The Unlikely Success Story Behind KT Tunstall’s “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree”

The Buggles insisted in their 1979 hit that “video killed the radio star,” but KT Tunstall may beg to differ. The song that introduced the Scottish singer/songwriter to millions of fans got two significant boosts from being performed on television shows. “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” was not initially included in the track listing for her 2004 debut album Eye to the Telescope. Through some unusual circumstances, the song belatedly made it onto the album, but it would take another 10 months before “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” would make its way from the UK to the U.S. Then it would take another eight months for it to become a Top 20 hit.

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How did Tunstall’s surreal song go from being a tune heard by just a few to an international hit? It all started with a canceled performance from a hip-hop superstar.

A Last-Minute Replacement

In October 2004, Tunstall was touring with the Lancashire, England-based band The Earlies as a flutist when she received a life-changing phone call. Nas—who was about to release his seventh studio album Street’s Disciple—had been scheduled to perform on BBC’s Later… with Jools Holland, but he had to cancel. With just 24 hours notice, Tunstall was asked to fill in for Nas.

The good news for Tunstall was she had recently completed her solo debut album Eye to the Telescope and had her choice of 11 new songs to showcase. She approached Shabs Jobanputra, the head of her label (Relentless Records), looking for advice on which song to play. In an interview with Adam Reader on his Professor of Rock YouTube channel, Tunstall said Jobanputra told her to play “the horse song.” He reassured her it was the right choice, even though it was not going to be on Eye to the Telescope.

Jobanputra was right. Tunstall’s performance of the song, in which she used loop pedals to create a full-band sound with her vocals, acoustic guitar, tambourine, and handclaps, was a rousing success. The song became a hit in the UK, peaking at No. 28, and Relentless rushed to add the live Later… with Jools Holland version of “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” to Eye to the Telescope as a bonus track. Tunstall then recorded a studio version of the song, which was included on future pressings of Eye to the Telescope.

A Second Unexpected Boost

It took Virgin Records more than seven months after “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree’s” February 2005 chart peak in the UK to release the single in the U.S. It would take another five months for the song to debut on the Billboard Hot 100. “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” might have been relegated to minor hit status if not for Katharine McPhee’s decision to perform it on American Idol. McPhee actually sang “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” on two different episodes from Season 5—one that featured the final five contestants and the season finale. After the latter performance, “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” catapulted to No. 23 on the Hot 100, up from No. 79.

The song would eventually reach No. 20 and spend a total of 30 weeks on the Hot 100. It also topped Billboard’s Adult Alternative Songs and Adult Top 40 charts. The success of “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” had a domino effect, as it paved the way for one of Tunstall’s follow-up singles, “Suddenly I See,” to make it to No. 21 on the Hot 100. Eye to the Telescope would spend a total of 83 weeks on the Billboard 200, peaking at No. 33, and become a Top 10 rock album. It received Platinum certification in October 2006.

What Does “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” Mean?

Tunstall’s electrifying TV performance was probably enough all on its own to give “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” the momentum it needed to become a hit. It also doesn’t hurt that the song tells a surreal, yet compelling, story. Clearly, the tale about a protagonist who encounters a talking black horse is not meant to be taken literally, but half the fun of the song is trying to decipher its true meaning.

Tunstall herself has said the story she tells in “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” is not linear, as it “ebbs and flows and kind of changes.” Its central message though, is about learning about your true self and what you really want. In her interview with Reader, she said the point in the song where the horse proposes marriage is a “Robert Johnson kind of idea of being at a crossroads and not knowing which way to go.” Despite being fearful and intimidated, Tunstall’s character holds her ground with the horse.

Well, the big black horse said, “Look this way”
He said, “Hey, li’l lady, will you marry me?”
But I said, “No no no no no no”
I said, “No no
You’re not the one for me”

Though Tunstall’s story is the stuff of fantasy, it was inspired by an actual experience she had while traveling in Greece by moped. While riding past an olive tree orchard, she spotted a large black stallion that had gotten loose. The memory of the out-of-control horse stuck with her and made its way into the song.

Tunstall’s Later… with Jools Holland appearance not only provided the initial momentum for a breakthrough single but also launched a lengthy and prolific music career. She has released seven solo studio albums, and in 2023, she put out an album of duets with Suzi Quattro called Face to Face. Tunstall has also composed soundtracks for several movies, including Carried, a 2023 short film based on her song of the same name. She starred in the film along with Scottish actor James Cosmo. The talented Tunstall would have likely produced a great body of work no matter what, but we can be thankful that Nas’ last-minute cancellation provided her with the opportunity to bring her music to a worldwide audience.

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