Preview: KT Tunstall

Suddenly, Scottish singer-songwriter is a hit

'Girl with a guitar' – what does that say to most people? Back in the Sixties it suggested a hippy folk singer – Joan Baez maybe – earnestly strumming hymns about the evils of capitalism or 'bad karma.'

Since the 90s, however, thanks to the long-running American situation comedy Friends, the thing that springs to mind for most people is Phoebe. This ditzy and sentimental character, played by Lisa Kudrow, was always ready to compose emotionally overwrought ballads about the most inane subjects, singing 'classics' like Smelly Cat or Ode to a Pubic Hair (Little Black Curly Hair) in front of her friends in the coffee bar.

In other words, 'Girl with a guitar' has an image problem on a par with high school poetry. So how does the current 'Girl with a guitar' – 31-year-old KT Tunstall – deal with this? Since releasing Eye to the Telescope a year and a half ago, Tunstall's blend of folk rock with kooky edges, sung with a distinctive and often husky voice has become flavor of the month.

One way Tunstall deals with the negative baggage of the 'Girl with the guitar' cliché is by working and touring at a rate that the fragile and whimsical Phoebe never could. She is currently engaged in an extensive American tour which will keep her busy until she arrives here in late July.

Another way is by developing a tough, hard-drinking, trash talking, 'boots-on' image that would cow many a hardened rapper, her models here being Patti Smith and P. J. Harvey.

In fact, being tougher than the average rapper is exactly how she got her big break, when rapper Nas pulled out of a live appearance on the popular British TV music show Later…With Jools Holland due to ill health in October, 2004. A then completely unknown Tunstall was thrown in. Her charismatic performance of Black Horse & The Cherry Tree overcame her lack of fame to be voted the show's best performance in an on-line poll.

At the time she had already signed to Relentless Records, home to Janis Joplin sing-a-like Joss Stone, and was completing her debut album with U2 and Happy Mondays producer, Steve Osborne, but critics agree that the exposure she got that night sparked her career.

On its release in December 2004, Eye to the Telescope did reasonably well, reaching number 7 in the UK charts, but got an additional boost when she was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize 2005 (won that year by Anthony & the Johnsons). This endorsement sent it back up the charts to peak at number 3. Since then Tunstall has also picked up the 2006 British Solo Female Artist title at the British music industry Brit awards.

Both these awards are selected undemocratically by a clique or music business insiders. Critics say that the pure musical merit of those selected is less important than considerations of future marketability and likely and desired musical trends. Seen in these terms, Tunstall’s music has powerful backers.

Much has been made of her background: born to an Irish folk singer and a part-Chinese dancer, but raised by her adoptive parents – a physics professor at St. Andrew’s University and his school teacher wife – in a house without a stereo or a TV. This biographical detail is interesting because in our TV-saturated age, it even carries a suggestion of the deprivation and even physical blindness that contributed to the raw creativity of some early Blues musicians.

This raw creativity is something that Tunstall tries to emulate in her show–stopping song, Black Horse and The Cherry Tree, a heavily symbolic song, in which she turns down a matrimonial proposal from the sable-colored equine of the title, against a backdrop of raucous stomping blues. Other songs, like the hit single, Suddenly I See and Other Side of the World, however have a softer, sweeter, and more polished pop feel.

The combination of hard and soft elements, in both her music and image, has also raised questions about her sexuality. In the early days before it became known that she was dating her band's drummer Luke Bullen, it was widely assumed that she was lesbian, an impression furthered by the cover shot of Eye to the Telescope, in which she is wearing rainbow braces, often seen as a homosexual symbol. Rather than harming her career, this seems to have only attracted an additional dedicated following.

"I have a massive lesbian following," she proudly told Britain's Daily Mirror newspaper earlier this year. "There's always a gay crowd up the front at my gigs…I think it's because I'm a singer-songwriter with a personality – balls and some sassiness."

With female singer songwriters typically having much shorter careers in the public eye than their male counterparts, she may need all the male attributes she can muster. But already, she admits to feeling the traditional pressures that prevent women following their career paths further.

"I'd love to have kids but not yet," she says. "The one frustrating thing about this happening later in my life is that I have a limited time frame. I'd imagine that in a couple of years, I'll be ready to take a break."

International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
7th July, 2006

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