KT Tunstall doesn’t mince her words. Here she addresses the climate crisis, returning to Scotland, and how lockdown was the happiest she’s ever been. From our Sustainability issue. 

By Juno Kelly.

“I don’t really care if you think climate change is man-made or not,” says musician and environmentalist KT Tunstall. “I don’t think anybody could argue that we’re filling the sea with plastic, we’re decimating animal populations, we’re farming in very unhealthy ways, and we’re not even looking after each other in the process.”

When I speak to Tunstall in mid-March, she’s on tour with Welsh rock band the Stereophonics. She joins the Zoom from a generic hotel room in Newcastle, where she’s set to perform that night. Tunstall has had her trademark long dark hair chopped into a blunt blonde bob, which she wears like a rock star rather than a businesswoman. 

Two days before our interview, Tunstall performed in Aberdeen, Scotland. She explains that she’s always nervous to return to her home country, unable to shake the feeling that she’ll be berated for finding success and abandoning her roots (she’s been described by the press as “one of Scotland’s biggest musical imports of the 21st century”). “There’s always this funny Scottish thing—I joke about it with Scottish friends who’ve done well, particularly those of us who’ve left Scotland—you just have this feeling that you’re going to go back and everyone’s going to be like, ‘Who do ya think you are coming back? Fuck you!’” she jokes in a thick Scottish brogue. Although Tunstall’s real-life accent isn’t quite as broad, it remains evident, only slightly softened by years living in London and on the West Coast. 

Tunstall’s rise to fame was markedly old school. She found her voice, or in modern industry jargon, her “brand,” by gigging constantly from the age of 18. Her ascent to the big time began in 2004 when she performed the folksy single “Black Horse & the Cherry Tree” on British live music show (and British musicians’ right of passage) Later… with Jools Holland.

The single was part of Tunstall’s inaugural album, Eye to the Telescope, which also included the catchy, goosebump-inciting ballad “Suddenly I See.” In 2006, the singer was catapulted to another level of celebrity, the elusive “making it in America,” when “Suddenly I See” was selected as the soundtrack to the opening credits of the Meryl Streep blockbuster The Devil Wears Prada. By the late noughties, Tunstall was a Brit award winner and household name, and “Suddenly I See” was the anthem of a generation. 

Tunstall’s sound is an eclectic combination of folk, pop, and rock. She uses a loop pedal—an electronic pedal that records part of a musical performance and plays it back instantly—when she’s playing live, allowing her to perform in large arenas on her own. “They [the Stereophonics] play big, enormo domes and I’m just opening up for them totally solo. So I just get up there with all my little pedals and just make a racket on my own!” she says. (Loop pedals have since been adopted by Ed Sheeran, who often credits Tunstall as his inspiration.)  

Although she loves playing live, the COVID-elicited lockdowns were kind to Tunstall. After years of grueling tours and late nights in the studio, she experienced what was likely the closest thing to normality she’s had in decades, ensconced in her West Coast home with her boyfriend and new dog. “I really loved being home. It gave me a chance to properly have a think about what I want from life. I got to the point where it was just like, ‘Do you know what? I don’t want to be on tour all the time anymore. I want to have a dog, and a relationship, and a home life, and I want to have a house plant that survives!’” she explains. “I’ve never been happier.”

By virtue of her rural Scottish upbringing, Tunstall is a lover of the natural world. Her childhood was an idyll, abundant in open space and the freedom that comes with it. She grew up in Fife, a seaside region on the northeast coast of Scotland, which she describes as “a complete fantasy” and “a little Narnia.” “I kind of always loved being a bit feral and living outside. [During] my childhood, I was so lucky to just go at eight in the morning and come back at nine at night. I’d fuck off on my bike and be in the woods or on the beach or wherever. So I just completely took it for granted.”

It was having an “amazing, natural, endlessly fascinating outdoor playground” at her fingertips that endowed Tunstall with a unique understanding of the role nature can play in a child’s life. “As an adult now I find myself thinking of ways to offer that experience to children who don’t get it, because it’s a human right to be able to commune with nature. It’s a human right to be able to drink water and eat food grown in the earth. And I think that the massive agriculture industry has skewed our relationship and our understanding of fairness of what, as a human being on this planet, you should be able to expect.”

Borne of this love of nature was Tunstall’s concern for our environment. Since before sustainability became a buzzword, she’s worked fervently to combat the climate crisis, both publicly and personally. She ran her tour bus on biodiesel in 2007 and built an eco-friendly home that same year in London’s up-and-coming Harlesden neighborhood. “The thing with the environment and the climate and solutions and problems is it’s a completely moving feast of horror and joy and possibility,” she says, putting an optimistic spin on one of the most pressing issues of our time.  

Yet the destruction of our environment feels even more visceral for Tunstall today. Following her father’s death in 2013, the musician divorced her partner of 10 years, uprooted herself from her London home, and moved to California, a climate crisis hotbed. “Where I live in Topanga Canyon, I have to live knowing that my house might burn down any day of the week—it just might happen,” she explains. “Then there’s an earthquake risk. There’s a tsunami risk. There’s extreme weather risk, extreme heat, and drought risk.”

Tunstall is also hyper-aware of the environmental contradictions that are par for the course for a working musician. “I’ve come to the point where I’m looking at the balance of how I can continue to do my job, which means getting on planes and being on tour buses and being in venues that have plastic cups and at the same time, keeping aware of the things that I can do and the things that I can change. And I think a really important message for people that I appreciated was ‘Just because you’re living in a broken system doesn’t mean that you can’t complain about it. You’re allowed to say that you think it’s wrong, even though you are living and working within that system because you haven’t got a choice at the moment.’”

When we’ve discussed the environment at length, I ask Tunstall what, after two decades in the industry and 25-odd singles down, her favorite song is to perform. “‘Suddenly I See’” she answers. “I can get off a plane anywhere on this planet, pretty much, and people know the song.” Indeed, almost 20 years on, the ballad remains a classic. I tell Tunstall that on the Saturday night before the interview, I played it for a group of friends in their 20s and was immediately commended for my song choice—no easy feat in a room full of millennials. “As someone who could now be a mum to everyone at that party, it’s fucking cool!” she says. It’s the song’s intergenerational appeal that Tunstall finds so touching. “I’ve always been very proud that my audiences are usually from seven to 72,” she beams. “It’s like a little flag in the sand for people’s lives, of where they were. And now it’s sort of happening all over again where there’s teenagers coming to gigs saying that they’ve grown up dancing to this song since they were a baby. And it’s like, ‘Oh my God.’ It’s so beautiful.” 

Despite being met by cross-generational adulation, Tunstall isn’t sure that “Suddenly I See” would be a success had it come out today, “I think it’s too innocent!” she exclaims, presumably referencing our hyper-sexualized pop industry. 

Indeed, Tunstall’s rise to prominence was markedly different from what she’d likely experience now. Her early music videos were innocent, capturing a kind of feel-good noughties girl power that ceases to exist today. “I’m sure it would have just been Tik Tok instead of Devil Wears Prada!” she says, theorizing on how “Suddenly I See” would have found its way into the mainstream in today’s social media–centric landscape.

The musician is also grateful to have enjoyed success in the industry pre-Spotify, and pre-CDs, for that matter. “I’m very grateful that I caught the tail end of people buying albums. It was a really beautiful part of music culture… It’s a beautiful way of appreciating and listening to music and keeping it special. Fuck CDs; they’re horrible. And cassette tapes are cute, but they don’t sound that good.” 

Alongside her work for the environment, Tunstall is doing her bit for feminism. She recently participated in Seat at the Table, a gender-equality campaign and international event led by women’s equality group the Female Quotient. Tunstall quickly remarks, however, that’s she’s against the hyper-criticism of men, favoring a “symbiosis” over “excluding men from the conversation.” “You will never, ever see me wearing a ‘The future is female’ T-shirt. I don’t agree with it,” she says. “What’s been missing is the female and feminine lens. The matriarchal lens, the maternal lens on society, on problems, big and small, on solutions, because it has been an extremely masculine lens for a very long time. And it’s not working. So I don’t think it should be all men or women. I think it should be a mixture.”

Although the #MeToo movement revealed that sexism and sexual harassment are rife in the entertainment industry, Tunstall insists that she’s escaped almost scot-free in that regard. Then again, she’s the boss, so good luck to anyone who tries it. “I would just fire them!” she hoots. She has, however, noticed a positive shift in attitude over the last few years. “I would say that I’ve seen a change where it [sexism] is being more widely viewed as unacceptable. And I still get this feeling that it feels like a drag, you know? ‘Oh God, we’ve got to watch what we say.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, fuckin’ suck it up. Do you want a cherry for that?’ Because it’s got to change. And I think that where we are at the moment, the pendulum has to swing further the other way then where it will end up. We’re in a moment of extreme sensitivity, which is a little bit difficult to just live day-to-day life around, because everybody is incredibly scared of what they say.” Despite the seriousness of the conversation, Tunstall is jocular: “I do feel a bit sorry for white guys. It’s like, ‘I was born a white guy, and there’s nothing I can do about it. And I’m straight and I’m sorry!’” she quips. “I don’t need no white straight guys apologizing to me if you’re not being an arsehole.” 

Tunstall turns serious, “I think the important thing I like to encourage is for guys to at least start speaking up a bit if they see shitty behavior. You know, I think there’s a lot of silence… Don’t let shit comments go unchallenged.”

Despite having enjoyed the respite that came courtesy of lockdown, Tunstall isn’t slowing down anytime soon. The mind chapter (created during lockdown) of her “deep-dive self-help trilogy” about the spirit, body, and mind is due out this summer, and is, according to Tunstall, like nothing we’ve ever heard from her before. “It’s a really upbeat, kind of quite joyous album,” she says. Just like Tunstall herself, then.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *