It took seven years for KT Tunstall to get here. Excavating the soul with the 2016 release KIN and moving into the spirit with WAX in 2018, Tunstall followed the cognitive thought patterns, and reflections of personal upheavals, on the third and final piece of her humanistic trilogy with NUT.
The apex of Tunstall’s three consecutive albums, produced by longtime collaborator Martin Terefe—who also co-wrote Tunstall’s 2005 hit “Other Side of the World” and has worked on nearly all seven of her albums—NUT is caught between Tunstall’s inkling as an acoustic troubadour and all the electrified and rock nuances of her other half.
Hardwired around the most complex human organ, the brain, NUT dances through some of the episodes that shaped the past few years of Tunstall’s life, from picking up and moving from the U.K. to California in 2015, following her divorce, to her recent bout with severe tinnitus, and an unrelated condition that led to the complete loss of hearing in her left ear, while she was on tour for WAX in 2018.
“I lost my hearing completely in my left ear, and the irony is that I still have tinnitus in my deaf ear,” Tunstall tells American Songwriter. “My younger brother was born profoundly deaf—so there’s been deafness in our family—and when I told him I’d lost my hearing in one ear he was like ‘oh, poor you,’ which made it less frightening.”
She added, “Obviously it’s pretty terrifying being a musician, but honestly the worst part was that I lost my balance for two months, so I was so relieved when the vertigo sorted itself out. I can still play. I can still make music. I can still write. I’ve got my legs. I’ve got my eyes. I’ve got my health, so who am I to bitch when I can do everything I want to do.”
As Tunstall was working on another record for an upcoming musical and another record with rock icon Suzi Quatro, during the pandemic, NUT carried a more complex storyline and one where the lyrics didn’t always come so easily at first. For guidance, Tunstall visualized the songs as cognitive patterns, based on learning and repetition. Writing without deadlines during the pandemic also allowed her to loosen her grip on the songs.
“I’m a dreamer, and I’ve always been a dreamer, and to write lyrics, I have to allow myself to unhook from the day-to-day and go into this other realm,” said Tunstall. “Through the pandemic, the present moment was holding on to the back of my shirt every minute and just would not let me go.”
Throughout, NUT moves through varied emotional states, with Tunstall teasing her own Hall & Oates titles with the more pop-rock opening “Out of Touch”—Tunstall once played the glockenspiel to their 1984 hit during a performance with Daryl Hall—to the more revelatory “Private Eyes.” Far removed from Hall & Oates’ 1981 tale of an untrustworthy lover, Tunstall’s “Private Eyes” confronts the blood-sucking cost of fame, as she recounts the meltdown of an actress she once met who hid in a basement of a London club, petrified of the paparazzi waiting outside.
Lightening the heavier load with dance-pop tracks “I Am The Pilot” and “Dear Shadow,” Tunstall gets more pensive on the slowed-down “Three,” a song inspired by a journal practice she undertook by writing multiple entries on one topic from the perspectives of the mind, body, and soul. The denser pulse of “Canyons” dissects the cavernous parts of the brain and the intricacies of human and natural evolution, pleading Oh, dear brain / Keeping me cold in a holding pattern / Over and over again / I find myself fighting you to stay strange.
Everything from the album title, a word Tunstall connected with since it’s also a “seed,” and the idea of something sprouting or growing to the album artwork depicting the brain as a garden blossoming, is linked to the mindful storyline of NUT.
What NUT would sound like was percolating for some time with Tunstall immersed in different genres from the West African music of late Nigerian artist Fela Kuti and Malian singer Ali Farka Touré—an artist she was first introduced to after someone gave her a mixtape at 17— to Nigerian drummer and composer Tony Allen. Following her musical scope on NUT, Tunstall pulled from her West African influences along with The Flaming Lips and PJ Harvey and the electronic fuses of The Chemical Brothers—the latter electro fills more evident throughout NUT and her third album Tiger Suit.
“I never like being instructive, cerebrally about what I’m going to make,” said Tunstall. “It’s always about what you feel like making at the time—don’t jump the gun—but I did feel drawn. I love Eddie Cochran and I love Left Field and [The] Chemical Brothers, and those two different genres of music actually make me feel the same way. They both just make me want to dance and stomp my feet and feel the pulse of it.”
Tunstall added, “I really like West African stuff. It’s very meditative and repetitive. I just love the leanness musically of that stuff, where it’s much more hypnotic. It just repeats and repeats, and no one’s taking up the space. It’s less about melody than it is about groove, and I’m just a beats girl. I’m always going to be about rhythm.”
Taking a physiological stance, “Synapse” (the space in the brain between two nerve cells, where impulses pass by a minute gap), is a tribal bustle through all the neurotransmissions before the more Americana-leaned “All the Time.”
I told my family keep my brain in a jar. They told me doesn’t matter where you are. It’s better than dying by far, sings KT Tunstall by the time she’s deciphered the many pathways of the brain on the closing “Brain in a Jar.” Her perfect sonic trifecta, NUT is just the musical closure Tunstall needed after the past seven-year run.
“I didn’t really think about what it would feel like to finish it, and then suddenly you’re standing on that precipice of releasing the last part—and it’s seven years of work,” said Tunstall, who called NUT the “soundtrack” to creating a new version of herself.
“I started it from a position of fascination about these subjects, just personal interest, but it’s inevitably become the soundtrack to these huge unexpectedly meaningful, and deep personal shifts in my life,” she added. “I’ve even more glad that I did it now.”
Photo: Cortney Armitage / Mad Ink PR