It’s a sunny Wednesday afternoon in New York, and compared to the restless feel of her third album, Tiger Suit, the soft-spoken KT Tunstall sounds quite tranquil over the phone. This may have something to do with losing sleep due to a middle-of-the-night revelation.
“I woke up at three in the morning and said ‘Oh shit, our first gig is on Halloween,’” she laughed. Today she is calling from London, where she and her band are rehearsing for a quickie UK tour, which will shift direction to the States with the first date in Portland, Oregon on October 31. To properly say hello to America, she wants to find a way to celebrate the American idea of Halloween.
“British people pretty much put on a skeleton costume and have a beer. I just remembered that you Americans take it seriously. I said to the band, I was like ‘We cannot go and do it and just dress as ourselves.’ The theme is going to be ‘dress as your favorite dead rock star’.”
Oh, the possibilities. Hendrix. Morrison. Cobain. With so many to choose from, what’s her costume of choice? [Ed. Note: she clarified she’d go as Kurt Cobain two days earlier]
“Mine would be an Elvis costume, but you’d have to be sitting on this big toilet with pills all around you. It would be pretty awkward to play guitar with that thing on.”
Tunstall’s followers may have prematurely put her on that list of rockers who have gone on to the great gig in the sky, as she’s been quiet the past couple years since winding down the promotional cycle of her last album, Drastic Fantastic. She’s very much alive, however, evidenced by the life she breathed into the music on Tiger Suit. The album is a howling, primal affair inspired by trips to the more remote corners of the world. Tunstall says each song has a location, but one place even made it into a song title.
“It’s pronounced OO-muh-nack,” she says of the Greenland settlement named in Tiger Suit‘s opening track, “Uummannaq Song”. “I was on a big weird trip with a bunch of scientists and musicians but they were all stellar creative minds. I felt like getting off and staying in this weird harsh place. They’ve got these incredible choirs, and Bjork uses Greenlandic choirs in her music. No vibrato, no pizzaz, very pure, very clear beautiful melodies. There’s a simplicity there.”
That simplicity is there on Tiger Suit in the 10 songs that follow “Uummannaq Song”, which despite the soaring warrior cries in “Push That Knot Away” and the call and response of “Madame Trudeaux”, carries an overall note of high altitude calm. Tunstall would sort of agree.
“I don’t know if I was calm [when I wrote the songs] but I was clear,” she said. “I had opened all the channels to get what was very genuine in terms of creative ideas and the lyrics. It’s a very emotional record for me. I really kind of excavated myself for this one to try and impress myself.”
Recorded at Berlin’s Hansa Studios—famous for housing other game-changers like U2’s Achtung Baby—and then polished off by Tunstall and producer Jim Abbiss at RAK Studios in London, Tiger Suit doesn’t begin a strum or a shout but rather a whirring synthesizer. It’s a story told again and again: you get the record deal, you have material that lasts you your first two albums, then when it’s time for album number three, you’re left with the old flour and baking soda in the back of the cabinet. Whereas Drastic Fantastic largely continued in the mold of 2004’s Eye to the Telescope, Tiger Suit represents a shift in texture.
Instead of making do with baking soda, Tunstall took 18 months off to decompress, travel and get married to drummer Luke Bullen. According to the 35-year old Scottish singer, it was an overdue break.
“Drastic Fantastic was made very much during the flurry of my success,” Tunstall said. “I really didn’t take an awful lot of time to write. So there’s a few older songs I had always wanted to finish but I wrote some new stuff for it also. It felt like a second chapter of the first record. It had been six or seven years of constant touring. Just a bit of time to digest was necessary, to step back from being judged on what you’re doing all the time.”
In an era of unimaginative album titles, calling your final product Tiger Suit can whip up some heady connotations. The name came from a dream KT had where she ventured outside her house to pet a tiger, returning overcome with the fear of knowing she could have been killed. She then realized she was wearing a suit that gave her the appearance of a tiger. The suit as a metaphor can stand for a lot of things, but Tunstall doesn’t think it’s a defense mechanism for critics ready to pounce on her for making an Eye To The Telescope, Chapter Three.
“The places I traveled, I feel like I locked into something primal and tribal feeling,” she clarifies. “It wasn’t coming from a place where I was worried about being accused of repeating myself. It came from me wanting not to repeat myself. I needed to re-excite myself with something fresh. There was a deep inner need to do something different.”
The pulsing new sounds underscoring Tiger Suit represent quite the opposite of a wall, a move to let listeners in on what she feels digs deeper than any album so far. “The sound is certainly not a barrier, not what I was trying to achieve. The really wonderful thing for me about using electronic on this album was I was afraid it would be a barrier. That it would lessen the emotional human impact of what I do, which is very folk. I was so pleasantly surprised, I could find synthesizers and drum pads and machines that would augment it.”
On songs like “Difficulty”, Tunstall’s favorite album track, she found those additions liberated the sound instead of constricting it.
“The tiger suit is an acknowledgement of that armor, but it’s in a positive way to offer a kind of Joan of Ark warrior-esque stance to go and do exactly what you want to do,” she reasons. “It’s like Where The Wild Things Are, a book I love. I love Spike Jonze’s movie, too. I’m such a believer that if Max didn’t have his little wolf suit on, he wouldn’t have survived out there.”
While the sound is dressed up in its own suit, the stark album cover follows the same pattern as her first two efforts. It’s color-treated, yes, but it is mostly just KT staring back at us, looking as comfortable and familiar as a sunny Wednesday afternoon against that plain backdrop. Even with some new toys in the studio, and the progressive scene of Berlin racing around her ears outside those walls, that cover signifies she can only do her. Who were you expecting—Elvis?