KT Tunstall has been enjoying success for the best part of a decade and she is back with her fifth album Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon.
Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon is the most stripped back and personal of Tunstall’s records to date and shows off a very different side to her as both a writer and a singer.
We caught up with her to chat about the new release, working with producer Howe Gelb and what lies ahead.
- You have released your fifth album Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon so what can we expect from this new record?
Well, it is quite different to anything that I have done before. It is quite stripped back, it is very emotional and it is this album is all about singing.
- This is a very stripped back, delicate and quite simple sounding album so what took you down this path in terms of sound?
Albums tend to dictate what they need. Every time I have made an album it sort of feels like it is decided for me how that album is going to sound; it is not really a cerebral decision where you sit down and decide that you are going to make an album that sounds like ‘this’. It is more like you follow the feeling of what the songs suggest they should sound like.
I had gone out to Tuscon in Arizona to work with a guy called Howe Gelb, he produced the record with me, and certainly the landscape and the powerful feeling that you get in the desert had a an impact.
It is very meditative and there is definitely a feeling that you are isolated from the rest of the world. It is a slower pace out there and I think that all of those things did have an effect.
- How well did this style fit with your vocal style?
It was exiting to go down that road because I hadn’t done it before; I do always like pushing into new areas with my music. Listening to Howe’s music I was just really enjoying the fact that the space is just as important as the music.
I had had a few things happen leading up to the record that gave me more confidence in my singing and made me feel that it would be a good idea to let my voice lead the way rather than my rhythm guitar - which is usually the case.
- Some reviews are saying that this is the best your voice has sounded on an album - how far do you agree with that? Do you think that vocal wise you are in a stronger place then you were when you made the last album?
Yeah, I agree with it definitely. It was a revelatory experience recording to tape machine; all of my albums in the past have done to computer. I have always had a feeling that I am not capturing the vocals that I deliver live when I was recording in the studio.
A lot of that is to do with not having an audience but a lot of that is also to do with doing a performance where you know you can go and fix things if you make mistakes. This album is all live single takes so it really ups your game as a musician to perform.
The tape machine almost becomes like an audience and you have to perform for it because it is going to capture what you do and there is not going back.
Also it is just a different style of singing and this album does present a very different side to my voice. I think on record that side of my voice sits really well with a studio recording.
- You recorded in Tuscon, Arizona with Howe Gelb so how did that collaboration come about?
I was asked to go on a tour in February 2012 with a musician called Robin Hitchcock; he put together a group of about six artists to tour and we were called the Floating Palace. Howe and I were both on that tour together and that is how we met.
So that was in February and by April I had gone out to do some work with him. It wasn’t even saying ‘let’s make an album’ it was more ‘come out to Tuscon and we will experiment and have some fun and see what happens’. So it was really in the spirit of musical adventure.
- How did you find working with him and the whole experience of recording in the States?
It was really good for me. He is very none-conventional and a total maverick, quite out there and insanely laid back; I have never met a more laid back person (laughs). So he sets the tone and the pace of the recording and gets the right people in to come and play.
He really just puts everyone in a certain state of mind which just allows a certain kind of performance to come forward, which was really positive.
- This entire recording process has been completely different to what you have done before but has given great results. So do you intend to record this way going forward?
I would never pigeon hole myself stylistically because I just don’t know what I am going to want to do next.
In terms or recording in that way where it is musicians playing live and recording on to tape I absolutely loved that and I would be surprised if I wanted to shy away from that again.
- This is also a very personal album as half of it looks at mortality while the other half is very reflective about what was going on in your life at the time how easy was it to bear your soul, for want of a better word?
Well it was definitely the easiest record that I have ever made because the songs came very very quickly. It was very none analytical in the way that it was written. I didn’t peruse over each song or wonder what I was saying or trying to get a certain subject or situation into a song, it all tumbled out very easily.
The songs aren’t really about specific things instead that are an amalgamation of everything that was going on. The first half of the record was before anything and happened so that was more of a weird fortune telling aspect.
The songs were about smaller things and within a couple of months they really related to much bigger things that had happened in my life; that was kind of spooky actually.
But in general it all feels quite medicinal to sing it because it is not… although it is very personal it is not like I am singing a diary it more just a painting of how I felt.
- During the recording of this record you went through personal challenges, the death of your father and a split from your husband, so how did music pull you through that time and help you make sense of it all?
Music for me has always been a vent and has always been a great outlet. The subconscious mind is a powerful thing and nurturing to be able to do what it does is a really healthy thing to do and allow your subconscious mind to take control when you are being creative; that is where the non-analytical attitude comes from. It was very quick to make - it was only two ten day sessions.
But even in those twenty days just getting out of town was good and getting into a different landscape and being with different people kicks out a bit of a state change in your head.
- Howe Gelb has produced the album as we have already discussed but how hands on are you in that area?
This is the first record that I have had a co-production credit on. I said to Howe ‘are you cool for us to share this?’ Because as it went on I really felt that I was much more in the driving seat that I had ever been before.
Howe was creating this fantastic atmosphere to record in and really nurturing the sound of it. I found myself being able to really direct what was going on and I felt like I was really with him at the helm of the ship and that was very exciting. It was a very fulfilling project. It just felt very pure.
It is the first record I have made without any outside influence at all as the record company were fantastic and just left me to it; that is every artist’s dream when you are signed to a major label.
- How have you found the response and reaction to the album so far - it does seem to be going down well?
It has been incredible. I had a feeling when I made the record that there was some worth in the fact that it was sharing difficult periods of my life and that everybody has those; so every single person who has heard it would be able to relate to those difficulties with the difficulties of their own.
I think in our culture there is still quite a taboo about sharing how you feel. I have always been a great fan of albums that are cathartic and that you can listen to them together and you can relate to them as a group of people or as friends.
You can galvanise together in knowing that everybody has shit happen to them and no one has a perfect life; no matter how they make it seem. It just seemed like a very healthy thing to share.
I have had a really wonderful response from fans and it has been really heart-warming to hear and read how they have felt about it.
- Have you had some personal responses from them about how they have been able to relate to your work?
Yeah, absolutely. I have always had that through the years but certainly more with this record because it is a more emotional album. What is really nice and what I really appreciate it them saying ‘yes it is sad but it is wonderful, there is hope and it doesn’t leave you depressed’.
- This is your fifth album so how do you feel that you have developed as both a songwriter and a musician from the release of your debut back in 2005 to this this?
I think this album marks a real proper severance from worrying about approval from other people and worrying about what people are going to think and how fans are going to react to it. As much as I have liked to think in the past that these things didn’t affect me, they did. Howe has been great in helping me get to that place.
Also with everything that I have been through it is a massive priority shift and a reality check where you realise what is important in life; as an artist it is important to make what you think is good.
If you don’t think it is the way that is should be then you don’t do it and you don’t release it. So it has been really great to be able to break away from anyone else’s opinion about what I am doing.
- Do you perhaps feel more in control of your music than you ever have before?
Yeah, for sure. I would it would be that way as you get older as well as it would be depressing if you had less and less control as you got older (laughs). I definitely feel that way.
And I feel that because it has almost been ten years with the label that I have finally got to a place where I am trusted and that I can make music and I can explain what it is to a point where fans can get it.
- You are also going to be playing a string of live shows and festivals around the UK to coincide with the release of the album so how excited are you to get back on the road and play these new tracks live?
It is going to be good and I am really looking forward to it. It will be very different for me from previous tours because my music, in the past, has been a lot more upbeat so it is going to be a more emotional experience.
But, as I said, there is a lot of light in it and because of the great reaction from fans it will make it feel very worth as while. It is only at the summer festivals where I will have a band so, on the whole, I am going out solo.
Going out on your own is such a lovely way to present intimate songs and playing in some really special venues as well.
- You have been in the music industry and having success for over ten years now so how have you seen the industry change in the time that you have been in it? Do you think that it has changed for the better?
I try and keep as far away from the industry side of thing as possible as it is definitely something that I interact with only when necessary. In terms of new artists getting record deals it is so different from when I started; it is really weird to say that YouTube didn’t exist when my first album came out.
It is very different now as record companies will loo at what social media profile an artist has before signing them. When I signed my record deal it was the record company’s job to give the artist the public profile - but it just doesn’t work like that anymore.
And with advent of all the reality TV shows it has made life a lot more difficult for a new artist. I wouldn’t want to be starting now and I am really glad that I was the tail end of the old school (laughs).
I think that there is a lot of freedom for artists as the technology means that it is easier to make your own music and get it out there to people.
But industry wise I don’t feel like it has reached a place where it is totally working yet in terms of the record companies being in harmony with the way that music is bought or stolen.
- Finally what is next for you as you go through the rest of the year?
It is just gigging really until the end of this year. I have also written a film script with Jim Abbiss, who produced my last album, and that is with an electronic soundtrack. So I am really enjoying that.
KT Tunstall - Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon is out now.