Musician KT Tunstall: The right side of 25

KT Tunstall’s Scottish brogue is disappointingly easy to understand. Moreover, she is thoughtful and articulate. Nothing like the bad behavior we’ve come to expect from those crazy United Kingdom-based singer-songwriters.

Drugs and debauchery, sure. Black horses and cherry trees? Not so much. But Tunstall’s debut album, Eye To The Telescope (Virgin), gives listeners just that – her best-known single (“Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”) is about a scene she experienced as a young woman in Greece: “I was on my moped, going through an olive grove with all of these gnarly little trees; this huge stallion had broken loose from its tether and was bucking and just going crazy. It was a completely apocalyptic image. It really stayed with me.”

In a nearly 40-minute telephone conference from Chicago, this is the sole mention of a negative vision or experience. Folk-pop singer/songwriter Tunstall is almost oddly optimistic about nearly everything.

“I believe in spreading love wherever you can,” she declared. Her sunny outlook is reflected in her adopted religion, which she says “is to do good, as Tom Paine said.”

Giggling, she characterized her music as “girly stomp,” and when asked to name her influences, rattles off an impressively diverse list, including Joni Mitchell, PJ Harvey, the Velvet Underground, the Flaming Lips, Beck and “old black female soul singers” like Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.

Yet she resists recent comparisons to Dido or Fiona Apple, identifying the women as “entirely different artists.” In fact, she may even point to the underlying gender relations in the comparison, given her insightful comments about her difficultly in landing a record deal because she was “on the wrong side of 25.”

Record labels greeted her advances coolly, as most of the labels had already signed their token “singer-songwriter girl.” Tunstall was too old and “haggard,” as she jokingly said. Turning serious, she noted, “I really don’t think that male singer-songwriters get the same attitude.” But she points to the success of Sheryl Crow, who released her first album at age 34 and has since become one of the world’s best-selling artists.

“I don’t really understand the (record labels’) attitude,” Tunstall said nonchalantly, declaring it “dumb.”

Yet even when on the right side of 25, Tunstall shied away from major labels, adamant about remaining independent. Instead of pursuing a recording deal, she spent her time “just hanging out with a bunch of eccentric folk musicians in a Scottish fishing village.”

But at 27 and “penniless,” Tunstall decided that her time had come and that if she was to succeed in music that she had to push ahead. Three years later, signed to Virgin Records and embarking on a U.S. tour, Tunstall seems to have reached a tipping point. Her single is nearly ubiquitous, and she has popped up on American television from the “Today” show to “Ellen.”

“The last three months have been,” Tunstall stumbles, starting and then abandoning words until she lands on “just stellar.” She pauses, continuing, “Just constantly ascending.”

For right now, she is enjoying touring with what she calls her “E Street band – they’re the guys that are gonna be around for the duration” and reveling in the electricity of playing live, which she compares to “a complete circuit board.”

Unfortunately, Tunstall won’t be bringing her half-full glass to D.C. anytime soon, so her fan base here in the District will have to settle for her strong vocals and use of a homemade guitar pedal she calls “the wee bastard” soaring out of their radios and televisions.

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