I find that listening to KT Tunstall drives me a little crazier every time I do because it calls to mind the kind of phrase I hate even caring about, but kinda just have to in her case: “She was born in the wrong time.”, the cliched drawl of the artsy hipster rings in my ears, and as I, a writer fresh out of teendom, try to avoid the platitude, I can’t help but find it relevant in her case.
See, it’s no secret that modern pop music frowns upon the personal, using artists as semiotic devices that represent no more than a fleeting advertisement for an aspirational lifestyle. This is a system that allows fly-by-night pop-stars a quick rise to the top but leaves many artists like Tunstall floating by the wayside, making music, making enough to stay afloat but never quite rising to the top of the pyramid – despite their music being of enough worth to warrant a place in the clouds. Every year, the system kills devoted artists off like a well-planned military manoeuvre – rooting musicians out from under the rocks of grunge bars and divey live music joints, and forcing them into jobs they know they have no business being in. And for Tunstall, this could so easily have been the case.
Luckily for listeners, though, this musician has proven stubborn as they come – and she’s stayed around, despite mainstream hints that she gave up the dream. Tunstall has stood her ground, refusing to let go of the neck of her guitar or to remove her foot from the pedal of the “wee bastard” she uses to make the music she has constantly, and unflinchingly, put out into the world, in the hope that enough people on the outskirts of sound will listen, so that the bulbs of dive bars can stay burning long enough to light the way for the next generation of artful musicians.
For this reason, I feel that by looking at a musician like Tunstall more carefully, a few rules of thumb can be extricated, because I feel that her introspective style and unrelenting devotion to the truth of expression are core to what has made her so loved artist by her loyal fan-base. I find that listening to her collection is an act of purity in that I feel no need to strip away the bullshit – it’s already stripped away. All I have need of doing is to listen; to relate or not relate; to lay back and enjoy what honesty artistry feels like in the midst of an industry so devoted to the opposite.
By listening to Tunstall, I can remind myself what music is about.
So, as her newest album, Kin, is due out in September of this year, I’ve decided to conduct a kind of guided tour of her catalogue – playing the part of pointer and gawker. In this series of seven articles, to be published every Wednesday morning on this website, I’ll run through her key albums in chronological order – plotting them according to the experiences of the artist herself and, hopefully, managing to deliver a more rounded background to her work than any Wiki page might be able to.
I’ll make no apologies – I’m a bit of a superfan. And this article won’t be critical – it’s goal is to be exploratory. All I’m here to do is demonstrate the vital position of “hopeless” musicians like Tunstall – exploring the brain of the Scottish songstress, hoping my interpretations are correct, and hoping that I turn at least a few people on to the chick who’s been running my playlist since I was 15.
Everybody says it’s just another decay of the soul
But, I know I’m a hopeless follower of anything to take me
Away from this hole in the ground.
I found it’s hopeless clinging to a feeling
Like a fish on a line, it’s sublime to find it lately.
no more saying that there’s no more time. “
Drastic Fantastic, Track 8.
Tracks in July. (2000)
As I sit and write this, it’s 11:25am on a drizzly Tuesday morning in July. And when I say drizzly, I actually mean that’s it’s just slightly short of storming outside. So, I’m in bed and the playlist I’m spinning is KT’s little-known early offering, Tracks in July, and its sound mixed with the tones of the rain splattering the pavement outside is hitting all the right spots.
Released in the year 2000, 4 years before her breakout album Eye to the Telescope, it’s this album that I find one of the most interesting in her collection in that it tells of the tour de force to come. With an already-present flair for lyrics and the impression of an artist finding the hidden potential of a multi-faceted voice, this 12-track album takes the listener on an introspective journey through the psyche of a musician in her genesis.
Having only listened to this album for the first time in 2015, I obviously compared it to the rest of her already established and well-produced catalogue. But, taking it for what it is – the independent debut of a 20-something-year-old singer-songwriter who, once given the time, would become a folk-rock goddess – one can easily forgive and more easily come to enjoy the joyous freedom with which the melodies on the album are treated – with Tunstall using many an opportunity to extemporize in the way that only singers who love singing tend to do. Delivering a solid folk sound throughout, the guitar- and voice-driven album honestly just doesn’t ever falter in a way that’s off-putting.
The album’s first track is an early, acoustic version of what would become Drastic Fantastic‘s “Paper Aeroplanes” and hearing it for the first time on Christmas morning 2015 left me with the feeling of having just opened an unexpected gift. In truth, it’s this version of the track I prefer because I feel it brings to the forefront that which makes Tunstall great – that honest portrayal of things which I feel her less-successful albums haven’t managed to clinch as well as her acclaimed ones have done; when KT simply sits down and plays as she does on this album – free of the heavy post-production that clogs up artistic receptors – I feel she delivers her best work.
The album then moves on to another early version of a well-known track – “Gone to the Dogs“, better known for being featured on her Acoustic Extravaganza, and furthermore delivers early versions of “Change” and “Little Favours”. And, it is when one compares these early versions to their later, more well-known counterparts that I feel the reason behind just what makes this album such a unique experience is demonstrated:
This is the album on which we find the least rigid Tunstall. Whereas the rest of her catalogue can be seen as being a little to a lot of more structured, this album is characterised by freedom above all. On every track it sounds like she’s just going for it, unafraid of singing until she feels satisfied, improvising melodies long after she’s filled the quota of a verse or chorus; even ladling in jazz scat on the second half of the album, effectively transporting the listener to wherever she wants them to be by way of the sheer insistence that she be heard.
This album demonstrates KT’s natural proficiency at what she does. So early on, her flare for guitar-playing, her innate grip on what makes for a good melody and her anomalous handle on just how to perfectly place a lyric all sit well together around the fire of a unique experience – a characteristic one can come to expect from every one of her albums in that they are all unique bodies of work which deliver the impression of a well-formed and respectable chapter in the musical memoirs of an artist who understands the meaning of the word.
“Night Like Pepper”
“Lay Down Low”
“Don’t come near me. I’m not the one to save your skin. But, if the stars have brought you here then here you are.
Lock me into something new. Something different from this. Cuz I need bliss in the solar system.” – “Night Like Pepper”, Track 8.
Check back next Wednesday, when this article series presses play on 2004’s “Eye to the Telescope“.
Have a listen to”Paper Aeroplanes” and “Night Like Pepper” from “Tracks in July” below: