After nearly leaving her career to forge a new path as a film composer, Scottish singer-songwriter KT Tunstall has gotten back into the game with KIN, her latest studio album. It’s an album filled with Tunstall’s trademark hook-y brand of pop rock, including recent single “Hard Girls,” which urges listeners to drop whatever facades they may be putting on and be themselves. We chat with the gritty-voiced guitarist about writing in Joshua Tree, the writing process behind her track “Evil Eye” and how Beck’s “Loser” changed her life.
What’s your typical songwriting process?
Usually a phrase or a title comes to me with a melody attached. I hear the lyrics and the chord progression in my head and have to quickly get that recorded, on my phone, or written in a notebook, otherwise I will forget it. Once it’s down, I can work on expanding outwards from that idea, or come back to it another time; the recording or notes take me straight back to the moment it came to me. Occasionally I set pre-written words to music, but that’s a rare way of doing it for me.
How has your writing process changed over the years?
I used to absolutely stick to what came out first as being sacred. I’m much more likely to shape a song over time now, and play with it more. This new album in particular, I really grafted to get the songs finished. In the past, I would just wait until inspiration hit, but this time I set my mind to working to a tight deadline – which I set for myself as I work much better under pressure – and spent a couple of weeks in Joshua Tree and New Mexico and wrote solidly for eight hours a day. It was actually really rewarding and I enjoyed the hard work. Taking writing retreats and going somewhere inspiring specifically to write is massively helpful.
How long have you been writing songs?
I started writing rhyming poetry when I was around 8 or 9, I’ve always been a big fan of Roald Dahl and Dr Seuss; they both have impeccable rhythm when it comes to rhyming. I started off writing on piano which is not my strongest instrument, and after teaching myself guitar at 15, that was when the song-writing began in earnest.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote? If so, what was it?
I do! It was actually pretty good! It was called ‘Only You’ and was about the feeling of being cheated on. I had never been cheated on and had only had one, maybe two boyfriends by that time, and I seem to remember that the song was based on the storyline between Miles and Claudia on ‘Dynasty’.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
David Bowie, Carol King, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Chryssie Hynde, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Beck, King Creosote, Lou Reed, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Petty. There are lots more, but they immediately come to mind!
What are some songs or albums that made you want to start writing songs yourself?
Seeing and hearing ‘Loser’ by Beck on MTV changed my life. It was the best thing I’d ever heard. ‘Fools Gold’ by the Stone Roses was another MTV classic that had me entranced. Tom Waits’ ‘Bone Machine’ and Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ we’re really transformative records for me in the early stages of my writing. Listening to Ella Fitzgerald was the closest thing to a singing teacher to me. My first ever CD was one my Dad bought me when I was 15 – the ‘Boots Rock Collection 5’ – hilarious, as if you don’t know, Boots is basically like Walgreens. But there were amazing artists on it that I had never heard; T-Rex, 10CC, The Stranglers, Blondie, all amazing and exciting artists. It was very sweet as my parents didn’t listen to music at home, and my Dad just picked something he thought I might like, which I definitely did.
Which of your songs was the most difficult for you to write? What’s the story behind it?
I have to say, if a song is really difficult to write, I usually don’t pursue it. If it feels that hard, I question whether it is coming from the best place. On this album, my hardest challenge was ‘Evil Eye’. I had the riff, loved the verses and chorus, but it needed a bridge or Middle Eight as we call it, and that was super tricky. I wanted to break from the relentless rhythm and take the song somewhere unexpected, to a more pensive, vulnerable place. I came up with the new section pretty late in the day, and the riff had been the first thing I wrote for the new album, probably 2 years earlier. I didn’t write anything for about a year after writing that riff, I was focusing on film music.
What’s been your proudest moment as a songwriter so far?
I have to say this record. It has been very unexpected, and a real case of inspiration leading the way rather than a cerebral decision to make an album. To put together these pretty muscular, emotional pop-rock songs on my fifth record feels really, really good. Of course I’m also incredibly proud of my achievements with my two biggest hits, ‘Black Horse’ and ‘Suddenly,’ and it was wonderful to win an Ivor Novello award.
If you could co-write or collaborate with anyone, living or dead, who would you choose?
Bowie. Prince. John Bonham. Beck. Sufjan Stevens. Jack White. So many people it would be a dream to work with.
Which song on your new album are you the most proud of and why?
‘It Took Me So Long To Get Here, But Here I Am’. It says it how it is. It’s the mission statement of the record. It’s honest, vulnerable, strong, joyful, emotional, carefree. It’s basically saying I’m proud of myself!