With her new album, 'Tiger Suit', KT Tunstall has rummaged around in different genres and found some surprises. She tells Harry Guerin all about feeling the fear and doing it anyway.
Harry Guerin: The story of how you made your new album 'Tiger Suit' has a great opening: 'It all began with a recurring dream'.
KT Tunstall: [Laughs] It did. Basically I have this recurring dream, which I've had since I was quite young, where I walk out of my house into my garden and there's a tiger in the garden. I go up to it and I touch it and then I go back into the house and I completely crap myself that I could've been killed - but I don't feel scared at the time. It started to dawn on me that I was maybe a tiger as well because in your dreams you often can't see yourself. And I thought: 'Well, maybe I have this tiger costume on and the tiger thinks that I'm a tiger as well and therefore [I'm] not being eaten alive'. It evoked this idea that you need this armour to go out and be as brave as you can be.
HG: So the dream is about risk-taking.
KTT: Definitely. I mean the whole thing [with this album], the whole process for me, was about getting out of my comfort zone and pushing myself into unknown territory. It was quite a spiritual experience as well as a creative one where I really felt I needed to cut ties with worrying about what other people wanted, or what they expected, and just free myself from that, because it really is a total noose. I think if you worry about that and play into the hands of that inevitably at some point you end up making crap music that's not for you, that's for other people. So that was the whole idea: to free myself from those chains of worrying.
HG: That sense of the carefree really shines through.
KTT: I had a fantastic time making this record. I've not enjoyed recording in the past; I find it very restrictive. At the same time I'd never recorded live, which we did on this album, and I loved it. We went out to Berlin to Hansa [Studios] where U2 made 'Achtung Baby' and Bowie made 'Heroes' and Iggy Pop made 'Lust for Life' and we ripped it up live and then came back to London and entered 'synthesiser world' which was brilliant. I just stopped caring and did whatever I wanted and just used sounds that really turned me on basically.
HG: It's interesting that you say you never enjoyed recording because it always came across to me on the other albums how relaxed they sounded - they didn't sound like a struggle.
KTT: I always enjoyed playing - when I was in front of the mic and doing my thing - I just find it a difficult process. This time I found it really enjoyable. I don't know if it's a coincidence - I doubt it is - that the record label totally left me alone during the recording [laughs]. Just having that initial period of freedom was instrumental in me feeling like I was progressing, had ownership of it and was doing exactly what I wanted to do.
HG: Of course there are people who would just like you to do [breakthrough hit] 'Black Horse & the Cherry Tree' on every record and sound like that forever.
KTT: That's the scariest prospect of all for me. That's the worst failing; if I just decided that was a successful sound and reproduced it on every album. I'd just end up not wanting to do it anymore.
I just hate the idea that if you repeat yourself enough that you just get put into this little box and if you want to do something different it's a big deal. I don't want it to be a big deal, because I've got interests in a lot of different areas. I really aspire to [be] someone like Beck who can make the thread his voice and his songwriting so that you know it's him but you don't know what to expect with the sound of it. I love that and that's what I'd like to acquire as a musician - an ability to skip between genres and not have any judgement on that.
HG: When I heard the first track from the album, 'Uummannaq Song', I thought: 'Has she moved to Africa?'
KTT: Ali Farka Toure [Malian singer] is another influence and I also spent a long time in a camper van in New Zealand travelling listening to 'Graceland' by Paul Simon. For 'Uummannaq Song', with the whole record actually, I just feel like I've discovered something indigenous about myself. I ended up with this sort of quite primal, tribal thing which really took me back to when I did a lot of clubbing when I was younger. I was very into tribal techno and used to go and really lose myself in great dance music. And I just think it's so closely related to me getting lost when I'm playing onstage - that kind of abandon.
HG: You came up with the description "nature techno".
KTT: It doesn't apply to the entirety of the record, but the overall mission in terms of making something new. When I got together with Jim [Abiss, producer] I said: 'What I really want is to sound like Eddy Cochrane working with Leftfield'. And he said: 'Well, you need to decide that you're going to commit to it because otherwise we'll get halfway down the road and you'll change your mind and we'll end up with half a good album'. I said: 'I do'.
And we got on with it. As I soon as I decided you couldn't stop me really - every synthesiser was out of the box and I was open to trying anything.
HG: Were you scared at all?
KT: [Laughs] Yeah! I got really worried. There were times when I thought: 'This is another of my stupid ideas where I've got something in my head and I'm not going to be able to see it through and it's not going to happen'. So I was starting to have that creep in and I thought: 'No'. We had such a strong team in Berlin that Jim said: 'I'm just trusting that if we hit a wall one of us will work out how to get through it'. And we did. Every time.
HG: You took risks and they paid off.
KTT: When you make an album, you have to decide how much you want to give away; you have to decide how much you want to open up. Because the more you open up the more rewarding it can be but the more dangerous it can be.
If you really open up and it gets panned it's really painful. I mean, I've not had anything universally dumped on by the press but bad reviews still hurt as much as they did when I first started - it's not easy to take. And so that was another thing I decided: I would prefer to be criticised for opening myself up and laying myself on the line than be criticised for not doing that.
HG: Talking to you about this record reminds me of a great saying we could all do with remembering: 'Worry is like a rocking chair; it passes the time but it doesn't get you anywhere'.
KTT: [Laughs] My favourite one is luck is being ready.
HG: Well, stay lucky or ready, as the case may be.
'Tiger Suit' is out now on Relentless.