeling and emotion with absolutely nothing but your body.



MARTIN: So, I am a lover of the whistle. Is that you?

TUNSTALL: I wish it was me. However, I've done a pretty good impression at the live shows. But that is a great singer-songwriter by the name of Mr. Andrew Bird, who is a well-known winning whistler indeed.


MARTIN: What a fun collaboration.

TUNSTALL: Yeah. That song was a one-take wonder.


MARTIN: Is there a particular song on this album that lifts you? As you talk about a phoenix rising, is there a song that does that for you when you perform it?

TUNSTALL: Yeah, the title of the second half, "Crescent Moon," which is the symbol of birth, of rebirth of the new. That song, I sat at the piano and it just came straight at my fingers as soon as I arrived for the second session. And it just felt like such a pleasurable song to write because it's very free from form. It's more about the heart than it is about the head, that song. And I was able to really express myself through arrangement of instruments as well as the lyrics and the voice, which is quite new to be able to be as emotional with musical arrangement as I felt I was with my voice.


MARTIN: The new album is called "Invisible Empire // Crescent Moon." KT Tunstall joined me from our London bureau. KT, it's been such a pleasure. Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us.

TUNSTALL: Absolute pleasure of mine, too. Thanks very much.


MARTIN: And this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.