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Arts & Entertainment

KT Tunstall Returns to The Tarrytown Music Hall Armed with ‘NUT,’ a New Album Exploring the Human Condition

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April 20, 2023

By W.B. King–

While perhaps a strange alchemy, elemental science and an appreciation for punk-folk music inspired a young girl from St Andrews, Scotland to pick up a guitar and write songs that would eventually make millions of people “suddenly see” what it was she wanted to be.

“My dad had about six cassettes, which he listened to sometimes — Bach, Mozart, but he actually listened to Tom Lehrer, too,” KT Tunstall told The Hudson Independent.

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While Lehrer isn’t a classical master, he is an American singer-songwriter, satirist, and mathematician who taught at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tunstall’s father, a physicist, gravitated to Lehrer’s song, “The Elements,” a syncopated tune with lyrics detailing the periodic table.

“It was like a ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’ style — all the chemical compounds into a rhyming song. An absolute work of genius,” she said. “That was my favorite song when I was four. I really got into perfect cadence and rhyming and humor.”

Years later, the Grammy-nominated troubadour would listen to another album from her dad’s limited collection, the sound track to Chariots of Fire by Greek composer, Vangelis.

“The beach in St Andrews is the beach in [the movie] Chariots of Fire — the big long beach they run down. The soundtrack is amazing,” Tunstall said. “Vangelis is still a nostalgic reference point for me when I’m using synthesizers in the studio.”

Profound Period of Change

Tunstall’s latest effort, NUT (2022), completes a three-album arc dating back to 2016 with the release of KIN that was followed by WAX in 2018.

“NUT is the culmination of a seven-year project,” Tunstall noted of the eclectic, pandemic-era effort that at times harkens back to 1980s new wave. “It’s the final part of a trilogy of records that has spanned probably the most extreme and profound period of change in my life.”

This musical journey began in 2014 with the passing of her father, which made her realize that the troubled marriage she was in was best remedied by a divorce — she had lost sight of her inner compass.

“You have this dream when you’re young with what you want to do and you live in the process of fulfilling the dream and then you actually do it. You’ve achieved it. Then I spent 15-plus years repeating myself…making albums and going on tour and didn’t come up with a new dream,” she shared. “I think that was a big part of where the unhappiness was coming from…dreaming is one of the most important parts of life for me. Repetition is the least enjoyable.”

With contemplative songs like “Three” and “Canyons,” her new album examines the human condition: soul, body and mind, which is representative of the three album titles, KIN, WAX and NUT, respectively.

“I really didn’t realize [a trilogy] was what I was doing. KIN was like a phoenix from the ashes after huge life changes and long, hard stares in the mirror and a lot of therapy, which continues,” she said between laughs. “It has been very therapeutic overall — basing these albums on different pillars of the experiences of being human.”

Produced by longtime collaborator Martin Terefe, NUT was a difficult album to write lyrically, Tunstall conceded. This was due, in part, to the rigors of pandemic living, as well as her inability, at times, to connect with her subconscious.

“‘Canyons’ was the first song I wrote for this. It’s a soothsayer song,” she continued. “I had written it before I moved to Topanga Canyon [Los Angeles]. I felt like that song made me want to live in the canyons.”

Tunstall relocated in 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, to her then-new home, where she would live for a few years. One day while driving, she made a deeper connection to the song.

“If you zoomed in on a brain, it would actually look like the Grand Canyon with these deep, deep channels; so I was thinking of the metaphor of how these canyons are formed from water going down the same path. The same way as our thought processes, synapses and neuropathways — the condition that leads us into habits,” she continued. “It gets harder and harder to change the root of the thought or behavior, but the wild part is that our brain can do that — make new paths.”

Tunstall’s latest album also celebrates her signature rhythmic and energetic style first encapsulated on her 2004 multi-platinum debut record, Eye to the Telescope, featuring hits “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and “Suddenly I See.”

An impressive one-woman-show tour de force, Tunstall’s soulful, raspy voice and layered guitar and percussion work will be showcased on April 30 at The Tarrytown Music Hall. Her unique approach to performing is accentuated by looping technology allowing her to create spirited rhythm patterns inspired, in part, by West African beats and the music of Ali Farka Touré and Fela Kuti. NUT’s “I am the Pilot” and “Synapse” are representative of these influences.

Off to the Races

Before Tunstall was tapped by the musical muse, she felt adrift in St Andrews, a population of roughly 12,000 people at the time. There were only so many times she could go through the local teenage rite of passage: getting drunk and running down the beach recreating Chariots of Fire.

“I was lucky that I met a bunch of anarchic, off-grid musicians in my hometown that I didn’t know existed until I was 15, which is when I started playing guitar. They were living in all these weird little cottages on the outskirts of town and were really brilliant musicians,” she said, adding that of that community of players, The Beta Band would emerge, gaining popularity.

“They got me into the punk side of folk music. We were in bands, driving around Scotland doing gigs…busking to make money,” she said. “It was a raw existence and I loved it.”

At this juncture, Tunstall realized that she would never want a proper job or work in a conventional sense. “I knew I had to get really good as a musician — that was the game plan and I didn’t care if I could afford new clothes or go on holidays.”

When she began writing her own music, however, it didn’t sound like the underground punk music that she had been steeped in. “I was definitely coming up with more mainstream, accessible music,” she recalled with a laugh. “The guys knew it but still treated me like a sister in the gang. They didn’t oust me in any way, which was wonderful. They were really proud and pleased when things did [eventually] kick off for me.”

Among her supporters was Tunstall’s then boyfriend, a Django Reinhardt fan. The famed gypsy-jazz guitarist’s inimitable approach to the instrument spoke to her rhythmic sensibilities.

“He really got me in to Django, Bela Fleck and a lot of bluegrass,” she recalled. “When it came to making my first record, so much of it was about rhythm and after playing on the street for a long time you become your own percussion section as well as playing the guitar — trying to make it as vibey as possible.”

While realizing her songs were more conventional than her peers, she didn’t see herself having a “confessional open-mic, ‘Smelly Cat’” type of career. (The latter a reference to Friends’ character Phoebe’s satirical musical plight.)

“I wanted to get a vibe going,” she said, adding that her epiphany came while recording vocal tracks with Oi Va Voi, a London-based Jewish hip-hop group. “Their sound engineer had this pedal in his backpack.”

While Tunstall had seen other musicians use a looping pedal, she could never get the right sounds or rhythms, but with the help from her new friend, and a lot of trial and error, she had a “Eureka” moment.

“After that, I was off to the races,” Tunstall said, noting that she is scheduled to perform with Oi Va Voi for a 20thanniversary concert celebration. “There is such a reward in feeling that you pioneered something. It’s one of the coolest parts of my journey.”

Tunstall says “she can’t wait” to return to the stage at The Tarrytown Music Hall where she will co-headline the bill with fellow bard and frequent tour buddy, Martin Sexton. The pair last played the Music Hall in 2019.

“He is just a ridiculously talented musician and entertainer. I so enjoy watching him play,” Tunstall said, adding that one of the last times they performed together they did a duet of The Pine Ridge Boys famous tune “You are My Sunshine.”

Landslide Goddess

While Tunstall is more accustomed these days to performing on stage than being in the audience, an experience with Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac fame reminded her of how it feels to meet a musical hero and have expectations exceeded.

Roughly seven years ago, Tunstall was invited to a birthday party dinner for her musician friend Vanessa Carlton, who also invited Nicks to the celebration.

“I couldn’t believe it. It was a magical evening spent with one of my favorite musicians of all time. She [Stevie] was everything you hoped,” Tunstall shared. “She was so funny and down to earth but had this whole ethereal side to her. We all went back to her place and she showed us her art work and it was just wonderful.”

Six months later, Fleetwood Mac was playing the Wembley Stadium in London, but the concert was sold out. Tunstall asked Carlton if she could pull some strings, which she did encouraging her friend to “say hello” to Stevie at the show.

“I didn’t think she would remember who I was. I imagined myself in a line behind Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton waiting to say hello to Stevie. So, we just went to the show and we were probably four rows back — amazing seats,” she continued. “Four or five songs in and then the whole band left, leaving Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham on stage.”

Nicks approached the microphone and peered out over the concert lights: “I want to dedicate this to the most rocking chick in the audience. This is for KT Tunstall!” Nicks and Buckingham then performed “Landslide,” which remains a favorite moment in Tunstall’s life. “It was an awesome and special experience.”

In Scotland “nut” refers to the brain as in “Don’t lose your nut,” but nut is also the word for “Goddess of the Sky” in Ancient Egyptian mythology. So, when Tunstall visits Tarrytown, among her hits, fans might also be treated to the song written for Nicks: “Demigod,” which she said “paints Stevie as that mythical Sky Goddess.” The song, she added, “fit perfectly” on the album.

“The least I could do was to write a song for the woman,” Tunstall said with a sense of awe. “It can sound conceited to say that so and so shouted you out, but you have to earn that — all the work that you have done to be your own person and have your own show leads to that moment, so there is a depth to it.”

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