What KT did and may do next

EMMA LEE It’s been a whirlwind year for KT Tunstall. Her debut album was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and her major UK tour brings her to Norwich this month. She tells Emma Lee about favourite places in Norfolk and why she doesn’t have a career plan.

EMMA LEE

“It's always fantastic playing Norwich - it's like a family knees-up,” says Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall.

Although she grew up in the university town of St Andrews, her boyfriend of three years, Luke - the drummer in her band - hails from these parts, and she is familiar with Norfolk.

“I love Norfolk - Wells is beautiful, and I like Holt. It's stunning. I haven't been to the Broads yet, which I would love to do, but the coast is really special.”

She has even made a guest appearance on a BBC Radio Norfolk institution.

When Luke's sister, Charlotte, got married, she said she would love to be bride of the week on Stewart White's Saturday breakfast show. They let her - on one condition.

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“That was mad,” KT chuckles. “Luke's sister got married in Norwich and said it would be so cool to be bride of the week. They said she could be if I played on the radio, so I did, and Charlotte was over the moon,” she explains.

“Norwich is great - I think they must put something in the water there. I know a few other drummers from Norwich,” she laughs.

KT laughs a lot, and is warm, funny, down to earth and clearly passionate about her music.

She's remarkably cheery for someone whose schedule is so hectic she has been known to visit seven countries in 10 days.

After a decade of trying to make it into the music business, it was KT's energetic and distinctive rootsy track Black Horse And The Cherry Tree which gave her her big break earlier this year.

Her debut album, Eye To The Telescope, has made the top three in the album charts and was nominated for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. Critics are tipping her to be as successful as Dido.

Her love of music began when she was little.

“For as long as I can remember I was just fascinated with musical instruments. My mum found a drawing I did when I was four where I'd been trying to write musical notes, which were all backwards, and guitars,” she recalls.

Thanks to her parents, who encouraged the imaginative young KT's musical and theatrical ambitions, she took up the piano when she was six and picked it up quickly.

“I think the younger you are the more adaptable you are and I raced through my exams. When I was eight I started a grass-roots theatre group and started performing. I immediately fell in love with being on stage - you go up there and have a really good time and have this great communion with people you don't know.”

Her earthy singing voice developed later.

“I never had a stand-out voice as a kid. I started playing flute when I was 10 and when I was 15 I started writing songs. I started on piano and they were hideously cheesy - they were more to do with what I'd seen on Dynasty on the TV,” she chuckles.

Her physicist father had the key to the observatory at St Andrews University and would take KT and her brothers there to look at the stars. Those memories partly inspired the album's title, Eye To The Telescope.

As well as being fascinated with science, and spending a lot of time exploring the Scottish countryside, the knowledge that she had been adopted at birth and was a quarter Chinese fuelled her imagination even more.

“I'm very very close to my family, there was not anything missing, but there was a sense of mystery that's brilliant for a kid,” she says. “That's what life's about. My parents always made the fact I was adopted into a special thing - they said 'everyone else gets what they're given, and we chose you'.”

Despite her obvious musical talents, until her mid teens KT (she spells it that way because she thinks Katie makes her sound like a “farmer's daughter”) was set on becoming an actress. But when she taught herself to play guitar from a busking handbook and started working on her own material her outlook changed.

“I had started this little theatre group. I had played Anne Frank and been in Scottish Youth Theatre as Puck in a Midsummer Night's Dream. It was really great and very exciting.

“Just as I started to write songs I realised that every girl I knew wanted to be an actress and none of them could play guitar. Also, I was thinking 'I can perform my own stuff'. It was a very quick shift,” she says.

“I taught myself guitar, I never had any guitar or singing lessons. I never had the feeling of doing something wrong. When it comes to guitar and voice it's just exploration, not like it is when you're taught,” she says.

She hung out with the Fence Collective, a group of St Andrews musicians whose reputation is such that critics from Mojo magazine will venture north of the border to catch their performances.

“They were the first musicians I had met - they didn't have any money, they begged and borrowed to record and they were happy.”

She only became aware of the work of what she describes as “incredibly important artists” like the Velvet Underground, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell and James Brown when she won a scholarship to study in America. Before, her life had been pretty much “devoid” of music.

“When you grow up with a certain style of music surely it affects what you create. It is a soundtrack to your childhood,” she explains.

“For a long time it was not about listening to music, my folks did not listen to music - we didn't have a stereo. I had kids' tapes, but I didn't get into albums. My dad had about three tapes, the Chariots of Fire soundtrack, which I loved, and a tape by this American mathematician Tom Lehrer who plays Gilbert and Sullivan-style piano and sings about the periodic table, which I absolutely loved.

“Going to America was a total head-opener - I came back from the US pretty sure that was what I was going to do.”

After she returned, she tried busking.

“Just before I went to the Mercury awards I was reading an old diary, when I had been busking and the police saying that I had to move on. When you are 17 or 18 you think you are going to get put in jail. It was scary - everybody's looking for their pitch. I busked in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London,” she says.

Her ambition paid off and things began to fall into place when she went to London, forged working relationships and got a record deal.

She began writing projects with several different songwriters and, with more than 100 songs in her pocket, she set to work on her debut album with her new band and producer Steve Osborne, who has worked with big names like U2, New Order and Happy Mondays, at the helm.

KT describes the resulting collection as “kitchen table songs”.

“As this was the first album I was keen to keep it very simple. I wanted to make a record that sounded like a first record, not a third record,” she says.

“I had been writing for 15 years, I had worked out what I wanted to say and decided to be quite traditional and focus on the songs. None of them were more than a couple of years old. I just wanted the songs to be familiar to people, an album about being human and the emotions they feel.

“Quite a few songs did not make the album because they didn't fit - the next one will be about astronauts,” she laughs.

Since completing the album she has supported teenage soul sensation Joss Stone, toured Europe and played Glastonbury with Jewish hip-hop band Oi Va Voi.

She says it's rewarding to see her years of hard work pay off.

“I didn't know someone could be this busy. You're struggling to make it and you don't realise how much work you have to do to promote an album - all the interviews and travelling. Once I was in Australia and Canada in the same week. The number of miles you cover is amazing,” she says.

“But I cannot complain. I have been trying to get to this point for 10 years. I'm lucky to be doing what I love doing,” she says.

And that includes making pop videos.

“It's so much fun,” she enthuses. “Some people say they don't like making videos, because you have to get up at four in the morning. I'm awful at getting up in the morning, but when I'm making a video I'm like 'weeeee' and can't wait to get out of bed.”

And what's in store next for KT?

“For maybe the next couple of years I will have to keep my head down and work hard.

“But I don't really bother with plans. One thing I've learned is that you never know what's going to happen,” she says.

t KT Tunstall plays Norwich UEA on Saturday, October 29. The show is sold out but check with the box office for returns on 01063 508050

t Website www.kttunstall.com

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